Visit a busy hospital emergency roomand you will see a variety of tragic injuries:
- Self-inflicted: damage either through intentional injury to oneself or neglect of one’s health that led to a crisis
- Accidental: unintentional injury by family, friends, or strangers
- Intentional: suffering because family, friends, or strangers intended to bring the person harm
- Fatigue and Exhaustion: feel like giving up which might lead to self-inflicted harm
Doctors assess the injuries and process the injured with hopes of recovery. Some injuries are severe and the patient may be damaged for life or even die. Some injuries, with care and healthy treatment, can be healed and the patient can enjoy a full recovery. But injuries require wise intervention and care in order to have a chance for success.
A discerning eye will notice the hurt and drama beneath the surface of some who are suffering spiritual trauma in the local assembly. Spiritual injuries may mimic physical injuries and like the emergency room patient, these souls need treatment from the Great Physician to find healing. Jesus described Himself as a physician to the spiritual needs of humanity:
And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
It makes sense that Christians would work with The Great Physician to comfort the spiritually sick and nurse them back to health. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, Paul urged Christians to “comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” In this sense, the family of God can serve as a spiritual hospital providing care to the spiritually sick, injured, and dying. The injuries in the local assembly often resemble the physical injuries in an emergency room.
Intentional: Some suffer spiritual pain and damage because of poor choices. They knew the right way but chose to sin. The sinner can ask for forgiveness but may reap earthly consequences. Proverbs 5:7-14 warns the young man not to get caught up in sexual sin lest:
you give your honor to others and your years to the merciless, lest strangers take their fill of your strength, and your labors go to the house of a foreigner, and at the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed, and you say, “How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof! I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors. I am at the brink of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.” (ESV)
Neglect: Some suffer spiritually because they neglected their spiritual health. Just as neglecting to exercise and eat right will lead to physical problems, neglecting the exercise of godliness and nourishment from God’s word will cause us spiritual injury. The Hebrew writers warned that we need to focus on our salvation lest we drift away from it, Hebrews 2:1-3.
Both spiritual wounds can be healed though there may be lasting scars. When a sinner repents, the spiritual need to nourish them back to health. Sometimes we may need to help them deal with ongoing consequences of sin. We might need to help them forgive themselves. We must provide help without belittling them and help them leave the past in the past. Most are acutely aware of the consequences of their actions and condemn themselves far more than we could. If they have sought forgiveness, we need to help them rebuild and turn their defeat into a victory for God.
When someone realizes the spiritual weakness brought on by neglect there is an opportunity for Christians to provide growth opportunities. Personal teaching and team involvement in service to God can help the person grow and become strong in their faith. We cannot undo years of wasted opportunity but we can begin today to build a better tomorrow. One of my favorite quotes to encourage me when I feel I have wasted opportunities is “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”
A person could be reeling from emotional pain or spiritual discouragement because of the careless words of well meaning individuals. A friend who worked with parents who lost young children recounted the many dumb things that people will say to a grieving parent with intent to provide comfort. I was in a situation where a brother with good intentions said something to a visitor that was a great discouragement to him. These are not instances of bullying but carelessness that results in injury. Christians can help the injured get resolution with the offending person to begin healing. If the offender is unwilling to apologize or does not acknowledge the wrong, Christians should help the injured heal and put the incident behind them.
Someone may enter you assembly who is the victim of a deliberate attack on their character, motives, or faith. Perhaps they have been assaulted by those who, like Diotrophes, run the local church like a tyrant or by a clique (which should not be present) that mistreats those out of “the” group. It may be enemies of the faith have been assailing their commitment to God and the Bible and belittling their faith. It could be any form of abuse where someone uses the faith to manipulate, use, and control another person. Paul warned Timothy of those who would have an appearance of godliness but harm others. The abusive nature of the Pharisees in the New Testament towards Jesus, His followers, and those who were healed demonstrate oppression by those who have an appearance of godliness.
Christians have a responsibility to stand against faith abusers. We must not let spiritual bullies intimidate the weak or immature and must not ignore their ungodly behavior. Sometimes these spiritual bullies can be preachers, elders, teachers, prominent members, and those who have a prominent role in the local church or the community. We must never forget that the church belongs to Christ, purchased with His blood, and no man or woman should be allowed to exercise such damaging influence. Local churches can be rendered impotent or ultimately destroyed by such people. Those who are strong should stand up for the weak, and for the Lord, against such behavior in hopes of preventing injuries and perhaps turning the heart of the bully back to God.
Christians also have a responsibility to demonstrate the true love of Christ in helping the victims of spiritual attack to heal. We have to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit in our lives and help them to understand that the abuse was not pleasing to God no matter how favorably other Christians may have viewed the abuser. Sometimes people may come from an abusive situation to be part of the local Christian family. We must remember to show hospitality and, in this case, put the “hospital” in “hospitality.” We are helping them build new friendships and rebuild Christian associations. Many are going to feel vulnerable and may hesitate to get involved with others again in order to avoid being hurt. This is an effect of spiritual shock and warm reception and acceptance will help them feel like they can love their brethren again. Hospitality allows us to demonstrate our love and acceptance and help them heal from spiritual trauma. Remember that some people have thicker skin and and can react somewhat detached and logical in the face of problems, some have thinner skin (neither good nor bad) and feel the pain of strife, struggle, and separation more acutely. Some may take time to feel comfortable blending into a new congregation and hospitality will help them feel more like family.
We must also comfort and assist those attacked by outside forces. I remember a few years ago several Christians comforting and encouraging a high school girl who stood up for her faith and the teaching of scripture and received venomous comments and vicious attacks on a web site when a class mate posted her comments on an atheism group. Those of us who have been attacked for our faith can provide comfort and guidance to those under attack.
Fatigue and Exhaustion
Look around the audience during the next assembly. That brother or sister giving you a weak smile may be holding on to a little faith, faintly resisting the urge to give up, but may feel ready to quit fighting. There may be more fatigued brethren present than you realize. Sometimes I have been surprised to discuss with someone I perceived to have strong faith and a close relationship with God about their thoughts of committing spiritual suicide; to just give up. Some are beat down by trials in life (trials that give others strength). Some are burned out by godly service, family obligations, or prolonged spiritual battles. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul reminds us of our responsibilities in these situations: “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.”
Warn those who are out of line: perhaps the spiritual bullies, those who are disruptive, or negligent in their faith and leading others astray. Those who are not rebellious do not need warning but encouragement. “Fainthearted” is used several times in the Old Testament of those who are fearful in the presence of a great enemy. Do not belittle them or chide them for a lack of faith; give them comfort. For those who are weak, bear their burden and be a crutch to help them until they can stand again. Whether the trial is physical or spiritual, they need us to keep them from falling. Whether we think they should be stronger or should handle their situation differently is irrelevant; we need to be patient with them and encourage their faithfulness.
Receiving the Weak and Suffering
When we are aware of hurting brethren, we should then nourish, comfort, and bandage their wounds. “Inasumuch as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Many feel unwanted when they come into our assembly. They are “congregationally homeless.” Some have endured sniping comments, unfair criticism, lost friendships, and isolation. When these brethren walk through our doors they are very vulnerable. They do not feel wanted and we cannot tell them by words or actions that we don’t want them here. Not only do we want them, we need them! The Lord wants them. We must be the expression of God’s love to them by our words and actions.
The symbol of American freedom, the Statue of Liberty, calls out
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.””
How much more should the Lord’s church.