Dena Johnson Martin Christian Blog and Commentary

Four Things to Remember When You Have Been Hurt by the Church

I read a Facebook post by a friend recently, and it absolutely broke my heart.

In the post, he talked about all the ways he has been hurt by the Church.

By the congregations that shamed him when his marriage fell apart.

By the pastor who fired him when people responded to his message.

By the church who removed him from leadership when his daughter attempted suicide.

I know this man. He has a good heart, loves God, and wants nothing more than to fulfill his calling to ministry. Sadly, his experiences with the organized church have left deep scars that lead to anxiety. He has found himself traumatized by the thought of going to church.

Maybe you find it hard to believe that the Church can be so awful. Let me share a few more situations that definitely qualify as spiritual abuse:

Think about the woman who was removed from her church because she divorced her abusive husband.

Listen to the story of the Christian husband who uses scripture to manipulate his wife into submission (I.e., control).

Attend the church that supports a charismatic leader and refuses to believe the stories of what he is like behind closed doors.

Contemplate the pastor who tells his parishioners how to live while indulging in his secret pornography addiction.

Imagine what it is like to be told you aren't good enough to serve God.

Think what it is like to go to church looking for hope and to be turned away because you aren't dressed appropriately.

I hope and pray you have never experienced this type of spiritual abuse, but let me assure you that many of us have. Possibly even the majority of us have experienced this type of abuse.

Yes, in my first marriage, scripture was used to control me. He knew my heart was always to follow God, and he twisted scripture to use to get his way. Even though I often recognized what was being said sounded off, I couldn't always pinpoint the scriptures that would refute what I was hearing.

Or consider the day when--in the throes of divorce--I went to church desperate for the love of God. Instead, I heard the pastor condescendingly refer to "divorced people." I seriously contemplated never stepping foot in the church again.

The church I attend is referred to as the "divorced church" by some people in our community because our pastor and music minister have both been affected by divorce in their distant past. How abusive is it to define someone by an event that happened decades ago--and was the result of a spouse who chose to walk away?

Spiritual abuse is real, and it is incredibly destructive. It often causes people to turn away from God and lose their faith--even though God is not the problem. The problem is sin--sinful people who fail to truly model Christlikeness.

To those of you who have experienced spiritual abuse, I want you to know four things:

Spiritual abuse breaks God's heart. When you encounter a spiritual abuser, please know it is not from God. God has little tolerance for the ones who use religion to hurt others. Jesus saved his harshest words for the religious folks such as the Pharisees, and He would have the same attitude toward the spiritual abusers of today. Think about these scriptures:

The Lord hates six things; in fact, seven are detestable to Him: arrogant eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked schemes, feet eager to run to evil, a lying witness who gives false testimony, and one who stirs up trouble among brothers. Proverbs 6:16-19

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity,  idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance—as I told you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19-21

Spiritual abusers do not represent God. Have you ever contemplated the life of Christ? Jesus Christ was the living embodiment of God the Father, and I want you to think about His actions with the sinful

When Jesus met Zaccheus, He didn't shame the wee man. Instead, he went and ate dinner with him. Jesus wasn't turned off by Zaccheus's sin; instead, he had compassion on him.

While everyone was clamoring to stone the woman caught in adultery, Jesus looked at her with compassion and love. There was no condemnation, only grace.

When the blind man approached Jesus, Jesus didn't ask the man what sins caused his blindness like so many others. Instead, Jesus healed his infirmity.

Over and over, we see Jesus pouring out love and compassion on those who needed the love of the Father. When we encounter a spiritual abuser, please remember he/she does not represent God. Those who recognize their own sins and approach others with humility and the grace of God, those are God's representatives.

Spiritual abusers have not fully experienced the love of Christ. I don't believe anyone who has truly experienced God in His fullness can abuse others. The love of Christ changes us. That's not to say that we never hurt someone else after being changed by the love of God, because we can all fall prey to the stress of this life. But, I don't believe anyone who has truly experienced God in all His fullness can be an ongoing abuser.

What's the difference between an abuser and someone who has fallen into sin temporarily? Psalm 51. Just like David, those who have experienced God will have a repentant heart as David did in Psalm 51. There's no burying the sin. There's a keen awareness of our failures and sins, and a desire to walk in true holiness.

God's heart is to see you walk in freedom. Spiritual abusers will continue to heap shame and guilt on you. Maybe it's your divorce that took place a decade ago. Or maybe it is the poor choice you made last week. Or maybe it is simply a desire to control you. Whatever it is, the spiritual abuser will repeatedly remind you that you are not good enough, that you need to work harder, pray more, do more.

In contrast, the message of Christ is so much simpler. You are loved. You are chosen (1 Peter 2:9). You are enough. It is by grace alone, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). God wants you to be free (John 8:32). Your past does not define you, but He defines you. Put away the labels this world puts on you and wear only those given to you by the Savior Himself.