When You’re Hurt By The Church

I’ve heard it countless times before: “Christians are hypocrites.”

To which I agree.

A true follower of Christ should openly admit to this any day – that to a spectator, where we land sometimes falls short of what we strive for. In order to fully accept Jesus, one needs to fully understand their profound need for such a Savior – their innate brokenness and insufficiency. True Christians understand that while spiritually they are being renewed and cultivated, life within these broken bodies in this fallen world carries on. We live between the now and the not yet. The Apostle Paul knew this. He beautifully describes this tension in a timeless way in his letter to the church in Rome:

15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. – Romans 7:15-20 (ESV)

What he’s basically saying here is that our inborn sinful nature causes us to fall short of where we desire to be. We do not have the ability to be good on our own. Therefore any light, any overcoming, any fruitful thing brought forth from us, is straight from God.  It’s a reflection of Him. There is no such thing as a being a “good person” because we’re all broken and in need of Him. Anything truly good is from Him.

The tension that exists in what Paul describes is a natural consequence of sin. However, this is not a free pass to sin without natural consequences. Yes, we fully believe that because of what Christ did on the cross we are already forgiven, yet the impact of our sin and poor choices on both our lives and the lives of those around us still exists. I would argue even more so than before we became Christians.

As I sit here and scroll through article after article of corruption and conflict within the church community, the impact of my actions as a believer becomes even more real. From the current crisis in the Catholic Church, to non-denominational “superstar” pastors resigning for various instances of misconduct, and everyone in between, these stories make national headlines – as well they should.

I know more people than not who have been wounded by the Church in one way or another, either directly or indirectly…myself included. I’ve seen a lot of ugly within it: usurping of authority, lies, rumors, envy, disrespect, factions, pride, and the rapid disintegration of relationships. Without accountability, transparency, and humility, these weeds of sin can and will put down roots and grow rapidly to choke out the beauty that might have been.

And sometimes, even with intentionality and sound judgement, discord and division still come. All it takes is one – one person to make one poor choice, one person to stir the pot of dissension, or one person to commit a heinous crime – and church communities can fold in the blink of an eye.

As an adolescent I used to feel sorry for myself and the other young people who had to endure this negative experience  – to see supposedly trustworthy adults act in such a troubling way during our formative years. I still deeply hurt for children and adolescents who are subject to this kind of dysfunction within the Church.  Yet as I grow older, my heart breaks even more for the seekers and newcomers who are left licking the wounds given to them by the place that was supposed to be their haven. They came in faith and hope, perhaps with a willingness to be vulnerable for the first time in their lives, yet they found themselves floating in the wake of something awful. This has the potential to damage – and even obliterate – a persons walk with Christ for their entire lives. It impacts their eternity. As Christians, we must recognize the extreme weight of this.

When we accept Christ, and particularly when we step into a leadership role within our church, we are entrusted with a huge responsibility.  This charge is not one of perfection, but one of intention. One that says, “I don’t have it all together and I never will, but I’m going to love others and care for them as I care for myself. I’m going to make mistakes so when I do, I’m going to acknowledge them and ask for forgiveness, and take the lead in helping to heal any wounds I may have caused.”

But for those of us who have been devastated, especially with no real closure, what do we do? For so many who have been hurt by a congregation or an individual Christian, it often becomes the end of the road for their walk of faith. Perhaps they continue to pursue God but leave His “Bride” out of it. They want their faith to grow but they don’t want to deal with the hypocrites and the hurt. So they technically believe, but never get fed consistently by healthy community. This is so common and as a Christian, it is so painful for me to hear. Yet, I understand it. I remember thinking as a young teenager, “if that’s what the Church looks like, what difference does it make who I spend my time with?”

Here are four steps to take that I’ve found to be extremely healing over the years, as they have propelled me towards true forgiveness and restoration within to the Body of Christ:

  1. Pray – first and foremost, we need to seek God directly regarding the hurt in our hearts. What does He have to say about it? Listen. Go straight to His Word. Though it may seem counterintuitive, we can’t allow flawed humans to alter our walk with Jesus. If you were seeking, continue to seek, knowing that people are people, and even with the best intentions, sometimes we hurt one another. Please, whatever you do, don’t believe the subtle lie that you’ve seen and heard this all before. Don’t fall into the trap that drives you away from the Gospel with disappointment and anger, because you’ve witnessed someone make a poor (or even terrible) choice. If you are an established Christian, however, then search for God’s wisdom through prayer, study, and wise counsel. Go to a couple of trusted, objective, and uninvolved friends who can help provide insight without gossip or disrespect.
  2. Forgive – “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:32 (ESV). This verse gets me every time.  So simple, yet so challenging. I don’t know about you, but I have the innate ability to come up with limitless excuses as to why someone does not deserve my forgiveness – but it all comes back to this.  If we really believe the Gospel, then no one is above or beyond our ability to forgive. If Jesus can forgive me for the ugliness in my mind and heart, I can certainly forgive my fellow man. Remember, forgiveness is a choice, and trust is a process.  Just because you choose to forgive someone for a wrong they committed against you, it doesn’t mean that you need to be best friends the next day, or ever again.  Every situation is different, but forgiveness should still include healthy boundaries. **As for deeply damaging and life-changing wounds inflicted by a Church leader (because tragically this is a very real experience for so many), please seek restoration, healing, and support in every healthy way you can, and trust that God is perfectly just. The perpetrator will face justice now and/or later, and will have to stand before God and answer for their actions.
  3. Search – If you were wounded in a certain congregation, there is nothing wrong with looking elsewhere. However, before you start or continue your search, ask yourself (and a couple of trusted friends) if addressing the hurt would be appropriate. Would finding resolution with the other party be possible and appropriate? Would it be healing? I always lean more towards healthy confrontation, as it can be rewarding and challenging in the best way for all parties.  If shedding light on the issue is not appropriate in your particular situation, then searching for another church to call home may be the right choice. Whatever you do, don’t let an offense create a snowball effect in your heart towards the Gospel of Christ or the Church in general.
  4. Expect – As Christians, we believe in good and evil. There is a largely unseen spiritual battle happening for us, around us, and within us, every moment.  Sometimes we sense it, sometimes we don’t, but we know it is always there.  This is why we should not be surprised when adversity and division come poking and prodding at God’s people. The Enemy’s goal is to divide and conquer. Do not let him win. Do not give him a platform in your heart. Do not hold on to small grievances or let your heart fester with bitterness. Do not rely on people to provide what only God can. He is the only One who will never let you down. Amidst the great pains and joys of life, He is always there with you. He meets you and accepts you just as you are, but loves you too much to let you stay that way. Even when His ways do not make sense, when He feels far away, and when you don’t get the answers you’re seeking, you can trust that He is good, loving, perfect, and that His promises never fail. No human can ever provide this consistency or goodness. Trust Him to provide the healing and rich relationships you’re seeking. Expect Him to show up, and He will. And listen, we can go to church every Sunday, remain disconnected, sit there staring at our watches wondering what we’re going to do for lunch, and get nothing out of it. I encourage you to delve in, put fear aside, get involved, join a small group, serve, take a step of faith – it will only cultivate your walk with Jesus as well as a healthy expectation for the people around you.

The Bible repeatedly reinforces the instruction to submit to leadership and authority (e.g. – Hebrews 13:17) – to trust that God has placed them in their position in this time for a purpose. Likewise, and even more so, many more verses can be found regarding the responsibility of leaders. For example, they will be held to a higher standard (James 3:1), more will be required of them (Luke 12:48), distinct boundaries are to be set for their character and lifestyle (Titus 1:6-9, 1 Tim. 3:1-13), and instructions for their engagement with those they oversee are to be filled with purity and love (1 Peter 5:1-4).

As Christ Followers, we are all called to a higher calling in Him. This is a serious responsibility for the entire Church, especially it’s leaders. We are entrusted with souls. This is the most valuable asset a person has. Our thoughts, words, and actions matter more than we know, and more than we can ever see on this side of heaven. Instead of being ensnared by sin, caught up in pomp and circumstance, consumed with trivialities, or overcome with the distractions of offense, let’s identify and address each issue with godly wisdom, insight, and justice, moving forward in a way that gives glory to Him – unique to each situation that arises.

We must petition God in prayer for protection over our churches, leaders, and congregants. We have to be on guard. We need to be humble and courageous enough to confess our sins to Him and to one another. We are called to be genuine examples of Jesus to those who are looking to us and observing our behavior, to see if we truly do approach life differently. We cannot do any of this without His Spirit and His grace at work in us. May our actions in our highest moments, and our response in our lowest moments, point back to the One we rely on completely, as we live in the tension of the now and not yet.

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