As I scrolled through Twitter the other day, I came across a tweet that a friend of mine retweeted. It said, “‘Church hurt’ shouldn’t be a norm, but sadly it is…” I had never heard the term “church hurt” before, but instantly I knew what it meant. “Church hurt” is a word for the emotional wounds inflicted by a fellow Christian. This can be especially devastating because the church is intended to be a place where people seek healing and refuge.
As a missionary/ministry kid who grew up in church, I’ve experienced my share of church hurt—but I’m not writing this article to air my grievances against the church or to rant against the oppressive constructs of religious institutions past and present (though to be honest, if my high school-self was writing this, I probably would be. Bless God for #charactergrowth).
Instead I want to focus on how to heal from church hurt, and how Christ followers should respond to those who are hurting from church hurt.
Recently in chapel, Azusa Pacific campus pastor Ta’Tyana Leonard gave a message that speaks to this issue. In her message, she brought up a passage in 2 Corinthians where the apostle Paul writes an anguished response to the church in Corinth after a visiting speaker attacked his character.
“They were so devastated by their brother’s sin…they thought, ‘we’re Christians, we have the spirit of God, things should be different,’” Leonard said. “Many of us, a lot of our stories is that we have church hurt—a lot of stories is that leaders in our lives, people we looked up to, we trusted, let us down, twisted our words, abused us.”
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes the church as many members, or parts, of the same body— the body of Christ, with Christ as the head. When one part of the body is in pain, the other parts are also affected. Leonard said that because our stories are so intertwined with other Christians, church hurt creates a cycle of pain.
“When we are outside of our call… the body suffers. That’s why it’s important for us to consider how sin affects our community,” she said. “We see this cycle of doubt when we see each other fall short. So the cycle of sin not only affects us, but affects the interconnectedness of our body.”
Now not to get all nerdy, but that message reminded me of a concept that Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote about—nadryv, which roughly translates to “tear” or “heart rending.” Dostoevesky said people who have experienced this kind of pain will often lash out at others to ease their pain, and those people will commit nadryv to others, perpetuating a cycle of brokenness.
Leonard said, “the pain can manifest in many ways…[For me], because I wanted vengeance and justice, withholding forgiveness for me was a sense of justice. For others, it’s despair that leads to shame, because [we think] we’re unworthy of being forgiven.”
Dostoevsky also introduced the concept of sobernost—a spiritual community where members take responsibility for each other, realizing that we are all in part responsible for sins of each other. So often the harm we do to one another is merely a result of our own suffering. But how do we stop that cycle?
Leonard said that in Scripture, forgiveness precedes healing. “It’s not a clean and easy thing to do…for many of us, the topic of forgiveness is associated with pain. Someone has harmed us, and when we forgive, it feels like we’re letting them off the hook,” Leonard said.
She also said that for many of us, forgiving also means setting new boundaries, and that’s okay, too. “Forgiveness can actually give you wisdom to set boundaries,” she said. “You don’t need to re-enter a situation where you can be hurt again.”
But forgiveness is not for the other person—it’s for you. Unforgiveness blocks healing and lets bitterness fester, causing you to act on it, perpetuating the cycle.
Practicing forgiveness is an opportunity to live out the gospel—because Christ forgave us of our sin. Leonard said, “We should be motivated to spread that good news. Human forgiveness is a choice and a process.”
And of course, the most important step in the process is to give it over to God. Psalm 55:22 tells us to leave our troubles with the Lord, and He will defend us. He heals the brokenhearted and gives us the strength to forgive. 1 Peter 4:8 says, “above all things, have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins.”
After all, that’s what Christ models for us. He takes our nadryv—our shame, our guilt, our burdens, our pain, our grief—and bore it for us it. He suffered in our place, forgave us, and welcomed us back with open arms—and that’s the love we are called to.