I (Henry) got an emergency call, and the office relayed to me that I had a suicidal client. I called Theresa on the phone. She was distraught.
"Tell me what happened," I said.
"It's not going to work," Theresa replied, sobbing.
"What isn't going to work?"
"Telling other people about my problems," she said. "I went to my fellowship group tonight and told them about the depression and the problems with Joey, and they really came down on me for being depressed and for all the other stuff that has been going on."
"What did they say?"
"Well, they said that I shouldn't feel that way and that if I was still having all those problems then I probably wasn't walking with the Lord. I don't know what to do anymore. I've tried all this 'safe relationship' stuff, sharing and all that, and now it doesn't work."
"What would you say if I told you that you still haven't found safe relationships?" I asked.
"What do you mean?" Theresa asked. "They are all Christians and in my church."
"Well, Christian doesn't automatically mean 'safe,' " I told her. "Safe is defined by helpful. It doesn't sound like tonight was too helpful."
"Well, how do you know a helpful relationship?" she asked. "That's a good question," I said. "Let's talk about that."
I empathized with Theresa. She had discovered a real truth: the church is not a perfectly safe place. That sounds like it cannot be true, for if anywhere should be safe, the church should be. Every fiber in our being rejects the idea that the one place we think ought to be safe — the house of God — isn't.
The church is not a totally safe place, and it does not consist of only safe people. As much as we would like for it to be totally safe, the truth is that the church has to be seen the way God describes it. We must, if we are going to have a biblical view of relationships and people, and live the way that God wants us to live, see the church as he describes it. Our faith must be able to square with the reality of life as we find it and with the reality that the Bible describes to us. Let's look at those two realities.
Theresa was echoing the experience of many people. Anyone who has been in the church for very long has been hurt by people in the church. For in the body of Christ, we find some harsh realities: judgment, pride, self-centeredness, manipulation, abandonment, abuse, control, perfectionism, domination, and every kind of relational sin known to humankind. The walls of the church do not make it safe from sin. In fact, the church by definition is composed of sinners.
To further complicate matters, church by its very nature as a family of God activates our most primitive and dependent longings because we want a perfect family. God designed the church to be our second family, and often we take into the church the same longing for security and love that we take into our families of origin. And for some, as in their original family, the wish is not only disappointed — it can be crushed altogether. What are we to do with that reality?
The one difference is that, as adults entering into the family of God, we have choices about who we are going to trust and get close to. David said in Psalm 101:6 that we can pick the "ones who will minister to [us]." But we are not by nature so discerning. We come into the church feeling and wishing, "Take care of me. I need you. I shouldn't have to first figure out who is safe and who is not. You should be good and trustworthy." We feel the longing of Romans 8 that says that we long for and groan for our adoption. We want things to be right. And then they are not.
On the other hand, many of us have felt that the body of Christ has nurtured, loved, and taught us in ways that have radically healed us. Through the acceptance and love of other believers our character has changed, and we have slowly let go of the things that shackle us.
We also hear others testify to that reality. They were destroyed by their families, or the world, and they were saved and healed in their church. Someone — or a group — in the church reached out to them, and their lives were radically changed.
I (Henry) can testify to this. I had dreamed and planned my whole life to play professional golf, from the age of six until I was recruited by a nationally ranked college to play varsity golf. I was beginning to compete on higher and higher levels and doing quite well. I thought my dreams were being realized.
Then catastrophe hit. A tendon problem in my left hand snatched my budding career right out from under me. I could no longer even hold onto a golf club, and there was no cure. I was lost and devastated. The path that I had diligently worked towards for fifteen years, day and night, had hit a dead end. At the same time, I encountered some other significant losses in my life. Things were falling apart. I got seriously depressed.
At first I tried to work my way out of it. I had always been a "don't ever give up" kind of person, especially in sports. I thought I could lick this problem in the same way, through sheer hard work and willpower. But I got more and more depressed, and nothing was filling the hole inside of me. The depression and lostness continued to build until I decided to drop out of everything to try to sort things out.
I first reached out to God, telling him that I did not even know if he existed, but that if he would show me that he did, I would do what he told me to do. After all, my way wasn't working.
Less than an hour after I prayed that prayer in a little chapel at Southern Methodist University, my phone rang. A friend I hadn't talked to in quite some time told me that he and some others were starting a Bible study and that for some strange reason, he thought that he would invite me to come. I told him I would, not quite believing what had just happened.
To make a long story short, the leader of that Bible study and his wife invited me to come live with them for a semester while I sorted things out. Their gift of themselves to me forever changed my life. Their love and teaching touched some very deep parts of me as they led me to the reality of a relationship with God. He had found me, and through the love and acceptance of his body, I was being healed.
So the church can be a healing place, a place where lives are transformed and where powerful love and healing can take place. The body of Christ is still God's instrument for our healing and restoration (1 Peter 4:10; Ephesians 4:16). So, the question arises and rings in our needy hearts: Is the church safe, or is it dangerous? The answer is, "It is both." Sometimes we are fortunate to find good relationships, and other times we run into disaster.
The sad thing is that our ideals for the church do not reflect biblical reality, either. We think that the Bible promises a church where we find only safe people. But the Bible says that the church is full of wolves as well as sheep. In the church, we will find both tremendous healing and potentially tremendous hurt. And if we are going to find healing and minimize hurt, we need to make sure that we see the church as God describes it to us. We need to operate according to biblical reality instead of our fantasized wishes, for biblical reality is the one that will fit the experience we find in the real world.
Our experience and the Bible affirm the same thing. The church is full of safe people, unsafe people, and hurtful lingerers. There is no perfect family short of heaven. But there is also no absolute hell full of demons either. And the Bible's clear message is that we need to be discerning. We need to make informed choices, and we need to be careful. But we also need to avoid becoming pessimistic and learn to recognize the goodness that abounds within the family of God (Matt. 25:34—40). If we become skeptics and give in to our fears of bad outcomes, God says that we will lose the little that we have.
So, the long and the short of it is that we have to work to find safe people, using our wisdom, discernment, and character. We gain wisdom and discernment through knowledge and experience. But if our own character problems get in the way of using our knowledge and experience we will make poor choices. We need to make sure that we are facing the weaknesses inside and dealing with them, becoming people of character who can choose other people of character, with a knowledge of what they look like. As we get the log out of our own eye first, we will be able to see clearly.
Adapted from Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren't by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Learn more about this helpful book.