Caught In The Crossfire
I know a lot of people who frequent this blog have fled the church; a recent sermon illustrated for me one of the reasons it is difficult for abuse survivors to feel comfortable in the church. Before I continue, I want to emphasize that I talked with the pastor who gave the sermon after the service and he both acknowledged that he might want to clarify some things in future sermons, but also that in his view, women in abusive relationships should absolutely leave and protect themselves; he saw leaving an abusive marriage as depending on God. I say this so we do not judge him too harshly– this is a preacher who has the right view on fleeing abuse, but his sermon could have used more sensitivity to abuse victims.
His sermon was quite good up until a point. He talked about God’s desire for us to have joy. He emphasized that a bunch of stodgy Presbyterians got together and reasoned from scripture that man’s chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” (this is from the Westminster Catechism – in fact it is the very first statement). So good so far, and a breath of fresh air since us Reformed folk seem to always dwell on how miserable we are. He illustrated from Scripture how God desires for us to have joy.
The problem came when he got to why we sometimes don’t have joy. His answer: because we are guilty of idolatry. He then spent the rest of the sermon illustrating that we place our own wants before God and that’s why we become joyless. Finding our fulfillment in Christ leads to joy and no circumstances can take away this joy. And then he concluded and was done.
Emotionally, this is a hard message to take, namely because he didn’t discuss the effects of external events or people on our well being. Are you really going to tell a woman who is being thrust against the wall by her husband and is miserable that she has an idolatry problem? Because I guarantee you if there was any such woman in the congregation, that’s what she heard.
Now, as I said, I approached the preacher after the sermon and told him my concerns and how an abuse victim would have heard what he said (and how I would have heard it when I was at my lowest point). His response: “if you heard me saying that life always feels great and there is no sorrow, then I need to re-think my presentation. It is RIGHT and GOOD to feel hurt and sorrow when evil is done to us. There is a difference between happiness and joy, and joy is not always sunshine and roses. While the Apostles suffered greatly, they praised God through it, even though it was surely painful”.
When I told him that many victims do not have the Apostle’s confidence that God is on their side because the church tells them they must remain and submit to suffering, his answer was “that’s spiritual abuse”, clearly believing that kind of thing goes on very rarely. I am glad that he understands that calling women to stay in abusive marriages is spiritual abuse, but I do hope in the future he will factor this into his sermons (and he said he would).
I wonder how much differently an abused person would react to a sermon that said “if you do not have joy then you are placing something above God; however, joy is not always an absence of pain. Tragedy and people in this world will hurt you, and it is right that you feel pain from those things. Joyful people will suffer for a time, but they can have confidence that God is on their side and does not enjoy seeing them in pain.”
I bring all of this up because it takes a pretty strong heart to walk into a church after being abused and hear sermons aimed at a culture that needs to be rebuked for its idolatry and self-centeredness; it is easy to get caught in the crossfire. In this case you have a pastor who is sympathetic to the abused, and still his sermon would injure someone vulnerable who is returning to church after experiencing abuse. For me, I am glad that God has shown me enough truth and given me enough strength to not only endure such a sermon, but to go up and address the speaker after the fact and seek clarity. Not all are at that place yet; I certainly wasn’t even six months ago, and whose to say I won’t have a bad week?
So here is a question – how do we survive the crossfire? Sitting in a church there is going to be material preached that will injure vulnerable hearts. Even the most compassionate of pastors, if he does not have experience with abuse, is not going to always be able to preach the most sensitive of messages. Reforming sermons to be sensitive to abuse victims is not going to happen any time soon.
It’s a hard question because I think this kind of thing could easily keep those out of churches who want and need it the most, and I don’t really have any answers. I think most just end up waiting until they feel strong enough, but are not those who are most weak and vulnerable the ones who need the church the most? How are we to get “strong enough” when the very place we should go to grow seems like a war-zone? Consider the words of our Savior:
 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV)
How can we be the church and not be REST for the weariest among us? Isn’t it exactly the wrong thing that people have to work at being strong enough to walk into a church?
And yet, when we look at the examples of sermons in Acts, we see Peter, the very man who spent three years walking with and learning from the Savior quoted above, giving sermons that are “bold” and do not hesitate to call people to repentance. How do we resolve this tension? How can we be both “bold” in a culture that is idolatrous and still be a place of rest for the weary? All I know is that when the weary are getting caught in the crossfire, we’re doing it wrong. We must find ways to be bold and present a message of repentance without compromising the Good News that Jesus gives us weary folks rest.