Being hurt by the church is not something that happens once in a while. We often find people who have been deeply wounded by the family of God, leaving them worn and exhausted. Leaders are sometimes in conflict with other believers, robbed of the joy that Jesus promised. When we examine our own bruised souls, it can make us want to leave the church and even put God on a “back burner” since he has allowed it all.

Sadly, we have come to accept that being hurt by the church is inevitable. So we either stay away and let our hearts become cold, or we put on our Sunday best and hope the problems will just go away. The pain gets buried until it gets bumped again.

Can we break this cycle?

I am continually amazed at the simplicity of God’s Word and the direct instructions he shares with us. The Father’s heart toward us, his children, is so open and loving. He so wisely instructs us in the way we should live — in the midst of the messiness, where the rubber meets the road.

The steps God gives us to live together in unity are simple, though not necessarily 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 strife and confusion.

Love is the framework upon which these steps are built. Love is also the handrail that helps us move along from one step to another. 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).

As in all things, God wants us to obey him in the power of the Holy Spirit, not in our own strength.

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 heed 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 irritations we find in one another and in the church. We don’t like a leader’s personality or how a new program is run. We complain about a particular worship style or about people who “just don’t get it” the way we do.

Being negative robs us of joy and steals our effectiveness as a body of believers. And we are so often oblivious to what is really going on in the spiritual realm.

Ephesians 6:12 says: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers.”

When in conflict with another believer, we need to ask ourselves the question, “Am I wrestling against flesh and blood?”

The answer in these situations is usually “yes.” And the solution is so simple we usually miss it. As Christians, we must remember that our sole opponent is in the spiritual realm. Satan’s mandate is to “kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:10). Instead of reminding ourselves of that fact, we put on the gloves and begin to engage in battle with one another, leaving scratches and scars, bruises and bleeding. It can sometimes take years to heal from these battles, and they always leave a mark. The trademark of love becomes faint; onlookers can hardly see it.

Scripture tells us to “be alert,” and to “resist the enemy” (1 Peter 5:8–9), to be on guard and to “stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). So, when irritation strikes, recognize your true opponent. Know that 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 propensity 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 spitefully use us (Luke 6:27). It is only by trusting the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives whenever we feel weak or frustrated that we can engage in the true battle that is fought in the spiritual realm yet lived out 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 defences are down. Praying for those who hurt us becomes something we don’t even want to do. Neglecting prayer and Bible reading leaves us open to the enemy and conflict. His tactics are so subtle; we can feel so justified in attacking one another, but the loss to our own hearts and to the Kingdom is an unnecessary tragedy. The enemy’s stealing and robbing is done long before we have even recognized that he was at the door. Knowing he is prowling the neighborhood keeps us in a proactive state; this allows us to recognize him and withstand his tactics.

Step 2: Keep Short Accounts

Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry (Ephesians 4:26).

This truth is so profoundly elementary we often miss it.

The Bible often uses images drawn from agriculture: seeds, reaping, sowing. Seeds of irritation and annoyance, not plucked out and dealt with on a daily basis, will grow in our hearts. When they are not dealt with as soon as we recognize them, they take root. Each subsequent encounter with that same irritation, which will always be linked to someone, will cause that root to dig just a little deeper. And 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 spills out or spits up, it defiles and hurts us — and everyone around us. That is why Proverbs 4:23 says: “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 mouths (Matthew 12:34), and it is by our very words that we often grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:29–30). The trademark of love vanishes in the sight of the world.

We need to guard our hearts and take stock every day. Holiness is really just truth in the inner part. We need to keep short accounts for our own hearts’ sakes.

If the root of anger or bitterness is only just beginning in your own heart and is still undetected by others, go to God and ask for its removal. Ask for grace to be poured out in your heart so that you will be able to deal with that particular situation and person in the Spirit’s strength. In 2 Corinthians 9:8 Paul 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 your sin to them. Even if they do not receive you or do not own their part in the conflict, keep your own heart guarded and clean. You are only responsible for one heart, your own. Dealing with unresolved conflict in someone else’s heart is God’s job.

The Spirit calls us to manifest his fruit, and not the works of the flesh. Evaluate the fruit in your own life. The fruit gives us away (Matthew 7:20). If you have confessed to 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 roots until they allow God to heal their hearts.

Always be alert to the seeds that you allow in your heart. They all eventually produce fruit of one kind or another. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22).

Ask yourself: “Is this spiritual fruit in short supply in my life right now?”

If so, invite the Spirit to show you if any biter seeds have begun to take root in your heart.

Step 3: Don’t Be Afraid of Accountability

We often allow gossip, slander, and anger to be overlooked and rationalized in our churches. We might even legitimize the fractures among believers by telling ourselves that God is purging our church, that he is bringing justice. We stand up and glibly say, “God is in control,” while heads roll and tears fall and tender spirits get bruised and crushed. We forget that God gives us a choice in how we deal with matters, and that the enemy is alive and well, attempting to influence those choices. We forget that for God to be in control of the moment, the conversation, or the situation, we need to say “yes” to the leading of his Spirit, trusting him to work through us. Psalm 15 depicts the marks of an authentic Christian. It says that he casts no slur on his fellow man but honors those who fear the Lord. In any given troubling situation, we need to honestly ask ourselves, “Am I trusting God and submitting to his direction here? Or am I taking control?”

Proverbs 3:5–6 tells us to trust in the Lord with our whole heart and not lean on our own understanding. It exhorts us to acknowledge him in all our ways, and promises that he will make our paths straight. If your way of thinking is resulting in opinions and actions that bring disunity, ask God to reveal to you what is going on in your own heart.

God speaks harshly about the one who promotes division (Titus 3:10). If the Spirit prompts you to speak to someone who is causing conflict, remember to ony do so in love and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Don’t be afraid to hold people accountable or to be held accountable. 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 (Roman 8:28), and put a derailed train back on the tracks.

In 2 Chronicles 7:14, we read, “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.

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! And who would want to be opposed by God? Yet, we often find pride in the church, although it wears a different cloak than it does out in the world.

Pride exists in our hearts and in our churches in two prominent ways that we often try to justify:

1. When we stand by our righteous principles, but walk away from reconciliation. Taking a stand is not wrong in itself; however, it is very often accompanied by a lack of grace and a spiritual superiority that prevents the Spirit of God from working in a situation. If you are ever tempted to “stand for righteousness” against another Christian, check if your trademark of love is visible, make sure your heart is clean in all the secret places, and ensure 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.

2. When we speak from a sense of spiritual pride. You may have a discerning heart or a prophetic gifting, and God may reveal truth to you concerning a certain situation or person. But be very careful. God calls us first to prayer and often, to nothing more. God will clearly reveal whether you should say anything, but the first task is to obey the call to prayer. A lot of damage has been done in the church when someone feels they have received a word from God but hasn’t prayed about it. If you think you sense something, pray that God will reveal if there is anything else he requires of you. God’s whisper in our Spirit will never be in conflict with what he directs in his Word. When we live out of spiritual pride, the Spirit is grieved. We are cut off from what God wants to do 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 negativity, 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: Be Willing to Plant Stakes in the Ground

If there is one thing we have learned throughout history, it is that history repeats itself. Struggling with pride and accountability, nurturing the destructive seeds of our heart, and not recognizing our enemy are everyday realities.

When we recognize there has been hurt in our church, we must be willing to take a stand and decide things will be different from this day forward.

Unless we recognize where we have been in hurting times and plant some stakes to serve as markers for when we 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 in the conflict and take steps to prevent it occurring again?”

When conflict threatens your heart and your church, as it always will, seek first to raise the prayer banner 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: he alone is 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 3:3–17 talks about two kinds of wisdom: one that doesn’t come from heaven, and one that does. The first kind of wisdom is centered on earthly, unspiritual values with envy and selfish ambition at the core. The trademark of love will be missing as well.

The wisdom based on heavenly values will be pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, and full of mercy and good fruit. It will be impartial and sincere.

This higher value system can be attained by applying the five steps above, founded on love — love that comes from the heart of the Father and fills our own. 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 watching world depend on it.

updated September 2019

Photo Credit: Ben White