We’ve all seen the headlines. We’ve heard the horrible things done to people in the name of God. Some of you have lived those very ugly experiences. How could I possibly say the church deserves forgiveness? To be honest, I considered emailing the folks at Rethink Church three different times to say, “Maybe I’m not the right person for this blog post.”
The church and I have a...strained relationship. For the first 28 years of my life, I was bent on following the rules and doing my very best to live up to the sometimes unrealistic expectations of some church people. But inside, I was dying, and I felt as if I couldn’t reveal my pain.
In church we hear, “Come just as you are,” but (mostly) implicitly, they teach that external choices and behaviors matter more than anything else. I was a part of the kind of sterilized religion practiced by some churches, which does more to push people away than to “draw all men” to Jesus. I was a pastor when I nearly died by suicide, because I had bought into the lie of performance-based Christianity and I hated myself for constantly falling below my own self-righteous standards.
In many cases, we have created a culture of Christianity so obsessed with clean rules and dogma that real people – with real struggles and real pain and real mess – are scared to enter our sanitized sanctuaries, lay down their burdens, and rest.
The sad reality is some hurting people are hiding in our pews. And many don’t dare even enter a church. Either way, among us is pain and suffering, shame and secrets. And in the midst of all the mess, I believe there is great potential to build a community Jesus would be proud of: where the redeemed recognize they are still ragamuffins, and the outcasts feel at home, where we encourage one another, support one another, and look for the best in each person we encounter.
It is heartbreaking to hear stories of people who have been pushed away because church people view them as just too messy. I don’t know if Christians can become so “religious” they leave behind the gospel message of love of God and neighbor in the dust and truly forget what it’s like to struggle, or if they just don’t want to deal with the drama. Either way, it can make for an unwelcoming community.
So what do we do? I believe, if the church is ever truly going to become the hope for the world that Jesus offered in his ministry, it starts with forgiveness. I have been angry with the church for many years. People, including me, have been shunned, pushed away, and marginalized. Too often those seeking comfort and solace have been wounded in the name of God, and that is wrong at so many levels.
The mission of the church is to create more space at the table for God’s children, not make them feel like unwelcome party crashers. We should do our part, in love, to help the church understand that hurting people aren’t looking for a particular style of worship or a spate of programs and classes. They are just looking for a place where their shame and pain can be accepted, and their lives restored to wholeness, through the light and unconditional love of Jesus as shown by a community of Jesus followers.
I’ve been wronged by religion on more than one occasion. In my brokenness, I have been outraged. I have scars left by those experiences. Instead of allowing the shepherd of my soul to heal me, for so long, I smeared my pain on the church’s steeple and dared it to question my response.
And I am not alone.
But after ten years, I have begun to meditate over past hurts and reconsider my response to the church today.
Two years ago, I secretly drove over to my childhood home, a tiny house in rural Alabama. I parked in the chert rock driveway and spotted the notice of foreclosure sign taped to the front window. As I stood next to the pink crepe myrtle in the side yard, words wouldn’t come. Thirty years before, I had stood there, as a tiny preschooler, and was sexually abused by our neighbor.
I broke apart that day in the side yard. I broke into shattered pieces like so many of God’s people do. It took time and a lot of work, but now I’m thankful to say that I have foreclosed on that victimhood. Bad things happened, but I don’t have to live inside the identity of a person who was wronged forever. Healing can come.
That day I shed my tears, got back in the car, and drove away from the scene of that long-ago crime. I am now learning to do the same with church hurts. It takes time to get to the place where we can accept that moving forward is not saying nothing bad happened. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what the other person, or the church, did was okay. We forgive so that pain won’t define our lives. Many people have been hurt by the church, either by action or by inaction. People pursuing God have been ignored, harmed, or pushed away. Yes, what happened to me was wrong. But setting up camp and dwelling on these wrongs only compounds the problem. If we don’t forgive, we allow the pain to continue.
I have decided I want to live as one who acknowledges the pain of being done wrong, who has the courage to return and call my pain what it was, an act of violence and violation, and then can pick up and move on. I am determined that my children will not know me as a bitter former churchgoer. I hope they will know me as a vulnerable man who has learned the importance of boundaries and who is willing to keep loving, just as Jesus did to those who mocked him, abused him, and watched him die on the cross. And yet, he forgave them. Love won.
Forgiveness isn’t easy. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Forgiveness is a marathon, not a sprint. We take it one day, one act of love at a time. If we believe that there is value in joining with a community of like-minded people, on a journey towards Jesus, then we must choose love over bitterness.
I often write about being broken yet faithful. And the reality is that the church is made up of those who are broken yet seeking to be faithful. We are all people needing grace, seeking safety and acceptance. I am thankful that grace extends to me as well as to people sitting in the pews around me and on up to the preacher. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life blaming the Church for not doing more. I want to be defined by more than the kid who was once broken in the side yard of the one place every child should be safe – at home. If Church is our spiritual home, then everyone should feel safe there.
Have you felt cast aside by a congregation from your past? Have you been hurt by church leaders? Do you, too, long to be defined by more than just your pain? Will you start today, by taking a step toward forgiving the church? That doesn’t mean you have to return to the scene of the crime and act as if nothing ever happened, but would you be willing to look for a new, safe place to rest your head and heart? Or would you consider reaching out to the folks here at Rethink Church via social media?
Steve Austin is one of the hosts of CXMH: A Podcast at the Intersection of Christianity and Mental Health. He’s also the author of the best-seller, From Pastor to a Psych Ward. Steve blogs regularly at iamsteveaustin.net and he lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, Lindsey, and their two kids.