Question: "I have been burned and hurt by the church in the past. How can I overcome this and renew a passion for church and a desire to attend church?"
Answer: The pain caused by a church is a “silent killer.” This doesn’t mean that the words and events that “burned” and hurt your heart are not very ugly and public. It is a “silent killer” because of what it does deep in the fabric of the mind, heart, and soul of the wounded. If not dealt with, it will destroy future happiness, joy, and well-being. The collateral damage negatively affects the ministry and outreach of the church, too, and some churches never recover. Recognize that the behavior that brought such devastation to your heart is not much different than the hurt any of us can encounter in the workplace, marketplace, or home. The difference is we don’t expect God’s people to behave like those without Christ in their lives. The church is the one place almost everyone agrees should be safe, accepting, forgiving, and free from conflict and pain. Yet in most churches at least some elements of strife, conflict, and hatred creep in and tarnish that ideal.
It happens more in some churches than others. The spiritual health of people in a church and the strength of leadership determine how prevalent and to what extent divisive behavior can gain control. Out of control, it has the effect of a termite infiltration that slowly and surely decays the foundation of the spiritual life of a congregation.
It is important to turn your focus away from the people involved and the church itself and identify the root cause of your pain, turmoil, and disillusionment. Honestly identify what you are feeling. If you are like most people, here are some possibilities: anger, sorrow, disappointment, rejection, hurt, jealousy, vulnerability, fear, rebellion, pride, shame, embarrassment, or loss. Find out what is at the core of your hurt—not what someone said or did to you, but what is really causing your pain? Then search the Scriptures to discover what God says about it. Take a Bible concordance and look up each word and read, think, pray, and apply the verse. For example, you may think that you are angry when in reality you feel rejected. What does God say about rejection? He says, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5); “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3); and, “Surely I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20).
When you truly identify the root of your pain, God has a balm of wisdom, compassion, and love to heal your wounds. If you call on Him for help, your focus shifts to Him and off of other people and their actions. You will stop rehearsing the event that caused you harm. You truly may be harmed, injured, or offended. You certainly feel it. Those feelings are byproducts of deeper, more important realities that have derailed your passion for God, His church, and His purpose for your life. If left unattended, those feelings will lead to a root of bitterness that will negatively affect every fiber of your soul and rob you of your abundant life in Christ (John 10:10). You do not want this to happen in your life.
How do we keep hurtful experiences from moving their destruction into our souls? The book of wisdom from the Bible says we must “guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (Proverbs 4:23, NLT). We guard our hearts by carefully choosing our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions. Guard your heart by refusing to dwell on what happened, refusing to focus on the people who hurt you, and refusing to belabor the weaknesses of the church. Giving up bitterness takes humility, but “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; Proverbs 3:34). It takes forgiving attitudes and actions (Matthew 18:22; Mark 11:27; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13) with no hint of vengeance (Romans 12:19). Mostly, it takes the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through you (Ephesians 3:16).
Don’t blame God for how His children behave. Don’t abandon the church, either. There are many more dedicated, grace-filled, loving, and forgiving people than not in most churches. Seek them out. Spend time with them. If you cannot find them, find another church (it is rare that you cannot find them even in the most difficult church environment). The church is God’s idea, and He protects it faithfully even though He is sometimes pained by its behavior (see Revelation 2–3).
You can have hope because you are seeking healing from the Lord. It is now up to you to do the right thing and turn your focus to the Person who will truly transform your life above and beyond this hurt. Jesus promised, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).