My husband and I describe ourselves as church junkies. We are those odd people who love to visit churches when we are on vacation. We love experiencing different styles of worship services and delight in the creative approaches we've seen in different denominations. We love practical, stirring messages delivered by passionate pastors, and I have to admit to sneaking out of the "tourist only" line at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice so I could sneak into a Sunday morning worship service, reserved only for church members. Never mind that every word was in Italian and I spoke only English. I had no clue when to sit or stand or how to use the prayer book tucked in the back of the seat in front of me. It didn't matter. I could feel God's presence even though I couldn't understand a word.
I love church. I love the chance to gather with others who love it too and worship a great big God who loves me so incredibly much. Gathering together is inspiring and encouraging. It's where I've formed lifelong relationships and had my most intimate friendship moments. It's also where I've had the deepest moments of pain.
Church is full of imperfect people who mess up and have to deal with self-centeredness and jealousy and evil thoughts every day just like every other human. We can know this in our head, but when we come face-to-face with it right in the church pew, it still catches us by surprise.
What is the church?
In Matthew 16:18 Jesus promised, "I will build my church." Jesus wasn't just talking about the bricks or wood that form a church building, but he was talking about building his church of people.
The Greek word that is usually translated church in the Bible comes from the Greek word ekklesia, which, originally, didn't have any religious connection but referred to a group of people. In Acts 19 we find Paul preaching in Ephesus where a mob formed to protest and stir up trouble. In verse 32, Luke says that "the assembly was in confusion," and in the original Greek used the word ekklesia. In this passage the town leader demands that proper charges be brought before the "lawful assembly," again, ekklesia. We can determine from this that the root meaning of the word church has to do with a group of people. The church is ordinary, human people who are imperfect and broken and bring their messy lives right along with them every time they walk through the door. This is what Christ died for. He reminds us in that he didn't die for a pile of bricks or stone. He died for people—for his church.
And herein lies the rub. The church is a group of people, led by people, and not a single one of us is perfect. We're a broken bunch who hopefully recognizes our brokenness and acknowledges that Jesus is the only fix. We need to run to him for rebuilding. No matter how long we've been in the church, we never reach perfection. Paul reminds us in Philippians that we'll have to work at it every day. We'll come face-to-face with our human side every single morning when we wake up, and we'll fight hatred and bitterness, and self-centeredness And when we do, we'll bump up against each other and we'll get hurt.
When the church causes pain
Our natural tendency is to steer clear of what hurts us or causes us pain. It's natural to want to avoid it. So when we encounter gossip aimed at us or witness hatred or hypocrisy in our fellow churchgoers or even our pastors, it's natural to think about walking away. But to do this is to separate ourselves from something that God built for us to use for our good.
When I served on staff at a truly wonderful congregation, I experienced a situation that made me think hard about what I really believed about the church. We were planning a women's event and I was part of the planning team. The woman who was heading up the project was a good friend of mine and a wonderful event planner who invited our opinions. But somehow I crossed the line during a meeting when I posed a suggestion that she didn't like. The expression on her face changed and her actions toward me drastically changed thereafter. While I knew her actions were tied to the idea I had suggested, I really didn't understand what I had done wrong. I tried to talk to her about it, but it was as if I had been cut off. I was bewildered. I thought we were friends. I apologized, but it didn't help. And not only was she ignoring me as a friend, but her behavior had turned to just plain mean.
My first reaction was to get defensive. I claimed they were an immature group of women. That they were two-faced and just pretending to love God and to be nice people.
Fortunately I didn't go down this road for too long. In my heart I knew my friend wasn't a bad person, and this wasn't a bad group of women. The situation was simply proof that we were messy, complicated people trying to follow Christ, but never doing it perfectly. I've learned that when someone in the church hurts my feelings or does something bad I need to admit the church is full of humans, and I'm one of them.
I also learned to stop pretending painful wounds don't hurt. The Bible never says other people aren't going to wound me just because I follow Christ. What the Bible does teach me is that it doesn't help to just sit in hurt and feel sorry for myself. In fact, God's Word warns me to not let bitterness set in. This has nothing to do with pretending something didn't happen. It has everything to do with being honest and admitting when our spirit is crushed and then leaving revenge in the hands of God, who, by the way, does a much better job with it than we ever could. I've learned that it's okay to admit my pain to God and to myself.
Next steps to healing
Somebody messed up and you got hit by the shrapnel. Maybe it was more than one somebody. Maybe it was your pastor or a whole group of leaders and now you are finding it hard to trust. The bottom line is you were wounded and you have to figure out your next step. What do you do? Here are four steps you can take toward healing.
1. Acknowledge your wound and be honest with yourself.
A great place to start is to admit how much it hurt and begin to deal with it. Writing others off or running away doesn't accomplish this. Put words to the pain and allow tears to soak into your aching heart. Go directly to the person (and only to that person) who hurt you with an honest attitude of reconciliation and humility. If you need to process your hurt with a trusted friend, avoid gossip at all costs. Talk about the hurt in your heart, not with the intention of forever sitting in it, but saying it, releasing it, and then moving on.
2. Own your part.
Be honest with yourself and ask, "What's my part in this?" If the actions had nothing to do with you, as in the case of a trusted leader who did something immoral or illegal, ask yourself if you put unrealistic expectations on their humanness. Did you expect them to be perfect? Now that you know they are not, can you forgive?
As in the case of my friend who turned her back on me, I had to realize that I had probably come off as arrogantly challenging her leadership. Even though she didn't want to accept my apology, it didn't release me from my responsibility to say I was sorry. Ask yourself if you made any mistakes with your words, attitudes, or actions. Even if they were unintentional, the words, "I was wrong. Will you forgive me?" go a long way in healing your own soul.
3. Ask God for wisdom.
Ask God what you should do next. He knows the situation and the motives hidden in the hearts of those involved. He loves you best and is on your side. Give him space and time to answer you. Listen carefully. Be patient.
4. Guard your heart.
In this process it's easy for your heart to become hard and bitter. After all, why should you forgive? Why shouldn't you just quit and walk away? Why should you stick in there and keep trying even when you know they were the one who were wrong? Why shouldn't you hate them? Choosing to follow God, even when your heart hurts so badly, lets God's incredible blessings wash over you. He knows. He sees. He alone can determine the motives and intent of others, and he promises that he will be just and fair. But many times our faithfulness has to come first and then his blessings follow.
Sometimes a change is in order
It's incredibly painful, but sometimes you have to make a change. If your trust has been completely shattered and even after following the steps above, you feel in your heart you need to leave your church, make a promise to yourself and to God that you will leave well. Refuse to gossip. Don't leave angry. Force yourself to acknowledge the good, no matter how small it is. But most importantly, don't give up. Remind yourself God is good, his church is good, and people are human. Find another place of worship and dive in with an open heart. And then wait for God's incredible blessings.