Ministry to Trauma Victims: Lessons from the Prophet Joel | Part I

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Ministry in the context of trauma can be a challenge. Having survived a devastating traumatic event myself, and having a profession that requires me to respond to students who face trauma every semester, the question of how to respond to situations when it seems there is nothing suitable to say is always before me.

Although sometimes trauma occurs as the consequence of unwise decisions, many traumatic situations impact people who are seemingly innocent. This is also the case with the prophet Joel who ministers during a time of a locust plague that has created a nation-wide crisis. As John Barton observes with regard to Joel’s message:

The first part, 1:2-2:27, represents a familiar pattern in the Old Testament: national disaster is seen as the action of YHWH against the people, but YHWH is ready to reverse the disaster….It is not actually asserted in Joel that the disaster is the result of national sin…, and in this Joel differs sharply from the preexilic classical prophets, who always ground suffering…in the sins the people are reckoned to have committed.[1]

In Joel 1, the prophet called for a time of mourning, fasting, assembling together, and crying out to God. Joel’s call for these actions is blanketed in lament. By lamenting alongside the people, Joel gives voice to their pain and suffering, and demonstrates his deep empathy for the nation and his understanding of their plight. Joel 1 only hints at hope through an allusion to Psalm 42.

God Is in Control

As a trauma victim, I appreciate that Joel does not address the crisis he presents in chapter one and then moves on. Reflecting the typical reaction of traumatized people, Joel again returns to lament and describe the crisis. Joel does not disparage the situation. It is a “day of darkness and gloom . . . a large and mighty army comes . . . fire devours . . . a flame blazes . . . nothing escapes . . . a mighty army drawn up for battle . . . nations are in anguish” (2:2–10, NIV). Verse 11 reveals that God leads the army! “The LORD thunders at the head of his army, his forces are beyond number … the day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” To think that the crisis in Israel is beyond God’s control would be the most hopeless perspective. To maintain that God has allowed the situation—or even brought it about—is to trust that God can also bring deliverance. As long as God is in control, the world has order and meaning. In a time of crisis, the belief that God is still in control is essential for the person of faith.

So far in Joel, we find seemingly innocent parties suffering a great traumatic crisis. How does Joel respond? He expresses their pain, and encourages the people to lament their suffering and to join in a communal fast. And yet, as in Joel 1, there is still no mention of sin. The focus is not on sinners but on those who are remaining faithful.

God’s Compassion Is Central

At this point of utter hopelessness in Joel’s lament, God speaks directly to the people, saying “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12, ESV). In God’s speech, we find the same themes as in Joel’s instructions, but with the additional element of repentance. The call to “return” in the prophetic literature is always a call of hope! The act of returning to the Lord carries the hope that God will respond to a humble heart with compassion and bring restoration.

Joel responds by echoing God’s call to repentance. Note that the emphasis is on God’s character rather than the sins of the people:

Return to the LORD your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
   and he relents over disaster. (2:13, ESV)

This is a direct reference to Exodus 34:6. Significantly, Joel omits references to forgiveness, wickedness, rebellion, sin, guilt, and punishment. Importantly, Joel’s appeal to God is for mercy not divine justice. In verse 14, Joel states, “Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing” (NIV). Joel’s hope is founded in God’s character; in God’s compassion.

In the next verses, Joel repeats the early call: a call to fast, assemble, and weep (2:15–17). He calls upon the congregation of elders, bridegrooms, brides, priests who serve the LORD, and even nursing infants.

Then, Joel finally provides us with words for the people to cry out: “Spare your people O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (2:17, ESV). The people are to call upon God’s compassion and God’s reputation (rather than confession of sins, as elsewhere in the prophets) in response to their suffering.

At this point, we’ve established that Joel addresses a people who are suffering from a traumatic crisis that has affected all areas of life and worship. Unlike other prophetic books, Joel is not emphasizing or even discussing the people’s sins. And, rather than repent for committed sins, Joel calls them to humbly call upon God’s mercy by returning to him.

Joel’s approach to trauma victims can provide a guide for us in our ministry. There are times when our attention should not be on casting blame or calling out sin but we should strive to bring a message of healing and hope. And there can be no greater hope then to turn our focus to the mercy and goodness of God that can restore and redeem any situation no matter how painful. In the second part of this reflection, we will look in detail at practical implications of Joel’s message for us today.


[1] John Barton, Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 32.