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.

On Words and the Tongue

I talk a lot. Those that know me can attest to this. On top of that, I have a very sharp tongue. And to add to the problem even further, the words that come out of my mouth a lot of the time are anything but pure.

Lately, I have been told by a few people that I am a really great encourager. That comes as a major surprise to me. I don’t feel like I do that at all, but I can’t help but notice that it has come up in conversation not just once, but a few times – to the point where I can’t ignore it anymore and have begun to wonder if that is a spiritual gift that has been hiding somewhere deep within. So it’s no surprise that words have been on my mind lately.

Scripture has a lot to say about words and about the importance of holding one’s tongue as well as encouragement. So I’ve started a mini-study on what impact that should have in my life. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Fools Talk:

Ecclesiastes 5:3 …Many words mark the speech of a fool.

Ecclesiastes 9:17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.

Ecclesiastes 10:12 Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips.

Ecclesiastes 10:14 …Fools multiply words.

Have you ever noticed that the quiet ones usually have the most profound/meaningful things to say?

Tongues are Powerful:

James 3:5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.

James 3:8 …No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

This last verse really made me think. If we can’t tame the tongue, what hope do we have? Our only hope is Christ Jesus. He is the One that created us. He created our tongues and our ability to speak. He alone can tame a fiery tongue. We need only ask. But what if I have asked? What if I have wept over my speech and begged God to take my unholy words away from me? What then? I believe it is a conscious decision to consistently be in prayer (1 Thess. 5:17), asking God’s assistance with our speech, each day. Remembering to really think before we speak. Accepting the challenge of continually seeking to live a holy, God-fearing life. Only then can we expect change.

Guarding One’s Tongue:

Proverbs 21:23 Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.

Psalm 34:13 …Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies.

Our Words:

James 3:10 Out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

Ecclesiastes 5:2 Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.

Matthew 15:18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.

Going Forward:

Desiring a godly heart is a good place to start, but it is not the same as having one. Having a godly heart does not mean being perfect either. I desire a Christ-like heart; one of compassion, love, cheerfulness, goodness, self-control, temperance, (shall I list all of the fruits of the Spirit?), but do not feel that I exhibit these. And truth be told, it’s probably because I don’t – when it really matters. It’s easy for me to have compassion on the homeless person asking for money. It’s easy for me to be cheerful when I’m doing what I love. It’s easy to be good at work when I have a performance review approaching. It’s easy for me to be patient when I’m waiting for something I really want. But what about those other times? What if it’s having compassion on somebody going through a circumstance and your thought is for them to “suck it up.” What if it’s being cheerful in the midst of a failing marriage? What if it’s being good when nobody is watching and you’re aching to do X. What if it’s being patient when that toddler asks that same question for the fifteenth time and you are busy doing something else?

Having a godly heart, I believe, is:

First – having the desire.

Second – realizing our imperfection.

Thirdly – recognizing God’s perfection.

Fourthly – asking for His transformation on our lives.

Fifthly – actively working towards being like Him each day.

So for those that may find a discussion on “words and encouragement” strange coming from me, it’s actually quite perfect. As a woman who struggles with her filthy words and foolish talk, I am the perfect candidate to kneel before God in humbleness and beg for forgiveness and ask for wisdom. For my words to change, my heart has to change (Matt. 15:18 – as above), and so does my mind – Romans 12:2 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

On understanding encouragement as a spiritual gift, I am still praying about that one. Discovering our spiritual gifts is a journey. And although I would never have considered encouragement as one of mine, I’m wondering if perhaps spiritual gifts can change as God changes us.

I want to honor God with my words, but change will hardly happen if we don’t set the right boundaries. That’s where accountability comes in. So if you hear me say something that isn’t any of the following, please remind me (gently) of this blog post.

Thanks for being on this journey with me.

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.

A Closer Look at Gethsemane: How Are We Measuring Up?

Over the past couple of months, I have been working through The Gospels – the first four books of the New Testament.  Specifically, I’ve been examining the responses of Jesus toward any situation or circumstance He faced.  Although there are so many things to glean from those four books, I’ve been most fascinated with the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Because I want to capture the full account of this story, I’ve taken the liberty of combining Scripture from Matthew and Luke so we can see a more complete picture of what occurred after the Last Supper with His disciples in the Garden.

Luke 22:39, 43-46 and Matthew 26:36b-39, 42-45

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and His disciples followed Him.  And He said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray”. 

He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee (James and John) with Him, and He began to be sorrowful and troubled.  Then He said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with Me.”

Going a little farther, He fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me.  Yet not as I will, but as You will.”  An angel from heaven appeared to Him and strengthened Him.  And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. 

When He rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, He found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.  “Why are you sleeping?” He asked them.  “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may Your will be done.” 

When He came back, He again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy.  So He left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. 

Then He returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting?  Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  Rise, let us go!  Here comes My betrayer!”

Before we can look at Jesus’ responses, I’d like to take some time to really zoom in on His current circumstances – what He was going through, what He was experiencing in each moment, the emotions He must have felt.  Keep in mind as we examine this passage that Jesus was, at this time, 100% God and 100% human.  He went through many of the same things that we go through.  1 Peter 4:1 states that “Christ suffered while He was in the body” and Hebrews 4:15 states, “This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses since He had the same temptations we do, though He never once gave way to them and sinned.”

So what WAS going on?

Matthew 26:37-38 – Jesus “began to be sorrowful and troubled”.  His soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow”.  The word “sorrow” here refers to both physical and mental pain.  We see a couple of things here – inner turmoil and dread is one, and second, the grief from bearing the weight of other’s sins…the sins of the whole world.  Think for a moment about a time when you felt the most burdened about a sin you’d committed, or maybe it was just a sinful thought.  Or try and remember a time of immense grief where you couldn’t eat and you couldn’t sleep.  You just felt ill. The emotional agony of the situation was just too much to bear.  Now imagine the weight of your one situation multiplied by the burden of the sins of the whole world!  Can you see it in your mind’s eye?  I don’t know if we can ever begin to comprehend the weight of the burden that Christ was feeling that night, but we’re going to try.

His burden – His cup of wrath He was to drink – was so huge that we see in Matthew 26:39, the severity of the stress he was under.  He prays, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”  He was under so much stress of knowing what was to come that He actually pleads with His Dad to not make Him have to go through with it, to please take this horrific life sentence away from Him.  Jesus, in this very moment, shows His full humanity.  He knows what it’s like to go before the Father and beg for His situation to be removed from Him.  We can only imagine how He must have wept privately here.  He was under so much pressure and so much grief that when you skip to Luke 22:43-44, it says, “An angel from heaven appeared to Him and strengthened Him.  And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”  He was in so much physical and emotional anguish over what He had to do, that an angel had to come and strengthen Him.  Scientists say that when a person is under that much emotional turmoil or grief, the capillaries in the human head can actually pop, causing a blood-like sweat as we see here.  Can you imagine a grief so great?

Looking back to the text in Matthew 26:40, 43, and again in verse 45, they state “Then He returned to His disciples and found them sleeping.  ‘Could you men not keep watch with Me for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation’.” “When He came back, He again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy.”  “Then He returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting?”  Here Jesus is on arguably the most difficult night of His entire life.  We know He is already in severe distress and anguish – physical and emotional agony – and His closest friends, who He asked to stay with Him in Matthew 26:39 – “Stay here and keep watch with Me”, fell asleep on Him…repeatedly!  Try to envision for a moment the extreme loneliness and abandonment He must have felt.  He was beyond overwhelmed with sorrow and grief.  This was the time He should have been surrounded by His closest friends, comforted by them, having them be an alert, wakeful, and sympathetic presence, knowing they would be praying for Him, consoling Him, but they let Him down…big time. They completely ignored His request.  Have you ever been let down by somebody who was your closest friend?  The abandonment and loneliness He experienced here would have been so much worse of a blow because it provided a glimpse, a foretaste, of what was to come – from the imminent abandonment from His friends when they deserted Him after His arrest – to the cross, where even His Father would turn His face away from Him.

Looking back at Matthew 26:42, Jesus prays the second time stating, “My Father, IF IT IS NOT POSSIBLE for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it…”  He prayed the first time in Matthew 26:39 asking His Father to take the cup away from Him.  We can deduce from here that the reason He was in great anguish and needed to be comforted by the angels was because He received an answer to His prayer that He was not wanting.  He knew by verse 42 that God was not going to take this cup of wrath away from Him.  He was going to have to endure it.  Have you ever received an answer to prayer that you weren’t hoping for?  Maybe you just assumed God didn’t answer your prayer because what you asked for wasn’t allowed.

In Matthew 26:46 which states, “Rise, let us go!”, we see that Jesus faced his own, imminent death – literally.  Many of us haven’t had to go through that just yet, but I can’t help but think of numerous friends and family members we know who have had to do exactly that…possibly through a terminal illness diagnosis or failing health.  There is not one thing that we will go through that Jesus has not already experienced.

And finally, this whole story of the Garden of Gethsemane has Jesus surrounded by betrayal from one of His closest friends.  Jesus called it in Matthew 26:25 at the Last Supper: “Then Judas, the one who would betray Him, said, ‘Surely not I, Rabbi?’.  Jesus answered, ‘Yes, it is you.’” and immediately following the garden’s story, we see Judas do exactly what Jesus said he would in Matthew 26:48&49 – “Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: ‘The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.’ Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ and kissed Him.”  There’s nothing quite like betrayal – but it’s so much worse when it comes from a close friend.

So how DID Jesus respond to all of these things?

First of all – look back at the very first verse of the bolded passage.  “Jesus went out AS USUAL to the Mount of Olives…”  When Jesus was in the area, this is where He went to meet with God.  He had a special place set aside just for prayer.  That’s actually how Judas knew where they were going to be that night…because Jesus made it a regular habit to meet with His Father there in prayer.

When His sorrow and anguish was too great to bear, when He felt the most alone and abandoned by His closest friends – leaving Him to deal with His burden by Himself, Jesus chose to pray…and he kept returning to His only source of comfort – His Father.  Notice that at His loneliest time, God was still present through prayer.  Jesus’s prayer life was well-established long before a difficult situation ever arose in His life.  What are your prayer habits like?  Do you wait until a hard time comes up before going to meet with the Lord in prayer or do you have a regular prayer life already established so that prayer is your first response to everything and anything?  One other item I want to point out here is Jesus’s posture in Matthew 26:39 – he laid, face flat, on the ground.  It’s worshipful.  But it’s also a position of a servant’s cry to His King.

Jesus chose to receive help from the angels.  He chose to not get angry with His friends even though they completely ignored His request to stay awake with Him.  He chose to trust His Father totally, in full surrender.  You see this through the way He ends each of His prayers: “not what I will, but what You will”.  Just think about that for a moment!  What is the biggest thing you have ever prayed for, cried out to God for?  Did you ask Him just for what you wanted or were you ready and willing to embrace His will?  If not, what was it that held you back?

He also chose to face His death with courage and obedience – with total surrender and acceptance.

When faced with these kinds of situations or difficulties in life, how do YOU respond?  Is your response self-seeking?  Self-loathing?  Clothed in self-pity and self-servitude?  Or is your response more like Christ’s?  With humility.  With grace.  With obedience.  With trust.  With total surrender to the Father’s will.  As we prepare for this Easter season, may each one of us surrender ourselves totally to the authority of our God.  May we do as the Psalmist says in Psalm 139:23-24 and truthfully ask, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  May we daily choose to humbly and gracefully surrender our will to His, to fully obey, and to fully trust Him.

Main points to remember along our journey toward Home:

Step 1 – Ensure that you have a consistent and meaningful prayer life established before dark or difficult times arise.

Step 2 – Don’t blame God – even though He may be allowing the pain you’re experiencing.  Choose not to blame.  Choose to trust.

Step 3 – Go to Him in prayer and humility even though that might be the last thing you want to do – when everyone else is distracted and sleeping – go to Him…repeatedly.

Step 4 – Even if God doesn’t take                               away, obey.