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When Church Hurts

This morning, coffee in hand and curled up with my journal, I was talking with God about all that has been heavy on my heart. I have heard from another hiding in the shadows who has been hurt by a church or ministry . As I write, documentaries about some prominent churches and ministries are airing about all that has gone wrong and the damage left behind. Both on a societal level and a personal level, I have seen many grapple with the current church culture, hurts experienced and where God is in it all. There have been both public and private failings and all kinds of hard experiences.

While I do not join the chorus of those calling for 'deconstruction,' I do know when church becomes painful, it can shake the very foundation of your faith. The shattering is deep and goes to your very core. Sometimes the shattering is slow, long and drawn out. You feel sucked dry and wonder why. Other times there is an event or an explosion of sorts that causes deep pain. Along with the shaking, there is a disorientation and with the pain, often some faulty foundations are exposed. The ones who have not experienced it are often the ones who believe the others are 'just weak or fragile.' Saying, "Church is messy" or "The Church is full of messy people," does nothing to heal a heart that has been devastated by the mess. Sometimes the mess hurts and destroys. I have seen strong people shatter. I also know that God can heal, but not everyone does heal.

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I have struggled with whether to share any part of my story at all. This is not my whole story, but only pieces I am choosing to share. I share because I know there are some with shattered hearts reading in the shadows wondering if they will ever heal and if God still sees them or cares. I can assure you, He does. For me, the shattering has brought a deeper faith and a truer picture of God. The road has been long with a lot of inner work and a lot of sitting in the quiet place, but I have found Him to be so much better than I had hoped. He's kept His promise that "Those who hope in Him will not be disappointed" (1 Peter 2:6) I have been disappointed at times, but not ultimately disappointed. For me, the treasure I have found in the shattering is worth my very life. 

When John and I married, we were in love with each other and in love with God. We loved the Church and planned on going into ministry. In fact, before we married I distinctly remember telling John, "Don't be one of those guys who says he's going to go into ministry and then doesn't." Please remember I was only twenty-two. My forty-six year old self knows not to say things like that. He was interning at a large church and we had just graduated from the school the church had started. We had mentors, friends and people we loved in both places.  Life was good and the future was bright, but then everything crashed and the lights went out.

The church and school split and leaders we trusted pitted their loyal students and congregation against each other. Leaders we had trusted were suddenly enemies and each claimed they were on 'God's side.' There was a lot of fear surrounding going to the 'wrong' side and a lot of the fear was instigated by the leaders. There had been a steady dose of fire and brimstone teaching for many years, so there was an unhealthy fear of God and of doing the wrong thing. Friendships fractured, marriages crumbled and people walked away from God. Words about 'staying under authority' were often proclaimed, but when you are a young adult, that can be confusing when both sides are claiming authority. I have a different view of authority now than I did then.  

I wish I would have known then to not disregard my own heart. When we are taught that the heart is evil and to be leery of it, we lose the capability to make wise decisions. Our redeemed heart often carries wisdom from God and it should not be ignored but explored. (Proverbs 4:23; Psalm 51:10; 2 Corinthians 4:16; 2 Corinthians 5:17; 2 Corinthians 3:3)

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John and I found ourselves on opposite sides of the split. Our fledgling marriage that had been so full of joy in the early months turned sour and it became impossible to talk about God or to God. Every voice we had listened to, we could no longer trust. Together, we desperately wrote letters to different ministry leaders throughout the United States asking for wisdom. Some were unhelpful and increased our fear, some were neutral and the only good advice we got was to move and not be involved in either place. We didn't because we were too scared.

Eventually we did move back and found safety in the church I had grown up in, or so we thought.

I would like to say that was the end of our difficult church experiences, but a couple of years later we experienced more church hurt. This time the pain was deeper because the relationships were deeper. The grief surpassed even burying our stillborn daughter. With our daughter, people surrounded us and I had a sense that God was taking care of us, but in this we were alone. If not physically alone, emotionally alone. The pain was taboo and an elephant to be danced around.

To be with others while in pain is hard, but to be alone in pain is unbearable. Sometimes it is easy to confuse God's thoughts about us with people's thoughts about us. People who have not experienced it cannot quite understand it. This can also make it very difficult to connect with God. You wonder if perhaps He has rejected you too. I wish I would have understood that God is not influenced by man's opinions and man's opinions usually are not God's. He's not influenced by my opinions of others either.

During that season, I remember standing in my kitchen, devastated. Suddenly, there was a shadow that moved across the whole room and God brought to mind Psalm 91:4 "He will cover you with His feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge, his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart." This gave me the courage that I was held in the midst of the shattering. If you find yourself in a shattered space, know you are held by the One who knows you best and loves you most. 

At the time, I didn't know the importance of processing the pain and instead tried to run right past it. I knew where I wanted to land, but didn't understand there was a process to get there. I was more the glue-myself-back-together kind of person but I carried the shards in my heart and they continued to cut deeply. Infection began to spread in the deep places. Shame did its work causing me to close off deep places to God and even myself. I spent a lot of time with Him, but part of me was hiding. It began to affect everything. Fear of rejection began to infiltrate interactions with people. I skipped right over processing my anger to 'forgiveness' and would chastise myself when recurring feelings of anger or hurt would come. We settled into a new church and I once again began to work very hard. I enjoyed it and loved being active in our church.

My body was not fooled though. No amount of activity could heal the deeper shattered places in my heart. Ten years later, my body knew what my soul was carrying and I started to experience panic attacks and depression. I had tried to be strong but I wasn't THAT strong. I was confused about the state I was in.

My inner world was wrapped in shame and part of me was hiding even from myself. I spent a lot of time with God, but I still held a badly distorted view of Him that would only change through healing. The healing eventually came as I continued to sit with Him and let Him help me learn to trust Him a little bit at time. The first thing He did was ask me to stop doing so much. My life was so cluttered, I didn't have space to heal. In this season,  I told Him I felt like tangled up necklaces and I didn't even know which end to pull. He assured me that it was okay because HE did and even the darkness was not dark to Him and the night is as light as day (Psalm 139:12) This has proven to be one of the most comforting verses I know. 

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Even recently, in my time with God, he brought another layer of healing from that hard season now over twenty years ago.  In my time with Him, God named what I had experienced. I realized we had experienced spiritual trauma and abuse. The abuse we experienced was more systemic than personal, but all spiritual abuse is damaging. Spiritual abuse is a misuse and abuse of power that is connected to spiritual authority. In spiritual abuse, two tools are primarily used to maintain power and control - fear and shame.  Listen or read transcript "Defining Spiritual Abuse" by Dan Allender here God never does this. Man does.

It's so helpful when God, either through Himself or another, helps us to name our hurt because it's a lot easier to forgive something concrete than a vague feeling. I find God often heals in layers and over time. I had always been ashamed of the spiritual abuse I had experienced and for my naivety that allowed it to happen. I wondered how I could not see because it is so obvious to me now. God healed that shame in me.

Sometimes we get hurt by a person, but other times there is a system or a culture that is harmful. God showed me that I had gone looking for intimacy with Him, but man had stepped into that space and essentially stolen intimacy in His name. This is what can so easily happen when a leader or system is looking for power or a need to be filled in themselves. Sometimes, like the Pharisees, they load people down with rules and regulations that God never asked for and are not their place to enforce. They can end up using people for their own needs. These leaders tend to get angry easily, dislike feedback and are willing to trample those under foot who do not align perfectly with what they say. It's their reputation, 'the ministry', and ego that is more important than the people. Sometimes they set themselves up as god and believe they have the authority to speak for God into the lives of others. They surround themselves with 'yes' men and discard the ones who question. They use spiritual language and often relegate those who question them as 'siding with the enemy' and tend to love having power over others. It's usually all cloaked in spiritual language which is why it is so hard to see. It's the same story over and over again in many churches and ministries both big and small. This is not true of all churches; only unhealthy ones.

*When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse by Chuck DeGroat is an excellent read. Buy Book Here

Healthy leaders, though not perfect, are growing in the fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness and gentleness are all good indicators a leader is healthy. 

I am so grateful for those in the Church who have helped with our healing. There are the ones who have cried with us, listened to us and helped us see the beautiful side of Church. They have helped us understand that just as a body can malfunction or be ravaged by disease, this does not mean that all bodies are unhealthy ones. There are healthy ones where people truly love one another and root for each other. Obviously, no church is perfect, but there are churches where people care for one another and are growing in love. We have seen this so beautifully in our current church. Healing has come more fully within community. Healing I didn't know I still needed over twenty years later.

*Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church by Philip Yancey is a very helpful book and encouraging book. Buy Book Here

I do not think most leaders are ill-intentioned, but any place we have an identity tethered to something other than Jesus is a place we are vulnerable to using others for our own gain and to fulfill our own needs. We often do this unknowingly even to those we love the most. Our closest families and relationships suffer because of this very thing. This is where we hurt each other so deeply. We sometimes use others to protect our ego. In church situations, this can be even more harmful because what is said is wrapped in spiritual sounding statements. Fear and control are closely related and usually co-exist. The kindest thing we can do for those we love is work through our own fears with God. Spiritual leaders have the capacity to cause much harm when their identity is not rooted in God because so many trust them. 

It's hard to explain the deep pain that comes with spiritual trauma. Very deep places get shattered, but God knows how to break through our acquired wrong views of Him and heal even the most shattered places in us.

My heart bleeds for the shattered. I pray that God would restore and reveal His deep love that quiets all fears. This is why I write.  My heart is for the shattered who are hiding in the shadows. I know what it feels like and I have seen firsthand the healing He can do. Most of my writing comes from my continued healing. It is there I have found and am finding how deeply God loves us.

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It's no secret that God likes to come for the people at the bottom. It seems His favorite place to go is to the places where people are hiding in the dark. He comes for the broken, the bleeding and the bruised (Matthew 12:20). It is here you find that some of the things that were held so tightly were not Him at all but poor substitutes for who He really is. Every broken and bleeding place is under His tender care and His perfect love casts out our fear (I John 4:18). He doesn't turn His back on the ones in the shadows, but goes looking (Psalm 63:7). Not one opinion man has of another has the power to alter God's view.

We are deeply loved and fully known (Psalm 139:1). THIS is the place where God wants us to live from. This is the starting place for transformation because only the places we allow to be seen can be healed. First, we have to know that God does not look at us with disdain but with open arms. He takes every shattered place in us and holds it tenderly longing to make it whole again. If this is you, I pray you know you are not alone, but held in the strong arms of Jesus.

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If you find yourself with a shattered faith, don't stop looking for Him. He promises that those of us who seek Him WILL find Him (Jeremiah 29:13). 

If you find yourself in a place with shattered faith:

1. Give yourself space to be with God

Taking time to sit with God is really important. This is where you stop the noise so that you can heal. Depending on the nature of what happened, different practices can be helpful. Silence, reading Scripture, listening to worship, reading books that walk through healing, counseling, walking in nature, art and journaling to God are just a few ways people have found to be healing. Depending on the nature of the pain, some practices may be very difficult or not helpful in certain seasons, but be gentle with yourself. God is gentle with you. He loves to meet us where we're at. Sometimes all we can do is sit and that is enough. 

2. Do not isolate

The easiest thing to do in these seasons is to isolate. Oftentimes the shame causes us to want to go into hiding instead of connect with people. Make sure to connect with a trusted friend or two regularly. Seek out counseling if necessary; oftentimes it will be.

3. Let yourself feel the negative emotions

There will be anger and emotions. Bring it all to God and ask Him to tell you His thoughts. The negative emotions can actually point to what is wrong and if processed with God, can actually make it easier to eventually forgive. God desires to take the pain from us. We often can't forgive because unforgiveness is what is protecting us, but God wants to be our protector instead. Only as we are able to trust Him to be our protector can we begin to let go of the 'protection' of unforgiveness.  A parent's job is to take a child's chaotic emotions, help them sort and package it for them in a way that makes the emotions less overwhelming. God does this with us too. He helps us to name what is wrong and give Him our pain. I do this by sitting with an open journal and process by both writing and listening. God often asks me questions that help me process.

4. Give yourself time

Healing takes time and often comes in layers. Do not berate yourself for 'not trusting God' etc. In my experience, God helped me trust Him bit by bit and the more I trusted Him, the more I was able to let go of my self-protective barriers. He invited me to grow in trust. Growth is the goal and the path to transformation and healing. Healing always takes time.

5. Find good voices to listen to

There are all kinds of voices in our lives. Some of them are helpful, but many of them are not. It's a good time to surround yourself with trusted voices and those who have walked with God a long time. I 'listened' to a lot of helpful voices through reading. Dallas Willard, John Eldredge, John Ortberg, Philip Yancey, Curt Thompson, Tyler Staton and many others have 'mentored' me through my disappointments and disillusionments. They have helped me to stay grounded, hopeful and find God in the shadows.

Dallas Willard's Divine Conspiracy   Buy Book Here has been instrumental in my walk with God. A GREAT book about the hard parts of the faith is After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing It by AJ Swaboda. Buy Book Here