07 Nov The church (or a Christian) hurt me
As I mentioned yesterday, for many people who are still Christians but have walked away from the church, that departure was deeply connected to being…
…by the church – by the very community that was supposedly formed around the name of Jesus for the sake of the world.
If this is you, I’m sure these descriptions don’t even come close to capturing the full array of hurt and pain you’ve experienced.
And for that, I am deeply sorry.
I hear you.
I see you.
And to an extent, I am you.
Please don’t mishear me: I don’t know how you feel. Your experience is your experience and I will not pretend to know what you’ve been through or assume that my scars look like yours.
But as a pastor (and long before I was a pastor as well), I have tasted the bitter sting of broken people who call the church their home.
There have been moments in my life, both before and after I entered pastoral ministry, where I was ready to walk away from the church because the church had become the greatest source of anxiety and hurt in my life.
There were times when the last place I wanted to be was in a church.
There were times when the last group of people I wanted to be with were Christians.
My purpose here is not to air out my grievances (though that might feel good sometimes!), but I will say this: if your pain is as real as mine was, then I can absolutely understand why you’d feel like walking away and giving up on the church.
That being said, I want to take a risk and push you a bit. I don’t want to minimize your pain or sidestep the hurt you hold, but as someone who has tasted and seen the church’s unrivaled capacity for beauty and its devastating capacity to hurt and harm, I can honestly say the good far outweighs the bad.
Now before I go on, if you’re still reading this, it is possible that you might not be ready for some of these ideas just yet. The duration of healing is directly proportional to the injury that was inflicted. A paper cut stings with surprising intensity but it will be gone in a matter of days. A broken arm hurts immensely but it will not be better in a matter of days. The duration of healing for a broken arm is significantly longer than that of a paper cut. I’m not sure where you’re at in your pain or healing, so please know that I am writing as graciously as I can and as sensitively as I know how. I mean no offense here and if some of what you read here feels more hurtful than helpful, just know that is not my heart at all. The spectrum of pain and healing is so wide and varied, and so I will do my best to be as generous and gracious as I can with my words. I hope you hear them with all the love I intend for them.
So if you’re still here, let’s walk a bit further together:
First, we need to acknowledge that the more power someone or something has, the greater its capacity for good and for evil will be. For example, when a person as an affair on their spouse, that is terrible and heartbreaking, regardless of who they are. However, when a pastor has an affair, the pain and ramifications of that terrible, heartbreaking decision are exponentially increased. Not only are the spouse, family, friends and possibly children hurt, but now an entire Church community has been betrayed. The impact of the infidelity dramatically increases because we expect a pastor to behave differently. The role of pastor comes with power and authority. And not just any power and not just any authority – Godly power, Godly authority. But not only do we hold Christian leaders to higher standards; we tend to expect this of Christians as a whole. We’re new creatures, right? Shouldn’t that translate into new living? And because we expect this of church leaders and Christians in general, we expect this of churches as well. This means when a church, Christian or Christian leader disappoints us, fails us, or hurts us…because of their power, position, and authority…the pain from that injury is exponentially increased.
This is understandable and fair, but we would do well to remember that while the pain or injury caused by a Christian, church or pastor increases significantly, they are still people. They are not perfect – they are struggling under the weight of sin, learning to trust God’s grace and wrestling with day-to-day realities just like the rest of us. Christians hurt people because Christians are people and as the saying goes – hurt people hurt people.
Does this excuse them (us) for what we do? Not at all. But what would it look like for us to extend the very grace we wished we would have received, rather than perpetuating the very hurt and pain they caused us by withdrawing from the community? No church is perfect, but not every church is that church, and not every Christian is that Christian.
Rather than focusing on what that person did or did not do to (or for) you, what if you focused more on what God has done to and for us? What might happen if, rather than withdrawing indefinitely, we chose to extend what we received from God rather than withholding what we did not receive from people?
Second, it is important to remember that no church, absolutely no church, has ever been or ever will be perfect. We have a tendency to idolize the church of Acts. They had all things in common! There was no poor among them! They devoted themselves to God and each other in prayer, teaching, fellowship and communion! Don’t get me wrong, we have much to learn from the early church, but we must not deceive ourselves into thinking the early church was perfect. Just go read Acts 5-6 and you’ll see there was nothing perfect about the early church.
On top of that, we have plenty of recorded conflicts within the early church. Paul had it out with Peter. Paul had it out with Mark. Paul had it out with Barnabas. (Hmm… are you seeing a pattern here?) The Jewish believers had conflicts with the Gentile (non-Jewish) believers and if you read the book of 1 Corinthians, you’ll see some conflicts within that church that would make you blush.
Inevitably, when you gather different people from different cultures with different values and different worldviews under one roof around the name of Jesus, it’s going to be messy and there’s going to be conflict.
What’s interesting to me, though, is that in many ways, conflict is a sign of our realest relationships. My guess is you treat your family or closest friends differently than you treat your coworkers. Why is that? Because the more real, the more true, the more authentic the relationship, the more of you (the real you) those people get. And when everyone is free to be their sin-stained, grace-covered, messy, beautiful selves, there’s going to be conflict.
This definitely isn’t true of every pain and hurt caused by the church or Christians, but what if for some of us, the very thing we are running from was the very evidence that strangers were becoming a beautiful, broken, messy family around the name of Jesus?
With that in mind, we’ll end on this last thought.
When I get to be me and you get to be you, when we get to be our truest selves in community, it’s going to be messy at best and you know there’s going to be conflict.
But I am more and more convinced that not all conflict is bad.
Sometimes conflict is the healthiest thing we can have.
Any The Office fans out there? Do you remember the moment-maker in Pam and Jim’s relationship when their marriage was seriously on the rocks?
It was when Pam asked Jim to stay and ‘fight’ – to engage in conflict, rather than running from it.
Far too many of us grew up in homes where conflict looked and sounded and felt terribly unhealthy. Many of us learned that when the going gets tough, the tough get going – in other words, they leave.
And many of us have done that with the church – faithful followers of Jesus have up and left, convinced that they can follow Jesus better if they leave the church behind.
But I have a suspicion that there is a healthier way to view conflict, especially conflict within the church.
In Matthew 18:20, there is a verse we Christians just love to misuse.
Jesus promises, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”
How many church services have kicked off their gatherings with the passionate proclamation of this promise?!
Maybe I’m being too harsh on the whole misuse piece, but if you really read the text in context, this promise is actually located within a whole conversation about conflict.
Jesus is teaching his followers about forgiveness and after giving them a process of how to gather together and handle conflict and brokenness within their communities, Jesus promises that whenever they gather, He is right there with them, even in the midst of conflict.
How crazy is that?
Jesus says whenever broken, beautiful, wounded, wonderful people gather in His name, even around conflict, the presence of Jesus gathers with them.
What if conflict provides us a way of experiencing God’s presence and power in a way nothing else can?
Think about it: conflict, for it to be healthy, for it to be redemptive and restorative, requires love – real, Christ-like love. It requires patience and kindness and humility and compassion – all the hallmarks of the love Jesus showed and continues to show us.
And if Jesus commanded us to love each other because our love for one another would be the key to helping the world see Him in us, maybe what they need to see is us in loving conflict with each other, because when even just a couple Christians gather together even amidst their conflict, Jesus is there.
Maybe that’s how the world will see Him in us – as people loving one another even in conflict, with the presence of Jesus there amongst us.
Think about it: the incarnation itself is about God becoming flesh and not just entering our world in some general, abstract sense, but entering our world – our mess – our brokenness – our conflict – with a depth of love capable of changing it, and transforming us from the inside out.
Think about it: when we invite God to reign and rule in and over our hearts, God enters our mess once again. He enters our inner brokenness and conflict, and pierces through the darkest parts of our hearts with love.
There is no conflict the love of God cannot break through.
He broke through our world.
He can break through our hearts.
And I have to believe that if we’ll allow Him to today, He can break in and break through your pain and hurt, and into all the conflict we see and feel, both in and towards the church.
So to those of you who have been hurt, betrayed, silenced or abandoned by the church – whether it was a brick and mortar church, a Christian leader, a group of Christians, or someone who claimed to be a Christian – I am sorry – but please, please, please…don’t give up on the church.
God hasn’t given up on the church, and God hasn’t given up on you.
Let’s lean into this beautiful mess of a family we call church together.