Barring Bitterness When We’ve Been Hurt by the Church

We live in an age of countless choices; brands to buy, vendors to use, meals to order. And while this is a great luxury of both western culture and the twenty-first century, sometimes, I find, access to endless choices curdles our hearts with skepticism and cynicism. Even as we try to nurture a posture of generosity, we find that critical thinking often spills over into a critical spirit.

When I was in my teens, I could run my mouth with the best of them. No, seriously: I was a sassy smart-aleck with the unreal ability to turn my nose up at just about anything. I won’t soon forget one afternoon where my criticism turned against my mother and all her mothering ways, and I laid out her glaring failures to my father’s listening ear. He let my rant cool to a simmer before leaning in, placing a firm hand on my shoulder, and with the severe sobriety of a loving father saying, “That’s my bride you’re talking about.”

That was the first, but not the last, time this phrase pressed off this lips. When we, as kids, would complain to my dad about how mom wasn’t letting us have the sleepover we asked for, or when I entered that phase of life in college in which I felt I knew everything and she knew little, he would slowly say, “That’s my bride you’re talking about.”

Unfortunately, these cynical habits are not confined to grocery store isles and restaurant menus. I have sat in smalls groups and Bible studies and Sunday school classes where a conversation wanders from a proper desire to think well about the Church into critical territory. Don’t get me wrong, I think we’re mostly well-intentioned, hoping to think hard and well about the Church. But somewhere along the way, critical thinking turned into a critical spirit.

I remember one such instance well. I was sitting on the fireplace hearth in our small group hosts’ home, when our conversation took a sudden turn towards personal hurts caused by the Church. The conversation that started with a confessional tone – “I’ll admit, it is sometimes hard for me to sign up to serve on Sunday mornings because I used to be asked to volunteer countless hours a week, and I burned out” – quickly proved to be laced with cynicism. As the conversation persisted, it turned from the confessional and garnered a spiteful tone. An individual sharing their personal history with an overbearing pastor was followed by two other individual’s stories of the same kind, but with mounting distain.

In a matter of minutes, the living room was a communal display of pain and resentment, each person sharing their wounds and pointing the blame brazenly at the Church. All were participating, myself included; each person could relate, escalating resentment against churches past and present. Comments intended to be constructive had a harshness, a bitterness in their construction. And, as I listened and participated, I sensed the sharp pang of the Spirit’s conviction: That’s My Bride you’re talking about.

The reminder did not change the wounds represented in the room, nor did it justify the actions that caused them. But it rushed to my mind the picture of my father’s firm hand on my shoulder, the sobriety of his corrective tone, and the love from which he spoke. And I was reminded in that moment: Christ loves the Church, and He asks that I seek to love her, too. Instead of fostering bitterness, He asks that I seek healing and reconciliation.

Yes, the Church has been the catalyst for many, many wounds that individuals will bear for a long time. The Church has ignored people in pain, dismissed suffering, discriminated, wrongly accused people of sin, and spoken careless words from the pulpit. Anyone who has been a part of the Church for any length of time can likely recount a way in which they have been offended, hurt, or disappointed. But as we process these hurts and seek to find a salve, we must remember that the Church that we are speaking about is the Bride of Christ. Because of that, we have a vital responsibility guard our hearts with a watchful eye, and to cultivate again and again a humble spirit that seeks healing and reconciliation.

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