A blog post written by the daughter of respected church leaders has circulated the social media airwaves over the past few days. In it, she chronicled the judgment, gaslighting, and disrespect she experienced while volunteering for a particular church branch.
It sparked a conversation, and hundreds of others went on to speak up about how they, too, have experienced the same thing. This, to me, was equal parts unsurprising, startling, and alarming.
I felt grateful that this woman had such deep roots that she remained in Christ and the church despite all that happened. I have already watched tens of friends walk away because of the disillusionment, and I don’t want to see it happen again.
The Reality of Church Trauma: My Story
Still, there is no denying the impact of church trauma. I’ve been through it, and each infliction of injury only hurt more than the last.
I’m not going to lay it out in detail because we’d end up with a novella if I did. All you need to know is that it started when I was 12, it persisted through my college and young professional years, and I’m still reeling from the pain.
Gossip. Slander. Back-stabbing. Mistreatment. [Mis]judgment. Ostracism. Church politics. Manipulation. Emotional abuse. Unrealistic expectations. Unreasonable demands. Extra-biblical legalism.
I’ve been through it.
The thing is, I had gotten so good at burying offense that I didn’t realize how much it hurt me. I was so terrified that I would end up bitter that I refused to let myself be angry.
I didn’t want to say or do anything that could damage the “reputation” of the church I was a part of. I would always tell myself, “no community is perfect,” even as I remained keenly aware of the robotic perfection that was being demanded of me.
The process of unearthing started in June 2019. I still remember the events surrounding it vividly.
For several years, I found refuge and relief in the shelter of a different church campus. The community there made me feel so safe that I thought I had already healed. But then the Lord called me back to my place of injury, and going there was like rubbing salt on a long-forgotten wound.
This went on for the following months. Then the pandemic happened; I flew back to Ilagan, the safest community I have ever known, and the issue went to the back burner once again. Every so often, it would come up in a conversation with friends who have also been hurt by the same community, but I’d shrug it off.
I’ve had years of practice, after all.
It wasn’t until late last year that I realized just how much pain I was in. I sat with the Lord and set all that had happened at His feet; it was like all the pain of the last decade just crashed on me. All the hurt I tried to subdue and all the anger I tried to deny gushed out, and for a moment there, I thought the tears wouldn’t end.
Untangling that much trauma takes time, and all this time, I thought that I had already forgiven what happened. But that’s not true.
I was only overlooking the offense; I didn’t really forgive it.
It was when I felt and acknowledged the full extent of what was done to me that forgiveness became possible.
Now, in the unraveling, I learned three things:
1. It’s okay to be angry.
Look, I was furious. It wasn’t just that they did things to me; it was that they also did it to other people. They got away with it and lived their lives as if they didn’t cause such heartache to so many souls. It was frustrating.
I was angry at what they had done. I was pissed at the fact that they were unapologetic. I felt livid because what they did was wrong.
But that’s as far as I would let myself go.
I had to willfully avoid imposing judgment on their character. I had to keep myself from thinking and saying bad things about them out of anger. I had to flee from the desire to be bitter and vengeful.
"In your anger, do not sin."
2. Forgive, even if there are no apologies.
In an ideal world, people would own up to the pain they had caused. They would admit the wrong they had done and make amends — especially if they were Christians.
However, things are not always ideal, and most of the time, we have to deal with the offense without anyone ever acknowledging our pain.
This is why so many people end up walking away from the church with bitterness in their hearts. They are owed an apology, but they are never able to get it.
Personally, it felt sucky that I had to forgive, mindfully and repeatedly, when these people didn’t seem to care about what they did to me. I also felt like I was owed an apology, and rightfully so.
I guess this is what it means when the Bible tells us to forgive our debtors.
Let’s talk numbers. We’re all probably familiar with the verse wherein Jesus said that we are to forgive our offenders seventy times seven. But that’s not all.
In the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), the servant owed the king 10,000 talents. A talent is a unit of weight, usually equivalent to 75 pounds or 33 kilograms.
NIV documents the debt as gold, and as of this writing, gold is priced at $58,829.44 per kilo. That means that one talent is equivalent to $1,941,371.52!
In total, the servant owed nearly 20 BILLION dollars or over 1 TRILLION pesos in today’s currency. It would have been impossible for him to pay that off!
Bonus tidbit: At the time, slavery was legal, and one person sold into slavery was worth three years of wages (around 1,000 denarii or silver coins). This means that the king could have sold off the servant and his entire family, and that still wouldn’t make a dent in the debt. There was nothing the servant could have done to be forgiven.
But that’s the whole point. The parable is meant to reflect the magnitude of the debt. That’s how much spiritual debt we owe to God. That’s how much we have offended Him. And He still forgives us, freely and repeatedly, no matter how many times we mess up.
Meanwhile, the forgiven yet unforgiving servant went on to hunt down another servant who owed him a hundred denarii.
At first, it made no sense why the servant wouldn’t just forgive the debt. It just seemed so measly in comparison to how much had been forgiven him. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was supposed to reflect our own incapacity for forgiveness. Perhaps, in the eyes of God, we too look foolish when we refuse to forgive despite how much had been forgiven us.
3. It’s still going to hurt.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that the pain or trauma immediately goes away.
There was a time in my life when I had to audition for a certain ministry, and part of the panel was a man who previously made no secret of his judgment towards me. We have already reconciled at that point, and I have completely forgiven him, but that didn’t stop me from going into a full-blown panic attack once I was under his scrutiny.
A little side note: Forgiveness does not always equate to reconciliation. Why? Because reconciliation is two-way. I can extend forgiveness, but without repentance on the part of the offender, there can be no restoration of relationship.
In this case, the offender sincerely repented, and I happily accepted.
Never mind that it was for professional purposes and that he was very supportive of me. That’s just how trauma works.
Likewise, I still hurt when I’m reminded of how certain church members have treated me. I’m still taken aback when I encounter them or their names. I can’t really say that I’ve reconciled with them because they never apologized. And when I remember that, that hurts too.
But you know what? It’s okay that it still hurts. We don’t minimize the pain. We feel it again; then we forgive them again.
Reconciling with Reality
As someone who grew up in church, I never went through a period of disillusionment because I was already well aware of its flaws. It tended to be bureaucratic, transactional, and image-centric. People could be judgmental, gossipy, and hypocritical.
But you know what? I also tended to be bureaucratic, transactional, and image-centric. There were times when I, too, was judgmental, gossipy, and hypocritical.
I am the church, and I am flawed.
It doesn’t excuse what the leaders who should have known better did.
I had the right to be hurt and angry. I had grounds to leave. I shouldn’t have experienced what I did from my church community. I could hold these people accountable.
But it also meant that I couldn’t throw the first stone no matter how much I wanted to.
Called to Community
My church community gave me the deepest pain and betrayal I have experienced. Yet it also gave me my greatest joys, best friends, and favorite memories. More importantly, it helped build my spiritual foundations and shape me into who I am today. I have to give credit where it is due.
Some people ask me why I don’t just leave the church in its entirety, given that I am painfully aware of all the things wrong within it. That never made sense to me. I never became part of the church because of the church in itself. I became a part of it because of Jesus.
My faith was never in the supposed perfection and loving-kindness of my church community. My faith is in the perfection and loving-kindness of my God.
I still love the church, regardless of everything that happened. How can I not? Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.
And we’re all just broken, imperfect together.
A Communal Conquering
Now, there’s a quote that goes, “Love is not blind. It sees, but it does not mind.”
I beg to differ.
It’s because I love the church that I mind.
We can’t go on like this.
We can’t keep shoving this issue under the rug. Because let’s be honest. We’ve heard similar narratives through the years. Yet almost every time someone comes out with a the-church-hurt-me story, they are painted as bitter and divisive.
The only reason why there is finally a collective acknowledgment of what’s happening is that someone well-connected to the movement spoke up. Though it may seem presumptuous, I would argue that if it were just “another attendee,” we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
We can’t keep playing masquerade for the sake of public image.
We’re not a brand. We’re a church.
And we will not conquer what we don’t confront.
If we’re going to triumph over church trauma, we need to do it together.
Decontruction or Reconstruction?
"I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you too are to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you have love and unselfish concern for one another.” John 13:34-35
Many Christians have either “deconstructed” or “deconverted” from the faith because they have been so disillusioned by the cruelty they encountered in the church.
Who can blame them?
If we don’t have the love and unselfish concern for one another that Jesus talked about, how will they know that we are truly His disciples?
And when we think about it, there is much work that needs to be done. Entire structures need to be overhauled. Neurological patterns need to be recalibrated. Habits and tendencies need to be reset.
It can seem overwhelming. But you know what? I trust that the Lord has been speaking to the leaders about all these things that need to change.
It’s going to be painful, but like my grandfather told my dad, and my dad told me, when a tree is starting to grow sideways, you have to hammer and straighten it into form. Otherwise, it will grow bent out of shape, and you would have to cut the entire thing down.
The Bible does tell us that the Gardener cuts off branches. We don’t want that.
As for you and me? We just love as Christ told us to — like He did.
". . . Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." Ephesians 5:25b-27