God gave us free will. Often, we see this used for acts of kindness, selflessness, and love. Other times we are horrified to the degree some have used it to inflict harm.
The reason for this post is not to discuss the plethora of ways we hurt and sin against one another, but specifically how that hurt can happen within the church. I don’t come to speak about this difficult topic lightly but was encouraged to do so in light of this being an experience many have endured but few speak about.
First, I need to say that I was profoundly hurt within the church. I only divulge this to impart that I have some measure of understanding. More on that later, but if you have been hurt by someone within the church, I am incredibly sorry. I can affirm that it is painfully difficult to heal from and forgive this kind of harm.
I want to be clear that I do not broach this topic to cause division or stir up strife. Neither can I pretend that a single blog can repair the harm done to you by what you may have experienced within the church. It is, however, my desire that it provide a small measure of understanding, solidarity, or healing.
A 2010 Barna Group poll indicates that 4 out of 10 people no longer attend church due to a negative experience with the church or from church people. Church abuse or mistreatment can occur in a number of forms. It can trickle down from leaders who are operating from a place of insecurity or out of a desire to control their adherents. It may infiltrate others who need to feel important or remain part of an inner group. This can blind or silence participants or bystanders to call out wrongdoing.
We have all heard heartbreaking and sickening stories of hurtful behavior or abuse exacted on others at the hands of those who attend church or leaders within the church. This behavior should not be overlooked and should be called out.
Unfortunately, there can be great resistance when you step into the calling out. Sadly, those who have caused harm but have power and wish to keep it, aren’t comfortable when asked to face or be accountable for their misbehavior. This is not the example demonstrated in the Bible.
In our situation, despite our repeated efforts to reconcile with leadership, and as a result of their unwillingness to recognize their sinful part in what occurred, we made the difficult decision to leave the church.
The greatest displays of anger we see in Jesus were directed toward the religious leaders who were busy rule-keepers upholding the law with misdirected hearts. Believing that they were superior, they were ruffled by Jesus calling them out. So much so they wanted him killed.
The religious leaders would not stoop to associate with “rabble”. They were jealous of Jesus’s popularity with the masses and loathed his propensity to associate with the marginalized. And who did he think he was forgiving their sins? Jesus exposed the leaders’ counterfeit faith and their backward theology.
Here is a portion of the strong language Jesus used to describe some religious leaders: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” (Matthew 23:27)
I mentioned earlier that God gave us free will. The trouble with free will is that God often suffers the blame for the sins of mankind, including the egregious behavior some have experienced within the church or at the hands of its leaders. In such cases, God may be seen as endorsing the abuse or that the leadership is representing God’s perspective, but in truth, both the behavior and the resulting separation it may cause grieves God’s heart.
Jesus described the behavior some experience from religious leaders this way: “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” Matthew 23:4
There are times when a leader may believe they are acting righteously and that their actions align with God’s will or word, but their behavior reflects blatant sin enacted against you. The pain and resulting dislocation of faith can be deeply painful and confusing.
I don’t wish to linger on the harmful actions or abuse but what can happen in the aftermath of such harm. Out of the intense pain of the experience suffered at the hands of people, especially those in authority/leadership, we can misdirect the hurt we endured. There are 3 reactions I have witnessed:
- Retreat. We decide that if that’s how people in the church behave, we want nothing to do with it. We may still believe in God but decide we will no longer attend church.
- Reject. Based on the mistreatment, we broadly ascribe that behavior to God painting him with the same brush as those who harmed us. We run from God and our faith.
- Reason. We mistakenly believe we somehow deserved the mistreatment and that God must feel likewise.
As if the hurt wasn’t devastating, damaging, and bewildering enough, these responses can further dismantle our faith.
What makes this even more grievous is that often God shoulders the blame for the sins humans commit.
In my own experience, I needed to understand that despite the devastating mistreatment and resulting pain, this was not God’s heart in the matter. The treatment I received was not a reflection of how God felt about me, nor would he have treated me in the manner I experienced within the walls of the church. I know beyond a doubt that the Pharisaical treatment poured out on me grieved his heart, and although the resulting pain could have undone my faith, I recovered by the truth of God’s love, by relearning how he behaves toward me, through the love and care of other Christ-followers, and forgiveness.
The main thing is, whatever you suffered isn’t a reflection of God’s posture toward you. God doesn’t mistreat his children. His heart is for you and he loves you. You are precious to him. What you suffered at the hands of people grieves him. Like a dear friend who is deeply saddened when you move far away, God desires you to be near to him again. Perhaps even more so when we are hurting, God longs to gather us closely to Him so that He can heal our hurts.
The God you may have run away from as a result of this painful experience is the very One who is able to heal you. In my experience, God is the one who can provide us with the strength to forgive those who hurt us and to move beyond this deep pain.
We understand that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) and that includes ourselves and those within the church. We mustn’t allow the sin of people, or our own sin, to cloud God’s true and perfect character and dictate how we relate to him, or others, going forward. God always forgives and always loves. “He will never leave you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6) He weeps with you in your pain and understands it through his own suffering.
God is able to redeem everything—even the hurt you experienced. He can help you to heal and move forward in freedom and forgiveness. Get to know his heart toward you anew, and understand that following God is not following a religion, a religious leader, or religious rule-keeping, it’s following Jesus and letting Him transform you into his likeness.
My family and I have since found a church where we feel safe and loved. God has redeemed that experience and allowed us to fully appreciate this church family and its leaders. There are many church leaders who love God and seek to lead like Jesus—the Good Shepherd—with great tenderness, humility, and grace, but however gracious they may be, they are a shadow of the graciousness of God.
I encourage you, don’t give up on God or the church. There is still much love, joy, and beauty to be found within the church, in relationship with others, and with God.
Excerpt from my prayer journal:
April 29, 2016
Lord, I see many evidences of how great your care and love is for us, how intricately you have been involved, and have met our needs, yet I find I need more. There is still the nagging doubt attached to the sorrow that lingers in my thought life. Still the insecurity that came with the treatment we received at the hands of the church leaders. It is ready condemnation, whispering that you are displeased, distant, and that I am on the outskirts of your affection. It seems to keep me stuck. I exist aware of your goodness and care, but not saturated by the assurance or confidence a child might have in the tender love and care of her father. Do I lack trust, faith, love? Probably. I’m just not sure what to do with… is it shame? Rejection? So I’m partly closed off; a protection mechanism, I suppose.
So I ask you to repair what is so broken within my spirit, soul, heart, mind, and even body. Make a way so that I can be renewed to love and be loved, not just exist, to get by one weary day after the next. Pull me out of the pit, push back the enemy.
“But You, O LORD, are a shield for me, my glory and the One who lifts up my head. I cried to the LORD with my voice, and He heard me from the holy hill.” (Psalm 3:3-4)