In all honesty, this is a difficult article to write, but I think it is important. It is difficult not only because it is deeply personal and requires vulnerability, but also because it is going to require the reader to just trust me on the details. I am not going to share names or specific events because the point is not to draw attention to the people that did the damage. The focus of this article is how we as ministry leaders handle it when we are hurt by the very ones we are trying to serve.
When We Are Hurt by Those We Minister To
If you have been in ministry for any length of time, I would guess with strong confidence that you have been hurt. It is inevitable. Maybe a student you have been investing in for a while decides his talents are better used as a leader in a different campus ministry. Not only does he leave, but he also takes several other students with him. He doesn’t intend to harm you, but you can’t help but feel rejected, discouraged, hurt and let down. Maybe someone doesn’t like some advice you gave them or something you said in your sermon, so they start slandering you online. Maybe a group of students have conspired to have you fired for no good reason. Maybe a student has caused harm to one of your children.
There is a vast range of hurt that can happen in ministry. Some of the daily things are relatively easy to shrug off and move on from, but there are times when either the small things add up or something big happens. What do we do? We know God instructs us to forgive, but how do we do this when the pain goes so deep that it affects us in ways we could not imagine? How do we forgive the very people God called us to serve?
As a caveat, let me take a moment to acknowledge that there might be times when situations need to involve law enforcement or outside intervention. There might be times when boundaries need to be set. There might be times when, for the protection of your children, there needs to be distance between them and students. This article isn’t going to focus on what needs to be done as far as conflict resolution, but that does not mean those things aren’t important.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to focus on our responsibility to choose forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t a substitute for taking right steps to resolve conflict, pursue justice, or ensure protection of vulnerable parties, but it is a necessary and God-ordained part of the process—we can’t ignore it, because God has commanded it (see Ephesians 4:32; Matthew 6:14; Colossians 3:13; Matthew 18:21-22)!
The Lure of Bitterness & the Call to Surrender
In my own life, I have seen unforgiveness lead to bitterness, and I am not proud of that. God has done a marvelous work in my life as I continue to depend upon Him to forgive people who have done damage in the life of my family and ministry. There have been times when I have wanted to broadcast to the world how much someone hurt us, but that was not the answer. I wanted the ones who did the hurting to know how much they hurt me, but at the same time, I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of impacting me so much. I wanted them to feel the hurt they inflicted (not my proudest moment!).
In lieu of those tempting actions that I knew would be wrong, I began to shut off my heart. I wanted to protect myself and my family, but the hurt didn’t go away. I wanted to run from ministry. I didn’t want to hurt so much. It didn’t seem fair to me that I was hurt and the ones who did the hurting didn’t care or have any consequences. The temptation was strong to harden my heart and not get close to students anymore. It seemed to make sense that if I didn’t let them in, they couldn’t hurt me. Those are the lies of the enemy at work.
It has been a process, but God is really good at accomplishing His perfect will when we are surrendered to Him. That is where it had to start for me. I had to confess my bitterness to God and surrender all that I was holding on to. I had to repent of the unforgiveness in my heart. I even had to ask Him to help me to want to forgive. He answered that prayer, and I was able to begin the process of forgiveness.
The Process of Forgiveness
Jesus speaks much of forgiveness. In Matthew 18:22-23, Jesus tells Peter that forgiveness must be pretty much limitless. This is a difficult concept but is exemplified to us by Jesus himself, when from the cross, He says about those who are crucifying him “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NIV).
I have learned much about the process of forgiveness, and although this won’t be an exhaustive list, I hope these steps will help you as well.
- Lay it all out before God. He knows your heart, but it does us good to verbally be open and honest with God about how we feel about the situation and even the person or people who hurt us. The Psalms give us much insight into how to bare our hearts to God. They teach us to lament and cry out. I recommend reading through them and turn them into prayers to God. As you tell God about the hurt you’ve endured, ask Him for His comfort. He hears, knows and cares about your hurt heart. When you tell God about the situation, be specific. Tell Him what happened. Tell Him who hurt you, and how you feel. The more specific you can be with the details, the better.
- Confess to God any bitterness and unforgiveness you have. Lay it all out there. Again, God knows your heart, but it’s important for us to verbally admit the sin that we are trying to hold on to. Repent and ask God to give you the strength to obey. Forgiveness requires us to lean into Christ. We can’t do it on our own strength. He is patient with us, but He does expect obedience from His followers.
- Ask a trusted friend, mentor or spouse to help you through this process. This is not an excuse to gossip about the situation, but accountability is important in this process of forgiveness. You don’t have to share everything about the situation here, but asking others to pray for you and hold you accountable is imperative.
- Begin to pray for the person who hurt you. You might have to do this through seething teeth at first, but Scripture calls us to even pray for our enemies and love them. We all know this in theory, but putting it into practice is where the obedience and application comes in. It is amazing how transformative prayer can be in our lives. God does amazing and miraculous works in our minds and hearts when we submit to Him in this way.
- Pursue reconciliation wisely. At some point in the process, God might lead you to approach the person about the harm done. This requires much prayer and discernment. If the person is receptive, apologetic and desires reconciliation, this is wonderful! However, the opposite is often true as well. Forgiveness on your part doesn’t always mean reconciliation will happen because that requires both parties. However, as Romans 12:18 instructs us, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
- Be prepared to go through the process again. Don’t be surprised if you think you have forgiven someone, but then their name arises in conversation, you see them on campus, or they pop up on social media, and those feelings of anger and hurt come rushing in again. This is a great time to examine your heart before God, submit to Him, and continue to forgive. Psalm 139:23-24 are great verses to pray in this situation.
- Remember that God is love and justice. He sees and knows the injustice that you have suffered, and He will take care of it. It is never our job to seek vengeance or retaliation. Again, the Psalms are a great place to turn if you are angry. Tell God about your anger, surrender it to Him, and never take vengeance out on anyone.
- Be patient with yourself. Forgiveness doesn’t always happen right away. Spend time with God daily, and beware of bitterness. Unforgiveness can lead to a hard heart and bitterness, and trust me, you don’t want to go there.
In closing, I want to leave you with a great resource. The book, “Forgiving What You Can’t Forget” by Lysa TerKeurst is excellent. Lysa shares much of her journey of hurt, abandonment and betrayal and how God has helped her forgive the people in her life that caused immense pain.