When Church Hurts. And When It Heals.

Church hurts. There, I said it…although I hate that. I was reminded today, at church, just how much church hurt is in my past, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts regarding church hurt…and also, how the church can help heal those hurts.

I’ll be clear: It is not my intention to speak negatively against any specific people, to drag names through the mud, or to, God-forbid, cause anyone else hurt. In fact, I have chosen against sharing openly about my thoughts on this topic, until now, solely for that reason. But some time has passed and part of how I heal is through writing. So here we are. My intention in sharing my story is not ill-willed. My intention in sharing the following is for this very purpose: to give hope to hearts that have been wounded by people in the church. That is all.

Back to today. The leader at our current church asked a question to our group about our experiences in our church – specifically relating to the topic of dress attire – from the churches of our childhood. Quietly, I glanced over at my husband, and we just shared a knowing look and a small, albeit sad smile. I waited until the others in the group shared their experiences and I debated, and prayed about, whether or not I should say anything. But after some silence, I felt peace to share what was expected in my childhood church regarding attire. Women were to wear dresses or skirts (below the knee) and head coverings. I am not suggesting that is wrong, it was just my experience. I also shared two memories from that church with regards to the topic of attire. 1. I remember when an elder stood up and read aloud an actual dress code that was to be adhered to amongst the congregants, and 2. When, after wearing dress pants to church one Sunday (years later), I was pulled aside and informed, not kindly, that if I chose to wear pants (instead of a dress) to church again, I would no longer be allowed to teach Sunday School. I’m aware that’s referred to as legalism. But I truly believe that those same people who did those things would most likely regret some of their actions today. I believe we all make mistakes, and I also believe that, by the grace of God, we can learn from them and grow.

And then he asked me, “Did those actions ever affect how you viewed God?” No hesitation. Absolutely, they did. “How?” For me, it made me believe, in a very skewed way, that God somehow expected perfection from me, along with certain behaviour I was to maintain, and that I was not worthy to receive His love if I didn’t act, behave, …dress… a certain way. I have forgiven those people who enforced their own personal convictions onto me…and our entire church, but as I shared those memories in our church group, I was surprised to find that I became emotional. My whole body was shaking and I fought back tears as I answered those questions. Sometimes, we don’t realize to what extent certain actions and behaviours hurt us until we are forced to think about them…and the consequences of them.

I have been blessed to know a few women who are wives of pastors, and let me tell you – they know church pain more than anyone else. The countless stories I’ve heard from them would shock most people. (I have permission to share the following.) One pastor’s wife shared with me how her husband would wear shorts to church, not out of disrespect, but due to significant discomfort. A member of their church didn’t like it, so she thought it would be acceptable to walk up to him after each service and pull his leg hair and then walk away. Pause. Consider that. If you aren’t outraged by that behaviour, you should be. That’s assault. And that type of behaviour and attitude has no place amongst God’s people. Another pastor’s wife recounted, “We were both serving in ministry together in a para-church organization when we got married. Shortly after we we were married, the directors suddenly left the ministry, leaving the entire weight of the ministry on our 5-month-married shoulders. The strain that abandonment had on our marriage was quite huge at the time.” Church hurt is isolating. I could go on with so many other stories from my friends who are pastor’s wives, but just trust me on this: there is behaviour in churches that would shock you, anger you, and grieve you. And it should. Because that’s not what God’s people are supposed to be like.

On a personal level, I know church hurt also, although differently from pastor’s wives. However, before I share, I want to restate the purpose of why I’m sharing this experience, and I ask that you remember it as you read. The purpose of this is intended only: to give hope to hearts that have been wounded by people in the church. It is not to cause more pain. I also want to make it clear that I harbour no bitterness or resentment to anybody in the churches referred to, and I have forgiven these hurts long ago.

Our family stopped attending church for 2.5 years because of significant pain caused by people in a previous church we attended. We just figured that the more you get involved in a church, the more you know, and when you know things, for us anyway, we felt it was important to stand up for what we felt was right and to stand against what we felt was wrong. When nothing we tried seemed to work, we relinquished our efforts, and chose to remain in that church for the sake of our pastors. My husband and I have developed a deep love and care over the years for those in pastoral ministry and we felt our calling, at that time, was to remain in our church to continue to love and support our pastors how we could. We tried to do just that. But for approximately 2 years, we hated going to church. It was exhausting. Draining. And it was evident we were no longer wanted there by some people. And yes, someone even said, “Well, there’s the door.” But, it seemed to us that we were just causing problems. The only reason we stayed for the time we did, was out of obedience.

After some time, my husband and I both felt peace about leaving. We met with our pastors and reminded them of our love and appreciation for them and expressed our desire, should they wish it, to continue a friendship with them. We sincerely desired and wished the best for that church (and we still do), but we could no longer attend. It was just too painful. Partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, our church attendance…to anywhere…just dropped off. We were reminded often by friends of the importance to attend church during that time. I also remember telling one friend that if it weren’t for my kids, I’d never join another church again. Not because I didn’t want to. Not because I didn’t miss worshipping with other believers. But because the idea of joining another church and putting myself into another situation to be hurt was just too much. What’s the definition of “crazy”? Isn’t it doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? No thanks.

There’s nothing quite like church hurt. Perhaps it’s because as Christians we expect other people in the church to behave…like Christians. Crazy, I know. But that idea IS kind of is crazy when you think about it. The church is made up of people. Sinners. And, if you are someone who has been hurt by the church, and you’ve been told this cliché before, don’t close your browser just yet. Hear me out, please. I used to hear people say that when they had been hurt by the church, they gave up on attending entirely. And, out of my ignorance in not knowing what church hurt can really do to a person, I would simply respond with that old adage that has been said to me: The church is made up of imperfect people. Yes, I know. Funny thing though: Hurt people already know that and hearing it doesn’t actually make the hurt feel any less or go away. But, there is a nugget of truth to that thought. I read the other day that churches don’t hurt people; People in churches hurt people. And that is where, I believe, the key to changing our perspective of church hurt lies. We weren’t hurt by our entire church. We were hurt by a few members in the church. Not the whole congregation. Not the pastor. And recognizing that truth was freeing for me.

We knew that we “should” have been attending church every Sunday for the 2.5 years that followed after leaving that church. But every time we would force ourselves to attend church “for the sake of our kids”, it was traumatizing. Yes, traumatizing. I would get fidgety and very uncomfortable and pray the singing and the sermon would just end! I wanted to claw my way out of the sanctuary. It was awful. And I hated it. The people in the new churches we “tried out” were friendly. There was nothing wrong with the sermons or the people, but I just couldn’t be there. And then a friend asked me one day if I had considered, given my reaction to attending any new church since our previous experience, that I may be having a trauma response. And just like that, it all clicked. It made total sense. I just didn’t know what to do with that knowledge. I was associating any “organized church” experience with previous hurt and pain, and I couldn’t shake it.

But, God is faithful.

My husband had been suggesting to me that we should try going to a small house church in the city. I was very hesitant, for many reasons. But we went. And for the first time in years, I exited church on Sunday morning with a feeling that was utterly indescribable. We were loved. We were cared for. We were prayed over. We were encouraged. We were wanted. And we had the opportunity to be and do those things for the others there. For the first time in years, I left church feeling refreshed instead of drained, exhausted, and depleted. We witnessed what church was meant to be: people searching the Scriptures with one another, praying for one another, and caring deeply for one another. And it was incredible. It was clear that this was where God had called us. Our house church has been a place of deep healing for us.

But I’m not stupid. Growing up, my mother would often say, “You’ll never find the perfect church, and if you do, don’t join it, because you’ll ruin it.” How right she was. I have no doubt that we also caused hurt in that same church, and we’ve owned that. Causing hurt was the last thing we ever wanted to do, but I know it happened. The church is made up of people…who are imperfect, yes. But, the church of God is also made up of people who don’t hurt too. It’s made up of healers and helpers.

For our family, for this moment in time, in order to learn how to heal and trust again, God has provided a small group of people who love us…even with our imperfections. In the only way I’m capable of right now, God has met me and has provided an opportunity to still worship Him in a corporate setting. Just a much smaller one, without any resemblance of “organized church”. And I am immensely grateful for that.

I don’t know where God will meet you in your journey of healing, but I beg of you to remember this:

God is faithful.

His people are imperfect. (Including you.)

But God’s love for you is perfect.

And if you ask Him, (although it may take time) He will answer you and meet you where you are. Be patient in that process. Imperfect people will always hurt you. And you will hurt other people too, even if that’s not what you’re intending. But recognize that it is not the whole church of God that has hurt you. It may have been people in a church or it may have been certain beliefs a church holds or it may even be the structure of a church. But it wasn’t the whole church of God.

No church is perfect. The real church of God is humble. And it recognizes when it hasn’t been humble. The real church of God loves people well and it doesn’t cast people out. The real church of God is one that brings healing to wounded hearts and souls.

The only way the church can be real is to love God more than anything else. The only way a church can help heal your wounds is if you allow them to. And I know that can be a very difficult thing to do. But search your heart. If you wish to be part of a church that heals others, you must, as I have learned in this process, also learn to: Practice humility. Love Jesus. Read His Word. Obey His commandments. Set aside your pride and even the identity you have assumed from being wounded by the church and slowly, allow Jesus to bring healing to you – through His Word, through His presence, and through His imperfect church. If you give up on the church entirely, because you’ve only seen the ugly, it means you also give up seeing the beauty that’s there as well. It might be more hidden – because yes, it’s made up of sinners – but beauty IS there. Seek it. And when you find it, grasp onto it and never let it go. Because in it, there is a family that is waiting to embrace you with open arms, to love you, to pray for you, to care for and encourage you. And it’s worth every bit of hurt you experience in the process and every bit of searching you do. Choose to become a part of that healing for others. Choose to become what God intended His church to be – His beautiful bride. And from that, you will reap abundant blessings and indescribable joy.

Side note: When you do find that church family, remember to love your pastor and his wife well. And be their friend.

A (Harsher) Word On Encouragement

The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines Encouragement in three ways:

  1. a. to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope
    b. to attempt to persuade
  2. to spur on
  3. to give help or patronage to

When was the last time you felt encouraged?  What brought about that feeling?  Chances are, it was probably someone who said something positive or uplifting to you or did something for you simply out of the kindness of their heart.  It’s a great feeling, isn’t it?  To be encouraged.  To have someone believe in us, cheer for us, help us, pray for us.  Sometimes, the encouragement we receive can make us feel as though we’re on top of the world, as if we are capable of accomplishing any task, no matter how difficult it may be.  But that’s because there’s power behind encouragement, isn’t there?

Why is that?  How can someone’s words or actions impact our own in such a drastic way?  I think it’s for the same reason that when another person speaks hurtful or unkind things about us or even to us, we cringe.  It hurts!

We were made FOR community and to be IN community.

It’s simply a part of the divine creation and order of things.  God made us to be a communal people.  His design and intent was never that His children would walk alone in this world, to strive to be able to do things on our own, or to even have to do things on our own.  You only have to look at Scripture to find truth to that.

So who encourages you?  Who spurs you on “towards love and good deeds”? (Hebrews 10:24)  Who encourages you and builds you up? (1 Thessalonians 5:11)  If you don’t have somebody who can speak life into your life, what are you doing about it?  Have you sought out a mentor or do you just sit miserably on your couch and “hope” someone will befriend and encourage you?  That might sound harsh, but know that you aren’t alone.  I was like you…for years.

“Where do I start?”, you might ask.  Great question!  My best suggestion is church.  If you don’t have a home church, start by finding one.  If you do have a home church, start by getting involved!  And no, the excuse of: “I just don’t have time” doesn’t fly with me.  You obviously have five minutes to sit and read this blog, so obviously you have five minutes you could spend helping out at church (granted…extenuating circumstances aside).  It can be small!  Maybe, for you, it looks like talking to the church secretary and asking how you can help with only five minutes of spare time – maybe that’s thinking of craft ideas for a Sunday School class, maybe it’s being an usher one Sunday morning and handing out bulletins before the service starts, maybe it’s offering to make an extra loaf of bread (or buy one while you’re already at the grocery store) for communion.  Maybe you have more time and you can help with teaching a Sunday School class, leading a Bible study one night a week, or helping with the Kids Clubs at your church.  When you do these things – when you “get involved”, you get to know other people on a deeper level than just your regular Sunday morning pew-warming neighbours.  And let’s be honest – how well do you REALLY know the people who warm the pews around your specific, self-allotted section?  Probably not that well.  But getting involved opens up new opportunities to meet fellow believers who are just like you – people who love Jesus.  The issue is – you can’t stop here.

Getting to know other people requires real work.  It involves opening the doors of your home to others, practising hospitality (Romans 12:3), regardless of how big…or tiny your home is.  Truly, the size of your home matters very little compared to the size of your heart – that, THAT is what people will see.  THAT is what will attract others to you.  So stop focusing on your own self-loathing and get out there!  Do what you can with what you have, regardless of how little that may be.  When you start to get to know people,  you start to care for them, to love them – so show it by your actions.  “My children, our love should not be only words and talk.  No, our love must be real.  We must show our love by the things we do.” – 1 John 3:18  In doing that, you may be moving mountains for others in ways you may never see here in this lifetime.  But these are the things that matter in eternity.  So what are you doing with what you’ve been given?  Are you keeping it all to yourself or are you sharing generously with others?  (My reference here is to the Parable of the Talents – Matthew 25:14-30)  Are you making a “profit” for the kingdom of heaven?  If not, don’t you think it’s about time you start?

“But, I thought this was about getting encouragement!?”

It is.  When you invest your time, your energy, your love, your wisdom into others (not for selfish gain), you can’t help but be encouraged.

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” – Galatians 6:9

“Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.” – Philippians 2:3

When you get to know some other older, wiser, godly women in your church family, consider asking one of them to mentor you.  The format of a mentorship relationship can be as formal or informal as you like – you’re the one requesting it!  But pray about it and make your requests clearly known, to God – He will provide one if you ask Him to, and to the person you choose to ask to enter into that mentor relationship with you.  Do NOT be discouraged, however, if they say “No”.  “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” – Romans 12:12  If, however, they say “Yes”, don’t be a drain!  Ask for that encouragement but also seek to be an encouragement to them.  Ask about their life, how you can be praying for them, etc.  Encouragement is not and should never be a one-way street.  The Bible is pretty clear on that.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice!  Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.  And the God of love and peace will be with you.”  – 2 Corinthians 13:11

“Therefore, encourage one another…” – 1 Thessalonians 4:18

“Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up…” – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” – Hebrews 3:13

Who do you need to go to and encourage right now?

You’re Always There When I Need You

Have you ever heard it said, “Life is hard and then you die”?  I have…a lot!  And although there have certainly been times where I have believed that to be true, I’ve also wondered if it really is.

My life has been considered to be a “hard life” at times by previous counselors and psychiatrists, but I don’t see it that way.  Have I had challenges?  Absolutely.  But who hasn’t?  We all have something that we struggle with, sometimes on a daily basis.  Life IS hard.  It’s true.  But your attitude towards it can make monumental impacts on you, on how you want your life to “turn out”, and even on other’s lives.  You have the power to choose to see the joy, even gifts, in each and every day.  You!  But are you strong enough to actually do it?  Are you capable to seeing past all of the “negatives” that fill your mind?  This may be cliché but it’s true: If I could do it, you definitely can too.

For those that don’t know me well, I was diagnosed with ADHD and OCD and Anxiety Disorder – all within this past year.  And although that may be surprising to some, it actually came as a blessing and relief to our family.  It’s been a very difficult journey in our home and on my immediate family.  Even close friends and family are unaware of the turmoil I have placed on my husband, children, and even myself.  But I don’t end there.  That is NOT my story.  Because it’s when you remember who you truly are, before all of the psychological labeling, that really matters.  Me?  I’m a daughter of the one High King of heaven.  I’m made in His image and He calls me His child!  So although the life I may have has been “hard”, it’s also been an opportunity.  To learn.  To grow.  To see and to feel things I never thought possible.  To become more and more like Him – each and every day – regardless of my circumstances.

I recently watched a movie scene where a leader took his self-help group out into the middle of a busy street (imagine New York), and they just stood there.  Every person in that group got very tense.  Horns were honking, people were shouting rude expletives, and motioning the same with their hands.  The group wanted out.  They felt stuck, in the way, the problem, and in a way, they were.  But then the leader took them to the tallest building running along the same street, where they proceeded to the roof.  They looked over the skyline and were amazed by the views.  Their reactions changed.  They were no longer scared, stressed, anxious, or tense.  They were relaxed.  The relief was evident on their faces and in their entire posture.  Then they looked down to the very spot they had been standing only minutes prior and it seemed significantly different.  They felt as if they had some control, they were no longer in the chaos.  Although nothing had really changed on the ground level – cars were still honking, people were still shouting, and there were more people running through traffic – they now had a different view of the situation.

And that’s how it is with God and being His child.  Your life may be incredibly stressful and chaotic, but He can help you see past some of those things and live life to the fullest, regardless of your current life events.  Trust me, I know some of the feelings of stress and chaos.  For some very strange reason, God thought it would be good, beneficial, and even wise for me, somebody with Entomophobia (fear of insects/bugs) to not only live with a variety of bugs and spiders, but also mice, bats, and (what we thought were) bedbugs – BUT – God is merciful, and they were “only” batbugs).  But the fears, stresses, phobias, anxiety, and panic attacks that ensued from those things certainly can cloud one’s view.  When you are in the middle of it, you can’t see above it.  And with my ADHD brain, I can’t even begin the process of trying to see above it, to choose to be thankful – in EVERYTHING?!?!  (1 Thessalonians 5:18 – “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”)

That’s where the even harsher reality sets in.  Not only are disciples of Jesus asked to rejoice ALWAYS and to give thanks in ALL circumstances, He also asks us to be content.  WHAT?!?!  (Hebrews 13:5a – “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have…”)  Oh, that is so, so hard to do – if we only see things from our current view.

So how do we see things from a different view?  From God’s view?  From an eternal view?  (Colossians 3:2 – “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”)  I think the answer is somewhat cyclical; it’s in the previous verses – rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks all the time.  Scripture says in Psalm 37:4 to “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”  This does NOT mean that He will deliver you from your current situation or that He will hand over to you what you want.  Because to truly delight in the Lord means to find your entire peace and fulfillment in Him alone.  And when you do that, you leave no room for the desire of extra.  There’s a reason Jesus also said in Luke 10:27, “Love the Lord your God with ALL your heart and with ALL your soul and with ALL your strength and with ALL your mind.”

I would add to those the verses from childhood:

  • Philippians 4:13 – I can do ALL things through Christ which gives me strength.
  • Proverbs 3:5-6 – TRUST in the Lord with ALL your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him and He will make your paths straight.

It comes down to a choice, a decision, to wake up each day (or go to bed each night – even if you have to take medication to help you sleep) and trust in Him…even in the right now.  1 Timothy 6:6 – “But godliness with contentment is great gain.”

Sitting at a Wal-Mart McDonald’s this evening after a particularly difficult few days with my daughter, setting straight some behavioral issues, and contemplating on whether or not my responses have been the right ones (and dealing with the oh-so-continuous guilt that comes with not being the best/perfect mom), she looked up at me and asked if I could wipe the Ketchup off of her arm.  As I did the “mom routine” once again, she looked up at me, smiled, and said, “Thanks, mom.  You’re always there when I need you.”  Apart from having my emotions ripped out of my chest in public, 🙂 I realized just how profound that statement was.  (My daughter teaches me theology every day – and I’m so grateful for it!)  Because the second part of Hebrews 13:5 is what makes the change of view possible.  “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”