I occasionally talk to people who tell me heart rending stories about how they have been hurt deeply by Christians or the Church (and usually “Church” is pretty vaguely defined). Recently I was reminded of some deep hurt some of my friends from childhood experienced where I was in the picture (though in this case not the one causing the pain) at the time they were hurt in that way. And I’d be lying to say that I didn’t experience some deep injustice of my own at the same time.
My childhood parish, called Christ the King, was favorably (really, glowingly) featured in the book I just read and reviewed called Forming Intentional Disciples, and honestly, much of the good the author had to say about this parish was true when I was attending there with my family, so much so that when I met my first Evangelical Christian in high school who confided to me that she had grown up Catholic but never knew God, it came as a complete shock to me that this was even possible. Christ the King parish is what you would call a vibrant parish where people seriously live out their faith and disciple each other. I was definitely discipled and mentored by many people during my time there, and that early investment into my young life continues to bear fruit to this day–even after years of participating in parishes where I did not get much in the way of discipling or mentoring.
I was part of it in the early days–it was established just thirty or so years ago as a charismatic parish. At first, the parish was the Catholic wing of an ecumenical charismatic community called The Word of God, which itself founded and was part of a worldwide network of such communities all over the world called The Sword of the Spirit. It eventually became an independent parish as the 60% Catholics who made up The Word of God community wanted to more deeply express their Catholic faith as well as reach out more effectively to the surrounding community.
But anyway, being involved as a child in the founding days had its definite ups and downs. In general people learn a lot by trial and error and when it’s a church or community that is the platform for learning, well, the trials and errors can deeply affect people, especially children. My friends and I were students in the Christian school that was part of the Community, and at times were genuine victims of others’ mistakes and outright sins.
As one good friend of mine who was a teacher in the school while I was attending put it to me in a recent conversation, “We were very young and we thought we knew so much when in fact we knew so little.”
Several months ago I happened to come across an article on an Evangelical pastor site (which I know I won’t be able to find again) which admonished pastors to be conscious of the pain they might be causing people in their congregation. The author, himself a pastor, referred to it as a church health statistic that is often overlooked but is actually really important. He talked about the bodies strewn all over the place representing the people the pastor had wounded in some way.
While I certainly am all in favor of church leaders of any kind considering the impact of their words and actions on other people, something about the article didn’t sit well with me because it implied (perhaps unconsciously on the part of the author) that a church leader causing pain to a congregant was always categorically a bad thing.
So I wrote a comment beginning with “As a layperson I expect to be hurt by church leaders from time to time…” and going on to express that I have a choice about how to handle such hurt, meaning it’s not going to be entirely the church leader’s fault if as a result I decide to leave that congregation (or Christianity altogether) in a huff.
That’s what I’m referring to for the purposes of this essay as affliction–the instance of being wounded by a church leader or fellow Christian for any reason, distinguished from suffering in general.
And I contend that affliction is a normal part of life. Not only that, it can often be incredibly beneficial to one’s spiritual growth. When I was in eighth grade Confirmation class, we watched the movie The Song of Bernadette, which was the story of how dirt poor and possibly learning disabled Saint Bernadette Soubirous witnessed a series of apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in which she eventually revealed that she was the Immaculate Conception (coinciding perfectly with the Catholic Church’s 1854 declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception). Saint Bernadette of Lourdes eventually became a nun, and the Mother Superior of her convent apparently was on a personal mission to prove to Bernadette that just because she saw the Blessed Virgin Mary and as a result got to talk with a number of the eminent Catholic higher ups of the day did not mean that she herself was anything special. According to the movie, this Mother Superior treated Bernadette harshly and unjustly.
I was an avid reader of Lives of the Saints and several biographies and autobiographies of saints at that time, and it turns out that Saint Bernadette’s experience was not unique. Many of the saints had someone in their lives who seemed to go out of their way to be tough on them. And while the saints on the receiving end of this treatment felt hurt by this initially, they would accept the pain, offer it up in union with Jesus and invite Him to use it to purify their souls, and in the end they would be thankful for those difficult people because they saw at least in part the fruit of such affliction of deeper purity and union with Jesus. As a child I greatly admired the saints for this while at the same time finding this growing love of such affliction an incomprehensible mystery.
And then one day I found myself on the receiving end of it after many years of not having read much of the lives of the saints and not remembering that common detail about their experiences. I remember mentally going through the standard options of what to do in a situation like that which included bristling, getting very offended, interrupting and telling the other person he had no right to say these things to me, walking out right then and there, and then making sure every one of our mutual friends got told what happened (from my greatly offended point of view). Yes, all those options and more were briefly considered, but then I just knew deep inside that this was meant to be, even good and ordained by God, so instead I took it all in and let myself feel the pain without resenting it.
A year later I consider this experience to be a major high point of my spiritual life. It worked out exactly the way it worked out with the many saints who had experienced this sort of thing before me. The wound I received had a deeply purifying effect on my soul as deeply ingrained sin I hadn’t even realized was there got separated from me enough that I could see and abhor it for what it was and then confess it and experience it being washed away for good. And it has made me long for more purification of this nature as I know that I have more sins and impurities still staining my soul.
And I have experienced similar little instances of being afflicted and humbled and purified since then, and often those instances have come about due to someone else’s blundering. No one is on a specific mission to hurt me, but yes it happens. And yes, I think this is a normal part of the spiritual life, and it can yield tremendous fruit. Several Scripture passages immediately come to mind when I consider this matter.
Proverbs 20: 30 Stripes that wound scour away evil and strokes reach the innermost parts.
Proverbs 27: 6 Faithful are the wounds of a friend but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.
Psalm 119: 71 Is is good for me that I was afflicted that I may learn Your statutes.
Proverbs 3: 11-12 (quoted in Hebrews 12: 5-6) My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord or loathe His reproof for whom the Lord loves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.
Although words implying punishment are used in these passages I honestly do not see such affliction coming from the Lord (through other people) as being a punishment, certainly not in the negative sense that punishment is typically understood. I think of it more as Jesus seeing into my soul and knowing that my heart’s desire is to be completely one with Him, and making the decision that He will do whatever it takes to fulfill that desire. There are times when that “whatever it takes” means afflicting me or taking me through suffering. But He is bringing me through this so that He can give me what I want. It’s more like a sports coach being tough on an athlete, like making him run laps or do push-ups until it hurts because that is how the athlete will excel, which is what they both want.
That all sounds fine and good, but what about when the affliction is genuine injustice? I used to worry about that more than I do now, but I have since realized that God can use even the gravest injustice for good. One has only to consider the many martyrs whose blood turned out to be the seed of the Church. Going back further there are many instances in the historical books of the Bible where God used an evil nation to chastise and purify His Chosen People. He often would then chastise that evil nation because they got really carried away and acted out of sinfulness. While I don’t claim to understand how that all works, I do believe that ultimately justice will be done so I really don’t have to worry about it.
Of interest to me is that regardless of whether I’m hurt as a result of a friend’s sincere intentions or an enemy’s outright wickedness, God has the power and authority to determine how to work through that affliction for my benefit as long as I am willing to submit to His work in my life. He is not going to be overpowered or thwarted by someone else’s motives. That is an assurance which has given me much inner peace.
Going back to my days as a student in the Christian school and a member of Christ the King parish, I do want to share about a genuine injustice that I did experience while I was there and how God worked through it for my good–if for no other reason than to say I have first hand experience that it can happen.
There was a certain teacher who for whatever reason did not like me very much and did a poor job of hiding it. Favoritism was one of the injustices done in those early days and many of my friends experienced it in one form or another. When this teacher directed a production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, I ended up being one of only two students who were not given parts. The other student was going to be away during the performance. Even when I made a point to approach this teacher and suggest minor parts so that more people could participate, while she took my suggestion she still didn’t cast me. I was an understudy to a major part but I didn’t see that as counting.
In general I never felt like this teacher was happy with me, she criticized me in front of the other students and was in general very tough on me. My parents held several conferences with her about how she treated me to no avail.
I graduated from the Christian school and began public high school. I vividly remember the day that the Holy Spirit informed me that it was time to forgive. I was fourteen and delivering newspapers for the route my brother and I shared and fantasizing about how I was going to finally vindicate myself in the eyes of this teacher, make her see that I really was not only OK, but terrific, make her regret all the mean things she’d done to me over the past few years. I was already doing quite well in school and would very soon become instrumental in starting a Bible club there as well as become a shining light in the local pro-life movement, far surpassing everyone’s expectations for ministry, even by Christ the King parish standards.
That quiet inner voice interrupted my fantasies of vindication bordering on revenge. ”Nothing you do is going to vindicate you in her eyes; you need to let go of this and forgive her.”
I thought about this for a few minutes, long enough to realize that forgiveness would not come naturally or easily, pondering whether I really was ready to let go of my resentment.
“OK, I’ll do it,” I finally answered, “But how?”
It was a decision. I prayed a prayer expressing my sincere intent to forgive this teacher and asking God to help me actually do it, and after that whenever I found myself replaying the old tapes of resentment, I would consciously stop that track and remind myself that I have forgiven her. It took a few months but that resentment did fade and I quit thinking about proving myself to her. When I started experiencing some genuine success both in ministry and academics it didn’t even occur to me to imagine ways in which I could make these things known to this teacher. She just faded from my thoughts altogether.
Today what I remember most about this teacher is that she was a phenomenal literature and grammar teacher. She taught us grammar all the way to ninth grade, something the local public schools had stopped doing by the end of sixth grade. I must have diagrammed hundreds of sentences as homework assignments, not to mention writing weekly essays for years on all kinds of topics and reading serious classics by Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, L. M. Montgomery, Jane Austen and other authors of that caliber by the time I turned fourteen. I largely credit her for my current ability to write well (although I have since forgotten most of the complicated parts of sentences).
And I learned a very important lesson about forgiveness, which helped me to not only forgive subsequent wrongs done to me but to also be able to grasp more fully the depth of God’s extravagant and total forgiveness for me no matter how much my own sin offended Him. Overall, I feel like I came out ahead. Yes I suffered, but I definitely grew, and I was also free from the devastation of holding onto resentment and bitterness for years and years afterwards, something for which I am extremely grateful.
With all this reflection about how affliction–being deeply wounded by other people in our lives–is not only a normal part of life, but can be a true gift in terms of the fruit it can yield in the life and health of our souls, I do feel the need to insert a few caviats so as to not be misunderstood. I am speaking about how God can bring a greater good out of difficult experiences we have and this in no way means I condone such suffering caused by genuine evil or injustice. When we see genuine injustice being done to others, we should defend them and attempt to stop it. When it is done to us, there are legitimate and healthy ways to confront such injustice and this can be done with the purpose of restoring the perpetrator to a place of not committing such sins. I am definitely not saying we should all just take every kind of injustice on the chin and never defend ourselves or our children. Nor am I condoning any sort of willful intent on the part of church leaders to use their power to engage in any sort of “I’m being cruel to be kind” strategy in their dealings with those entrusted to their care. I am saying that I recognize that while there is an ideal standard for how Christians ought to behave towards one another, Christians will often deviate from following it for the simple reason that we are still sinners and works in progress, and that there will be times when such deviation will wound me. There will also be times when I will be the one causing pain to another because of my own sin and perhaps it will fall on another to bring this to my attention, which can also cause me pain. In other words, stuff happens and people get hurt, and that is part of life. We all have choices about how we will respond when it’s us getting wounded, and I think it helps to not get too bent out of shape about it in the first place so that we can respond out of love and out of obedience to the Holy Spirit rather than out of our own hurt and pride.