If you have been deeply hurt within your local church while walking through suffering and brokenness, I am vulnerably sharing this testimony for you. My prayer is that as you read how God has met, sustained, and comforted us in our hurt you will be comforted with the comfort He has given, and encouraged to persevere.
It is with great trepidation that I share this testimony. I feel a tremendous weight of responsibility in speaking publicly about these specific hurts, but find courage to do so as scripture itself readily acknowledges and addresses many of the struggles and sins that occur within churches. This testimony is sincerely shared with a heart desiring the building up of wounded believers as well as the church as a whole.
“Blessed [be] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 [NASB].
“Church” or “local church” in this post refers to a local gathering of people who profess to be believers, as opposed to “the church” as the singular body of true believers scattered throughout the world, the bride of Christ.
My personal experience with church hurt…
Church is a vitally important part of our family’s life. We have deeply loved and been very actively involved in our local church for ten years. It is a large church with a weekly attendance of 1200-1300 each Sunday, spread across three separate worship services, yet it still felt like family.
June 8th, 2017, our precious daughter, Sarah, was killed in a church bus crash on her way to a mission trip in Botswana. The resulting outpouring of love from our local church family as well as the church at large was overwhelming. Many in our local church grieved deeply for us, wept with us, and loved and served us exceedingly well in those early days. In fact, my fear of hurting those precious saints has prevented me from speaking about church hurt to this point. But, moved with compassion for others who are walking through a season of deep church hurt, I will trust the Lord to enable those loving saints in our local church to see our love and appreciation for them even as I acknowledge the reality of the painful experiences.
The majority of our church hurt over the past two years has come from slanderous gossip based on speculation and incorrect assumptions about our experience with the person responsible for Sarah’s death (he was also a member of our local church). The gossip has been primarily circulated by clusters of fellow church members with whom we were acquainted but not closely connected. Few, if any of them, have interacted with us since Sarah’s funeral or spoken to us personally about anything related to Sarah’s death.
Within minutes of my husband, Scott, telling me Sarah had died, I asked what happened. He, having witnessed the crash, explained the bus driver had made two mistakes that resulted in the bus flipping and Sarah’s death. We assumed the driver would be devastated by his role in Sarah’s death and the injury of the other children and adults. We were immediately burdened for him and began praying that very day that God would help us to love him well so as to not inflict any further harm on him.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, our experience with the driver did not progress as we had hoped and believed it would. Our experience with him and the misdemeanor vehicular homicide criminal proceedings were extremely traumatic secondary and tertiary crises extending through the majority of our first two years without Sarah, finally legally concluding in January of this year. Throughout that time we felt strongly convicted by the Lord to not speak publicly about any specifics of our experience with the driver. We are still convicted that silence was obedience, but realize it has allowed the flourishing of the painful gossip that continues to circulate to this day. One of the dominant untruths of that gossip being that we refused to forgive him.
From the outside looking in it probably seems ridiculous that gossip from acquaintances in church could bear such a devastating impact in the midst of the incomprehensible pain of your child’s death and such consuming secondary and tertiary crises. But in the midst of the blazing flames of deep suffering each additional trial and trauma is not like a separate flame of varying size and intensity. Each additional trial and trauma is like accelerant thrown on the already fierce flames of suffering. It’s the feeling of being a parched soul writhing in an inferno thinking circumstances can’t get more perilous, when suddenly someone reaches in and stokes the flames.
The biting gossip excruciatingly compounded the pain of Sarah’s absence and the other crises. It was pivotal in isolating us from our church family at the time we needed them most. We were repeatedly shocked by who was saying what. We no longer knew who was “safe” at church outside of our pastor, some of our ministers, and a few inner circle friends who faithfully walked alongside us.
Most significant, though, was the focus of the gossip. From the instant Sarah was killed everything temporal lost all value in our lives. The only thing of true value from that moment forward has been that which is eternal, walking in righteousness to honor God with the remainder of our lives. It was not by chance that the primary target of the gossip was our Christian testimony.
“As for a rogue, his weapons are evil; He devises wicked schemes To destroy the afflicted with slander, Even though the needy one speaks what is right.” Isaiah 32:7 [NASB]
There’s a brilliant adversary behind church hurt.
I am convinced the Lord led our sweet Sarah to write her precious last journal entry on the bus that day specifically for us. She wrote the following:
Botswana Day 1 ~ June 8, 17
I was just sitting here in the bus feeling a little sad. I guess because I am going to be gone so long and I was feeling a little uncomfortable. Then I decided to read my Bible. I prayed and opened up to 1 Peter 5 and 2 Peter 1. Pretty much everything I read applied to me now. It talked about watching over the flock entrusted to you, which would be my little buddies in Botswana, humbling yourself which I will need to do (and that also means being a little uncomfortable), it talked about the devil prowling about like a lion seeking whom he may devour, which he will especially be doing on this mission trip, and how we need to be alert and of sober mind, and lastly how we get to participate in His divine nature! I mean, how awesome is that? So mostly I was just reminded of why I’m here and that God has called me here and He’s done so for a reason. So I know He’s going to do incredible things.
That night as I read aloud to the media what she wrote about “the devil prowling about like a lion seeking whom he may devour, which he will especially be doing on this mission trip,” I interjected the comment “and now it is our mission trip.”
That comment was not a reference to Botswana but to the fact that God had already spoken to my heart very specifically that Satan had asked to sift us, but that if we would cling to Him [God], He would sustain us. I instantly knew when I read Sarah’s reference to 1 Peter 5:8 that God was again warning us about the sifting Satan had crafted for us, though I in no way grasped how extensive that sifting would be.
In the early weeks and months after Sarah died we regularly experienced and commented on the strategic brilliance of our adversary, Satan. We were continually struck by how the most hurtful words and actions would arrive at the exact moment we were most vulnerable to them. His sinister schemes were meticulously planned and precisely timed for maximum evil impact.
“Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual [forces] of wickedness in the heavenly [places.] Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” Ephesians 6:11-13 [NASB]
In the midst of suffering and distress it is essential that we remind ourselves that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” We must look heavenward for proper perspective. Spiritual warfare is always at the center of church hurt.
Our answer is not in contending with people, but in crying out to God. He alone is the one we strive to please and He knows the truth of our situation. Our God is our shepherd, defender, and vindicator, as we wait upon Him He will prove Himself faithful to lead, guide, defend, and vindicate in His time.
“Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Matthew 10:26 [NASB]
“Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, And I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.” Psalm 26:1 [NASB]
Not all church hurt is intentional.
The church is comprised of broken sinful people, of whom I am one. We will all almost undoubtedly disappoint, fail, offend, or hurt one another at some point. In the midst of my hurt God has been gracious to gently yet regularly remind me that, to my dismay, I am certain I have wounded more people through the years than I realize.
My stomach turns and my heart aches at the thought of my having hurt anyone. I am so thankful for God’s abundant grace given to cover over any and all wounds inflicted by my own immaturity, carelessness, and foolishness through the years. The peace and joy of that grace received compels me to extend that same grace to others.
“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things [put on] love, which is the perfect bond of unity.” Colossians 3:12-14 [NASB]
There are tares among the wheat.
Regarding deeper more insidious hurts, it can be helpful to remember scripture clearly says until Christ returns there will be tares among the wheat (Matthew 13:30). The wheat is the true believers, followers of Christ, and the tares are the imposters, “sons of the evil one” (Matt. 13:38).
The scribes and Pharisees described in scripture are examples of tares. Christ gave a detailed list of their sinful attitudes and behaviors in Matthew 23 enabling us to clearly recognize them today. The list is powerfully effective for convicting us of those tendencies in ourselves and leading us to repentance. But the list also includes overt behaviors that may be observed in others.
If those inflicting harm on us are exhibiting the attitudes and behaviors of the scribes and Pharisees, they are not representing Christ and the true church in their behavior. We are not called to judge and condemn them as scribes and Pharisees, but we are called to “be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves,” being attentive to discern what God exposes and to follow how, when, and where He leads (Matt. 10:16).
“You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn [bushes] nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.” Matthew 7:16-18 [NASB]
He is our refuge, not the church.
When the first piercing arrow of church gossip struck squarely within the freshly shattered shards of my heart, I was aghast, completely horrified. Panic set in as I tearfully exclaimed to Scott in total confusion, “church is supposed to be our refuge, how can this be?” As I sat with tears cascading down my cheeks onto the pages of my Bible, God quickly and clearly corrected me through His Word. He is my refuge, not the church. Such a simple truth but such profound ramifications.
“My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge; My savior, You save me from violence.” 2 Samuel 22:3 [NASB]
“The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Psalm 18:2 [NASB]
“I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!” Psalm 91:2 [NASB]
It is good and right for church to be a safe place in the storms of life. It absolutely should be, but God alone is our Refuge. Our faith, hope, trust, and security must be in God alone, not church.
Within the church we are called to love one another deeply from the heart, to journey alongside one another, and to carry one another’s burdens. But we are loving, journeying, and assisting in carrying burdens to the Rock, the One True Refuge, God Almighty.
God uses submission to godly leaders for our good.
“Obey your leaders and submit [to them,] for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” Hebrews 13:17 [NASB]
Since the time of Sarah’s death we have submitted and made ourselves accountable to our pastor and two ministers at our local church as well as one of our former pastors, all godly men whom we deeply love and respect. Each of them have regularly blessed us as they have patiently counseled, encouraged, guided, prayed for, and wept with us.
A few months after Sarah was killed we were on the cusp of leaving our local church. As a last step before leaving we sought counsel from our former pastor. He spoke only a few words, but among them was a question, “Has the pillar moved?” We recognized his question as a reference to God’s pillar of leading in Exodus, and we were immediately convicted. No, the pillar had not moved.
We desperately wanted to escape but God was not leading us to escape. I am so grateful our loving pastor saw past our temporal discomfort to speak hard truth for our eternal good found in obedience to God.
“The LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.” Exodus 13:21 [NASB]
Some time after that, one of the ministers we are particularly close to at church graciously listened as I was agonizing and weeping over some fresh gossip and the resulting fear that gripped me each time I was at church. As we finished talking he said, “Karen, I genuinely believe 98% of the church loves your family, and what you’re seeing is the actions of 2%. But I get it, when you walk through the halls you have no way of knowing who the 2% are, and you find yourself continually questioning, ‘friend or foe?'”
He empathized with my pain, he acknowledged the legitimacy of my struggle, but then he offered me a perspective I was incapable of seeing on my own at that time. In regard to church, all I could see in the midst of the pitch black darkness of those early days was the fiery arrows of gossip and slander relentlessly striking all around us. Although I could not see what he saw, I trusted and respected him enough that his counsel was a source of encouragement.
Though the percentages were speculative, over time I have come to see for myself that his point was true. I now believe the majority of our local church cared for us and had they known the additional painful challenges we were walking through, I believe many of them would have had compassion and desired to be supportive.
God can and will redeem church hurt if we entrust it to Him.
Church hurts sometimes. Sometimes church hurts deeply. Putting it in writing makes me very uncomfortable. I have an overwhelming urge to delete it, but it’s a truth that I am strongly convicted needs to be acknowledged.
However, I have learned an exceedingly beautiful lesson through our church hurt. Our mighty Redeemer, who redeems His children from death and redeems all things in our lives, also redeems church hurt.
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to [His] purpose.” Romans 8:28 [NASB]
There is no excuse for church hurt. It absolutely should not happen. Redemption does not take away the wrongness of it or deny the pain or scars of it.
Redemption takes the ashes of the devastation and makes beauty from them.
The church hurt we endured was sinful, it was not and is not pleasing to the Lord. But, He has faithfully redeemed it in our lives by using it to draw us nearer and nearer to Him.
He has used it to teach us countless lessons about His character and His ways.
He has used it as a sanctifying flame to expose and melt away sinful tendencies, attitudes and desires as dross from within our hearts.
He has used it to deepen my faith, teaching me to fully trust Him and willingly wait for Him.
He has used it to grow grace and mercy in me.
He has used it to purify my love for His church.
We must not give up on the church.
God may lead us away from a specific local church through church hurt, but He will never lead us to abandon participation in the church. We are each called and uniquely gifted to serve within His body.
“But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. … Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” 1 Corinthians 12:18-20, 27 [NASB]
The adversary is scheming to extinguish our love for one another in the body of Christ. He is scheming to coerce us to give up on the church. Careless words, gossip, arrogance, deception, lying, rejection, cruelty, harsh judgment, hypocrisy, etcetera. All sinful behaviors and weapons stealthily used in the schemes of an adversary intent on the destruction of individuals and the church.
Individually we have a choice to make. We can resist the adversary, cladding ourselves with the armor of God, standing firm in the faith, filled with love for the brethren, and refusing to give up on the church.
Or we can allow our adversary the victory, allowing bitterness to take root and sprout, giving up on and walking away from participation in the church, extinguishing our love for the brethren, and rendering us useless to the body.
“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35 [NASB]
Praise God, we know Satan will not be victorious in his schemes for the destruction of the church. Christ has already confirmed He will build His church and “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
The church is being made ready for a glorious wedding feast.
Jesus Christ is returning for His bride “in just a little while” (Heb. 10:37). I want to be found spotless and blameless before Him when He comes, but more than that my heart races with excitement at the thought of being a part of the entire body of believers found spotless and blameless before Him (1 Thes. 3:12-13).
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” Ephesians 5:25-27 [NASB]
“Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.” Matthew 24:42 [NASB]
May our love for Christ who gave Himself up for us compel us to urgently make ourselves ready for His return, and may we, being filled with mercy, grace, and love toward one another, faithfully spur one another on in doing the same.
“Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled [clean] from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful;
And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging [one another;] and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:22-25).
Come, Lord Jesus.
Sarah’s Last Journal Entry