By Cortni Marrazzo, Crosswalk.com
It’s become an all-too-common topic of conversation: “I used to go to church, but I had a really bad experience, and I haven’t gone back since.” Painful church experiences, which can range from misunderstandings to intentional abuse, are very real and unfortunately becoming more prevalent.
If you are struggling with emotional pain and heartache resulting from negative experiences in a church, I want to first say how sorry I am for what you are going through and acknowledge the depth of pain this can cause.
I have personally shed many tears over experiences like this in my own life and I have watched many others walk through the same struggles. It breaks my heart, and it breaks God’s heart even more.
The fact that such deep emotional pain and heartache can come from a place that is meant to help facilitate God’s healing and restoration is evidence of the broken world we live in and Satan’s opposition to God’s plan. Unfortunately, this opposition is nothing new, as it was religious leaders after all that beat and crucified Jesus.
So, if you are struggling with pain and heartbreak from the actions of a church leader or fellow church member, it’s helpful to remember that you are not alone. Jesus can identify with your struggle and wants to help you heal.
While you can’t erase the memory of what you went through, you can choose to not let it hold you back. You can receive healing and you can once again experience the blessings of being a part of a healthy church family.
The enemy wants you to stay stuck in your pain and give up on church, but God wants to bring you restoration and healing.
Here are some ways you can put yourself in a position to receive the emotional healing God wants to bring to your life.
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1. Know Your Feelings Are Valid, and Forgive with God’s Strength
One of the biggest things you can do on your journey of healing is to choose to forgive. In the midst of raw emotional pain, this does not come naturally to us as humans and therefore it can be very overwhelming.
The first step to being able to forgive is knowing that your feelings are totally valid.
If your church hurt you through legalism, hypocrisy, betraying your trust, or any other reason—this was never God’s plan. His heart breaks with yours that his Body would cause you any harm.
But you don’t have to hold onto this pain. It is a supernatural thing to be able to let your pain go. And thankfully, God wants and expects us to rely on Him for help.
“And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Mark 11:25
Notice in this verse that Jesus encourages forgiveness within the context of prayer. If there was ever a way for us to be open to receive God’s strength to forgive when our flesh doesn’t want to, it’s when we are in communion with God through prayer. And we can be assured that He will answer and deliver when we pray for this and believe (vs. 24).
If you are struggling with forgiveness, pray for God to help you forgive. When we express the desire to do what He asks us to do, He will give us the ability to walk it out. Choosing to forgive is an opportunity to be like Christ and positively influence those around you.
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2. Guard against Bitterness
It’s been said that unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die, and bitterness is a poison that can physically kill you. Not only can bitterness escalate conflict and add to your emotional pain, but medical studies have also shown that unresolved anger can cause serious health issues such as a weakened immune system, damaged lung capacity, and coronary heart disease.
Choosing to meditate on the anger you feel, gossiping to other church members about what happened to you, or wishing ill on those who hurt you are all evidence of bitterness.
On the flip side, talking to a professional counselor about your experience, refusing to partake in slander against those who hurt you, and praying for God’s help in rejecting bitterness are all things that will move you forward in your healing.
It's all about perspective. Not being bitter doesn't mean what happened to you was okay. It wasn't. But bitterness, like any root, grows. You can stop it from growing by focusing on God's goodness, God's provision, and God's safety, rather than on those who harmed you. Keep this scripture in mind to guard your thoughts: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Philippians 4:8).
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3. Seek Compassion
Bless those who persecute you [who cause you harm or hardship]; bless and do not curse [them]. Romans 12:14 AMP
Extending compassion to those who hurt you starts with praying for them, which can help you step down from your defenses and enable you to look at the situation in a different light. If you have been hurt by a church leader, consider the fact that the majority of people who enter vocational ministry do so because they love people and want to help them.
Are church leaders perfect? No. Can they do things that hurt people? Yes. They are humans and subject to sin like we all are, but they also deserve compassion as we all do.
A few years ago, my husband and I found ourselves navigating some health issues with our son while simultaneously both working in ministry leadership positions. During this season we struggled with trying to balance what felt like competing demands for our attention. As we hunkered down and turned most of our focus to our family during this time, we could have unintentionally hurt people in doing so, but I’m so thankful for the many people who gave my family grace during that time.
Looking past the surface and acknowledging the potential struggle or pain behind the actions of others can help you extend compassion to those who hurt you.
Think of times where you hurt others because you were in survival mode and could not meet others' needs, or when you were just having an extra rough day and snapped at someone. This doesn't excuse your hurt, and it doesn't mean that they don't need to repent of their hurtful patterns. But it does put it into context and allow you to see the people who hurt you as human--just like you.
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4. Look Within
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! Psalm 139:23-24
When dealing with a conflict or an emotionally charged situation, it’s human nature to assume that we are 100% in the right and the other party is 100% wrong, but that usually isn’t the case. The majority of the time we have a part to play in the conflicts we are in, even if it’s a small percentage. Regardless of the amount, we can still grow and learn from the situation if we choose to and doing so will help facilitate healing.
When you choose to step back from your anger to think and pray about the situation, it allows you to evaluate your actions and reactions. If you are open, God can illuminate any actions that didn't honor Him or added to or escalated the conflict. This is not to say you deserved to be mistreated or hurt, but rather that God can use that difficult circumstance to help you grow to be more like Him.
Honestly evaluating your role in a situation enables you to also explore emotionally painful events in your past that may have never fully healed. If your current emotional pain seems overwhelming and impossible to get through, it may be coming from a place of rejection or abuse from your past that is still affecting you.
God not only wants to heal the emotional pain you are struggling now but He also wants to heal the pain and heartaches from your past that still ache deep within your soul.
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5. Seek Peace
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Romans 12:18
Conflict and hurt almost always result in strained relationships, which can add to emotional pain. Seeking peace with the person who hurt you could be another step on your healing journey.
If you can, attempting to meet with the person to calmly talk about the situation can be very helpful.
While it’s possible that the person may not want to meet with you or may become defensive in the conversation, that doesn’t mean you need to match their demeanor. It takes both parties to see full resolution and reconciliation and unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.
But you can do your part to make the effort and leave it in God’s hands from there.
If it is not possible to seek reconciliation because the person is no longer around or if it’s not safe or wise for you to be around them, you can still seek peace with yourself and with God in the situation.
Forgiveness is an imperative, but reconciliation is not, because you can only do what you can do.
But, you can resolve to heal and not hold on to the hurt anymore by giving it to God and letting Him do His healing work in your heart.
And don’t give up hope. God is still working in their heart and even if it’s years later that reconciliation can happen, it will still be a joyous occasion. Keep praying for the parties who caused you pain, and keep the door open to God doing amazing things.
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6. Don’t Give Up on Church
Some of my most difficult struggles have come from being hurt by people or situations that occurred within a church, yet, despite this, I am extremely passionate about the local church and the community within it.
Throughout my involvement in church ministry over the past twenty years I have seen and experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly, but overwhelmingly I have seen the good far outweigh the bad as I have experienced the immense blessing of being a part of a local body of believers.
My heart breaks when I see people give up on church and miss out on the growth and life-changing relationships they could experience by being a part of a healthy church.
If you are not currently attending or part of a church right now, I encourage you to pray about your future church involvement and ask God how and where He wants to direct you. If you are still part of the church that hurt you and you sense that He is leading you to stay planted there, then He will give you peace in your heart about it and the ability to work through the things you experienced.
If you don’t have peace about returning to your former church because it feels unsafe, or if you are not currently part of any church right now, God will be faithful to lead you to a healthy church and help you continue on your healing journey there.
The most important thing is that you seek Him and remain open to how and where He wants to guide you and He will be faithful to continue to work out the healing in your heart.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:24-25
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