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  • Writer's pictureJenni Lien

What I've Learned About Church Hurt

Church hurt is real. So is spiritual abuse. As Christians, we may have heard the terms. Even heard about it happening to others. But until we go through it ourselves, we may not want to really dig into the details. At least this was my situation. Last year, I felt God give me 'Trust' as my word for the year which honestly didn't thrill me... what would he ask me to trust him about?! (But of course may we know that we know that we know God's ways are higher! Isaiah 55:9) In this episode, I share five lessons I've learned through my six months and counting experience of recovering from church hurt and keeping my eyes on our Lord.

Listen via Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Keep up with the latest updates by following You Are You Podcast on Instagram! Below is a transcript of the episode.

Hi friends! Happy 2022. I know it’s mid-January already but the year is still fresh and it’s right to be full of eager expectation for what the year will bring right? I don’t know if you usually choose or feel God give you a word for the year. For the past few years, I’ve felt God has given me words and last year’s was ‘trust’.

To be honest it didn’t thrill me (even though I know that I know that God knows best). In 2020 I’d walked with God more closely than ever and experienced him in incredible ways and so… I thought I’d finally cracked the secret to joy in life. Follow God closely and it would be joy upon joy! I mean that is the secret to joy - and may we remember that joy and happiness are not the same thing.

Before I got the word trust, I’d already been dreaming about all the miracles and fulfilled dreams I wanted to see happen in 2021. Then when I got the world I started to think that maybe things weren’t going to happen exactly like I thought. Does that mean I wasn’t going to publish my first book, get married, and buy a house? God can do anything right — why couldn’t he give me everything I wanted? He could if he wanted to… and I was going to ask!

Now it’s a year later and 2021 was one of the most unexpected years of my life. When I had those ‘God can do anything’ thoughts — it was the most mature I’d ever been in my life and it’s still true that God can do anything. But I had some growing to do. After all, in reading the Bible, I could probably have gathered that God doesn’t usually work like that.

The Bible is honestly the most comforting resource we have, is it not, for it shows us example upon example of how God works, thinks, speaks. Praise him we have the Holy Spirit to speak into our situations but the Holy Spirit will never contradict the Bible and so it’s still so essential that we’re in the word daily really learning about literally the wisest mightiest being EVER. Whenever I find tv quotes or something coming to mind more than verses, I realize I need a reset. Those lines, funny as they can be, won’t help me figure out my life’s problems. Another thing. I’ve prayed for a blessed life where nothing ever goes wrong. A sweet prayer perhaps but naive. God says in John 16:33:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

So how does this relate to my 2021? And if you’re tuning into this episode, perhaps you’re interested in learning more about church hurt or have experienced it yourself. Maybe you’re experiencing it now and wondering what to do. In any case, I want to start with a prayer over us today. It’s an extremely sensitive topic — hurt from perhaps the place where we expect to be least hurt in this world.

Father God, I thank you for your goodness and love. I thank you that no matter what trouble we face on this earth — Jesus has already overcome the world. Already. He has conquered. And promises to never leave us. That he will intercede for us. So Lord will you help us to surrender our hearts to you today and tenderly wait on what you want to reveal to us. Remind us of how tender your love is and your power to heal, restore, and redeem. Help us to have compassion for one another and see things from your point of view, having wisdom to know when to act, speak, release, forgive, stay, leave — and knowing that your will in every situation is always for us to show love. Lead us today Lord, help us to surrender our lives and love you wholeheartedly, in Jesus’s name I pray. Amen.

At the start of 2021, I had been praying about leaving my church. It wasn’t something that I was expecting to do but an experience with a senior leader had left me extremely uncomfortable.

Right away I want to encourage us to always seek God in prayer when we experience this feeling. I think it’s right to seek input from other spiritual leaders, perhaps parents, small group leaders who have walked with us, or from former leaders — youth group leaders, from our childhood church for example. But it’s so important to build that firm relationship with God for ourselves. Trust God’s Holy Spirit is in you. Don’t ignore your feelings of discomfort but bring them to God.

I tried to brush aside my hurt but a little while later, I was praying and my anger and hurt bubbled up. I pray — maybe pray-ranted — in God’s direction talking through the reasons why I felt I should lead. Then in a way I couldn’t ignore, I felt God ask me if I would stay.

And I felt God gave it to me as a question. I really prefer it when God tells me what to do but this was a question and while something about this hurt was hitting deeper I still had a lot of love for my church. I had a great small group, great prayer ministry leaders, had learned so much about spiritual disciplines and spiritual gifts. So I agreed, prayed over my situation and forgave, and tried my best to move on.

To make a complex situation simple, mid year a number of situations were submitted to our Safe Church Council and eventually everyone at church was made aware of what was going on. It was difficult to process as I could relate to a lot of the situations. At this point, I hadn’t shared the specifics of what I had experienced with anyone and now that the other situations had come to light I didn’t think it was necessary — some of the others were in the same category but were more severe and were expressed more specifically (more on this later). But the opportunity had come to take a look at what the Bible says about church hurt and spiritual abuse.

Here are five things that I’ve learned through my six month and counting journey of healing from church hurt.

1. Cry out to Jesus

No matter what we might feel, no matter what others might say, we can have 100% confidence that God cares about our hearts. He’ll definitely lead us to his truths and help us act in his ways. We are his daughters and can speak with him honestly.

Let’s think of some beloved children of God that passionately shared their feelings with him.

Hello Job who said things like “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.’ (Job 3:25-26)

Or Elijah who said ‘I have had enough, Lord … Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ (1 Kings 19:5)

Make no mistake, there is no one greater or more worthy than God. God’s lengthy response to Job is so humbling and strengthening — incredible to ponder just how mighty he is. He can handle the full weight of our emotions.

As I was going through this, I came across an Instagram Q&A with Pastor Andrew of The Vine Church in Hong Kong, and found his response to the question ‘As a Christian, how should I cope with difficult and toxic family members?’ really useful. He has four points:

  • Privately before God release all your emotion

  • Publicly before them walk in the opposite spirit to your anger or hurt

  • Do so without allowing them to walk over you. Being a forgiving Christian doesn’t mean opening yourself up to habitual abuse

  • Do your best to pray for them

We’re human, we have emotions, sometimes they need to be released. Best to release it to God first and foremost.


2. Speak carefully

When we’re alone, passionately praying — maybe pray-ranting — to God, I think we have better discernment to hear when God is stepping in, redirecting, maybe cutting us off mid-rant. There’s that Holy Spirit check.

We can also get that Holy Spirit check if we’re talking with friends but sometimes it’s not so smooth to stop and say ‘Wait what we’re saying is turning ungodly.” As Christians, I don’t think we ever go into a conversation expecting to speak badly about another believer. But on a topic like church hurt and spiritual abuse, conversations can be very emotionally charged and turn from balanced to angry quite quickly. It can be easy to say more than you meant to and feel convicted afterwards. So this isn’t to say that we can’t talk to our friends - God wants us to be in community! But a nudge that do our best to keep our speech edifying and watch that no unwholesome talk comes out of our mouths only what is good for building up the body (Ephesians 4:29) and not have conversations turn into idle speech like ranting complaint sessions (Matthew 12:36).

I think David’s experience with Saul is really useful to study. Saul was his leader and should have protected and cared for him but instead ended up trying to cause David great harm. When David’s life was in danger, he left and perhaps had many reasons to speak badly about Saul. Saul was clearly going through some things! But from what we can tell, David kept his mouth shut. Even after he left and had an opportunity to kill Saul but chose to cut a piece of his robe instead to show - look I could have killed you but I didn’t - he was filled with remorse saying that he must not do anything against God’s chosen king (1 Samuel 24).

There’s an episode of Conversations with John and Lisa Bevere on Responding to Authority When You’ve Been Mistreated. This section stood out to me, when Lisa said:

I remember some people that came out against the pastor and talked bad about him. They were right in what they said but they were wrong in what they did. We never endorsed what the pastor did but you and I said we are not touching him. And we’ve lived long enough to watch what happened to the people that attacked him. They’re lives were not successful. It was devastating to see. We understood that our words had the power to curse or bless. And we decided to take their horrible mishandling of a situation and use it as a lesson in our life rather than leverage it to make ourselves look good.

It’s not always easy but there’s no need to make ourselves look good. To avenge ourselves. God’s clear that he wants us to leave justice to him and not seek revenge for ourselves (Romans 12:19). And when it comes to our words, God knows it’s hard: James 3:7 says:

James 3:7 says: All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

We’ve all said things we shouldn’t have and I pray God helps us do better. May we remember that it’s always a good time to repent, ask for forgiveness, and ask God to help us do better. Let’s dedicate our tongues to the Lord today.

3. Watch what you let in

I’m a huge advocate for sitting with the Lord in silence or with soft instrumental music. At the moment, I live in Hong Kong - one of the fastest paced cities in the world. When I moved form Singapore, another urban city, after living there for four years, it still took me a good year to get used to Hong Kong’s hectic lifestyle. In one of my group chats the other day, we were supposed to meet at 8pm but a third of the people had to work late — they had calls that started at 10:30pm, were in a season of regularly working until 1am, and so on. This year I’ve been able to set clearer boundaries but last year I not infrequently worked until 9, 10, 11pm too. Anyway, all this to say, this hyper busy competitive city can make you feel like there’s always something else you could do. Another email. An extra fitness class. A book a week. Do you ever fall into that trap of being too Martha over Mary?

As I processed the church situation last year, there were a couple of weeks when I moved over to the Marha side consuming as much information as I could handle from the church, reading lists and podcasts shared by friends.

While I’d heard about spiritual abuse and church hurt before, I hadn’t really looked into it deeply before. Maybe because it’s really painful. During the process, I sought advice from a trusted spiritual leader from another point in my life who said - and I’m paraphrasing here - spiritual abuse can seem painful on an entirely different level as it occurs in a place where we’re supposed to be safe and from people that are supposed to know better. And so I read a lot and listened to various podcast episodes including the entirety of Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and after a few weeks… when I was taking all this in, talking with friends who were also experiencing hurt, I ended up having dinner with a close friend who wasn’t as close to the situations and I unleashed like a flood of anger - not at her but in her direction. I’d gone into the dinner thinking I’d hold my tongue and keep the conversation light, but the hurt and anger had just been stewing — even while I was praying and trying to seek God — that it came out. And it was a real check for me - that something had gone out of balance.

So I learned, again, the beauty of sitting with God in the pain. It’s great to consume resources and learn from spiritual teachers but it’s important to watch what we’re letting in and make sure learning about God and spiritual matters doesn’t overshadow talking with God — just being with God reading our bibles, being in prayer, waiting for his voice. There is nothing like God’s comfort and conviction that speaks to us just so. Just how he knows we need.

4. Reconcile if possible

Can we ever be reconciled with someone who has hurt us spiritually? I think it can be possible. When I was thinking about leaving church in January, it didn’t even cross my mind to approach the spiritual leader. But later as the situation unfolded, there were some conversations around whether it’s right to not want reconciliation.

Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

Whether or not we can do this may depend on a variety of factors including safety. So I’ll only speak about my personal experience. Before speaking to the spiritual leader that had hurt me, I’d seen the leader repent and humbly invite members of the body to help them see their blind spots. Still I didn’t really want to do it — after all, others had already spoken up on similar matters. But I felt a nudge to do so and thought perhaps it was an opportunity to do Matthew 18:15 for the first time. Sometimes this may feel different in Asian cultures where respecting our elders very strongly ingrained in our cultures, but if you sense the Holy Spirit nudging you on this — press in and pray.

We met. I shared. The leader apologized and asked for forgiveness. And I felt afterwards that something had lifted. That to the best of our ability, we were now reconciled. I knew I could no longer stay angry about the situation or be unforgiving. And I shouldn’t be worried about whether or not this person would hurt me again or gossip about me. It was time to move on and it was easier to do because the hurt and bitterness had noticably left.

Reconciliation doesn’t always mean we stay though.

5. Go if / when God says go

The best place for us to be is always in God’s will. If we sense God say it’s time to go and we stay, we’re disobeying God. If we sense God say stay and we go, we’re disobeying God. We do not want to disobey God. Other times we may sense God has give us a choice and we can choose. Why did I leave my church after reconciling with the spiritual leader? If it had just been a one-off situation involving just me and the leader, I think I would have stayed. But my experience was just one part of a larger, unfolding situation and eventually I didn’t feel safe. As the Bevere’s said in the aforementioned podcast, “If you’re at a church and you feel unsafe, you need to leave. If there is something that you know is unhealthy and you know is unsafe and you stay, then you become unhealthy. You can’t feel like you’re obligated to stay.”

As I prayed through looking for a new church, I felt God remind me that we’re one body. That we serve one God. And that brought me great comfort. For most of 2021, I felt like I was in survival mode — the church situation was happening but I also had an unexpectedly intense work year, and the word ‘trust’ helped me focus on God. In all of this, he is with me and has a plan. In the later half of the year I started to hear God speak to me about stepping into a new season and that I would experience things I’d been praying for and that I wouldn’t expect it to come so thick and fast. There have been what I can only describe as divine connections and invitations and opportunities to worship him and I believe it’s only just beginning. Indeed this year is only just beginning for us all.

I pray this episode was useful. Church hurt and spiritual abuse aren’t easy topics to absorb or understand but I pray we rely on God every step. Father God, we know you are good. Help us understand the weight of what Jesus died for us to have and help us grow in step with the Holy Spirit this year. Consume us, Lord, help us be more like you. In Jesus’s name I pray, amen.


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