Church people have hurt me. Badly.
So badly, I believed God was a mean kid up in the sky pulling the wings off a fly for the fun of it. And I was the fly.
What other explanation could there have possibly been? I thought I was doing all the right things. I thought I was performing adequately.
I grew up in the church. I was a church girl through and through. Church had always been a safe place; it was the house of God, a place of refuge. Until, slowly, suddenly, it wasn’t. It was entirely unsafe and a place of anguish and pain. God, and my view of God, became mixed up in the toxic mess. I knew it shouldn’t have been that way. But when the hurt was happening at the hands of HIS PEOPLE, it was sometimes an impossible task to extricate HIM from HIS CHURCH.
What had always been a sanctuary became a no mans land; a barren strip of lifeless earth riddled with barbed wire and friendly fire.
Sure, there were many kind people. More kind people than cruel, I would wager. But when the deathblow of deep hurt came, it fell swiftly, like a guillotine. It severed the kind from the cruel...until the cruel were all I perceived.
How about you? Have you ever been church-hurt?
Or have you been the one who perpetrated the hurt?
I know that I have done my share of hurting other people.
People tend to get pretty defensive when they are confronted with the reality of causing someone’s church hurt. It’s quite understandable and quite arrogant at the same time. Often the response is, “I didn’t mean it that way!” or “I was simply speaking the truth in love. It's my responsibility as a brother/sister in Christ to bring a wandering sinner back to the truth!”
We are a family of believers, after all.
It’s inevitable when people exist together as “family” that there would be some emotional wounding. Throw in a smattering of doctrines and theologies considered as Holy Scripture to some folks (How dare you desecrate the temple of God with tattoos!), and somehow, people who cling to the love of the cross, throw sacred truth into the muddy waters of opinion and pain is unintentionally inflicted in the name of Christ.
Or intentionally inflicted, in the name of First Church of Fill-in-the-Blank's potluck committee.
That man who ate too many helpings at the potluck, with the rancid body odor, he is somebody’s child. He’s God’s child, actually. And he is going to die alone. That is a true fact.
That girl with the low cut blouse is going to return to her abuser. Because at least he, in his own twisted way, makes her feel like she matters.
That woman with the out-of-control-kids is going to walk out the door with the first man who gives her attention. And never come back. She is drowning in the responsibility of being a single mom. She needs rescued, not pushed further under with judgment.
That man with dirt under his fingernails is going to wash his hands of believing God can forgive him. Why would he? He vaped in the parking lot after church one Sunday and learned that forgiveness is a luxury hard to come by.
That grandmother with the binge eating disorder is going to withdraw...she slips away... a little more every day...no one notices she is going. No one notices she is gone. She doesn’t have enough faith, you see. She wouldn’t be struggling so much if she did.
That pastor’s wife is going to harden her heart and decide that hope is for fools, that church people were only ever waiting to pounce, that God was only ever waiting to pounce, that she will never open herself up to anyone ever again. Why should she?
The Way Back to Truth
But God was not waiting to pounce. I know, because I was the pastor’s wife. God was waiting, waiting, patiently waiting, like the Father waited for the prodigal son. The prodigal son made a litany of bad choices to numerous to count; he squandered fortune and sneered at His Father. The prodigal son was used up and left for dead, too.
And I, like the prodigal, wandered in the far off country for a time, ashamed of what I had let my life come down to, angry, so very angry at the “Christians” who abandoned me. I was trying to work out if the Father would be happy to see me come home or not.
Or if I even wanted to come back home.
And then, I hit bottom.
I had been struggling with eating disorders for two decades of my life and they were killing me. My mind, and the way I coped with life, by controlling what I ate, had always been my refuge; but suddenly, it was no longer a safe place, it was rotting me from the inside out. The church hurt was the icing on the cake. (Bad analogy, I know.) It was the nail in the coffin of my long descent into death.
Then somehow, from where I was at the bottom, I remembered something...it was something about life and death and resurrection. It pierced through the fog of my pain and darkness with warmth and radiance; like a beautiful melody that I used to know, that I used to sing, when I was a little girl in a Sunday School classroom, with childlike faith and innocent surrender. Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
I remembered that Jesus had said,
"In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
I remembered it was true- Jesus overcame the world! Surely if that were true, then He could also overcome eating disorders.
He could overcome my church hurt, too.
In light of that realization of truth, I decided that I really did want to go back to church and be an active part of the body of Christ again. But, the prospect of "going back" to the scene of so much pain felt more dangerous than anything else I could imagine. It was dangerous. Hadn’t that been proven already? How much more so now, if I came crawling back in vulnerability and shame? They would pounce on me for sure and finish what had been started.
What was I supposed to do, if I wanted to go back, but “back” wasn’t safe?
I needed to redefine what “back” was.
I went to Celebrate Recovery. Celebrate Recovery is a Christ centered 12 step program in tens of thousands of churches across the country and the world. I decided to go to Celebrate Recovery because it promised a place of confidentiality, of safety. It seemed like a good compromise. I could go and reconnect with other believers, free from judging prying eyes.
I went to Celebrate Recovery because I liked being around different kinds of people; people who had been hurt, who had been the ones doing the hurting; people who found their way back home to victory. I went because someone would listen to me. Just listen.
Wow, you have a lot of problems.
You need to have more faith.
Please, keep your opinions to yourself.
The past is over and done with. Forget it and move on!
Stop whining about your struggles
Let me listen to you.
Let me cry with you.
Let me bear you burdens with you
I have experienced victory and you can, too.
I don’t care what you have done.
I don’t care when you did it.
If any person is in Christ, she is a new creation.
Every day is a new day.
Every breath is a second chance.
I kept going. I kept fighting the good fight in the safe place of Celebrate Recovery. As I worked my recovery, as I completed the life-giving 12 steps, something unexpected happened.
The way I felt about church changed.
I thought I was at Celebrate Recovery to work on my struggle with eating disorders…but redemption has a way of showing up in the deepest corners of hurt, when we least expect it. Because Jesus didn’t just die to forgive us our sins; He came to give us life.
I began to see, to really see and understand that all people, even the ones that bear the name Christian, are just people. They have hopes, dreams, disappointments, and hurts of their own with which they must contend.
Yes, the church can be a place where some misguided people, on their own quest to find fulfillment apart from the grace of God, devise a religious system whereby they can feel superior. Yes, the church can be a place filled with hypocrisy. Yes, it can be a place that demands perfection; putting works on a scale and measuring them against arbitrary standards of righteousness. Yes, the church can often be a poor reflection of the Light of the world.
What does that have to do with the TRUTH?
The church was God’s idea. It is His bride. It is His body. It is of infinite and eternal worth. And the gates of hell can never prevail against it.
Change is a-coming
Sometimes change comes in an instant, with shock and awe. Sometimes it comes quietly. Like a seed, having been planted, grows. It is a fact of nature; what has been sown, given the right conditions, will grow and mature. Though at times, the “right conditions”, the rains that come, pushing thoughts of sunshine into distant memory, can appear bleak. Rain is necessary for healthy things to grow. Pain can be equally necessary.
In such a way my church hurt was necessary, and I am thankful for it. Without it I would have never grown into health and discovered the richness of the fellowship and discipleship I found in Celebrate Recovery and in the body if Christ. Pain drove me to a place where I was forced to search for real and living wholeness.
If not for the “right conditions” I would have always believed that what church people said about me was a reflection of what God thought of me. I would have never understood that what people thought of me, whether it was positive or negative, could ever hold a candle to what God did for me, to Truth.
If not for the “right conditions” I would have never been able to see God accurately, and as a result, to see the church accurately.
The enemy is a liar. It is a fraud, a charlatan wholly impotent to deliver anything of real value. In fact, the best it can do is to take something altogether beautiful and true and warp it into something shameful. Perhaps one of the most tragic things I allowed myself to be convinced of was that the church was a place of condemnation.
When I was finally healthy and could aptly discern the truth, I was able to see depth of this deception and discover what the church really is.
The church is a place that is full of people; who struggle, fail, falter, and despair; who walk alone, experience sickness and tragedy, heartbreak and hurt; who succeed, prevail, triumph, and lift others up; who experience healing and victory, restoration and forgiveness; who overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony: The Son of God loves these people. He gave Himself up for them.
Today I choose to reject the distorted, cheap, imitation reality the enemy would have me believe the church is.
I have made a decision that loving something involves risk—but it is a risk I will gladly take—and I love the church. I really do. Celebrate Recovery, and the grace I found there, played an immeasurable role in helping me fall in love with the church, seeing it through the eyes of eternal perspective.
The risk is worth it
People who have been hurt and left the church don’t need to be shunned. They don’t need to avoid the church forever and always, consumed by bitter regret. They don’t need to the hop from church to church trying to find the right group of people who will never let them down (which incidentally doesn’t exist).
What they need is a safe way back home. They need a place to talk about the hurt, without being interrupted, without being treated like a project in need of fixing.
They need a place to share who they are, the pain they have endured, in a safe place, where they can be listened to without an accusation of gossip.
They need a place to be seen, where their failure can be acknowledged and mourned. They need a place of honesty, a place to see that their struggles can be redeemed.
They need a place to truly see that there really are many more kind people than cruel. They need a place to be risky.
Celebrate Recovery was that place for me. It can be for them, too.
What about you?
So what about you? Have you been church hurt? Have you been chewed up and spit out? Has the enemy convinced you that your pain is insurmountable, that there is the no use in trying to come back home?
Here is what I would say to you: I dare you to go to Celebrate Recovery. Try it. Make a decision based on the Truth. Take a risk. Venture out again and see if maybe, just maybe…
I’ll leave the light on. It’s time to come back home.