Does Our Church Heal or Harm? God’s Love, Part 3

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Yesterday was my birthday. Today feels like a day to say some things I’ve been holding back.

My friend Tim and I talked yesterday about how many people are hurt and wounded and damaged and traumatized by the church that follows Jesus Christ.

I can’t tell you how sick this makes me. I haven’t words to express that sufficiently.

But I’m certainly going to try.

I’m supposed to be bipolar, alcoholic, or both. Those were my genetic predisposition. I have anger issues and unforgiveness. Then there’s the depression. My cards were stacked heavily against my doing well. I’m smart but emotionally oriented in the world (ENFP) and so wildly skilled at sabotaging myself I should teach classes, or perhaps become a consultant. If only there were money in that.

But yesterday, as has become tradition (if something 15 years can properly be called “tradition”), I got outpouring of greetings and affirmation that come with a birthday on social media. I laughingly wonder if I could have a normal person’s self-esteem, if only I received that level of attention and encouragement every day. Probably not. I’d still hear criticisms louder than affirmations. <eye roll> But for today, I’m feeling clear on who I am and what I’ve done in the world, and for whom.

I should be a profoundly broken, damage-inflicting human being. Those were the odds for me, if Vegas had picked me up as a bet. Instead, I bring light and healing into the world. I called two of “my” young adults yesterday. They were happy to hear from me. They’re doing great. In my small way, I helped them to be doing great.

Know how I got here? Jesus healed me.

What wholeness and light and life I have and bring, Jesus gave me and gives me.

That’s how this works. Broken, small, wounded, hateful, hardened people meet Jesus and grow. Heal. Change. Jesus restores and redeems and transforms.

So what, in the holy and healing name of Jesus Christ, can we be doing wounding people in church?

My standard answer to this has always been “Well, the church is the gathered sinners, so of course we do bad things when we’re gathered together.” I know that’s true and accurate, but I’m sick of that answer. And I’m sickened by the results. I’m sickened by #ChurchToo–not by the courageous women and men speaking up, but by the horrific acts that made us need this movement–and I’m sick to death of Christians looking away from abusers when they find them “profitable.” Profitable due to their political power, financial giving, or their charisma. That’s called “making a deal with the devil.” It’s buying into Satan’s temptations in the desert, letting the end justify the means, which never, ever applies to following Jesus. “Where your heart is, there also your treasure is.”

Every day, every freaking day, churches cover up for pastors who sexually abuse parishioners. Each day, abuse victims are told by pastors and elders that they caused their own violation. They “tempted” the abuser, they dressed provocatively or in some other way caused their own harm.

I’m not Southern Baptist. I’m not Roman Catholic. I’m not pretending this happens only in their churches. And sexual abuse is only one form of the abuse that churches commit and cover up.

If 200 of you read this, then 50 of you know a woman being abused in some relationship right now. Just in case you thought we were talking about “those people.” Abusers more frequently target females. But we need to remember that males and transgender people also get abused in churches.

I’m going to give you my thoughts on how we address this as Jesus followers. If what I say offends you, I’m fine with hearing your counterpoint, but I ask this of you: care more about stopping abuse and fighting for the abused than about arguing with me. Other people who read this may be able to help someone with this information, so your attempt to rebuke or shut me down had better be pretty amazing, both to help abused people and shut me up.

God is not angry at people. God is not angry at people. God is not outraged at sin and feeling a need to punish and hurt sinners. Not the God I know. Not the Jesus who healed me. Do you get that? Angry God Theology contributes to abuse culture. God did not lash out at Jesus to punish him for the sins of humanity, as if they are separate entities. God, in Jesus Christ, took our sins upon God’s self. God is Trinity, so God both sent Jesus and came as Jesus, not one or the other.

Does God punish sin? Sin punishes us. We are not punished for our sins but by our sins. Does God hate sin? Yes, God hates seeing us being hurt, the same way you hate seeing your child hurt. NO, check that, more than you hate seeing your child hurt, as much more as God’s love is greater than our love.

God designed us and forbids sin because, in our design, sin damages us. God doesn’t have to punish us for hating; hating damages us, hardens our hearts, shrinks us, diminishes us, steals our joy. The punishment for sin is in the design. There’s no “getting away with it.” I can’t get away with resting my hand on a hot stove, no matter how sneaky I am nor how well I can justify my actions. The hot surface will burn my hand. Sin hurts us. Always.

Implication: we need to know what sin is and what sin is not and we need to stop talking as if God is angry at sinners, especially at those sinners, meaning the ones whose sins we don’t struggle with, the ones that the church often treats as especially unwelcome.

Abused women are shamed and threatened and manipulated to stay in their abusive relationships by being told that they deserve it, that this is what love looks like, that if they would behave better it wouldn’t happen to them. Holy Lord God, forgive us for talking the same way to women about their relationship with you!

God doesn’t love you by punishing you. Yes, I know, Hebrews 12, “God disciplines those he loves.” God disciplines us by not covering us from all consequences of our sins (stop and consider, for a moment, how many of your prayers for yourself were for God to prevent the consequences of your own sin). “Endure hardship as discipline.” Here again, God is not doling out a caning with his favorite beating stick. Understanding that we suffer and struggle and that God is with us in this and teaching us through it–including what part we may have played in inflicting the damage, which is maybe none and maybe more than we want to admit–that is enduring hardship as discipline.

Discipline is inherent to being a disciple, but Jesus doesn’t beat his disciples. Jesus leads us away from self-inflicted harm. We do also suffer for the Gospel, for following Jesus, but that harm comes from those who hate and strike out against the love offered to them, or for giving up comforts and taking risks to reach those who don’t yet know God loves them. Jesus never beats his disciples and God does not beat Jesus. God-in-Jesus-Christ took on the torture inflicted by hateful, racist men acting on the orders of hateful, proud, blind religious leaders. Jesus asked for forgiveness even for them.

To be clear, I have not changed the subject. I’m still talking about how the church must stop harming instead of healing We need a healthy theology rooted in God’s love for hurting, damaged people, not in “God’s rage at those who offend him.”

Beth Moore, an extremely popular and respected leader in the Southern Baptist church, recently and courageously called attention to one contributing factor–and symptom–of abuse within her church/denomination:

“Women who are being abused by the system itself, or within it by people that are in places of power, don’t even have a female to turn to,” she contended. “They don’t even know where to go.”

She explained that she means specifically “visible areas of leadership.”

Women should be in leadership at every level of the church. Women should be in leadership precisely commensurate with the gifts, abilities, and calling they have to lead. Period.

I don’t care if your theology doesn’t agree with that–No, I take that back. If your theology does not agree with advocating for women to lead, then go back to your church and figure out how to show women which women to whom they can turn when they are abused. I say “when” because it’s happening now in all our churches.

For those of us who believe women should lead, advocate for women in leadership. Affirm women’s callings. That’s a concrete way to combat abuse. When women who are called and qualified step into visible positions of leadership, other women who are abused will have a better chance to “know where to go.”

Now I’m going to tell you that I’ve experienced a woman who wanted to blame the victim of a sexual abuse situation and protect the violator. And yes, there are those who make false accusations of abuse. To deny an epidemic because of these statistical anomalies (two percent according to RAINN, whereas sixty percent of sexual assault goes unreported) goes beyond irrational into something far scarier and more evil. Therefore,

BELIEVE VICTIMS.

Three out of five victims of sexual assault do not report the violence because they are shamed, traumatized, and don’t think they will be believed. Historically, they’re right. For our churches to become safe places, places of healing and not places that inflict and cover up abuse, we have to believe those who found the courage to speak up. We have to convey beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are neither responsible nor guilty for being violated. If you have to choose between standing with the victim and staying in the church, I guarantee Jesus is walking with the one who got abused. And just to be clear, I communicate every day with people who have suffered such abuses and have been thrown out of church for being abused and trying to report it. Don’t imagine for a moment any of this is hypothetical.

I know this is a hard message. I know it’s tempting to close our eyes or turn our heads, especially if the abuse has not impacted us personally, directly. But it has. We are the Body of Jesus. That temptation is a big part of how we got here in the first place. Any message on the love of God rings hollow and mocking to women and men being abused by people who get to claim they speak for God.

This is how we communicate God’s love: we make the church a place that heals, not harms.

I would love to hear from you, either publicly or privately, if you have a personal response to this. If you’ve survived abuse, inside or outside of the church, I’m so grateful you’re still with us and I admire your untold courage. You are mighty just to be here.

5 thoughts on “Does Our Church Heal or Harm? God’s Love, Part 3

  1. Rick

    Mike, Thanks for your Gospel message today. I really enjoyed it. Not sure how this sits with you and curious about your thoughts. I have to insert “evangelical center” or “religious institution” or sometimes another word in place of the word “church” as I read. I identify with Jesus better and His people (His Bride) when I do this. I completely hear your heart; it is the heart of Jesus. I am thankful that He loves His Bride and took our place on the Cross. With that said, I would love your Spirit gifting as a filter to my word interchange. I am not disregarding the word “church” I just feel more peaceful with a different definition as I read His Word. Not sure, yet, our American English language is using it in the correct way. But, I want to learn.
    Thanks for your continued voice as a counterpoint melody in His choir. It is a beautiful sound. To His ear it is harmonic and pleasing with the rest of His children singing also.
    Best,
    -rick
    PS – Happy earthly bday.

  2. Private

    My daughter was molested by the popular college group leader of our church when she was ten and spending the night with his daughter. She didn’t tell until she couldn’t bring herself to ride up to church camp with him.
    The church didn’t believe her. Other “Christian” families shunned her. It was too disruptive to their lives and belief systems. He was too much a part of the church and our family was easier to cut out and say she was a liar looking for attention.
    I wonder how our lives would have been different if we’d stayed in church rather than moving on and having to find community and support elsewhere. I wonder how my children would have been different if they grew up trusting in God and their community. My heart still breaks for the pain and the loss.

    • Thank you for being willing to share your family’s experience. That takes so much courage. I’m grateful.
      We’ve also had a relative who was rejected by church leaders who believed her abuser over her. One of the sickest parts of this disease within our churches is people’s denial that it can happen “here.” That denial is part of why it does. In one abuse situation in which I was involved, people kept saying, “Oh, but he’s not the type!” Several of us finally exploded and said, “The person who abuses is the type. Period. That’s the only measure of ‘the type.'” I think being popular and charming and charismatic makes it that much easier for an abuser to get the opportunity and that much harder for people to believe that this could be an abuser–but those have NOTHING to do with being an abuser or not. I’ve met narcissists who completely snowed me–and I imagine that I have strong intuition and discernment–and they keep getting away with things because people don’t want to believe they could be that bad.
      It’s almost 100% certain that the man who abused your daughter went on to abuse others. The consequences for your family, for that community, for the other girls he got to hurt because they wouldn’t stop him when they were told the truth about him, it’s incalculable. I’m so sorry.
      All I know to do is confront people that we have to stop shunning victims and make abusers pay real consequences. Your willingness to tell your story does more than all the words I have. I’m grieving with you now. We have to change this culture.

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