One of our greatest joys in life is to belong to a church community. But because we are imperfect people, sometimes we unintentionally cause pain to each other. How can we help people heal from a traumatic experience within the church community?
“Why am I still here if I’m being neglected? They always ignore me.”
“The people I look up to are the same people who hurt me.”
“People who’ve sworn to love me tend to hurt me a lot. I think I’ve had enough!”
Have you heard these words before? These may be the words of someone who experienced church trauma.
It may seem like an oxymoron. How is it possible for a Christ-centered community to hurt somebody?
I never believed that church trauma was possible until I experienced it myself. Pain and shame were my constant companions; insecurity and anxiety held me in their clutches. I became afraid to speak up. I felt like I was not enough and I didn’t belong. My trust in people was broken.
Yes, church trauma can happen and it can come from a series of unaddressed wounds through the years.
Two things are usually at play when someone experiences church trauma:
Yet God’s design for church community is beautiful. It’s meant to be a source of great joy for those who are part of it and a channel of blessing to the communities touched by it. Part of its blessing to the world is the experience of forgiveness and reconciliation—that despite our imperfections which lead to breaks in our relationships, our experience with God’s unconditional love and unlimited forgiveness can lead to a beautiful testimony of healing and restoration.
So what do you do when someone opens up about an offense, a hurt, or a traumatic experience with church community?
When someone is hurt and offended, they need a listening ear and an open heart. They need to know that we want to hear their side without any judgment. We should also recognize that they may not need solutions or offers to facilitate reconciliation from us. They just need someone to listen and to show care.
Hurt and offense come from a pain point in the person’s life. It may not be about the one who caused the hurt, but the offender may be a reminder of a painful experience in the past. God desires that wound to be brought to the light so that healing can happen. As you listen to their story, pray for wisdom from the Holy Spirit if you need to say or do anything.
The enemy may intend for the hurt to bring division, but God can accomplish His purpose in a person’s life even in the most painful moments. There are always two possible responses to offense: allow the root of bitterness to grow or look to Jesus Christ. It is only when we respond in the latter can we be free from the bitter root that destroys our relationships. We can’t choose for a hurting friend, but we can point them back to the gospel.
Overcoming church trauma is only possible by looking to Jesus Christ.
He experienced a massive wound. He was wounded by His own people and betrayed by His closest friends, the people He called to follow Him, those He healed, delivered, and provided for, those He called brothers and sisters. At the lowest point of His life, they ran away. Even Peter, one of His closest friends, who swore to protect Him to the end, denied Him three times.
Yet Jesus prayed for them and forgave them, and He endured the cross because of the joy that was set before Him, paving the way for our reconciliation with the Father and for His redemption of the world through the church. The enemy intended to harm Him, but God intended it for good to accomplish a greater mission.
. . . looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross . . .
Jesus Christ knows our pain and hurt. He is not a passive onlooker. In our lowest moments, He stays. Because of what He has done on the cross, we have victory over sin and death—including offense, unforgiveness, and bitterness.
Jesus loves both the offended and the offender, because He loves the Church. He called the Church His bride. In His grace and love, Jesus chose to stay and die for each of our sins. His grace is sufficient in our weakness, in our worst.
It’s okay to feel hurt, but it is only the Holy Spirit that can bring true healing. Remember that grieving for that wound or pain is normal. However, when we choose to follow the pain and live with bitterness, we’ll miss out on the fullness of relationships He has gifted us with.
Pointing others to Jesus Christ is only possible through relationships that are centered on Him. Invite your friend back to relational discipleship—a safe space where they can express their pain and wounds and be continually pointed back to God and His word, where they can find unconditional love, acceptance, and healing.
Discipleship is more than just a mandate. It is a lifetime of following Christ and communing with others who follow Him. It is through discipleship that we— the Church — reflect God’s character to the world, imperfect as each of us are.
There will be conflicts in every relationship. It’s a guarantee. A lot of times, there will be disappointment and miscommunication, but we must let the relationship win.
The Church is full of broken people whose only hope for wholeness is in Jesus Christ. Relational discipleship helps us move an inch closer to a future hope without pain and suffering.
Relationships are complicated and can sometimes get messy, but it’s possible to overcome the pain and hurt we cause each other only by the grace of God.
It may be hard to forget the offense or overcome relational breaks, but the good news is freedom from the pain, the shame, and the bitterness can be found in Christ.
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