A few months ago I was with some writer friends and we were talking about church ministry, since most of us are involved in it in some way. One of my friends said, “I don’t understand how anyone can say they love Jesus, but they don’t love the church. Jesus said the church was his bride, so that’s like someone meeting me and saying, ‘I like you a lot, but I don’t like your wife at all.’ How is that possible?”
I suppose it’s possible for as many reasons are there are people who’ve said that. But, to carry my friend’s analogy a step further, if I didn’t like his wife, it would probably be because of something she had done to hurt me. Following the example of Christ, I could forgive her, but if she wasn’t repentant, or if she KEPT hurting me, I might retreat completely.
So yes, in one sense I see how people can say that they love Jesus but don’t like the church.
Consider Ephesians 5:25ff: 25 . . . Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word.He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault.
One day the Church will be perfect, mature and complete, but until then, the Church (speaking of the body of believers throughout the world) is composed of redeemed humans who are at different places in their journey toward spiritual maturity. So we (myself included) fail. We misinterpret Scripture. We plan our own plans and assume that because lightning didn’t strike from heaven to stop us, God must surely approve. 🙂
And until we are reunited with Christ and clothed with His perfection, we are likely to hurt each other. So . . . what to do about it?
The biblical answer is clear: practice biblical communication. Matthew 18:15ff: “If another believer[a] sins against you,[b] go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If he will not listen to them, tell the trouble to the church. If he does not listen to the church, think of him as a person who is as bad as one who does not know God and a person who gathers taxes.”
Who said God doesn’t have a sense of humor? The tax collectors of Jesus’ day had as bad a reputation as that of the IRS . 🙂 (And if you’re employed by the IRS, I’M ONLY KIDDING.)
Biblical communication sounds so simple, but in reality, few people practice it. Many would prefer to quietly nurse their wound in private. Others think they shouldn’t speak because they wouldn’t be heard. Still others think they aren’t “allowed” to approach a pastor about an issue with which they disagree. And yes, communication can become complicated when authorities and hierarchies are involved.
Well, you know what? Not even the pope is infallible. We are humans, and too often our sinful selves get in the way.
A few years ago another Christian writer accused me and my publisher of stealing material from her book–apparently not believing that I had used the same historical sources to document a biblical story. I truthfully told my publisher’s lawyer that I’d never ever read any of this person’s books, plus the book she claimed we stole from hadn’t yet been published! Still, she mounted a legal case, and that case dangled over my head for about 18 months. Things were finally settled only a day or two after I went through a brain-numbing deposition. (Note: if you answer anything wrong in a deposition, even by accident, the other side can claim you’re a liar. So when asked things like, “What year did you publish Afton of Margate Castle?” I had to reply, “I’m not sure” because after more than 100 books, who can remember stuff like that? I’m sure I sounded like a dunce.)
Anyway–the case was settled (a fact that caused me to rail before God, feeling that we should have gone to court and been vindicated), and afterward I told my lawyer that I wanted to write my accuser a letter. “It’s biblical communication,” I said. “She should have written me before any of this even happened so I could explain what sources I used, but now I want to write her and tell her that one day we’ll stand before God and she’ll hear Him say that I didn’t steal from her book.”
“You can’t do that,” the lawyer told me. “If you even slip and say something like, ‘I’m sorry it came to this,’ they can grab those two words and say you were apologizing for plagiarism.”
So I still haven’t written her. But I should. and maybe I will, since it’s the right thing to do. I will tell her how she hurt and distressed me, and how I wish she’d written me personally instead of running to a lawyer. I will wait for her response because personally, I don’t want to cringe whenever I hear her name mentioned. If she apologizes, I will have regained my sister in Christ. If not, I will quietly keep cringing.
Several times in my life I’ve had folks come up and say that I offended them by doing this or that, and usually I was completely unaware of whatever I did. They did the right thing by coming to me, and when this happens I always apologize for being thickheaded and hurting them in my ignorance, glibness, aloofness, fill in the blank. But they did the right thing, because they have cleared their conscience and once again we have “clean slates” with each other. They don’t cringe when they hear my name.
But saying “I’m sorry” sometimes isn’t enough. The Grandest Baby watches Sophia the First (a Disney show) every day. One day I was eavesdropping on the storyline: Sophia had bragged to some friends about being chosen to sing in front of the kingdom, and the magic amulet she wears (I think of it as the Holy Spirit) had disciplined her so that every time she talked, she croaked like a frog. She finally realized what she’d done, so she went to her friends and apologized for bragging–but then she stood to sing and she was STILL croaking. Then one of the Disney princesses magically appeared (Disney never misses a marketing opportunity) and told Sophia that saying sorry wasn’t enough–she had to make things right. So Sophia gave up her role and let her friends sing the anthem, and her throat was healed.
Restitution–making things right, or restoration–is definitely a biblical principle, going back as far as the Old Testament. If you break your neighbor’s ax, you get him a new one. If you spread a false rumor, you have to go to everyone you talked to and correct the falsehood. If a newspaper makes an error, they issue a retraction. If you take a privilege away from your child in error, you reinstate the privilege.
(I served on a jury once, and the man on trial had knifed someone and stolen his money. We didn’t want to send the young man to prison; we wanted him to pay his victim’s hospital bills and repay the money he’d stolen. But the judge told us the law didn’t work like that–which is really too bad. Maybe we could solve some criminal justice problems if it did.)
In my research, I read an article written by a pastor who had called on a woman who’d stopped coming to church. He asked what was wrong, she hemmed and hawed, and finally she said that she’d been hurt during a meeting about a spaghetti dinner. She’d led the group and they’d planned the dinner, but at the next meeting a woman named Margaret breezed in and changed everything. The first woman felt belittled and shut down, so she hadn’t been to church since.
“Let’s get together with Margaret,” the pastor said. “Let’s talk this through and clear the air.”
“Oh, no.” The woman shook her head. “I don’t want to raise a fuss and cause trouble.”
But speaking the truth in love is not causing trouble. It’s biblical communication, and it’s what should be practiced between church members, church leaders and members, and church leaders with each other. But too often people complain to one pastor, who hands it off to another pastor who has nothing not do with the situation, while the “offending” pastor continues on, unable to take care of an offense he didn’t know about. Unable to clear the air–or learn from his mistake. No one benefits from that kind of communication.
Back to our story about the women. The pastor got Margaret and his inactive member together, the aggrieved woman told her story, and Margaret was surprised. “My husband says I can be overbearing,” she said. “I guess I was, and I’m so sorry.” [Source: Doug Self, “Strategies for Ministering to Inactives”, in Mastering Pastoral Care, Mastering Ministry, 69-81 (Portland, OR; Carol Stream, IL: Multnomah Press, 1990). ]
Sometimes we assume a hurt on behalf of others–if someone hurts my husband or one of my children, I hurt, too, because a family is a body, no matter how far removed from one another. The church is supposed to be a body, too, and as my pastor said in his Sunday sermon, “There is no hurt like family hurt. There is no hurt like being hurt in a church situation.”
When biblical communication isn’t practiced–when people don’t speak, or they speak and no one listens–wounds do not get better, they fester. Which is why biblical communication, honesty, and speaking the truth in love is of paramount importance.
Confronting someone who has hurt you is uncomfortable. I don’t know anyone (except maybe a masochist) who relishes the prospect of it. But if we are to heal our wounds and live with each other in peace, we are to practice it. Just remember this–don’t write the pastor if a deacon offended you. Go to the deacon. Don’t complain to the youth pastor if the nursery worker hurt your feelings. Go to the person with whom you have a problem. And if you are the pastor or youth pastor who receives a complaint about someone else, send the complaint back with instructions to go speak to the one who has offended them.
Tomorrow: The doctrine of God’s sovereignty teaches us that even our wounds are part of his plan. Something to ponder.
But for today, take a moment to think about the scars on your heart. Maybe it’s time to pick up a pen or the phone and contact the person who’s wronged you. That’s your responsibility. The other party is responsible for their response, and if they are sensitive to the Spirit, they should be willing to explain or make things right. Then you will regain a brother or sister, and that’s the way it should be.
I’ll write my letter if you’ll write yours. Deal?
Before I go, I want to leave you with a great story and illustration I found in my research. It’s good advice, but even this pastor seems to miss the importance of going to the one who hurt you. He is quick to go to his wife when he is the offender, but why doesn’t he visit the man or woman who hurt him? Seems to me that people would appreciate knowing that their pastor is not “above” being hurt–that he has feelings like everyone else. And knowing that the pastor will take the time to gently confront a gossip or rumor-monger might actually help stop gossip and rumor-mongering. 🙂
Here’s the story:
The same principles are at work in healing from painful ministry wounds. Unfortunately, when I am wounded in ministry, I never have the luxury of going behind the lines to get well. Every other day seems like Sunday. People need counseling, and problems need solving. Couples keep falling in love and wanting to get married, and somebody always seems to be dying. Failing marriages need strengthening, and angry people need soothing. Bible classes need teaching. Elders need presentations. I find it impossible to call a halt every time I need to lick my wounds and heal my hurts.
The only option, besides bailing out of ministry, is to process the hurt and anger while still serving others in ministry. I’ve developed a model for healing when I am unable to withdraw to lick my wounds:
First, I find someone safe who knows how to comfort. Few things are more frustrating than to pour out my heart to someone who does not know how to comfort. I find bringing emotions and feelings to the surface difficult. I want to know that the people to whom I reveal my pain will not look at me blankly and wonder what to say, so that I wish I had never said anything. When I mourn with people who do not know how to comfort, I suffer a double hurt: I feel bad because I suffer the deep-seated hurts all over again, and I hurt because the pain I brought up does not go away. I need people who know how to put their arms around me and weep when I weep—as well as rejoice when I rejoice. Of course, the process must be reciprocated if the relationship is to flourish.
It takes time to cultivate safe, trustworthy relationships, but the investment must be made if the hurts are to be healed. The only two females I open up to are my wife and a spiritual woman in our congregation who is old enough to be my mother. The other five are men.
Second, I identify hurt and anger as soon as possible. When I feel angry, I analyze where I have been disappointed or hurt. A hurt lurks behind every anger. I want to process my hurts before they get buried. When painful hurts arise in my mind, I try to pause to process them, trying to feel their hurt. I find it useful to sit quietly and pray for God to bring to mind those long ago, unhealed hurts that lie just below the surface of my subconscious.
Third, I mourn the hurts and allow my comforter to comfort. Crying and expressing verbally how much I hurt used to be hard for me—especially in front of someone. However, since I have been working to do this, mourning like Jesus recommended feels too good, and accomplishes too much, to keep my hurt and anger bottled up inside.
Sometimes when I am wounded I call my next-door neighbor, Pete, and invite myself over. We sit in his living room while I pour out how I feel and what went through my mind when someone hurt me with their words; I reveal what I wanted to say but did not. Pete is a sensitive Christian man who knows how to comfort.
Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Like many pastors, I find it hard to receive. I have learned how to give, because giving is a built-in necessity of ministry. However, I have to work at receiving. It feels awkward to ask someone to listen to my hurts and comfort me so I can heal. However, no one has ever refused. People seem honored to be asked. So I receive the comfort and thank them for it, and praise God for the healing process.
Fourth, I close the loop through confession and forgiveness. I learned about the importance of this when I was young, foolish, and newly married. I labored in my first full-time pastorate for three years without a day off. I had a church to build and people to reach. One Monday Julie suggested we take an overnight trip to Phoenix, about one hundred miles north of Tucson. I told her that if I worked hard I could get my sermon done early, and we could depart by noon on Friday. So the trip was planned and the hotel reservation made for our much-needed mini-vacation.
At 11:45 a.m. on Friday, my phone rang. Kyle, one of my deacons, had heard that Julie and I were driving to Phoenix. The repair shop had just called to tell him that his car, which had broken down in Phoenix the previous weekend, was ready to be picked up.“Could you give me a ride to Phoenix?” he asked. “The repair shop is near the interstate.”
I had no choice: How would it look for the pastor to refuse aid to a deacon in distress?
I picked up the phone and called Julie: “I’ll be home and ready to go at noon. Oh, by the way, Kyle called and needs a ride to Phoenix to pick up his car. You don’t mind, do you?” The silence was deafening. Click. She hung up on me.
I hurried home, loaded the suitcases into the trunk, and opened the front passenger door for Julie. She refused to get in. She opened the back door and slid into the seat, as I said, “Oh no, Julie, Kyle can ride in the back. He’ll understand.”
“No. He can sit in the front with you.”
Julie cried all the way to Phoenix. I know, because I kept looking in the rearview mirror. She never spoke to Kyle or to me. In fact, she hardly said a word the entire trip. Late Saturday afternoon, back in Tucson, I opened the trunk to unload our suitcases and said the only thing that seemed appropriate. “Look, if you want a divorce, it’s all right with me.”
She looked me hard in the eye and replied, “Divorce is not an option. We will work this out.”
Realizing I had hurt her, I apologized profusely. She told me she forgave me and not to worry about it. Deep inside I knew she still hurt, but I had no idea of the depth of her hurt.
Over the years I brought up the Phoenix trip several times: “I don’t feel like we really settled that issue. Will you forgive me for what I did that weekend? Please?”
She said on every occasion, “Yes, I forgive you.” But I knew the wound was not healed.
My perspective was that Julie had about a “quart-sized bottle’s worth” of pain. So I showed up occasionally and asked for about a quart-sized bottle’s worth of forgiveness. Unfortunately, she was carrying about a ten-gallon tub of hurt. It was hard for Julie to forgive a lot of hurt when I was asking for only a little bit of forgiveness.
One day I said to Julie, “Sweetheart, I really want to talk about the hurt and pain of our trip to Phoenix. I want you to take however long you need to tell me about your feelings of hurt, betrayal, rejection, sadness, fear, and aloneness. I want to hear how badly I hurt you.”
It was like I gave her a gun and said, “Shoot me.”
So she did.
“I felt deeply betrayed,” she began. “I feared for what our future would be like. I wondered if you really did love me at all. I was terrified I would spend the rest of my marriage in loneliness. I felt so neglected. I tried to imagine what I had done to deserve such rejection.”
The more she shared her pain, the more I understood how deeply I had hurt her. Then I began to cry as I felt for the first time the agony I had put her through. Finally, I asked one more time, “I am so sorry, will you forgive me?”
For the first time, I made a request for forgiveness based upon a true understanding of her pain. Through tears, Julie said, “Yes, I forgive you.” The hurt was healed. I have never again felt the need to ask her forgiveness for the Phoenix trip.
A ten-gallon tub of hurt requires a ten-gallon tub of understanding and forgiveness. Source: Roger Barrier and David L. Goetz, Listening to the Voice of God, The Pastor’s Soul Series, 132-39 (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1998).
Great illustration, huh? We’ll talk more tomorrow.