The hurting church is not an occasional problem. More and more often we find people who have been hurt deeply within the family of God, leaving them worn and exhausted. More and more often we find leaders in conflict within the body of believers, robbed of the joy Jesus promised in Him. When we find this hurt hanging on to our own bruised soul, it can make us want to leave the church and sometimes even want to blame God who seems to have allowed it all.
Sadly, we have come to accept that this is the way church is. There is an epidemic of fractured believers out there and we have actually come to accept this as the norm. So we either stay away and let our hearts become cold and bitter...or we put on our Sunday best, say "life goes on" and implement a new vision or program and hope the problems will just go away. The hurt in individual hearts and churches gets buried...until it gets stirred up again.
Can we break this cycle that happens over and over in heart after heart, and church after church?
I am continually amazed at the simplicity of God's Word and the clear, direct instructions He shares with us. The Father's heart toward us, His children, is so open and loving as He instructs us in living in the day-to-day challenges.
The steps God gives us are simple, though not easy. They are steps that can help us move from being reactive in conflict to becoming proactive in guarding our hearts and our churches. And, as steps always do, they will take us to higher ground where we can live above disunity and confusion. The framework these steps are built on is love. Love is also the handrail that helps move us along from one step to another. Without love, the steps move us from the fulfillment of right living that God calls us to, to self- righteous living, which is hollow and void of the power of the Holy Spirit. God says our trademark will be love. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35).
Step 1: Know your enemy
We don't like to focus on the devil. We don't want to give him any glory. Yet, in failing to listen to the warning of Scripture that the devil actually "prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8), we find ourselves consumed ("devoured!") by all kinds of agitations/irritations in one another and in the church.
Quarrels about how new programs are run, personalities of church leaders, different worship styles, people who "just don’t get it" the way we do, all begin to rob us of our joy and steal our effectiveness as a body of believers. And we are often clueless to what is really going on in the spiritual realm. Scripture says, "We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers..." (Ephesians 6:12). When in conflict with another believer, we need to ask ourselves the question, "Is there a greater power at work here?"
The answer in these situations is usually "yes." And the solution is so simple we miss it. As Christians we are in a fierce battle. But our opponent is in the spiritual realm. His mandate is to "kill, steal and destroy" (John 10:10). Instead of recognizing that, we engage in battle with one another, leaving scratches and scars, bruises and bleeding that sometimes takes years to heal and always leaves a mark. And the trademark of love becomes so faint, the world can hardly see it. Scripture tells us to "be alert, and resist the enemy" (1Peter 5:8,9) be on your guard and "stand against the schemes of the devil" (Ephesians 6:11). So when conflict strikes...know immediately who your opponent is...know immediately he has schemes and plans in place that will at best steal from you and at worst destroy God's people and their effectiveness.
Any pervasive, downward spiral needs to be called what it is. Be alert to the red flags. Our human nature wants to defend and justify ourselves. God knows the tendency of our hearts to go their own way. That is why He calls us to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and to do good to those who use us (Luke 6:27). (The trademark of love, remember?) Only the "God strength" in our lives, His strength at our point of weakness and frustration, can remedy this battle that is fought in the heavens, yet lived out on earth in our churches.
"Be alert and always keep on praying" (Ephesians 6:18) When prayer is no longer the oxygen of our spiritual soul or the heartbeat of our church, our defense is down. Praying for those who hurt us becomes something we don't even want to do. Neglect in prayer and in the spiritual training of the Word leaves us with open doors for the enemy to turn the battle on one another. It is so subtle and we can feel so justified, but the loss in our own hearts and in the Kingdom is an unnecessary tragedy. The stealing and robbing is done long before we have even recognized the enemy was at the door. Knowing he is prowling about keeps us in a proactive state and able to recognize and withstand his tactics.
Step 2: Keep short accounts
The truth of the Word of God in the instruction from Paul to "not let the sun go down on your anger" is so profoundly simple that we miss it (we just miss a lot of things God is trying to tell us).
The Bible often uses the picture of seeds and reaping and sowing. Seeds of irritations and annoyances, not weeded out and dealt with on a daily basis, grow in our hearts. When they are not dealt with as soon as we recognize them, they take root and each subsequent encounter with that same agitation, which will always be linked to some person, will cause that root to dig just a little deeper. The deeper it goes, the more bitter it gets.
Scripture tells us "a root of bitterness springs up and defiles many" (Hebrews 12:15). When it finally comes out, it defiles us and those around, and hurt is the result. When our own bitter roots come up we hurt others. That is why Proverbs 4:23 tells us "above all else guard your heart for it is the well spring of life." It is the very source of all we are. What is in our heart spills out of our mouth (Matthew 12:34), and it is by our very words that we often grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:29, 30), and love goes out the window. The trademark that identified us as His disciples disappears and the world looking on can see no difference in us.
So guard your heart. Take stock every day. Holiness is truth in the inner part. Keep short accounts for your own heart's sake.
If the root is only just beginning in your own heart and still undetected by others, go to God and ask for its removal. You know when it is there. Ask for grace to be poured out in your heart so that you will have all the grace you need to deal with that particular situation and person. 2 Corinthians 9:8 says, "God is able to make all grace abound to you so that in all things and at all times having all that you need you will abound in every good work." If the root has already spilled out and hurt others, go and confess to them. Even if they do not receive you or do not own their part of the conflict, keep your own heart guarded and clean. You are only responsible for one heart. Unresolved conflict in the heart of another is God’s job to deal with. Go read Matthew 18. It's the biblical example to follow when dealing with conflict among believers.
The presence of God in a life and the degree of truth that is allowed in the inner part will be evident in the fruit of our lives. Watch the fruit in your own life and in the lives of others. The fruit gives us away (Matthew 7:20). If you have owned your part in a conflict and others refuse to do the same, give them grace, pray for them, and if necessary, distance yourself from the overflow of their bitter root until they allow God to do healing in their heart.
Always be alert to the seeds that you allow in your heart. They all eventually produce fruit of one kind or another. List the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness/humility, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22). Ask yourself the simple question: "What fruit of the Spirit is in short supply in my life right now?" Then take an honest look at the seeds that may have begun to take root in your heart.
Step 3: Don’t be afraid of accountability
It seems we have come to allow gossip, slander and anger to simply be overlooked and rationalized in our churches. We excuse the fractures among believers by telling ourselves that God is purging our church, He is bringing justice. We stand up and boldly say, “God is in control,” while tears fall and tender spirits get bruised and crushed. We forget that the enemy is alive and well, attempting to influence our choices in how we deal with these situations. We forget that for God to be in control of the moment, the conversation or the situation, we must ask Him to allow His Spirit to work in us and through us. Psalm 15 depicts the marks of an authentic Christian. It says, "He casts no slur on his fellowman...but honors those who fear the Lord." In any given troubling situation we need to honestly ask ourselves, "Am I making choices that allow God to be in control here or am I taking control?"
Proverbs 3:5,6 tells us to "trust in the Lord with your whole heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your path straight." If your own understanding is resulting in opinions and actions that bring division, be accountable for what is going on in your own heart.
God speaks harshly about the one who promotes division (Titus 3:10). If you are prompted to speak to one who is causing division, remember the trademark and go in love and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Don't be afraid to call or be called to accountability. We can run to God, our ever present help. God is Sovereign and He is the Great Redeemer. No matter how bad a situation is, if He is invited in, at any point, He will come in and redeem the situation, work things out for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28) and put a derailed train back on the tracks.
2 Chronicles 7:14 says, "If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked (selfish) ways, then I will heal their land" (their church, their heart). It's a sure promise!
Step 4: Acknowledge pride
Scripture says, "God resists, or opposes, the proud but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). Pride is a killer. It is one of the subtlest tools of the enemy. God actually resists the proud! Who would want to be opposed by God? Heck no, not me! Yet in the church we often do find pride, but it wears a different cloak than it does out in the world.
In Christian circles we know that pride in our position and possessions is not a godly thing. We scorn openly the pursuit of "fame and fortune" alone. Yet pride exists in our hearts and in our churches in two prominent ways that we often try to justify.
There is pride in standing for a "principle of righteousness" while walking away from reconciliation. Making such a stand is not wrong in itself; however it is very often accompanied by a lack of grace and a spiritual superiority that cuts off the Spirit of God from working in a situation. If you are ever tempted to "stand for righteousness" against another Christian brother or sister, check if your trademark of love is visible, make sure your heart is clean in all the secret places and that you have done all you can to live at peace (Romans 12:18). If the basis for your stand is your own pride be very careful, for God does resist the proud.
The second place pride plays a major role in the church is in the area of spiritual gifts. You may have a discerning heart or a prophetic gift. God may reveal truth to you in a situation or even in the life of another. Again, be very careful. God calls us first to prayer and often, to nothing more. If words are to be spoken God will clearly reveal that, but the first task is to obey the call to prayer.
Much damage has been done in the church when someone feels they have received a word from God and simply talks, rather than prays, about it. If you think you sense something pray, pray, PRAY! And God will reveal if there is anything else He requires. God's whisper in our Spirit will never be in conflict with what He directs in His Word. When we speak in spiritual pride, the Spirit is grieved and we cut off that which God was at work doing in our lives and in the situation. (1 Corinthians 13) The simple question to ask before opening your mouth is: "Will this lift Jesus higher or will this lift me higher?"
Be slow to speak, especially words that sow negative seeds about another, and be quick to listen. Ephesians 4:29,30 says, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God..."
Step 5: Use the opportunity for growth
When we recognize there has been hurt in our church, we must be willing to take a stand to say what will be different from this day forward. So often we experience hurt within the church walls and we retreat for a while, only to return to find a new vision or a new program and a turning of the page to "press on" and "forget what is behind" without ever acknowledging why we got to the hurtful point we did.
If there is one thing we have learned throughout history, is that it repeats itself. Struggles with pride and accountability, with tending the seeds of our heart and not recognizing our enemy are day-to-day struggles. Unless we recognize where we have been in hurting times and plant some stakes that serve as markers to check us when we tend to spiral into the same patterns, we have not taken the opportunity to mature and move ahead in our journey with God as a church. Ask yourself: "Am I willing to acknowledge my part and take steps to prevent a repeat?"
When conflict threatens your heart and your church, as it always will, seek first to be intentional about raising the banner of prayer in your life and in your church. This invites the Spirit of God to be at work in the lives of those involved and minimizes our tendency to lean on our own understanding. It moves us toward recognizing our utter dependence on God and God alone as the hope of the hurting church.
If you are part of a church that is experiencing hurt and conflict, confusion and disorder, God gives a measuring stick to determine what value system is at work. James 3: 13-17 talks about two kinds of wisdom, one, which does not come from heaven, and one that does. The one not based on heavenly values is centered on earthly values with envy and selfish ambition at the core. Not hard to spot. The trademark of love will be blatantly absent.
The wisdom based on heavenly values will be pure, peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
This higher value system can be reached by applying these five steps based on the foundation of love – love that comes from the heart of the Father to our own individual heart. Then the world will see our trademark and glorify our Father who is in heaven.
Tend your heart wisely! The state of your soul, the health of your church and the world that is watching depends on it.