I read an article recently by Rev. Josh Moody about pain and the church. It’s astonishing how many people … good-hearted Christians … who have been hurt by or who have hurt other church folk. It really makes you realize that the brokenness within each person doesn’t miraculously heal by sitting in a pew. I actually think church hurt is the most traumatic pain a Christian might go through outside of a death of a loved one. And yet, we don’t talk about it. Ever.
How many times have you noticed a fellow church member’s continued absence? If you sit near them, you are much more likely to notice momentarily. But did you reach out to them? Did you let them know they were missed? It’s not something we typically do. That vacant seat is more than likely empty because of some type of church hurt. And yet, we don’t talk about it.
Healing from a trauma of any kind is a slow process. It takes time, intentionality, and lots of prayer. But church trauma is different because it usually surrounds a betrayal or rejection of the very people who are supposed to walk in all the shadows with you. They are the ones you’re supposed to lean on when the rest of the world breaks your heart. So, when you get hurt by the church, you become a leper, outcast and alone to suffer and beg for the scraps of pity that are thrown your way.
This morning I had some serious wounds re-opened. And it stinks! I cried. I got mad. My heart rate shot up and my hands shook. I thought of words I won’t repeat. But here’s what I didn’t do. Pray.
In the moment of my pain, I fell right back into the pit of despair without grabbing onto the only absolute lifeline — God.
All through scripture, we read about ordinary people in the midst of deep pain. It is so easy to think of these stories as just stories. But these stories are our stories, too! And they give us a blueprint as to how to navigate through life. Even the messiness of church.
“Most of the writing in the New Testament about how to live in a church exists because the church has never been perfect. Most, if not all, of the letters were written to solve problems in the church:
2 Timothy to solve tension in succession (2 Timothy 4:9–16).
Philippians to solve conflict and selfish ambition (Philippians 2:3–22).
1 and 2 Corinthians to solve a whole host of problems centered around the issues of human pride in gifting and speaking that led to loveless and arrogant religious activity.
And that’s not even to mention the letters to the churches in Revelation (chapters 2–3), one of which is so unhealthy, it makes Jesus want to vomit (Revelation 3:16).” (Moody, 2015)
It might not be something we want to talk about but if scripture addresses it, it must be pretty important to God. And if it’s important to God, we should find it important, too.
In Moody’s article, he gives us three steps to consider taking when we’ve experienced hurt within the church. This hurt can come from a pastor or other church leaders, members, sister churches, even visitors. It can come in the form of an off-the-cuff comment, an ill-placed joke, an anonymous letter, gossip, avoidance, lying, and straight-in-your-face verbal assaults. Sometimes hurt is intentional but other times, it happens and no one is aware except for the victim. Regardless of where the hurt comes from or how it happened, there are some good steps to follow to begin to heal from the grief.
1. Stay in God’s manual for our grief.
Unashamedly, unshakably, and unreservedly draw your hope for life and healing from the teaching of the Bible. The more we are centered on God’s truth spoken in love (Ephesians 4:1–16), the more we will grow up into maturity and the more resources we’ll have at our disposal to heal from hurt ourselves and to avoid hurting one another.
The temptation will be to avoid God’s word. But keep reading the Bible, even if for just a few minutes each day. It’s like eating. What counts is every single day getting what we need to get through that day. Knowing God’s word will help us as we process hurt and find truth to satisfy and guide us.
2. Pursue the holiness you hope for in others.
Passionately, sacrificially, and deliberately persevere in pursuing Christ-like discipleship. When you’re faced with betrayal or disappointment, it will require perseverance — supernatural perseverance. Learn. Grow. Forgive. Repent. Repent some more. Fight the good fight. Urge each other on. Do not give up meeting together. Stay on the path of discipleship, knowing it will be rugged at times. Trust that the good work God is doing in you and in other believers around you will ultimately be for the good of all who believe in him.
3. Trust that love will eventually prevail.
Love anyway. It seems impossible in the moment, but it’s the call of every Christian in every situation. In the end, only love will abide (1 Corinthians 13:13). And without love, our lives will be meaningless and unfruitful (1 Corinthians 13:1–3). Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Therefore, the wisest and safest way forward is always love. Love as if your life depends on it.
To love someone is to seek his best. I can love someone without even liking him. I can find someone frustrating, but still genuinely and truly want what is best for him. Love does not mean avoiding tough conversations or life-on-life accountability, but doing those sorts of things from a loving, humble, gracious, and patient position which is from a mind and heart like Christ’s.
Jesus said you could tell his disciples by how they love one another (John 13:35), and so we who are loved by him love each other in turn — even through the darkest, most difficult days. (Moody, 2015)
It took me a bit to get back into God’s word. I was genuinely angry at God for allowing my pain to happen. Let’s be honest, we all love the free will God gives us until we experience pain. Then we want Him to fix it. But that’s not how it works. He gives us the ability to fix our own situations by leaning upon Him and His word.
By not staying in God’s word for a while, I was unable to pursue holiness as defined by Jesus Christ. I was completely parched yet refusing to drink the living water. You can’t live your life for Christ when you aren’t filling your life up with Christ.
But loving those who hurt me… that I did. And it’s because I loved them and still love them that the hurt reopened today. Unlike a year ago, however, I’m grateful for the love I have for the gossips, the dividers, the rejectors, and the silencers. I’m grateful because we are all broken, sinful people. And if I can still love with all of my heart someone who hurt me, then that means that I can be loved, too.
A year ago, I wondered if I’d ever step foot in a church again where I would be able to take down some of the wall I have built around my heart. Thankfully, I’m finding that place again.
“I am aware of the many ways the Church has failed me, and I have failed her. Yet I claim this Church as mine. She is my mother; my home. A broken home, yes! Broken because you and I are broken.” — Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB
Moody, Josh. “Help in Overcoming Church Hurt.” Desiring God, Desiring God Foundation, 1 Sept. 2015, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/help-in-overcoming-church-hurt.