When Church Hurts

Jesus bandaid

 

My wife and I hosted a Kenyan pastor in our home about two years ago.  He was incredibly funny and intelligent, spoke 4 languages fluently, and could read ancient Hebrew and Greek.  This guy was also massive, about 6 foot 3 and about 230 lbs.

He travelled through the veld from village to village starting churches and training pastors.  Not only was he big, but this guy was also fearless.  He walked through bush country filled with snakes and lions and warthogs to get from place to place.

He arrived at our house late at night 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.  Do you know what he saw?

He saw our dog lying in front of the fireplace.

He wouldn’t come downstairs until we took the dog and put her in the garage.  You’ve probably guessed that Janelle and I have a pretty ferocious dog right?  We do, we have one of those dog breeds that people are pretty nervous about.

Our dog Feebee is a Beagle.

 

We tried to explain to him that Beagles are not dangerous.  We told him that this beagle was old and has gas. Nothing could convince him to be in the house if the dog was not in the garage.

Guess why?  Because he had been bitten by a dog.  Beyond this, he had seen people killed by packs of dogs.  Remember that this is a man who is smart, brave, and strong, but helpless in the presence of a 35lb throw pillow.  This is a man who has been in the presence of cobras and lions and wasn’t scared of them but he was petrified of a dog.  Now let me explain why; 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.

The problem that we are looking at today is probably something you’ve heard before.  It sounds something like this:

“I’ve been hurt by the church, why should I ever go back?  I went to church and Christians hurt me, what is the reason to 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.   If you are here today and you’re a city mouse, it sounds more like this, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Now this is the same logic and reasoning that people are applying when they say things about not wanting to be involved with church because of prior observation or past experience.  In fairness, I want to acknowledge that this is a true and logical way of thinking.  While there is truth to these saying and there is value in the logic behind them, it’s important to remember that  “truth” and applicability aren’t always the same thing.

The truth, while valuable, doesn’t always have universal application. Let me give you an example:

Deserts are typically hot.  If you wake up one morning and you don’t know where you are, and it’s hot, it might be a good guess that you’re in the desert, but that piece of information doesn’t guarantee accuracy.  You might have fallen asleep in a tanning bed in West Linn.

Truth isn’t situational, but 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 has ever attended a Blazer game on a night that they lost should never go back to a Blazer game.

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 quotes about dog bites and deceitful people isn’t that all people and dogs are completely untrustworthy and invalid, it’s that each person bears some personal responsibility in regards to protecting themselves from danger.

Now that 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 friend from Kenya to run upstairs when he saw our dog, but it was a bad idea for him to stay upstairs and never come down again.

So here is the my first answer to the question, “You should go back to church after being hurt 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 generally 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.

Now, here comes 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 (Feebee) because he didn’t understand it or have specific experience with it.  So let’s apply this truth to our question and see what it reveals to us.

Has any person ever been hurt by “Church” or “Christians”?  The answer is probably 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 are 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.  Are you beginning to understand why making a logical comparison statement in this situation will not help you with your real problem?

If the church where the people who hurt you burned down in a fire, you might be happy for a moment, but the destruction of that building or organization isn’t going to help you get over the negative emotions that their hurtful behavior caused you.  What will help you with your emotional problem is those people coming to you and apologizing, including asking for forgiveness, for what they did.  It’s at that point that you 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 problem.  Instead we want to punish the people who hurt us.  When we identify the person who hurt us, we find ourselves with responsibilities don’t we?  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 I have responsibilities and accountability.

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

The most blatant illustration of this is found in racist behavior.  “I once had my bike stolen by a Russian kid so I don’t trust Russians. “  That sounds a lot like, “I got hurt by a Christian so I don’t go to church” doesn’t it?

So we could spend all day continuing to wrestle with the concept of hiding from churches because of their potential to be hazardous, but that would undercut the opportunity to engage in a more profitable topic that grows out of this, which is the problem of hurt as it relates to humanity and Christian ministry.  It’s would be easy for me to stand up here and 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.  We are actually supposed to be doing something about the hurt that people experience.  If today’s sermon is completely spent analyzing a question, but never addresses the problem of hurt and what to do when we experience it we are just telling people to wander around hurt.

II Corinthians chapter 5 contains 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!” -2 Cor. 5: 15-16

So Jesus died for each of us 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.  If you want to know what this looks like you can spend some time reading Galatians Chapter 5 where the Apostle Paul gives us a pretty good ticking sheet of the character qualities that are produced by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives:  Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Self Control etc…

II Corinthians presents us with the applicable truth that in our new life we no longer live for ourselves, instead we live for Jesus.  In this passing from death to life, the 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 daily confrontations by information about ourselves; sometimes this process reveals truths that we would rather ignore.  In these circumstances it becomes very easy for us to blame “the church” or “Christianity” for presenting us with a truth that causes us personal pain.

Unfortunately the process of personal spiritual growth always produces pain.  The idea that we will become a new person, and that the self-denial involved will not be difficult is a lie.  In fact, the Bible calls this process “putting our old man to death” and “killing the flesh”.

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 5:17-20

So 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.  We become God’s ambassadors for the sake of telling other people who God is willing to erase their sins from his accounting book.

Which leads me back to the issue of hurt in the church.  Some of you are here and you are looking at me and you are saying, “Jon I didn’t get hurt by an applicable truth from the word of God, I got hurt by someone who lied, or cheated, or was wrong about me.  People took a truth that was not applicable and laid into me.  That dude was Inspector Javert and who am I?  I’m Jean Valjean.”

I know exactly what you are talking about.

Churches across the world are filled with people who are faced with the daily decision to live for themselves, or live for Jesus and many times they choose to live for themselves.  In these sinful choices they demonstrate that they want power or authority or they desire recognition and praise and they choose to deny the truth about themselves in order to get it.

In these situations we find ourselves being hurt by people who have chosen to believe that “living for God” means attending church services, and they have set down the Ministry of Reconciliation in order to pick up a façade of personal piety.

You might be Jean Valjean… but here’s the kicker: by railing about “them”, you’ve let the hurt turn you into Inspector Javert haven’t you?

I know exactly what you are talking about.  Because I’ve been hurt and I let it turn me from the Ministry of Reconciliation.  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 just so emotionally and mentally wounded that they hide behind a position of authority to fend off any new injuries.  As a result, they gloried in their mind because their heart was broken.

Sometimes they were just mean and angry because they refused to submit their heart to Christ.  Although they agreed with Christianity as a philosophy, they wouldn’t personally 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, and we find it in the Old Testament, specifically in verse 2 Kings Chapter 5.  This is a great story, but we are going to look at something that happens at just the very beginning.

“Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.

Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”-2 Kings 5:1-3

Is this how you would respond to the person who had just made an actual wreck of your life?  How does a little girl, taken as a slave, demonstrate this type of kindness to the very person who is responsible for current situation?

As the Story of Namaan unfolds throughout II Kings 5, we see him take the little girl’s advice and become physically healed of his leprosy, but more importantly we see him come to know and worship the God who created him.

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.

When we live according to the spirit of God through prayer and obedience we have the power to do this.  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 how do we do this?  Let’s look back at II Corinthians 5:16:

“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.  His heart was mighty in the face of lions and cobras because his heart was prepared to encounter them.

So let’s review some information we need to be prepared for the hurt that comes from the people who attend church but aren’t interested in being God’s ambassadors:

If you walk into a church and the Fruits of the Spirit are not immediately present, 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.

People always tell you about their ideals with their words, but they tell you about their hearts with their behavior.  Believe what their hearts tell you.

You will find yourself in churches where they claim to be confronting people with the cold hard truth, and that’s why they are cold and hard.  Don’t buy it.  God doesn’t give us a choice between being grace-givers or truth-tellers.  We are commanded to speak the truth in love.

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

If you are part of a church where confrontations aren’t private and restrained.  Leave.  Self-control is a Fruit of the Spirit, so if you are being yelled at or bullied, it isn’t by a spirit led person.  If you are confronted, check out what the confronters are saying by talking to other people and dive in to the word of God.

When you want to know who to trust in a conflict, look for the person who is working for reconciliation.  The person who goes to great lengths of self-denial to give peace a chance is the person who is being like Jesus.  The person who is hell-bent on making war?  Run from them.

The last bit of information I can say to you is this.  There’s a reason that I have said, “run” not “fight”.  God very rarely calls you to a church to be a reformer.  He’s called you to be a truth-speaker.

God usually calls someone with the authority 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.

Remember that there are snakes and lions in every church,
But some churches are actually run by them.

And,

Not every pain we experience in a church is bad.

The final evaluation in every situation should come down to whether or not you believe that both you AND the church you are attending are committed to the ministry of reconciliation.

This is the text of a sermon preached at Willamette Christian Church in West Linn, Oregon, February 2013.

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