Believers are hurting and suffering in silence and isolation within the church for fear of rejection. Yet Jesus shows us by his words and actions that the message of the good news of the gospel is for these very people— the hurt, trapped, isolated and suffering. So why is it that there is no difference within the church from the culture outside? Why do Christians continue to struggle so deeply and hopelessly, and why do they end up leaving the church? What are we missing?
In 2017 a new movement started in the United States called #metoo; woman after woman coming forward to share their stories of abuse and harassment. Continuing this trend, women from within churches all across the States began opening up with their own stories of abuse, using the moniker #churchtoo.
As women brought exposure to the extent and commonality of sexual abuse, despising the taboo that kept it in the shadows for so long, popular artists and even pastors began to tackle another taboo subject: mental health. As the news continues to reveal stories of pastors who have committed suicide, even more are coming forward to honestly share about their own thoughts and attempts of suicide, their struggle with pornography and addictions, anxiety and depression.
For those of us who grew up in the church, the magnitude of these issues among fellow believers can come as quite a shock. Yet we cannot deny that these things are happening, especially as we see a surprising amount of people becoming disillusioned with and leaving the church.
When we think about the gospel, I think that most of us tend to focus on our spiritual standing with God—our own sin and guilt before a holy God, who through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross now declares us innocent. Which is true. One of the church’s strengths is that it addresses our spiritual lives.
Yet this guilt/ innocence dynamic is only a piece of the gospel. The good news also describes our powerful God who frees us of our fears; for example, the stories of Jesus casting out demons embody the gospel message for tribal groups who fear evil spirits. Finally, the good news testifies to our heavenly Father who has lifted us up out of our shame and has restored us to a place of honor. Those who are suffering from past abuse or trauma, those who are marginalized, rejected and living in isolation need to understand this good news: they are sons and daughters of God.
Serious sins committed against us leads to deep shame and self-blame, which may then lead to mental health issues and unhealthy behaviors and addictions. This is where I see part of the problem: if we tend to see these symptoms through the guilt/innocence lens, we are going to call these behaviors pride and idolatry issues. As a result, we admonish those suffering that they love their sin more than they love God.
But if we broaden the gospel message to include our mental and emotional health, we will recognize that it is the person’s sense of shame or self-blame that needs to be addressed in these cases. This person is deeply hurting and dealing with self-loathing. If we don’t understand this person’s situation well, we are going to misdiagnose it, and then they will experience guilt of needing to try to love God more on top of it all. As a result, they deeply sense rejection and, instead of opening up about their suffering, most will choose to continue in their pain in silence.
Several times in the Gospels we read that Jesus taught in the synagogues, preached the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness. What is the good news Jesus preached? In Luke 4:14-19 Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61—”to preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for captives, release from darkness for prisoners, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” With our guilt/innocence lens we tend to only interpret this passage spiritually as a sin debt transaction. But looking at the context of how Jesus preached the good news, we see that it’s much more than that. Jesus counters our fears with his power to overcome illness, physical death, and demons. He provides justice and restoration, emotional and mental healing, freeing us of our shame.
If you are living in shame, know that you can experience healing and freedom in the places where you feel trapped and alone. “TODAY this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus said. Sometimes the response to the gospel is not that of repentance, but rather, hope. I believe Jesus says to each one of us, “I see your pain and the wrong that was done to you. It never should have happened and it is not your fault. I care for you. I love you.” Jesus has removed all your shame and has replaced it with his identity and his honor as God’s loved child.