On Healing from Hurt in the Church

All of us have been hurt before.

We’ve been hurt because we are imperfect people interacting with other imperfect people in the world. Sometimes those hurts come from a family member; a parent, sibling or relative. Sometimes they come from our friends; those people we shared life with over the years. Other times our hurts come from the Church; the spiritual leaders we entrusted to teach us what it means to live and love like Jesus.

This is my third and final post in this series dealing with hurt in the church. You can find the first two posts here and here.

So how should you respond to those hurts, especially when they come from our trusted church leaders?

First, it’s important to try to gain some perspective. Remind yourself the person who hurt you is just that: a person. They are more than their offence. While it may seem unconscionable, having empathy for those who hurt us can help. When we give the person who hurt us back their wholeness and humanity, it is easier to have empathy for them.

It can help remind us the person may not have meant to hurt us. The hurt is very real and still needs to be dealt with, but more often than not, the person who caused you pain didn’t set out to hurt you and they may not have even realized their actions caused you pain in the first place. Realizing the person may not have had malicious intent is a good first step in healing.

This happened to me once. A few years ago while going through a painful divorce, I ended up grabbing coffee with a friend who is also a pastor. We didn’t get together in order to talk about my divorce but he was aware of my situation. During the course of our time together he made a couple comments about how great his marriage was. He said he didn’t understand why people think marriage is hard; he and his wife rarely, if ever, fight.

His comments were extremely hurtful since I was literally in the middle of watching my own marriage fall apart. However, I doubt he was intentionally trying to hurt me or compare our marriages. I don’t think he was trying to make himself feel better by point out my own marital failings. He was simply caught up in feeling love for his wife and wanted to express that. He should have been more sensitive to my situation and avoided comparing our marriages, but his intention wasn’t to hurt me.

Trying to understand where the other person is coming from or what they’re going through can help us to heal some of the hurts we experience.

However, there are other times when the hurts Church leaders cause are intentional. Maybe the person who hurt you is insecure and belittles others to feel better about themselves. Maybe they grew up feeling guilty about everything and that’s the only way they know to motivate others.

Unfortunately, hurt people hurt people. It’s so easy when we’re hurt and wounded ourselves to lash out and cause damage to the people around us. More than likely the person who hurt you is reacting to their own pain. This doesn’t make it right, of course. Leaders in the Church should be the first ones to acknowledge our brokenness and take steps to heal. However, just because leaders should do that doesn’t mean that’s the reality. Often times the hurt you’ve experienced is a direct result of the pain someone else has experienced.

I think this is at least part of why Jesus, during his crucifixion, could say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The Roman soldiers understood what they were doing in the sense that they knew they were slowly torturing someone to death. But I’m not sure they understood the ramifications of their actions in the first place. What kind of life experiences do you need to have in order to feel nothing while you slowly watch someone die in front of you?

Hurt people hurt people. We are all damaged people going through life interacting with other damaged people. This invariably results in hurt and pain for us and those around us.

 

However, while empathy can go a long way to helping us heal, the truth is we need to learn to forgive. Forgiveness is the only way to truly move past the hurts we have experienced in life.

Some people say that time heals all wounds, but honestly, that’s not true. Time can dull the pain. It can make your memories surrounding a painful event fuzzy, but the emotion will still be there. You might forget the actual words or actions that were said and done, but how that person made you feel will likely remain.

No, the truth is, we can’t just wait it out. We can’t hide our pain away and hope that, given enough time, we will simply move on. We need to deal with it. We need to forgive.

Forgiveness does not mean that you pretend the hurt never happened or that you try to minimize it. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you try to rationalize why the person acted as they did. True forgiveness requires an offence. In order to forgive someone, there needs to be a transgression in the first place.

Instead, forgiveness is an acknowledgement of the wrongdoing and a willful decision to erase the debt.

Often times, the Bible speaks of forgiveness in financial terms, like when Jesus, in the Lord’s Prayer, says, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The implication is that wrongdoing (the hurt and pain the Bible calls ‘sin’) creates a debt between two people.

Forgiveness isn’t about realizing there was never any debt in the first place. Forgiveness is deciding to take the loss. In forgiveness, you decide to rip up the mental IOU you’ve been carrying around with you.

The unfortunate reality is that the Church or Church leader who hurt you probably isn’t thinking about you. They probably don’t think they did anything wrong and they’ve moved on with their life. They aren’t lying awake at night wondering why you stopped attending their church. In which case, the only person who is currently affected by your lack of forgiveness is you.

I know for me personally, I’ve spent way too much time fixated on the people who have hurt me. I’ve replayed the events in my head; what they said, what I said, what I should have said, how I felt, how I want them to feel, and on and on it goes.

Walter Brueggemann once wrote, “Obsession with the apparent success of evil opponents is unproductive and can be debilitating.”

How true this has been in my own life. Obsession with the apparent success of those who have hurt me has been debilitating at times; all I could think about is what they have done to me and how I wanted to see them experience the same level of hurt they caused me.

Let’s be clear: you should forgive, not for the benefit of the person who hurt you as much as for your own benefit. You’re the one suffering because of the hurt done, not them. The guilty party will potentially benefit from a reconciled relationship, but the point of forgiveness is to help you move on from the hurt you have experienced.

(As an aside, I should mention you do not ‘owe’ anyone forgiveness. In fact, that’s the whole point of forgiveness in the first place; it’s unmerited kindness. If anyone, especially a Church leader tells you that you need to forgive them because the Bible tells you to, that is spiritual abuse and I talked about that in the second post on Hurt in the Church.)

Forgiveness means that you actively refuse to bring up the offence anymore. It means tearing up the mental IOU you’ve been carrying around and trusting that God will deal with them.

And by “deal with them” I don’t mean that God will smite them. I mean you can trust that our good and loving God will continue to act in their life. He will continue to lead them and guide them, calling them to a life of love and holiness. They may not listen, but that’s between them and God. You don’t necessarily need to be God’s hands and feet in that situation. You can trust that God will continue to grow and teach them just like he’s doing for all of us.

But forgiveness is hard. And I don’t mean that it’s difficult to accomplish. It can actually be  really easy to forgive. Rather, the choice to forgive is hard. Choosing to forgive someone for what they did to you can be extremely challenging.

I think for many of us, we don’t want to forgive people because we don’t want to feel like they got off with what they did. We want to hold them accountable for their actions. And if we forgive them, we feel like we’re giving them a free pass.

But really, the only reason we can do this—the only reason we can forgive others—is because of Jesus. In his death, Jesus took all the sin and debt of the world upon himself. This wasn’t because God is angry at us and needs justice. This is because us humans constantly seek repayment. Jesus came not to pacify an angry God but to pacify hurt and angry people.

Every wrongdoing I want retribution for, Jesus has taken. Which means I don’t need to get my pound of flesh from someone else. I can find repayment in him. I can go to him for comfort and healing. In this sense, Jesus is like a wealthy benefactor. Every debt someone owes me, I can go to him for repayment rather than trying to extract it from the person in question.

Forgiveness can be easy. Making the decision to forgive is the toughest thing you’ll ever do. But once you’ve made that decision, the action itself isn’t really that difficult. You just stop expecting repayment. You go to Jesus for your repayment.

You will be tempted overtime to rewrite the IOU. You’ll be tempted to bring up the offence again. But every time that temptation comes up, remind yourself that you’ve forgiven them. That you’ve made a conscious decision of the will to no longer hold your debt against them. Eventually, your emotions will follow suit.

The only way to truly heal from past hurts is to forgive the person who hurt you. Refuse to bring up the offence. Cancel the debt. The person who hurt you has moved on, which means the only person you’re hurting by choosing not to forgive is yourself.

 

In addition to empathy and forgiveness, prayer can be a powerful tool in your healing process. I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to stay angry at someone if I’m praying for them. And by prayer, I don’t mean the kind of prayer where you wish bad things upon that person.

I mean genuine prayer where you ask God to bless that person, teach them and make them more like Jesus. Spend time praying that God’s will would be done in their life. Pray without an agenda and just ask God to give that person his best.

 

Finally, beyond empathy, forgiveness, and prayer, keep searching for another church home. We were designed for community and relationships. It’s difficult to follow Jesus well on your own.

I know when you’ve been hurt, it’s easy to become cynical. It’s easy to believe that everyone and everything will treat you the way your old community did. But there are others who will welcome you and encourage you and challenge you to become more like Jesus. Keep searching until you’ve found that community.

And that means taking responsibility for the search. People probably won’t come to you and offer you community (I believe the Church of Jesus should be inviting people in, but that’s a post for another time). You need to be looking for it. Find a church you can pour yourself into and make it the kind of community you want it to be.

Finding a new church home where you feel you belong will go a long way to helping you heal from the hurt you’ve experienced in the Church.

 

All of us have been hurt by those people closest to us. The temptation when we experience pain is to retreat, lash out, grow cynical and jaded, or give up entirely. None of those things affects the people who hurt us but instead simply hurt us more.

For our own sake, we need to learn to heal from the hurts the Church has caused us. And that healing will require empathy, forgiveness, prayer, and new communities who will love us and point us towards a better understanding of Jesus.

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