That Church Bites

Military Working Dogs

Photo: Josh Plueger

My wife and I hosted an African pastor in our home about two years ago.  He was incredibly funny and intelligent; he was also massive, 6 foot 3 and about 230 lbs.  Not only was he big, he was also fearless.  His life was lived outdoors in a bush country filled with snakes and lions

 He arrived at our house late and went to bed. My wife told him that breakfast would be at 8 AM and that we would see him in the morning.  At 7:59 he came cruising down the staircase for breakfast, but when he got to bottom step he squealed like a little girl and just about broke his own legs trying to run back up the stairs on his hands and feet.

My wife and I were shocked and I had to go up and get him to come down to eat.  He wouldn’t come downstairs because he had seen something in our house that terrified him.

 He saw our beagle lying in front of the fireplace.

We tried to explain to him that beagles aren’t dangerous, but he wouldn’t come downstairs until we took the dog and put her in the garage.


You can probably guess that a dog had bitten him.  Beyond this, he’d seen people killed by packs of dogs.  He lived in the presence of cobras and lions but was petrified of a dog.

We came to understand that this was because he had experience with those other animals and an understanding of what to do to protect himself when he was in situations with them.

 As a pastor I consistently get asked a question that sounds a lot like this:

 “I’ve been hurt by the church, why should I ever go back?”

There’s an old saying that goes like this; “If a dog bites you once it’s the dog’s fault.  If the dog bites you twice, that’s your fault.

This is the logic and reasoning that people are applying when they say things about not wanting to be involved with church based on observation or past experience.

In fairness, this is a true and logical way of thinking.  While the saying is true, it’s important to remember that “truth” and applicability aren’t always the same thing.

This is because truth, while valid, doesn’t always have universal application.O ne plus one equals two, but that doesn’t have anything to do with how much I love my wife.

Truth isn’t situational, the application of truth is.

So let’s go back to the dog bite analogy and try to apply that truth to other real-life situations.  By this line of logical and truthful reasoning:

-Everyone who’s ever gotten sick at Disneyland should stop going to Theme Parks.

-Everyone who has ever gotten fired should stop working at jobs.

-Everyone who has ever been dumped should stop entering into relationships.

The truth contained in the quote about dog bites isn’t that all dogs are untrustworthy, it’s that people bear some measure of personal responsibility in regards to protecting themselves from danger.

Now this is a truth that is extremely applicable isn’t it?

Each of us has a responsibility to protect ourselves from people and situations that can be potentially harmful.  This is why it wasn’t a bad idea for our to run upstairs, but applying only that truth to his life meant staying upstairs and never coming down again.

My first answer to the question about church is, “You should go back to church because knowing how to protect yourself is a more valuable and practical life skill than knowing how to hide is.”

 Hiding doesn’t guarantee safety and it leads to a life spent in fear and isolation.  Knowing how to live amidst the dangers of life doesn’t guarantee safety, but it leads to a life filled with adventure, growth, and companionship.

Here’s my second answer to the question:

Our Kenyan friend’s problem wasn’t logical; it was emotional.  He was scared of something that had never actually hurt him because he didn’t actually understand it.  No amount of logic was ever going to remove his fear.

In correlation, has any person ever really been hurt by “the Church”?  The answer might be yes, but what are people trying to say to us when they say this?

Are they trying to say that the building hurt them? Are they trying to say that the way the church was organized hurt them? Are they trying to say that every person who attended the church hurt them?

No, they’re saying that some very specific people, people who have names and faces said or did hurtful things to them.

So let’s rephrase our question to be more accurate and fair, “I’ve been hurt by some people who attended church and claimed to be Christians.”

Is this an emotional problem or a logical problem?

It is a very valid and true emotional problem.  Unfortunately, appealing to logical solutions won’t actually solve these emotional problems will it?

What helps with our emotional problems is when people come to you and apologize, including asking for forgiveness, for what they did.  It’s at that point that we offer forgiveness (let go of the hurt) and experience emotional healing and reconciliation.

When we generalize our problem by blaming an institution, and then pour out our wrath on a generalization, we actually lose the ability to work through the actual emotional problem that we have.

So why do we do it?

The simple answer is that we either don’t want, or understand how, to solve our emotional problems.  We just want to punish the people who hurt us.

When we identify the person who hurt us, we find ourselves with personal responsibilities.  For instance, if I say that my wife hurt my feelings, you can very easily point out that I need to go talk to her about my feelings and come to reconciliation.

Personalizing the problem means that there are responsibilities and accountability.

If I don’t want reconciliation I just go around talking that wives are just a pain in the neck.  Generalizing allows me to run from my responsibilities and hide from my pain by blaming.

Many people hop from church to church, eventually withdrawing from them completely because they would prefer not to have the confrontation that could lead to their emotional healing.

Unfortunately it’s too easy, and unfair, for me to say, ”People hurt people so that’s no excuse to stop going to church. “

 While it’s true that Christians aren’t perfect and they hurt do hurt people, the simple fact of the matter is that we aren’t supposed to be hurting people.

II Corinthians chapter 5:15-20 presents us with some applicable truth about church and hurt.

“And he (Christ) died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.   So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

Jesus died to take us from our old life of death into new life.  This new life is a life marked by the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives.  In our new life we no longer live for ourselves, instead we live for Jesus.  In this continuing process of “being made new”, our lives begin to be measured against the truths of God’s word.

This means that we will be faced with truths about our lives that we would rather ignore.  In these circumstances it becomes very easy for us to blame “the church”, or “Christianity”, as the vehicle for presenting us with a truth that causes us personal pain.

I recently took the Disc Assessment profile; it’s a leadership tool that assesses your personality so that you, and your coworkers, better understand how to relate to you.  The first page of the assessment revealed that I am confident, personable, and a good communicator.  Anybody who knows me will recognize right away that they nailed me.  At this point I loved the DISC because it was a validation of who I am.

Page two revealed that I am impatient, have a tendency to overestimate my abilities, and don’t pay attention to details.  Every bit of this information was also true. That applicable truth revealed the areas of my life that need to change.

 How do you think that applicable truth made me feel?

The pain that this truth brings me is the result of my need to grow, not the test being unfair.  I can run from this or I can embrace it and enter into the process of asking for help from God and my faithful friends to become a new creation.

One of the reasons that church hurts is because spiritual growth is a painful process.

When I am willing to do the difficult work of living for Jesus I gain the opportunity of joining him in the process of making others new as well.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

-2 Corinthians 5:15-20

 Living for Jesus is actually not merely self-denial, it’s self-denial for the purpose of joining him in the process of reconciling people to God.

Which points us back into the issue of hurt in the church.  An applicable truth from the word of God doesn’t simply hurt some people; some people get hurt because someone takes a truth that was not applicable and lays into them.

Churches are filled with people who are faced with the daily decision to live for themselves or live for Jesus.

 Many times we choose to live for ourselves.

In these sinful choices we demonstrate a desire for power, authority, or recognition and praise; choosing to deny truths about ourselves in order to get it.

“Church hurt” is often the result of people who’ve chosen to believe that “living for God” means attending church services and they’ve set down the Ministry of Reconciliation in order to pick up a façade of personal piety.

I’ve worked inside churches since I was 20 years old and I can tell you stories that would curdle milk at the North Pole.  Do you know what each of these situations has in common?

Each of them happened when someone made the fatal error of setting down the Ministry of Reconciliation and picking up something else.

Sometimes they picked up the crusade of being right: They needed to win the argument regardless of kindness or the truth.

Sometimes they fell in love with their own ideas and refused to listen to anyone else.  They believed that methods or styles were more important than results.

Sometimes they were so wounded that they hid behind a position of authority to fend off any new injuries.

Often, they gloried in their mind because their heart was broken.

Most often people were mean because they refused to submit their heart to Christ.  They agreed with Christianity as a philosophy but they wouldn’t submit to Jesus.

When we become hurt or offended we have a choice, will we stop living according to God’s spirit, listening for him to tell us what to do next according to his plan for our world, or will we engage in self-directed behavior and begin working our plan for the world?

The Bible has a great example of this in 2 Kings 5.  It’s a story of a Hebrew slave girl who demonstrates kindness to her foreign master Namaan.  As Namaan’s story unfolds, we see him take a little girl’s advice and become physically healed of leprosy, but more importantly he comes to know and worship the God.

Through the ministry of a wounded little Girl, Namaan is reconciled to God.

This story is a brilliant illustration of what can happen in the world around us as the result of us choosing to join God in the ministry of reconciliation, even when we are the person who has been wounded.

This is ultimately why we go back to church, even after we’ve been hurt.

When we embrace and process the painful growth that truth brings, we become God’s ambassadors to our hurting world.

Don’t miss this: God’s Spirit doesn’t promise that we won’t be hurt, it gives us the power to break the cycle of hurt from the inside.

“So from now on we regard NO ONE from a worldly point of view.  Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

If that little girl had chosen to regard Namaan from a worldly point of view she would have just let him die.  Instead she swallowed her pride, and her right to be angry, and she demonstrated the compassion that God had put in her heart.  She submitted herself to God and was obedient to his vision for the world.

When we are willing to do this, the old creation passes away and the new creation life born in us spreads to the world.  The hurt of our heart is met by the healing power of God, and our healing makes us ambassadors for the God who is looking to reconcile all things to himself.

Our Kenyan friend melted when he saw an ancient beagle because he was unprepared for the encounter.

So here’s some information to prepare you for the hurt that comes from the people who attend church but aren’t interested in being God’s ambassadors:

People tell us about their ideals with their words, but they tell us about their hearts with their behavior.  Believe what people’s hearts tell you.

If the fruits of the Spirit are not immediately visible in a church, something is wrong.  It shouldn’t take weeks to determine if the majority of the people are joyful, loving, peaceful, faithful people.  If they aren’t, they aren’t working God’s plan.

Some churches claim to be cold and hard because they’re confronting people with cold hard truth.  Don’t buy it.  We aren’t given a choice between grace-givers and truth-tellers.  Jesus never copped out that way.

If you’re part of a church that doesn’t present applicable truths that call for life-change, leave.  Jesus is the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life.  This means that there must be moments when TRUTH reveals to us a path for painful life growth.

If church confrontations aren’t private and restrained, leave.  Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, so if you are being bullied, it isn’t coming from a spirit-led person.

If you are confronted, check out what the confronters are saying with other people who know you well, and check it against the word of God.  Self-examination is a sign of humility and godliness.

When you want to know who to trust in conflict situations, look for the people who are working for reconciliation.  People who go to great lengths of self-denial to give peace a chance are the people who are being like Jesus.

Finally, there’s a reason I‘ve said, “run” not “fight”.  God very rarely calls us to a church to be a reformer but he’s always calling us to be truth-speakers.

God usually calls someone with the power to be a reformer to be a reformer.  When we walk in off the street and decide that we have the power to change an organization that neither wants to change nor has it given us permission to change it, we’re probably just spoiling for a fight because of an injustice that we’ve experienced someplace else.

There are snakes and lions in every church.  Some churches are actually run by them.  But the majority of them are just beagles doing their best not to bite anybody.

Not every pain we experience in a church is bad.

The final evaluation in every situation comes down to whether or not you AND the church you are attending is committed to the ministry of reconciliation.

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