What NOT to say to someone struggling with their faith
- "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater!" This nice little cliche manages to be both offensive and dismissive all at once. It assumes the listener has abandoned important aspects of their faith and belittles the honest struggle of re-examining once dearly held beliefs.
- "When's the last time you read your Bible?" This question is used as a litmus test; ie. if you haven't been reading your Bible daily, well, OF COURSE, that's why you're having problems. This question exposes a dualistic mindset that seeks easy answers to complex problems. Not only is this question hurtful, it presumes every spiritual struggle can be simply diagnosed and resolved with a few predictable, formulaic steps.
- "Are you going to church regularly?" While regular involvement with a body of living, breathing believers is important to spiritual health, for someone who is suffering from ministry burn-out, this question only adds a burden of guilt and shame. Even Jesus took a break from being around people all the time.
- "Stop projecting your bad experience on every group of believers!" The worst thing you can say to someone in recovery is that they're not healing in the RIGHT way. Folks who have survived an abusive experience--whether church related or not--usually have anxiety triggers about situations similar to ones where they were hurt. Recovery is not linear. It's not rational. It's full of setbacks, detours and roadblocks. Patience, gentleness and kindness go much further in rehabilitating the wounded ex-church member than frustration or remonstrances for not healing fast enough.
- "You need to move on." Unless you are intimately acquainted with the wounded person, assuming you know how far they've come is not only presumptuous, it's unkind. Everyone moves on in different ways at their own pace. Some people are proactive in their recovery and seek immediate counseling or therapy. Others just need a long break before they start to re-examine what happened. Sure, some people get stuck and perhaps can't heal past a certain point without help. Still, statements that imply the person isn't moving on are unhelpful and harmful.
- "Stop feeling sorry for yourself." I've discovered that the closer a person is to the epicenter of the tragedy, the longer it takes for them to recover. In my situation, it was my own family who founded and ran my childhood church. I was right in the very center of the implosion. For years, I kept silent because the pain was so great. When I finally started sharing my journey, I was surprised by how many people thought I was being self-indulgent, self-pitying. It's important not to let others' opinions of your recovery determine how you walk your journey,
- "Don't you think your experience is hindering your ability to see this situation clearly?" It's pretty insulting when someone suggests that you don't see things clearly (ie. their way) because you were hurt in a similar situation. Whenever someone says that pain from my past is negatively coloring my view of the present, I like to say that maybe my experience actually helps me see certain situations more clearly because I've been there before and know how that story ends. Sure, I can work on seeing things positively but wisdom has taught me to pay attention to my gut instinct and not ignore it when those red flags pop up.
- "Do you have any Scripture to back that up?" People who have been hurt by the church are often viewed as having an axe to grind and are required to back-up their grievances with solid, Biblical arguments. The story of their abuse is not enough to merit action. But the more we dismiss these stories or refuse to listen, the louder the cries become. It's far more effective to listen and proactively work to help the hurt party rather than accusing them of not handling their grievance in a "Biblical" manner.
- "You're too sensitive!" This statement is a dismissive smackdown. Wounded ex-church members are often told they are over-reacting, being too emotional, irrational and self-righteous. The problem is that no matter how the person states their grievances, it's never the right way. The person's case is dismissed on a technicality and justice is never served.
- "You should forgive." While this may be true (I've found that forgiving those who hurt me has helped tremendously), it's not something that can be rushed. It's also not a one-time thing. I find that I have to re-forgive again and again when new situations arise that trigger old hurt. I'm getting better at forgiving but not because people keep reminding me it's the right thing to do. I forgive because it's the most healing thing to do--for myself. And sometimes it takes awhile to get to that first place of forgiveness.
Any other statements you've heard that were unhelpful to your recovery? Next post: what TO say to someone struggling with their faith!