Getting back on your feet after failure
The moment of impact was at a prayer meeting but the bruising had been happening for some time. Stilted conversations and cutting comments had all left their mark and indicated trouble was brewing. I’d been working for a Christian organisation for a few years and relationships had soured in the way only Christian relationships can. Superficial unity, a nod to John 13:34, but underneath a restlessness, leading to bitterness, and then an explosion of anger.
Don’t blame the non-Christians in this story either. They were friendly, kind and collegiate. It was the evangelicals who gossiped, grumbled and griped, leaving me asking over and over, ‘How could believers behave like this?’
Over the years I have noticed many friends who’ve gone through similar experiences whether that is in a church, a mission organisation or a Christian charity and they have reacted in similar ways. I hope this article will help us think about why we react to bruising encounters in the way that we do, and that the solution I found may help you. I also hope that, as you read, you might find that for those struggling with this problem, you can be part of the solution.
Time to stop sparring
How do we respond to bruising?
An immediate reaction is to take back control. One friend grew a lustrous beard. Another gave his suits to charity and refused to preach in a tie anymore. Was this healthy? Refusing to conform to the expectations of other people feels liberating and can help refocus priorities but it can also be a way of bruising those who have hurt us by identifying the thing/s they love and deliberately going against it. Think of my friend who refused to preach anymore in a suit. It felt liberating but it attacked the conscience of other believers.
I started mountain climbing. It gave me space but I couldn’t completely avoid the real world. As I looked at secular work I thought, ‘What a life!’ Look at these sons of the soil starting at nine and finishing at five! I was bruised from Christian work when I could have had a stress-free life building a wall or driving a bus. This was the irrational result of bruising. Like Asaph in Psalm 73, I envied ‘the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked’.
Friends have seen this too. Some have taken big pay cuts to do Christian work. Some have left work they loved. Some have parents who said they were wasting their life. Some look at their wives and see the impact church work has had on them. Some look at their children and see what their ministry has cost them. No wonder bruising can lead to bitterness. There is no room for more examples.
If you are hurting can I offer a piece of advice? Please stop sparring.
I am not a boxer, but in the aftermath of bruising, I loved putting on my metaphorical gloves, and in my head, going back into the room where it all went wrong or standing in that meeting and telling everyone exactly what I thought of them. I had perfect arguments and accusations, a left hook for him, a jab in the ribs for her. At the end of each imaginary bout I would stand, arms aloft having vanquished all-comers. However, it didn’t do any good. All it did was feed bitterness.
I am not advocating bottling everything up. There is a place for talking but you know the difference between carefully talking to a trusted confidant and just gossiping to yourself or with sympathetic friends. Proverbs 26 says that without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down. The same happens with bruising. Stop pressing the bruise, stop reliving every detail. Please, stop sparring.
Bruised people who sing
Let me end with a tale of two churches.
The first was sympathetic but superficial. I heard preaching that was rooted in a Bible passage. We sang, we drank coffee after service but there was no depth. The preaching was safe. It told me what I already knew but didn’t speak to the crisis I was going through. It didn’t have any arnica for my bruising. The singing was fine too but the congregation sang everything in the same safe but soulless way.
Coffee time was worst of all! People asked how I was bearing up and tried to sympathise but their sympathy came in clichés about God working everything for good for those who love the Lord. This was true but again it was safe. The future was uncertain, my spirit was hurting and nothing seemed to feed my soul. I was bruised and bitter. I felt like I was in Psalm 137 weeping by the rivers of Babylon unable to sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land.
Then, God led me to a new town and a new church where bruised people sang. This wasn’t a church where people were damaged by addiction or abuse. It was an ordinary church. They didn’t have a particular emphasis on music or a great worship band, in fact the music wasn’t always very good, but they were bruised people who had learned how to sing the songs of Zion. We sang songs about the great Saviour, Jesus, who was truly bruised and beaten though he had done nothing wrong and yet could say, ‘Father forgive’.
We heard preaching with purpose. I was encouraged to trust again the God who could heal my bruises and who would forgive me for bruising others. I was challenged not to settle into a pattern of bitterness and to examine my own failings, rather than repeatedly examine the faults in those who had bruised me.
This approach inspired the mission of the church. We had opportunities to learn from the hurt of the past and move on, enabled by grace to serve within the church and out in the community. That church helped me believe in Christianity again. I had come from an organisation where I was asking, ‘How could Christians behave like this?’ and finding negative answers. In the church God led me to, I was asking that same question but finding positive answers.
As I write I am challenged to think about the culture of the church I attend now. Would my church have helped me in my darkest moment? Would yours?
Finally, I write this to anybody who has been bruised by other Christians, particularly in ministry or mission or other paid employment. It’s a painful experience and it can damage Christians very badly. I encourage you to find a church that will tend your wounds by pointing you back to Jesus in all his goodness. With love, prayer and support you will get on to the frontline again.