Church hurt is real. I have no desire to diminish how anybody feels about their experience of church. I recognise some experiences of church are really good, others are really bad. I can see that attending non-members, church members, church staff, deacons, elders, pastors can all have experiences of church hurt of some form or other.
As much as I don’t want to diminish the reality of bad experiences, I also think there is some balance needed in how we think about these things. None of what I am about to say is meant to undercut real experience of hurtful things. None of what I am about to say is intended to say that when people have hurt us it isn’t real. But, nevertheless, I did want to make some broad observations.
Anyone can be hurt; Anyone can hurt others
Here is a fact that is hard to escape: the church is full of sinners. 1 John 1:8 could not be any clearer, ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ Every person in attendance at your church, from the unbeliever just looking in to the pastor preaching in the pulpit, is a sinner. Thems just the facts.
But that being the case, it means anyone can be hurt by anyone else. Pastors are not unique among church people who hurt others. Sheep frequently bite too. Members can hurt other members. Elders can hurt other elders. Pastors can hurt members and members can hurt pastors. People who aren’t members at all might hurt and be hurt too. Everyone is a sinner and that means sin will inevitably exist in the church. Where sin exists, hurt will sometimes exist too.
Hurtful people might, themselves, feel hurt
Frequently, in the stories I hear about church hurt, more than one party feels injured. Similarly, in all the stories I hear about church hurt, everyone who feels hurt is oblivious to the hurt they may be causing to other people. In fact, often, the person telling the story of hurt has no idea that they are very often a viewed as a cause of hurt to the person they are accusing.
Of course, sometimes this is just gaslighting. Sometimes it is people just trying to turn the tables and insist their terrible behaviour is actually the person they are harming’s fault. But I have heard enough of these stories, and met enough people, to see that often is not what is going on. Often, the apparently hurtful party really does believe quite genuinely that they are the ones being hurt. Sometimes that is because the response to something they have done is hurtful itself. Other times, it is because they were oblivious to having done anything and someone is now treating them badly in response to a perceived issue. Sometimes their own behaviour is a response to what they already perceived to be problematic behaviour from other quarters.
None of that is to say someone is right or wrong. Just to recognise that frequently, when we feel hurt, there are often other people who feel hurt too.
Sometimes, our hurt is illegitimate
I may well feel hurt by the way somebody acted towards me. It may be an involuntary reaction, but there it is. But just because that is how I feel, does not make my feelings legitimate. Sometimes my hurt is misplaced. Sometimes my hurt is based on faulty assumptions. Sometimes my hurt is objectively blowing something incredibly minor out of all reasonable proportion.
Just because I feel a particular way does not make it true. Just because I believe somebody has done something with evil intent does not mean they have actually done anything at all. Just because I interpret something one way does not mean it was the way I have interpreted it. Sometimes we will feel things to be true but they will not necessarily be true. Sometimes our feelings need to align with reality rather than expecting reality to bend to our feelings.
Sometimes people will hurt us and we just have to move on
This, I suspect, will be the most controversial thing I say here. But there have been times when my family and I have been badly hurt by people. Sometimes knowingly, sometimes I suspect not. Sometimes (we believe) with ill-intent, sometimes obliviously. But nevertheless, hurt. The question is, what do you do with that?
A friend of mine, who faced some horrendous behaviour that ultimately led to him leaving his ministry, said to me, ‘Sometimes, you just have to recognise that people might treat you badly, chalk it up to sin, and get on with your life.’ His story is not mine to tell, but I suspect he is right. Sometimes, it is neither worth the hassle, the energy, the effort nor any other number of possible consequences to make an issue of it or wage a campaign against it. Sometimes people act badly and you just have to suck it up and get on with your life. Is it fair? No. Is it worth doing anything else? No.
I don’t say that as a license for atrocious behaviour nor a right to sin terribly against people. I say it as a cold, hard reality. Sometimes we will not see justice in the here and now. Sometimes our hurt will not be resolved to our liking. Sometimes, people will act badly and the best thing we can do – even in the face of great hurt – is suck it up and move on. We do ourselves no favours by being consumed by a search for justice or restoration that this side of glory will never come. The cost to ourselves, our emotions, our health may simply not be worth it.
If hurt sends us away from the gospel, our faith was not in the gospel
It is a line as old as time: if that’s what being a Christian does for you, then I don’t want to be a Christian! Or, if that’s what going to church involves, then I don’t want to go to church. I get it. I understand why someone might make that calculation. But I fear it is faulty logic.
For one, as we noted at the top, the church is full of sinners. Which means sin will occur and, by consequences, hurt will probably occur too. If we are leaving the church because someone sinned and we were hurt by it, we have misunderstood what the church is. We have also failed to realise that we will likely be the cause of some hurt ourselves too.
But equally, if we reject Jesus because of the way some of his followers might hurt us, it suggests our faith was never really in Jesus. Jesus is not the one who hurt us. But if we go away from him because of hurt we experienced elsewhere, it suggests our faith was in something else (possibly the people/thing that hurt us).
More to the point, if our faith really is in Jesus, we will not leave the church because Jesus calls us to belong to the church. If we really trust Jesus, we will do what he says (after all, he says ‘if you love me you will keep my commandments). Even when it may seem good to us to do something else, if we have eyes of faith, we will see that Jesus commands what is good for us. If he can see the reality, and he knows the church is full of sinners who may hurt one another, yet still commands us to belong to the church, to do other is to say we don’t really trust that he knows what is best. Which is to say, we don’t really have faith in Jesus.
Jesus will enact perfect justice
If we do believe the gospel, we will know that Jesus will enact perfect justice one day. All wrongs will be righted. Whether our hurt is illegitimate and misplaced or our hurt is objectively right and a product of gross injustice, we can entrust ourselves to God. As Abraham said, ‘won’t the judge of the whole earth do what is just?’
It is this knowledge that meant Jesus could endure such unjust and abusive behaviour – where much more than him feeling hurt was going on – and yet did not return evil for evil, did not insist upon justice, did not return even an accusation. Instead, he entrusted himself to his Father. He prayed for his persecutors. He asked his Father to forgive them. We may feel great hurt, we may need to lay it aside and put it to bed so that we aren’t consumed with bitterness, but we can trust – as Jesus did – that God will do right in the end.
Of course, in the Great Assize, we will find that we have failed to do justice of our own. We may find that we have sinned against (whether knowingly or unknowingly) as much as we have been sinned against. If we recognise that we’re all sinners, some will inevitably be chalked up to our account. But it won’t be justice that we will want then. Faced with our own record, we’ll be all about mercy. Just as we seek mercy from our Heavenly Father, and entrust ourselves to him, Jesus calls us to have mercy and forgive those who repent. But even where such repentance is not forthcoming, there is no escaping the command that we are not to let any root of bitterness take hold. Even in the face of ungodliness, sin, persecution and worse we are to guard our hearts and love even our enemies. When it comes to much hurt, it bears remembering it often emanates from people who – though damaging us – might not intend to be our enemies at all. Loving our enemies, praying for those who despitefully use us, not letting bitterness take root may often mean – when all is said and done – entrusting justice to the Lord and simply getting on with our lives.