It won’t be long before you encounter people who have had terrible experiences with religion, and specifically, Christianity.
During a gospel outing early in my ministry, I was going door-to-door with the gospel, when a woman said, “Don’t bother talking to me. My father went to church every Sunday and he beat the hell out of us.”
Later, I learned domestic violence wasn’t the only problem.
Many in the Roman Catholic Church have endured sexual abuse at the hands of religious leaders. We might say, “Well that’s Catholicism,” but some patterns of abuse have now been exposed in Protestant traditions as well.
Additionally, In the past few years we’ve seen young, gifted, arrogant preachers bully their own church members and staff until it tore apart the congregation and resulted in widespread emotional trauma. I know one of these men, an older minister in California (and believe me, I hesitate to call him a minister), who, considering himself a half-baked Moses, threatens death judgments from God when others dare challenge him.
In the wake of all these things, Christians give up, and drop out,. Non-Christians burned by these shenanigans, keep their distance from the faith and the church for the rest of their lives.
We might respond by saying the guilty parties weren’t really Christians, or simply weren’t modeling the Christian life, and we might be right. But to an outsider it doesn’t matter if they were hurt by Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the mega church on the corner. To them if there’s even a miniscule connection to the Bible, every Christian is complicit. It is guilt by association.
Their question is, “How can I have anything to do with Jesus, when religion has hurt me so badly?” My answer is, “Since you’ve been hurt by religion, how could you not have something to do with Jesus?”
I answer with Luke 24:26.
This is where the resurrected Jesus says to his disciples, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
What are “these things”? There’s a lot packed into those two words. Consider the experience of Jesus stretching throughout His ministry.
Rejection. Gossip. Slander. Conspiracy. Betrayal. Abandonment. Open persecution. Physical violence. Humiliation. Murder.
That was what Jesus meant by “these things.” And all of it was done by people who prayed and tithed and read their Bibles, and believed in God. We point this out to our friends, until they see His suffering overlapping theirs, at least in the lower part of His narrative. We want them to know that when unrighteous religious forces lie, bully, humiliate the human body, kill, or cover up, Jesus isn’t running the script, even if it was done in His name and allegedly for His interests. He hasn’t inspired it, because He was victimized by the very same forces.
However, we’re not trying to turn people into heroes just because they suffered something. That’s not the point and it doesn’t go nearly far enough, anyway.
If you ask Jesus for an analysis of the wrongs committed against Him, and the various individuals involved, He would say they were “necessary.” In other words, they were not without purpose, and they were leading somewhere else. I can hear the outraged reaction to this — “Necessary? Really? If that’s supposed to be an example for the rest of us, was it ‘necessary’ for the religious quack on television to swindle my elderly parents out of their life savings?”
But necessary doesn’t mean right or good. Jesus died on a cross, like an insect pinned inside a display case. Does “necessary” make it any less evil? No. Does it mean the perpetrators were any less guilty? No. Does it mean they will not answer for it? No. In fact, speaking of Judas Iscariot, Jesus said it would be better for that man if he had never been born.
Still, Jesus calls these things “necessary.” His life path had been a gauntlet thronged on either side with club-wielding thugs. They hoped to scare him, to bog Him down in self-pity, to make Him give up. Yet God actively used a different kind of calculus. He worked in the very blows His Son received. The worse the religious world threw at Him, the more it moved Him forward. When Jesus later spoke of this to the disciples as being necessary, He wasn’t minimizing the suffering he went through. It only meant that from the standpoint of the redemption of Christ, there is no pointless suffering. In the glow of His redemption, there is no such thing as purposeless history.
Neither though, did He linger in detailing and reliving the multitude of His discomforts, thus stalling out in the status of victimhood. The destination of verse 26 is not with a beaten up, misunderstood, savaged Christ, but a glorious Savior. Jesus concludes the thumbnail sketch of His life and ministry with glory, the final note of God’s perfect work.
Where do you want to stop?
This is the question facing all of us. Do you want to make a life in the middle with “these things”? Yes, we all need to honestly process our pain, like David in the Psalms. Like Job. Like Jeremiah in the book of Lamentations. This is so we can find grace, and ultimately extend forgiveness to the person or people who did us wrong. Because we are human, that cannot be rushed. However, the question, even if it sits at a great distance, always asks, “Where do you want to stop?”
God’s intention is glory, not torture. And lest we think we are walking some new, heroic trail, and deserve laudatory admiration, Jesus has already cut this pathway. At some point, we must decide to pack up and continue into God’s best–His complete redemption.
In 2003, a young man named Aron Ralston was hiking in Utah, when a boulder fell on his arm, pinning him in place. At first he tried chipping at it with a knife, but it became clear the boulder wasn’t going away. If he stayed there, no one would ever find him, and he would die. The only solution was to part with his arm. The knife was so dull it took days to cut through his arm. When he finally reached the bone, he knew the blade wouldn’t be sharp enough to saw it off. In order to complete his self-amputation, he had to contort and bend and break it to get free.
Ralston could have stayed there, rehearsing his bad luck, cursing the Department of Parks and Recreation for not posting more caution signs, and wishing that something else had happened. But survival was more important. He knew there was a life beyond that mountain.
For Christians, that means a continuing path into glory–and in some strange way we might never be able to grasp in this life–a way only possible minus an arm.
Back to the question. Is this it? Do you now abandon the faith, drop out, walk away? I’ve had to answer this question myself, after some disillusioning experiences with people who were fond of calling themselves, “the church.” I took a look at the situation, and what it would cost me to stay in my outrage, and I realized I only had so many years granted to me in this world. How did I want to live them out?
I made a couple of decisions: 1. I would not modify the faith, or downgrade the Scriptures in any way. 2. If I spoke out against the antagonists, I would do it not only with truth, but grace, and not only with an intent to expose, but with some redemptive goal in view. All of this meant I would need to find grace larger than what I had been living on. This new challenge required me to bear down in prayer like never before, and absorb the sentiments of the Word more deeply. It demanded an exercise of Christian virtues I had merely nodded at previously.
What would this all mean to a non-Christian? That Jesus understands what they’ve been through at the hands of religious people. And He can guarantee redemption. He can take our scars and wounds, and make them blessings, because His own suffering has resulted in the salvation of countless millions who come to him.
For a disillusioned evangelical who has dropped out of church, and claims no more to believe in God, we extend an invitation to find a resurrected Christ outside the hypocrisy of pop religion, outside of merciless legalism. When we minister to these walking wounded, we sympathize with them and weep with them when their pain is raw and fresh, but never stop spoon feeding them the hope of glory.