Why does pain come so often from within the church?
I have been in Christian leadership for over forty years. I love the church.
While it has been the scene of my greatest joy, it has also been the place of my deepest pain. Why is that the case?
This question has always bothered me. The Bible presents the church as the bride of Christ, the body of Christ and the temple of God. Why can there be such brokenness and sin within it?
I guess, if I’m honest, for the same reason there is brokenness and sin within me. Since studying Romans 7 as part of my doctoral studies, I have always felt that its portrayal of the individual torn between the flesh and the spirit was a genuine picture of the Christian life. So why would I expect the church to be perfect if I’m far from it myself?
Yet still that answer does not satisfy me. I have to dig deeper.
Those we love and trust have far greater capacity to hurt us than those we know only casually. And here is the problem. Church is the place where we are called to be open to each other, love each other, trust each other.
Betrayal, as Jesus knew only too well, is the worst hurt we can suffer. Yet it can only exist where there is a love and trust to be violated.
Bob Mumford used to talk about his experience driving down a road seeing a crushed Coke can lying at the roadside. He felt God reminding him that’s how Christians so often treat leaders and each other -- they drink everything the person has to offer, and then crumple the relationship and throw it away.
I used to get to the point when we saw new people arriving at church I wondered how long it would be before, having taken whatever we had to offer, they went on their way, usually with a complaint rather than a thank you. And I began to harden my heart.
A lot of people find an easy solution. Just walk out. There are millions of Christians in our culture who have left church and, short of a revival, will never return.
I understand why they’re doing it, but I feel sorry for them. They are taking the easy way, not the way of the cross.
So then what are we to do? Are we to expect church simply to be the place where we open ourselves only to be hurt? Where we serve only to be betrayed?
Here’s the wisdom forty years of hanging in has taught me:
1. If you want to follow Jesus, you’ll have to take the risk of hurt and betrayal the same way he did.
2. Find your strength in the Lord, just like he did also. Stick the straw of your spiritual and emotional need into God, not other people. Don’t expect from people what only God can give. They will disappoint you, but he won’t.
3. There is no ideal church, and no ideal network of churches. If you’re a leader and still saying that, stop it. You’re lying. If you’re a member and still seeking it, you’re looking for perfection while not living perfection yourself. You’re living a lie too.
4. Hanging in is always worth it in the end. If you hang in, you will gradually accumulate a network of friends who will not fail you. We have friendships going back 30, 35 and 40 years which are still yielding dividends to this very day. We did not give up. They did not give up. Now we have each other. God honours those who commit. Those who drop out often wind up lonely, bitter and away from God. They have shot themselves in the foot. You may have to change a local church, but don’t leave church. If you’re the one who’s been to every church in town and still isn’t satisfied, the problem is not with all of them, it’s with you.
As Christians, we live at the convergence of the real and the ideal. We have an ideal, a standard, we are aiming at. That is why Paul says, “Aim for perfection” (2 Corinthians 13:11, NIV). We will never reach the standard in this life. We live in the real, not the ideal. Yet the ideal pulls us toward itself, thus transforming the reality in which we live. We may call that frustration, but the Bible calls it sanctification.
The church we all long for is not described in the Gospels, the book of Acts or any of the apostolic letters. It does not exist in recorded history. It makes its appearance for the first time in the second last chapter of the Bible. Only those who have proven faithful in this life will be part of it.
Hang in there. It’s worth it in the end.