By Rebecca Roman
In modern society, we seem to prize having a high pain tolerance. An inability to handle pain is almost seen as a character flaw; to be stoic in the face of pain is, in contrast, heroic.
Two articles in this issue deal with how the church has caused pain. In one case, it is the pain of betrayal through sexual and spiritual abuse by a trusted church leader (p. 6); in the other, it is the pain of Indigenous people, caused by the residential school system in Canada (p. 13). (Also included is a news item from Evangelical Fellowship of Canada that details resources for the reconciliation learning journey on page 28).
I tend to be uncomfortable with pain—mine, or the pain of those around me. I struggle to connect with my children in the midst of their pain, rather than be dismissive. It’s a challenge to set aside my task list to sit with them in their pain as long as they need.
How does the church handle people’s pain, whether caused by the church or some other institution? Russell Moore points out that churches have sometimes resorted to deflecting blame for abuse by making it about the victim’s reaction to the abuse rather than the abuse itself. “Sometimes that happens when a person critiques the particular way the victim brought forward the complaint,” he says, “or searches for other issues to pin on the victim” (“It Takes a Village to Escape a Toxic Leader,” Christianity Today).
At the root of victim blaming behaviour, I believe, is the desire to protect the image of the church. If sin is rampant in the church, what do we have to offer to the world? However, when we cover up sin, it only thrives and persists. It’s only when sin is brought to light that there can be repentance and healing (1 John 1:5–10).
In our bodies, pain is a signal to us that something is wrong. We ignore it at our peril. Similarly, people’s pain caused by the church is a signal that something is wrong within the church. It’s meant to make us uncomfortable, so we sit up and pay attention.
In the gospels, we see people thronging to Jesus to express their pain. Jesus responds with compassion and healing.
Revelation 21 gives us a snapshot of what is to come when God establishes his “Holy City”: “there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain” (v. 4). If the church is to be a picture of God’s coming kingdom, how do we correctly respond to pain?
Obviously, we can’t abolish the reality of pain in this life—this is the “now, but not yet” reality of living out God’s kingdom on earth. But the church can become a safe place to express pain and a place to heal from pain. This means treating the pain as real, even if we don’t agree there “should” be pain. This also means being willing to listen to ways the painful situation might have been prevented, even if it reflects badly on us or the church. It may also mean apologizing and acknowledging wrong where that’s needed.
Within the EMC, and the broader church, let’s have a low pain tolerance!