I’ve been in a meeting where I looked into the eyes of a deacon, a friend turned child abuser. I felt the bile rise in my throat when I tried to speak in that meeting when the sickening truth had all been laid bare. I do not remember much of it, but I remember screaming in my van as I drove home. I remember feeling strange hugging my own children that night; something so pure now tainted with the filth of someone else’s sin.
After so long in ministry, we have stories, people stories good and bad. The good outweighs the bad for certain, but bad stories are louder in your mind during seasons of sadness and hurt. The interesting part about being wounded is that everything bad comes back at once like a swirling negative memory cesspool, and you are trapped in the middle spinning through those memories, those pictures of faces who’ve betrayed you or betrayed the people you love. In the middle of trauma, you have a difficult time differentiating past situations and past hurts with present people and present places. The good people around you begin to look eerily similar to the villians in your past and you fear them and you can’t help but mistrust them. The weird thing is, most of the pain I hold in my heart is not from situations that affected me directly. It is from pain that I’ve absorbed from other people like a really irresponsible sponge. I tell myself to differentiate, but then I see my people in pain, and I soak it up again ready to make my soft spongy exterior jagged and capable of cutting all potential perpetrators coming close.
I don’t even want to type the next word because I still don’t understand it, and frankly, I don’t want to travel there.
Forgiveness is easy if you have little to forgive. Forgiveness is a bumper sticker word for Christians who’ve lived charmed and lucky lifestyles. The notion of forgiveness to people who have experienced sexual abuse from parents (or church leadership), abandonment, or betrayal from spouses creates acidic justified anger and venomous hateful retaliation. Forgiveness is only a pretty word if you haven’t had to practice it much or you are talking about someone forgiving your own indiscretions. We whitewash forgiveness in our churches. We make it seem like a swift change of heart. It is not.
Forgiveness is a daily act of will. It is not a feeling.
I want to be honest and tell you there are people in my life whom I have not forgiven yet. You can judge me for that. You can hold me accountable to it. I am working on it. There are days when I wake up that I must remind myself to live in a state of forgiveness in case I bump into someone on the street. And there are days I live in anger and bitterness. And I know deep inside me whether I’m living in forgiveness each day or if I’m holding onto that old familiar pain. Pain is often more comfortable to carry in the pit of your stomach than the acceptance of never ever hearing an apology or never seeing justice come to those who deserve it.
The most healing words I have ever heard are the words spoken to validate my personal pain; the validation that my anger was/is justified. When I heard those words from a friend, I finally began to heal. I began to move forward. “What that person did to you was wrong. They hurt you. They messed up big.” We need more words like this spoken to the hurting people around us. We are so afraid to call out sin and offend others, that we have a growing crowd of Christians leaving churches because they’ve never heard the words “You are justified in your anger. They hurt you. They messed up.” Instead, what hurting people usually hear is a trite and simple answer “You need to move on and forgive because Jesus forgave you.”
It is true. Jesus forgives us. It is true. We all sin. I sin. I sin in my unforgiveness. I risk being unforgiven myself. I need to forgive. I also need to hear that it is ok if that forgiving takes work and is undeserved.
It is not helpful to invalidate the pain of others and paint the forgiveness of abuse as an easy one step process to maintain the comfort levels of church leadership and the happy-go-lucky congregants. Our institutionalized versions of the church have made public relations and the protection of the institution more of a priority than the people within its walls. We desire to hide our ugly for the sake of our image. In doing so, we protect abusers. We protect adulterers. We protect cruelty. We protect everyone but the ones who need our protection.
Church shopping when you live in a constant state of mistrust is laughable. There is no church I could plug into over the last year until I began to move forward with my life. Until I started to unpack the sin sack I carried, both my own sins and those of others who had hurt me or my people, I could not truly love anyone.
I want to talk to you personally now…as if this series hasn’t already been personal enough to make my sweet mother squirm. If someone has hurt you, either within the institutional church or outside, what they did was wrong. You are justified in your pain and your anger. You will wear the scar for the rest of your life, and it is not a scar that you can hide with a floral community-comforting scarf. If you cannot spend time, befriend, be a digital connection, or even live in the same state with the person who hurt you, you are justified. The goal of human forgiveness is not friendship. Forgiveness and reconciliation may not always coincide. Only Christ can pull that off. Eventually, maybe you and I can become more like the perfect Christ. Until then, be justified in your boundaries.
A resounding theme this year above and beyond our Sunday visits are Christians crossing our path who have left the institutionalized church. They are still believers. I witness to you that many are more faithful followers of Christ than some at the Sunday show. But they are hurt. They’ve witnessed the mishandling of abuse, of finances, moral failure from church leadership, the neglect of the poor, the neglect of God’s people and his Word and they just couldn’t take the facade of “church” any more. They are daily practicing forgiveness, but they probably won’t be back through your church building doors. And that is completely fine. They need a church that is real and generally they’ve found a purer expression of church in people they gather around them; though it looks much different than the institutional variation of the Lord’s church that we’ve created.
If you are one of the spiritually exiled from the institutional church, I must challenge you to continue to live into forgiveness every day. Please don’t shut me down here. If you can never come back through the doors of the institutionalized church, fine. You don’t have to, but there are a few things you must do for your own spiritual survival. You must find a non-traditional church of your own, a simple gathering of people who call you to a closer relationship with Jesus, who hold you accountable, who live out the call to give to the unfortunate and share Jesus with those who don’t know him. It can be in a house or a pub or a park or your work at lunch. You must daily walk the path with Jesus yourself and live out that lifestyle to all people around you in love. But you also must accept that while the issues with the institutional churches are many, there is still good found there. There are still good people both trapped inside and still working inside to make changes for the better. I know some of those faithful people who refuse to leave and they would love to have you back if and when you ever get to that point.