Now, I’ll be the first to argue for the legitimacy of the Church. In fact, I have argued for it quite extensively; for goodness' sake, not only am I a pastor’s wife, I am a religious writer. My entire life is invested in the established religious structure. (Because as much as we hate to admit it, as much as we like to believe that we are the “independent voice,” every faith blogger, by definition, is part of the reigning religious order.)
And yet, there’s something that those of us who embrace the Church must remember about those struggling to do so--especially those who have recently emerged from a religious context empty of the gospel. When you have been taught false things about God, when leaders have spoken blasphemy in His name, when you have endured, not simply the failures of good men, but the manipulation of bad, recovering from it will not be easy. Doubt will be strong and alienation deep.
Ironically, those of us most committed to elevating the gospel in Church practice are the first to miss this. Even as we proclaim that the gospel is life, we forget that the absence of it is death. We forget that religion devoid of the gospel starves, maims, and pummels those trapped in it so that when they are finally liberated, they walk out wounded. And just like the Allied Forces were shocked when they liberated the concentration camps of WWII Europe, we continue to be shocked when we encounter those who have been harmed by religion and struggle because of it.
Notable Christian author Latayne C. Scott writes about her own struggle after leaving the religious, but gospel-absent, context in which she grew up.[i] She recounts that even after recognizing the distortions that she had been taught to believe, even after coming to understand grace, even after committing herself to the faithfulness and generosity of a community of believers; she still could not feel its safety because “nobody knew how to address the needs of a heart broken by a church.” She writes,
The unarticulated and untargeted sense of betrayal I felt became the permanent inner garment of my soul… How, I ask, would one assess all the hours of church attendance, all the vulnerabilities of prayer and fasting and secret sacrifice? …How utter the sense of loss, how unrecoverable the hours and years, how foolishly squandered the hopes.
Who do you blame when you have been duped by a church?
For me, I couldn’t find anyone to blame. Not my friends, I knew their good hearts… I wanted to reproach myself for being suckered—but how could I hold responsible the trusting eleven-year-old? The trusting teenager? The trusting college student…
If there is no loss as great as the loss of one’s god, there are few tasks to compare with setting out to learn to serve another one. If you’ve been burned by a god, how do you learn to trust another one? Make no mistake about it, I knew I needed what only he could provide; forgiveness of sins, eternal life, church and community based on truth, not beloved fictions…[but] I knew from the beginning that I would walk with a spiritual limp the rest of my life. I came to a time when I hung on only by my fingernails and Scripture passages… I hungered so desperately for the ability to trust and be vulnerable to God that I asked him to take my life if I could not experience that…
Theologically speaking, [that church] was my first love; and it broke my heart. Nothing about leaving [it] seemed courageous or noble at the time: It was pure spiritual survival, the escape from the burning building into the arms of strangers. Some of us go still-singed into atheism or simmer in anger, or distract ourselves with other things… Some of us, through the grace of God, learn to love him. Often that one act can be the greatest sacrifice of will in our lives, to respond and surrender to his love for us. And so those of us who know the safety of the Church must learn to understand those who don’t. We must learn to differentiate between those who limp across the finish line and those who aren’t even in the race. We must remember that the fight for orthodoxy isn’t simply a fight for right doctrine or an ideological battle between legalism and grace. It is a fight for souls. It is a fight to free those who have been held captive and abused in Hell’s prison camps. And we must not be surprised when they cannot run out to meet us.
We must not be surprised when they need medical attention. We must not be surprised when they can’t trust someone in uniform. We must not be surprised when their empty stomachs cannot handle a full meal. We must not be surprised when we have to pick them up and carry them. We must not be surprised if they turn out to be the most vulnerable among us.
Because as quickly as their experience will enable them to spot a false gospel, it will just as quickly make it difficult for them to embrace the truth. This should not lead us to judge them, but to judge ourselves. To confirm that we are teaching only grace and truth. To question whether we have wept with those who weep. To ask whether, like Christ the Good Samaritan, we have stopped by the way to rescue those who have been beaten and abused, robbed and abandoned.
And above all, it must make us determined to give them Jesus. We must hold out His grace and mercy; we must hold out His truth and love. Because it is here, in His presence, that these starved, helpless souls will finally find hope. Here with the One who causes the blind to see, who makes the lame to walk, and who sets the captives free. Here, only here, will they find--will any of us find—the victory we so desperately need.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________ [i] I purposefully omitted Scott’s religious background in order to let her words speak for those caught in a variety of gospel-less, but religious, paradigms. These paragraphs are take from Scott's book, The Mormon Mirage, pp.274-276, 292.