Have you been hurt by Christians? Perhaps in a church or some other Christian community gone toxic? Maybe something as intimate as an individual friendship?
I’ve been there.
Most recently for me, it happened while I was here in Colombia – in the context of a Christian Bible study group I tried to become a part of while I was still very much a newbie in this land.
My Experience of Being Hurt by Church
Before coming to Colombia, I’d built up inside myself a healthy store of fuel to keep my need for meaningful human interaction happily ablaze for a long while – mainly through spending a lot of time with family, but also through some pointed attempts to catch up with friends before leaving the UK. After a couple of months in a strange new land, this fuel began to run low.
The first time I went to this Christian group I mentioned, I remember that they had been friendly and welcoming. I’d left with that need for human interaction inside of me fuelled for just a little bit longer and I was warmed by it. Then, finding myself at the wrong end of clique dynamics of the kind you’d expect to find in High School, things changed.
They once even refused me entrance to one of their Bible studies. Turned away from the front door of the house it was being hosted in, I remember walking home in the dark, confused and hurt but also with something deeper, more painful, more agonising going on inside of me besides.
At the time I couldn’t identify it. Now I look back and realise it was loneliness.
Our Need for Community
They say loneliness is a modern epidemic (check this article). They say that social media has influenced its spread, as well as the rise of single households and fewer face-to-face interactions. During the pandemic, the number of us who’ve experienced it, isolated in our homes, has skyrocketed. For me the experience of moving to a new country where I didn’t know anyone at first, was of course fertile ground for me to catch it too.
Having been there, I now strongly believe that our need for community is as strong as our need for food. When you don’t get it, you feel starved. You don’t feel yourself. I remember looking in the mirror around that time one day and seeing a strange glint in my eye that I’d never seen before – as if of a wild, ravenous animal.
Christian Community: A Double-Edged Sword
The point I’m trying to make by sharing this experience with you, isn’t to criticise any particular Christian group or even Christian groups in general. It’s rather to empathise with you and show you that you’re not the only one who’s been let down by Christians … you’re not the only one to be hurt by church. I’d go so far as to say it’s inevitable – though not remotely excusable. It’s a fact of life as true as human brokenness is a fact of life.
Which also isn’t to say that Christian community is in any way inherently more prone to letting us down than other forms of community. Humans are messy and imperfect everywhere. It can however be more disappointing when our pain has been caused at the hands of Christians because we often expect more from them somehow. As I’ve said many times, bearing that name ‘Christ’ when we call ourselves Christians, isn’t easy – our fall is greater when our innate human brokenness inevitably lets the name down.
Rather, what I hope to share with you, is what I’ve learned about how to respond and make sense of it, when you find yourself disappointed, hurt, perhaps even reeling from an experience with other Christians.
1. When Hurt by Church, Don’t Withdraw from Christian Community Completely
As much as you may wince when I say this, especially if your wounds are still very raw: you can’t cut yourself off from other Christians forever. As the epidemic of loneliness demonstrates, we need community. For Christians we need community with other people in the family of Christ – though that might not necessarily take the form of a formal ‘church’.
Most beautifully, Paul explains this in Ephesians 4:15-16:
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.Ephesians 4:15-16
As Christians, we’re designed to grow together as one in community – just as parts of a body sustain each other and grow together.
Why were we designed for Christian Community?
Because we are designed in the image of God and the God that created us is a relational God. He is made up of three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – and the dance of their interactions with one another is the joyful dance the whole of creation was designed to join along with them.
As difficult as it may be – and definitely don’t try until you’re ready – also don’t deprive yourself of something that, when it’s healthy, can be so deeply fulfilling.
Besides, when you’ve been deeply hurt by church, one of the things you need most is to find the right people to open up to about it.
Whether it’s a Christian close friend, a significant other, or a counsellor; I pray God will lead you to the people you need to speak to in the situation you find yourself in.
2. Remember: Just because You’ve been Hurt by Church doesn’t Mean It’s All Bad
Paul says that as a Christian community, we are made up of brothers and sisters in Christ. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anything as perfectly imperfect as family.
Family members can drive you crazy or just plain mess you up. Check out this poem by Philip Larkin if you want to see what I mean! (Although beware – the language is a little more colourful than some readers of a Christian blog might be comfortable with).
They can also be the most wonderful support network, source of joy and comfort.
That’s what made my experience of church hurt so baffling. How could something I craved so strongly – Christian community – be hurting me so badly?
When hurt by church or family, I think we’re faced with the same problem. The more wonderful something can be when it’s working right, the more damaging it can be when it’s gone wrong.
3. Ask God to Guide You to the Right Christian Community for You
It’s so important for us to find a Christian community that’s right for us and that isn’t, well … toxic.
For me, I definitely persisted too long trying to be part of a Christian community where – no matter how much I tried or what I did – I just wasn’t welcome.
There comes to be a point where you have to prayerfully ask where God is calling you. Where does He want you to be? If you come up against resistance or toxic dynamics that just won’t budge – then you’re probably not there.
Now that I have been fortunate enough to find Christians I can connect with here in Colombia, I’m so glad I stopped trying to make the previous situation work when it clearly just wasn’t meant to be. It would have saved me a lot of heartache if I’d got out sooner!
4. Make Your Relationship with God Your Primary Relationship
For me, I ultimately look back at that time of being hurt by church and where I felt pretty alone as a time where certain primary relationships were deepened. Firstly, with God. Secondly, with the guy who had recently become my boyfriend and is now my husband.
Whilst it might sometimes be healthier to be drawing on more than just two relationships at any one moment, it is good to take stock of your primary relationships from time to time. They are the ones, after all, that you have to depend on when everything else fails.
And the God relationship really is dependable, as you can see in one of my favourite passages of Jeremiah:
“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,Jeremiah 17:7-8.
whose confidence is in him.
8 They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”
If you root yourself in God, no matter what else happens or who lets you down, He will sustain you. Like a tree by a stream, you won’t have any need to be afraid even when disaster strikes (like a drought) and beyond all expectation, you’ll continue to be fruitful.
5. Healing from Church Hurt: Pray for Those Who Hurt You
This is a hard one for anyone who has been hurt by church, but Jesus nevertheless commands it … and with good reason.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,Matthew 5:44.
Why would Jesus ask us to do something so difficult … so plain insulting to our feelings?
Because it’s part of the healing process.
As I discuss in this post, in the section about forgiveness, unforgiveness hurts you more than anyone. It twists you up inside and hinders you from loving as you were made to. Praying for those who hurt you is an important way you can start acting in love again. It’s a way you can say that you won’t let the pain they inflicted you with be the thing that stops you from loving and being loved as God designed you to be.
Prompts for thought
What are your experiences of church hurt? How have you/are you trying to work through the pain caused by it?
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