Complex Trauma & Simple Martyrdom

The etymology for the word trauma literally means “wound, hurt, or defeat.” Trauma patients, psychologically speaking, have generally been assumed to be persons that underwent massive trauma, such as rape or war, and they are treated as having the diagnosis of “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD).

Judith Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery from 1992, was the first to discuss a type of trauma which was not the result of a singular massive event, but from prolonged mini-traumas.

The-ScreamFor example, this means that a child who was repeatedly told they are a “loser” or that they were a “disappointment,” may in actuality be akin to a child who was sexually molested. Herman believed that psychologically, they both needed to be treated for trauma in a similar fashion. Chronic and accumulative mini trauma is known as Complex-PTSD, or simply, C-PTSD.

To reieterate, PTSD can result from single events, or short term exposure to extreme stress or trauma. Whereas C-PTSD is caused by accumulative, chronic or sustained exposure to emotional trauma or abuse from which no short-term means of escape is available or apparent to the victim.

Unfortunately, in 2018, 26 years after Herman first published her book Trauma and Recovery, the psychological community at large has not totally adopted C-PTSD. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV and new DSM-5) only list PTSD, and has ignored C-PTSD as a mental disorder.

If trauma means “wound,” then why have many psychologists given priority to massive wounds? Is it worse to be cut once by a sword or stabbed 50 times by a pocket knife? Any medical doctor would treat both patients as having undergone massive trauma, and dress the wounds properly. Is psychological trauma somehow different than physical trauma? Why have many psychologists given massive trauma priority over prolonged and accumulative mini traumas? (Thankfully many do treat C-PTSD, and they treat it well. However, the fact remains that the DSM-5 has ignored this diagnosis, and thus also its treatment.)

I do not want to minimize the pain of victims in the slightest, indeed, I believe that C-PTSD patients have truly been wounded and need to be treated as truly having experienced massive trauma. However, what I want to now look at is a different type of trauma known in Christian circles as “martyrdom.”

When a Christian refers to a “martyr,” they are without doubt referring to a person who has literally died because they refused to deny Christ in the face of their adversaries. I argue that this picture has brought immeasurable damage to the Christian faith.

“Martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness” — a martyr is nothing less than a “witness for Christ!” And yes, there have been many times in history when martyrs (witnesses) have suffered persecution and death by adversaries because of their faithful witness.

Why has the concept of martyrdom been glorified?

I believe that Christians have neglected martyrdom in exactly the same way that psychologists have neglected trauma, and that this needs to change. Or perhaps better yet, Christians have misunderstood what it means to be persecuted and die.

The apostle Paul wrote, “I die every day.” (1 Cor. 15.31) And again, “Life is hidden in death.” And “for me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Every time we resist temptation, we die. Every time we confess our sins, we die. Every time we pray for someone, we die. Every time we love our enemies, we die. Every time we help someone, we die. Every time we are a witness for Christ, we die. Every time we act responsibly — whether it is standing up for civil rights, taking out the trash, or changing diapers — we die. “Our life is hidden in our death.” (Col. 3.3) This is the only way we can make sense of what Paul means when he says, “I die every day.”


Ultimate martyrdom is a one-time event which focuses on a different-world. Mundane martyrdom is this-worldly and every-day. If mini-things can add up to a profound trauma, why can’t we look at the mini-things in a therapeutic way? This in nowise is trying to minimize the pain which others experience, no, this is only dealing with the self. When we see others experiencing tragedy, we show compassion rather than minimize it, we mourn with those who mourn, and rejoice with those who rejoice.

The mundane, simple martyrdom I am speaking of is likened to C-PTSD. It is not easily accepted by the community, and it is based upon accumulation. But the truth of the matter is that it keeps us grounded in this-world, and if our “religion” takes us out of this world, then it is useless, for it is nothing less than a worthless ideology which leads to greater victimization.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *