Taking a deep breath, I stepped into my favorite coffee shop and looked around. She wasn’t there yet. I bought a coffee and found a seat by the windows, all the while hyper-aware of every person walking through the door. I tried to be calm, but I felt terrified.
This would be our first conversation since this friend, whose publishing company I had helped start, as a volunteer, told me she had notified several of my clients that she thought me a poor writer and that they’d be better served with someone else. The clients she spoke of were dream clients—people I looked up to and loved working with, and they had expressed great satisfaction with my work. They were also leaders at the church my friend and I both attended. Ironically, I had encouraged them to publish with her—and then she attacked my reputation. Ultimately, her words about me undermined my work, and she successfully stole those clients from me.
I decided to move on without creating a scene with the clients, trusting that God would vindicate me in time (and He did, several years later). But moving on didn’t mean I’d never see her again. Because we attended the same church, I could run into her or my former clients at any time. I found myself dreading church and fighting off disillusionment about the people there. My church hurt was real, but God knew what to do.
I realized I needed to have a bravely honest conversation with this friend, in the style of Matthew 18, letting her know how I’d experienced her actions and the impact she’d had on my heart. I knew she might not really hear me. I knew she had her own justifications for why she had done it. I also knew I had not acted perfectly in our relationship. Sometimes I had pushed her too hard when we disagreed on editing standards or company decisions. I hadn’t always respected her role as the CEO.
Going into our conversation, God clearly told me that my priority needed to be owning and apologizing for anything I’d done that she found hurtful. I couldn’t control how she would respond to me, but I could make sure to take full responsibility for my part. I determined to walk out of that coffee shop having done all I could to own my part—to be free of any debt of repentance toward her.
She arrived a few minutes later, and we jumped right in. I told her how I felt. She refused to apologize or to legitimize my concerns. She shifted the blame to me, reiterating her assessment of my writing abilities. She also attacked me personally, and she was mean. It was deeply painful. And unfair. But I stood my ground in Jesus—which meant I apologized for every charge she brought against me. Some might say I acted in a cowardly manner, but for me, it was a spiritual act of war.
When I left that day, I felt emotionally battered, but somehow also victorious. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, and I felt Jesus’ smile over me. I couldn’t justify myself before her or my former clients, but He knew the truth of what had happened, and He knew I had taken the higher road.
Though the situation wasn’t resolved in my favor, and it took me several years to shake off her assessment of my writing abilities, that day marked my personal freedom from bitterness. I chose to forgive her, though she did not apologize. Her betrayal and the resulting broken relationships with people who mattered to me at church still hurt—a lot. I still grieved the changes I couldn’t reverse. Yet, I knew I had done what I could, and I had made God proud. He helped that to be enough.
Through that experience, which happened nearly ten years ago, God gave me a personal blueprint for how to respond to church hurt. (To clarify, when I speak of church hurt, I’m not speaking of abusive or manipulative relationships, but the normal hurts that happen between people. Please seek professional help if you are in an abusive situation.)
Truth is, the church is full of imperfect people, and therefore, church hurt is unavoidable. We might think life would be happier if we just kept to ourselves, and that may be true in some ways, but the bigger truth is that we need each other (messy though we may be) to accomplish God’s will on this earth. As it says in Proverbs 4:14, “Without oxen a stable stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest” (NLT). Remembering our bigger purpose as the church—a “large harvest”—will give us the courage to work through our church hurt.
Like many of you, I’ve faced many painful situations in the church. I have also had several run-ins with very toxic and abusive people. Some of those situations caused hurt (and even trauma) to my husband and me, to our kids, and to other people I love. Yet through it all, God has kept me and enabled me to keep a tender heart that is willing to trust people and take risks. That is the goal—to maintain a tender heart that keeps fighting on in our work for Jesus, no matter the wounds we have sustained along the way.
Here’s what I’ve found:
1. Any hurt I don’t deal with will follow me wherever I go. If I don’t find a way to heal from hurt, it will become a lens through which I see other people. I’ll be more likely to assume people are against me and to make negative assumptions about their words or actions. We naturally build up defenses to protect ourselves from things that have hurt us in the past. If we aren’t aware of that, and if we don’t actively find healing, we will begin perceiving people, the church, and even God through a lens that is more a reflection of our woundedness than of reality.
2. Whether or not I confront the person, forgiveness is the only way to truly move on. When someone hurts me, I have two choices. I can talk to them about how I feel, with the goal of forgiveness, or I can forgive them on my own. These are the only two healthy choices; every other response involves carrying that hurt forward. Sometimes I use my level of success in forgiveness to determine whether I need to talk to the person. If I’m having trouble forgiving, it may be time for the brave conversation. Forgiveness is a big topic, and it can feel scary, especially if the hurt has been significant. What’s important to remember is that forgiveness isn’t a feeling. It’s a choice. When I choose to forgive, it may take some time before my emotions catch up. I’ve found I often need to choose to forgive repeatedly, declaring that I have forgiven the person, even though the hurt of what happened still stings.
3. I always have a choice about how I handle myself, no matter how unjust the circumstances. When we have been hurt, the idea of telling that person how we feel can be terrifying. What if I just get hurt more? The truth is, we might. That has certainly been my experience on several occasions. Yet, if I prepare my heart for that possibility, and trust God to care for me, I can choose the higher road, no matter how I am treated. Jesus calls us to live bravely—not because hurt will never come, but because He is so good at caring for our hearts when it does. So often, when people hurt us, it is easy to focus exclusively on what the other person did. I have found that when someone does something hurtful to me, they have often also experienced hurt from me. If I can humble myself and own my part, no matter how they respond, I am following the Jesus way.
4. Reconciliation is ideal, but it is not always possible. Paul the apostle gave this advice to the Christians in Rome: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18 NIV). Peace with everyone is not always possible. As long as I have done everything I know to do in repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, it is OK to walk away from a situation or relationship without full reconciliation.
Church hurt has caused many people to harden their hearts against others—and even against God. Jesus invites us into a different reality. His love is strong enough to heal the hurt and keep our hearts tender and alive with love.
Ask yourself today—do I have unresolved church hurt? Am I carrying past wounds with me into my present? Do I owe a debt of repentance or forgiveness to anyone in my life?
Jesus is inviting us into the big picture of His Kingdom, where His grace is strong enough, not only to heal our hearts, but also to empower us to live as tender-hearted and courageous lovers. The world longs for a love like this.
This is a companion piece to another one of my blog posts, What If I Disagree with the Pastor. Enjoy: https://lifewaychurch.life/what-if-i-disagree-with-the-pastor/