I’ve been strung along, overworked, and taken advantage of. I’ve disclosed personal information in confidence and then had it shared broadly. I’ve had people sow seeds of doubt and mistrust in my marriage. I’ve been misled, backstabbed, and left to pick up the pieces. I’ve been devalued, ignored, and publicly “made-an-example-of.” I’ve had friendships fall apart and been forced to watch people walk away. And that’s just my church hurt.
Like everyone else around me, I’m damaged goods. No one gets through life without pain, a couple of rough edges that take concentrated effort to smooth out. The son of a pastor, living life under the steeple since before I was born, I’ve got more church hurt than you can shake a Bible at. If you’ve been let down, damaged, or dragged along by the people of Jesus, I’m sorry. You aren’t alone. Here’s the good news: it is possible to heal from your church hurt and still hold onto your faith. This is how I managed to do just that.
A quick word, because it’s warranted: no two church hurts are created equal. I’ve experienced lots of emotional turmoil, but I don’t have scars from physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a religious leader. What I’ll say from this point forward is only my personal experience. It’s not meant to be prescriptive; it is meant to give you hope. Hurt doesn’t have to get the last word. Walking toward healing can be a brutal process, but hear it from someone who’s been where you are: it’s worth it.
As unbelievable as it may sound, my church hurt has actually served to deepen my faith, not upend it.
I understand how rare that is—and for good reason. Among the traumas, church hurt attacks on two fronts. First and foremost, it misinforms and distorts our image of God. The Bible describes God as a good father, who lovingly cares for His children (Psalm 68:5, Isaiah 64:8). He’s also described as a good king, who hears the cry of the oppressed and mistreated, bringing out justice on their behalf (Isaiah 30:18, Romans 12:19).
So when what we experience from men and women who represent Him feels contrary to those descriptions, it undoubtedly influences how we see God Himself. But make no mistake—no matter what you’ve experienced, God is for you. He loves you. He has plans for you. He sings over you and wants to bring you into a new place with Him. Even when those religious leaders and institutions who represent Him well do so poorly. He’s better, kinder, gentler, and more loving than we can even understand. He is not the source of pain you’re feeling—but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The other danger of church hurt? It corrupts our relationship with other believers. Rather than a building with a steeple, the Bible describes “church” as the misfit collection of imperfect followers of Jesus. No matter how far the Church falls, it’s an inescapable truth that we need it. The Bible describes it as Jesus’ body (Colossians 1:18), His bride (Ephesians 5:25-27), and the very place where God dwells (Ephesians 2:19-22). It’s designed to be a place of unity and diversity (1 Corinthians 12:13), a community of commitment and radical generosity (Acts 2:42-45), and a weapon against the very power of hell itself (Matthew 16:18). Too often, though, the Church we experience falls far short of those biblical ideals, and at its worst, can wreak havoc unlike anything else.
What then? How do you walk through hurt or trauma experienced at the hands of other believers? Looking back at my own journey, one I’ve walked for nearly ten years, I’ve noticed six mile-markers. I didn’t set off on this journey knowing I’d pass them all, but each one has pushed me forward. My prayer is they help point you in a direction that ultimately ends in a larger, more vibrant faith—one like Jesus’ who, it should be noted, didn’t fare too well among the religious leaders of His day either.
They say the first step of any journey is the hardest. I honestly think that’s crap. The first step is still covering ground you’re familiar with. What’s difficult about that? It’s not until you leave the Shire, or Tatooine, or The Dursleys, that the going gets tough.
For me, the Church was familiar ground. I had been taught to trust the people there. I believed they all had pure motivations. I understood that, while not perfect, the people who make up Christ’s body were dang near close. (To be honest, that’s still mostly true. I’ve met more amazing, giving, self-sacrificing, genuine people there than anywhere else. It’s not even close.) That being said, my healing journey couldn’t begin until I admitted I needed one…specifically that I had been hurt by Christians I’d trusted.
I had to learn a lesson that my toddlers instinctively know—when you’re hurt, it’s OK to feel. I didn’t understand that. I thought that by suffering in silence, ignoring my own pain, disappointment and regret, I was somehow doing “the Christian thing.”
That’s utterly ridiculous.
Jesus wasn’t a stoic, and you weren’t created to be one either. He cried when His friend died (John 11:35). He felt exhausted from the demands of ministry (Matthew 14:13). He got frustrated at other’s lack of faith (Matthew 17:14-17). He felt compassion for the helplessness of people (Matthew 9:36). He got angry at religious leaders who impeded, rather than encouraged, the faith of others (Matthew 21:12-13).
If you’ve been hurt, you can’t heal until you own it, until you feel it. That being said, there are better ways to handle this than others. Processing on social media? Bad idea. Processing with a trusted friend or counselor? Better idea. Publically dragging the names of those who hurt you through the mud? Bad idea. Safely expressing (maybe even to them) the hurt you’re feeling? Better idea.
Christians love to trot out the story of Jesus flipping tables in the temple (I even referenced it above). But we miss a key point: table flipping was the Messiah’s last resort, not His first. For (at least) three years prior to this, Jesus had private conversations with Pharisees (John 3), genuinely answered their questions (John 9:10-13), and challenged their teachings without attempting to destroy them (Matthew 15:10-14).
As the Pharisees turn on Jesus, and their true colors come to light, then Jesus’ words grow in sharpness (Matthew 23). The table-flipping incident sticks in our consciousness precisely because it feels out of character for Jesus, not because that was His M.O. That’s the point. As he prepares to go to the cross, Jesus’ action in the temple fulfills an ancient prophecy and sets the groundwork for the sacrifice that is about to follow. It’s precisely because He was not content for humans to be the gatekeepers to God that He would pick up His cross—and those flipping tables showed it.(1)
When you’re hurt, even if it’s by good people, the first mile-marker in healing is feeling it. Get angry if you need to. Have a good cry. Scream at the sky. Tell a trusted friend. Journal about it. Create some expressive art. Go camping for a weekend. Just don’t ignore it.
My journey toward healing picked up speed when I began to understand that church hurt really is a misnomer. It wasn’t the Church that had deeply hurt me. In fact, it was only a very small (if not powerful and vocal) minority. The church that I attended at the time had about 2,000 people in attendance on a weekend. My hurt was connected to, if I’m being generous, about six staff members. So my church hurt wasn’t really church hurt at all. It was Steve-hurt… it was Rick-hurt… it was Dave-hurt and James-hurt… but it wasn’t really church hurt. (Names changed to protect the guilty, obviously.)
This reorientation was incredibly important for me because it gave me hope to hold on. Last week, while in the middle of cutting my grass, the handle on my lawnmower split on one side. Yes, it was frustrating—and, yes, like a dad, I did just duct tape it back together. That afternoon, it wasn’t a lawnmower problem that was causing me headaches. The blades still spun, the wheels still turned, the ignition crank still did its job. The problem was specifically with one weak spot on the right side, where the handle attaches to the body of the mower. It was church people who broke my trust, questioned my marriage, and eroded my confidence… but it wasn’t the Church.
Healing requires specifics, while hurt grows in generalities. So let’s get specific. Let’s call it what it is. Someone (or a group of people) from a specific church community hurt you… but it’s unlikely it was the entire local community… but even if it was, it wasn’t the other community across town, or the worldwide collection of believers known as the Church.
You’d never junk your entire car just because you got a flat tire. Instead, you’d address the broken spot, get help if you needed it, and jump back on the road.
In my journey, finding the bravery to be specific about the source of my pain allowed me to hang onto the baby while draining the dirty bathwater.
Reorientation allowed me to hang onto the Church, but there was still the question of the people who’d broken my trust. After exhausting conversations, we reached an impasse. To continue healing, I needed some space. Continuing in my same pre-hurt patterns was no longer a wise option, as it would routinely put me in positions for further hurt. To say it more clearly, after being burned, I needed to take my hand off the stovetop. So I did.
For me, this looked like remaining a part of my larger church community but getting involved at a different site of that church in a neighboring town. The separation gave me the space I needed to heal without having to completely give up the community I was invested in. I understand, not everyone has that option. Realignment, for you, might be joining a different small group; changing the church community you are a part of; or taking a break from corporate worship for a little while (I did that too). To be clear, what it never means, though, is isolation. Alone with your pain is a dangerous place to be.
A bruise that keeps getting aggravated will never heal. On your journey of healing, space is a gift. Looking back on it now, I see just how fundamental it was for me—the distance gave me a chance to catch my breath, and paved the way for the big f-word that came next: forgiveness. But space had to come first.
Someone once told me, “You’re not a martyr if you go looking for it.” It’s true. Suffering, merely for the sake of suffering, doesn’t lead to holiness. It leads to more hurt. So stop walking on glass. If you want to heal, make the move to realign your life, and give yourself the gift of space to grieve, process, and grow. Just make sure you don’t do it alone.
Having grown up in church, I knew all about forgiveness. But this was going to be different. This attack was deeply personal. I felt betrayed by the very people I’d thought supported me the most. Worst of all, they were coworkers and leaders in the church I’d dedicated years of my life to.
My realignment gave me space to slow down, leave crisis mode behind, and stop reacting. It was then that I began to remember what I already knew.
I remembered that Jesus never treated any of His followers this way. That He loved me and my family to the point of dying—and he loved the people who hurt me the same way. I remembered His anger at religious leaders who did more damage than good. I remembered his tears when He saw the pain of people He loved. I remembered God’s promises to make all things right in the end. I remembered that my confidence and worth was never designed to come from other people, but solely from the One who created me, who knew me best.
It felt good to remember those truths. To lick my wounds and let God patch me up. But there was a challenge in it, too because I also remembered how important forgiveness is. Jesus taught His followers to pray, “Forgive us as we forgive others.” I’d been forgiven much, and if I was truly giving all things to God, the same would be required of me.
The Greek word for forgiveness in the New Testament is aphemi. It’s a miraculous word. It means letting go or leaving behind. It’s used for “forgiveness” in the teachings of Jesus, but it’s also used in the same books to indicate “moving on.” When Jesus called His first disciples, a group of fishermen, to follow Him, the Bible says they aphemied their nets and aphemied their boats (Matthew 4:20, 22). They left them behind and moved on to something better.
Just like those first disciples abandoned their ownership of nets and boats, God was waiting for me to do likewise. To stop letting my hurt define me and remember that that had always been His job. To stop owning my desire for punishment and retribution and remember that God isn’t just a loving father. He’s a righteous judge. To stop allowing the situation to dominate every thought, every conversation, every moment of my days, and get back to the art of living.
We toss around the phrase “forgive and forget,” but that’s not what I experienced. I needed to “forgive and remember.” Forgive the hurt, and remember the ancient faith I claimed to belong to. Remembering the forgiveness I had received empowered me to give it to those who hurt me. Remembering the identity God had given me loosened my grip on the identity hurt tried to force on me. Remembering the promise of God’s justice and healing meant I didn’t have to figure that out and could move on.
Aphemi is hard. For me, it didn’t happen all at once. It was a choice I had to intentionally make every day until it became a rhythm, a discipline. Even with the space I found for myself, I was still in the orbit of the people who hurt me. But I knew aphemi was growing in me when I could be courteous instead of silent. Then it grew into a warmth beyond courtesy. Then it grew into genuine care about their well-being that wasn’t influenced by the damage they’d done. That’s not something that I grew inside myself. It was God, watering the seeds of aphemi through remembering.
Of the handful of people who hurt me, only one ever apologized. Good thing an apology isn’t necessary for aphemi. That’s because forgiveness is about what I choose to hold onto. Forgiveness doesn’t mean what the other person did wasn’t painful. Forgiveness doesn’t mean there are no consequences (that situation certainly changed relationships and levels of trust). Forgiveness doesn’t mean things have to go back to the way they were before. What it means is that I choose to move on, to drop the ownership, and remember.
By engaging in forgiveness, I had to put into practice the teachings of Jesus. Every time your faith moves out of your head and into your hands, you will grow. God promises to use everything for the good of those who love Him—even church hurt (Romans 8:28).
As with any pain, the temptation after healing occurs is to cut and run. As we already discussed, distance and space will likely be a part of the journey. But there will come a time to return to the Church. It will require bravery, boldness, and trust. And it will be worth it.
I’ve since discovered that my healing journey, and I’m betting yours too, wasn’t intended just for me. There was a wider audience, a deeper good, and a more transcendent ending than I could have ever imagined. But I had to get back into the game to find it.
Unbelievably, ten years after some of my deepest pain came at the hands of church leadership, I’m now working for one. I’ve had multiple opportunities to share my story, to encourage others to work through the pain instead of giving up, to construct a life that looks like Jesus’ instead of throwing in the towel.
I get it. It’s tempting to give up on the Church. Since that initial scarring, I’ve had other hurts connected to it, and I’m certain I’ll have more in the future. But it doesn’t take away the fact that Jesus loved the Church, gave Himself up for it, and continues to fight for it.
Like the wandering wife in the book of Hosea, Christ keeps chasing down His bride, correcting her and bringing her back home. As much as I’ve wanted to give up on her in the past, I can’t permanently disconnect myself from the love of Christ’s life, the temple where He chooses to dwell to this day (Ephesians 2:20-22).
Healing might require you to step away from a church community—perhaps for a while, or perhaps for that specific community, permanently—but not returning to any faith community robs that community of its most precious resource: a more refined, wiser, and experienced you.
Church hurt was unlike any other pain I’ve experienced in my life. There’s no timeline, no six-step process to guarantee full healing and recovery. In fact, even writing about this has drudged up emotions I’d long thought had left me. What’s that show? There’s even more healing to be found. It’s a further opportunity to trust God, remember His promises, and lean into obedience.
There was a time that healing felt impossible. But I’ve found this promise of scripture to be true:
After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
- 1 Peter 5:10
As you engage your own healing journey, I’m praying you feel the presence of a God who doesn’t leave you afloat in your pain but is actively working toward your restoration. Find a way to take a step in that direction, and I believe you just might meet Him in the process.
(1) I’m running with the timeline from the Gospel of Matthew, which has Jesus going buck wild at the temple near the end of his ministry years. To be fair, the Gospel of John records a similar event in chapter 2. Maybe Jesus flipped tables twice? Maybe John moved it to the beginning of the story to illustrate the type of ministry Jesus was going to have? Either way, Jesus flipped a lot less tables than the average Christian mean-tweets.
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...
What’s your story with the church been like? Be honest about the good and the ugly.
What stood out to you most about this article? Noticing what strikes you can be the beginning of hearing from God. Lean into it. See where it goes.
Which of the steps Caleb lists feel like the right one for you? Which one feels the scariest?
How can you take one step towards healing this week? Re-read 1 Peter 5:10 this week as often as you need to help give you the courage to make it happen.
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