Struggles with church community are common among Christians who face serious illness or grief. I hope this series will comfort and encourage those of you who feel like outsiders in church.
Is it worth the effort?
When I was heavily weighed down by grief, in the early days of my illness, church was almost unbearable for me. A bunch of uncomfortable emotions would be stirred up each time I attended. I would go home flummoxed and bewildered, wondering if the considerable effort of attendance had been worth it.
An unexpected wave of grief can still throw me into turmoil every now and then. During the service, I’ll find myself feeling perplexed and lost; feeling like an outsider in my own spiritual family. It seems wrong. It hurts. Once I’m back home, I’ll have a cry – or sometimes a long mope will do! I’ll often write, too. Writing helps me to process my thoughts and remember God’s goodness. (Others might prefer therapeutic activities like painting or music or yoga. Writing is just what works best for me.)
These days, I generally do feel quite happy when I attend church. The grief has lessened in intensity over the years. Its waves are less frequent and not quite as powerful. I’m able to catch my breath a little sooner after being thrown off my feet.
Click here if you’d like to read about my church journey in more detail.
Struggles with church community
In recent months, I’ve met quite a few Christian people online who live with chronic illnesses. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover they struggle with the same things when it comes to church involvement. SO IT’S NOT JUST ME!!! Realising this has been tremendously reassuring.
See how many of the following experiences you can relate to.
We’re nervous about engaging in ‘small talk’ before and after the church service.
We may dread people flippantly asking, “How are you?”. We may find ourselves wondering, Do they really care? Do they really want to know?!
We feel like no-one at church really understands our world.
Without the usual things to talk about – like work, exercise, social events, holidays – conversations can be stunted and awkward. What do we have to contribute to conversations if all we did last week was attend doctors’ appointments, rest as much as possible, and try not to get swallowed up by despair?! Not really pleasant conversation material – we’re well aware of that! But, at the same time, we crave authenticity and transparency in our church relationships.
We battle with feelings of unworthiness, or the sense that we’re being judged by others.
Sometimes, our own sense of shame can overflow into church (and other) relationships. Our self-esteem has plummeted – with lost careers, lost mobility and/or lost independence. We feel embarrassed, and find it hard to accept how much our life has changed. It’s tempting to assume that everyone is judging us because we so often judge ourselves quite harshly.
When we’re not able to attend on a Sunday (but would dearly love to be there), thoughts like these might spin around our minds:
Aren’t they meant to love me like a brother/sister? If one part of the Body hurts, all parts suffer with it, right?
Why has no-one from church been here for me in my time of need? Do they even care?
Has anyone even noticed that I’m not there (again) today?
Does anyone truly understand?
If you struggle with these types of thoughts, I totally get it! So do many other Christians around the world who struggle daily with debilitating health conditions.
More importantly, Jesus understands your pain because he, too, has experienced what it’s like to be abandoned and misunderstood.
In Church #2 – When Jesus was Abandoned I will talk about some Bible passages that have helped me to persevere when disillusionment sets in.
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I’m saddened but comforted to know that I’m not the only one who feels like an outcast. I’ve been suffering from Frontal Lobe Epilepsy for about 10 years! My life has been like a roller coaster! The frontal lobe is the emotional centre of the brain and obviously causes physical symptoms. It’s gotten the worst it’s ever been! I have a trouble controlling my thoughts and emotions. I’m so sick I can’t work at this time.
My Pastor said I shouldn’t use it as an excuse to hurt other’s who have hurt me. The second commandment is to love your neighbour as yourself (this includes your enemies). I find this very difficult to do, especially with authority figures. We’re supposed to be submissive to them however when they sin against what God commands to do evil, I get very angry! Although we’re called to be submissive, people in possitions of authority have a responsibility to do thier job. I’m still learning how to express these things nicely.
I’ve had conflict with my ex-fiance who I met at church being passive aggressive. I’m more aggressive. Other than that, we got along perfectly until I got PTSD and disagreements and conflict arose in the church. Gossip had been spreading around about the Pastor’s marrital problems and another ladies marrital problems. I pointed it out. I told my Pastor at the time he shouldn’t have let his personal problems be made known to some cause now almost everyone knows! It’s a sin to be a “tale barer”.
He also wasn’t supportive in conflict resolution with my ex. He blamed the entire situation on me. My lashing out at both of them neglecting me when I was sick should not be an excuse! Two wrongs don’t make a right. Pastor basically gave my ex permission to treat me the same way again saying I have a temper and if the man says no, it’s no. One year later we’ve come full circle.
He didn’t respond to a request for prayer in the church for my worsening illness. I asked nicely several times. No longer comfortable going to church, I’d watch online. When I heard that they were praying for others and not me, I was furrious! I wrote messages of feeling neglected and was rude. He still didn’t answer. Another lady from church was ignoring me because she said that she had a problem with my moods although I never insulted her as she did to me.
This was the spark that ignited causing my fiance and I to break up this year. He was ignoring me on and off for a week and a half. This situation was making him sick. He has mental and physical health problems too. I was always concerned for his. Having been so upset, it triggered a petit mal when I was on the phone with him one night. I said something mean that I honest to God I don’t remember! He was supposed to take me to church the next day to try and fix things. He never did and the next day I discovered why.
He made me out to be a horrible person and doesn’t beleive my point of view of the misunderstanding. He said an insulting person is who I am. He can’t help me and to go get a councelor or something. This cutt into my heart like no other pain I’ve ever experienced! My Mom came to help as my petit mals developed into a grand mal. Pastor answered right away when my Mom was here.
During our meeting with my Mom we discussed my suffering and how it’s triggered my illness and PTSD. Again he spoke of not taking things out on others and that I often use the word but to justify my actions. This was correct. Dispite very good advice given he wouldn’t take any responsibility for not responding to my plea for prayer? He said it didn’t matter when I was on the phone with him before that meeting. He said another member did after the cameras were turned off cause it’s too personal. He also denied as false witness that he compared my temper to a “mass shooter” last year. He said I’m always welcome back and that I can call him.
I tried calling a few times after my Mother left. He was barely responsive and or not at all? I called him out on that. He broke his word and lied. I called him out on being a fake and false witness in front of my Mom. I emailed that I maybe a bitch but at least I’m not a liar! This wasn’t to justfy my behaviour. I admitted I have a temper and may lash out or worse yet swore at my ex after he ignored me last year. I swore about a neglectful woman at church to my ex about her calling me all sorts of names and ignoring me.
I was the one who origonally broke up with my ex as he promised he’d always be there for me. He turned his back for a second time when I needed him most! He never prayed for me at church or asked Pastor why he wouldn’t make my request!? I have no contact with any of them now although I’ve tried to reach out and admitted my wrong doing. I’ve been ghosted. God forbid that a younger woman, immature Christian with mental illness speak up! God sees everything! I hate hypocracy from myself and others. At least I admitted my sin. I pray that I can find another church where I feel like
I belong! I also pray that they can let go of thier pride and recognise thier sin.
It sounds like you’ve had some major struggles with church. I’m sorry to hear that. Hypocrisy is very painful, and unfortunately people (even Christians) can treat those with mental illness in ways that aren’t helpful. I hope you’re able to find the support of a trusted and experienced therapist. Wounds like yours need to be tended by someone who understands how to help.
I served my church faithfully for 17 years as Music Minister. They were my family. Every Thurs and Sunday lots of love and laughter. My children and I were made homeless and I got the shock of my life. Not one single person reached out. We couch surfed for 18 months while I continued leading the Music Ministry. Ultimately we were pushed out of state and away from everything we held dear to find housing. We never got our lives back.Foyr years in it still hurts every day. If my church had been hands for Christ, we’d still be home.
My goodness, Heather, what a tragedy that your church wasn’t there for you and your daughter in practical ways when you needed it the most. 😢