“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” – Acts 17.29-31 [ESV]
There is much that can and needs to be said about the effects that years of fallible, sinful thought and leadership have had on people who sat in church pews. It can be argued that those pastors and leaders who taught inaccurately or led harmfully did so with the best of intentions, but ultimately, those sorts of arguments don’t win over too many people. It can also be argued that no church, no pastor, no group will ever get it right, but again – that usually offers little comfort to the “wounded” (it might have the reverse affect!). So maybe that leads us to a concluding question: how can those hoping to “recover from religion” let go of the hurts of the past and at the same time, move forward in faith, knowing that “religion” will never really get it right?
The simple answer to this question is “trust.” When it comes to the hurt, anger, and frustration individuals still retain from years ago we must consider why that hurt, anger, and frustration are being held onto. Why do we struggle so much with the idea of letting go? Could it be that we’re concerned that the pastor or the parent involved is actually going to get away with “it”? There is a need for justice. A need for those who hurt us to be hurt reciprocally. What if God actually forgives them and wipes their slate clean? That would mean they will get away with making my life miserable? No – our refusal to let go is really an expression of our distrust in God’s ability to judge. We so desperately want God to be gracious – and some of us really know he is – and if he is gracious, that means our enemies might find absolution, and that is unacceptable! But the Scriptures tell us that God will in fact judge the world. Every person. And he’ll do it perfectly. Do we believe this? Do we trust God to judge our enemies well? And let’s not forget to state the obvious: this bitterness that is the offspring of our unforgiveness and distrust does more damage to us than it does to our “abusers.” So yes, the wounds religion inflicted on us can be very real, but they are so often compounded by the soul-rot that is bitterness, and that bitterness is really nothing more than our declaration of distrust in God’s ability to judge sinners well.
Of course, it’s not just in looking back that trust needs to emerge, but in looking forward as well. Any person who genuinely wants to return to a biblical relationship with Jesus must also embrace a relationship with his Body. His Body definitely doesn’t live up to our culture’s expectations for spiritual “beauty.” Being a part of the family of God includes disappointment, anger, rejection, gossip, betrayal and more. Our pastors still lack bulletproof theology and still do confounding things. The Body of Christ is a place of rampant sin because it’s a collection of sinners. But that’s not a problem – that’s the plan! God is not hindered or limited by our sin, but uses it for his purposes. He wants us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3.18/ESV). Where does grace abound? In the midst of sin! (see Romans 5-6) So it is the carnal nature of Christ’s followers that – even though it should be increasingly replaced by the spiritual mind – the Holy Spirit uses to transform us into the likeness of Christ. We move forward together, trusting not that we’ll get it right but that God’s grace will be sufficient when we get it wrong. We trust that nothing can separate from the love of God, even bad doctrine. And we trust that ultimately, God will judge the world perfectly…
Am I suggesting that the presence of sin in the Body of Christ is meaningless? No! Neither am I suggesting that we should tolerate bad theology and practice. We should always be growing and learning, yet this pursuit, in and of itself, is an admission that we are inadequate. We must come to terms with our calling to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you…” (Philippians 2.12-13/ESV) We must trust that not only can we survive the challenges of loving the people of God, we can thrive in the midst of those challenges, knowing that “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1.3/ESV)