How to handle it when those you love the most, treat you the worst.
Someone once said that we (the church) are the only army in the world who shoot their wounded. In the battleground of faith, getting taken out by your own side hurts more than enemy tactics. So what do you do when you find yourself attacked by friendly fire? Is there a good way to respond? Does anyone make it back from here? And why does it hurt so flipping much?
In the greater scheme of life, I haven’t suffered much. I don’t live in a war-torn country. I haven’t witnessed starvation and death all around me. But when it comes to first world problems, I have to admit that coming under friendly fire has hurt more than most things. I suspect it hurts just as much no matter where in the world you are.
Friendly fire in combat terms is when your own side mistakenly opens fire on you, and you get injured by your own team. Friendly fire in church terms is when a fellow believer or leader paints a target on your back and lets rip. Well, that’s how it feels anyway.
Criticism is never easy to handle, but especially when it’s misguided or just plain wrong. I took off on one of the steepest learning curves of my life when I experienced the pain of false accusation. Unfortunately, it came through a close friend. She accused me of attitudes and actions, that to my mind, didn’t tally up with the truth.
Sounds like a small thing right? But it was like being on an out-of-control roller coaster ride that you just can’t get off, and someone else at the control switches. What made it worse was that some of our mutual friends took my friend’s side (through the best of intentions) and started to ostracize me.
The sense of betrayal, indignation and injustice really made me want to go around shouting about why my friend’s view was skewed, and generally make a big deal of “my innocence”. Yet I instinctively knew that criticizing my friend, and slinging mud back at her was only going to make me look worse. And how “I looked” to others was really important to me. Ah.
When under friendly fire, it’s hard not to get hooked into the injustice of the situation. In my case, I felt I’d been very supportive over many years towards this friend who was going through a hard time. But now I was being publicly accused of the very opposite — of being uncaring, unsupportive and withdrawing just when she needed me the most. I had withdrawn from her for two very good reasons. The reasons were compelling. But I couldn’t explain myself without uncovering my friend and others.
So I had to keep schtum. Try not to defend myself. Try to trust that others would know my true character despite what was being said about me. Boy, was that a painful death.
(Sidenote: we sometimes criticise church leaders for making decisions about individuals, without knowing their reasons. Sometimes they know stuff about the person that we don’t know. And they can’t tell us what they know without totally uncovering the person in question. So they keep schtum. Meanwhile, we turn our friendly fire on them and accuse them of all sorts… without knowing the background.)
Gnashing of the teeth
Back to me. I’d like say I was humble, gracious and gently left the whole matter in God’s hands without worrying one jot about my reputation. I’d like to say that but I can’t. I didn’t do too badly in public, but in private I was wailing and gnashing my teeth. ["Why oh why? God how could they do this to me?" >Insert long-winded speeches about injustice and my innocence here<]
Despite this, there are a few things I learned about friendly fire (with the benefit of hindsight):
1) Friendly fire feels devastating.
2) You would be within your rights to rant about how terrible the perpetrator is to everyone you know.
3) Whatever you do, don’t do 2.
4) I know it’s hard to believe, but every story has two sides.
5) Yes, I know your side is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
6) But the person with their knife wedged in your back is deeply hurt themselves.
7) It does actually help to know the reason they’re doing this is not because they hate you (probably). It’s because they are hurt too.
8) They may have been hurt by other people in the past. Time and time again. They are now so hurt, they can’t see your heart as it truly is. They can only see you through the filter of what’s been done to them in the past.
9) You will survive.
10) What other people think of you doesn’t matter.
11) Yes, of course it matters. But at the same time it doesn’t matter.
12) I know, you lost a lot because of this situation. The injustice is just about making your brain explode.
13) IT WILL BE OK.
14) Repeat 13 till you believe it.
15) Despite 12 you cannot do 2.
16) Doing 2 will keep you on this roller coaster indefinitely.
17) The only way to get off the roller coaster is to forgive.
18) To forgive and to run to God. He will reassure you that your heart is good. And if there is anything in you that has genuinely prompted this friendly fire, He’ll find the gentlest, kindest and most loving way to show you.
19) The person you currently want to kill, one day… quite a long time from now… you’ll regret lost relationship with them.
20) Do everything you can to leave it possible for reconciliation in the future. Do not return friendly fire.
21) But if they are taking you out… you may well have to back off right now. Forgive them, but don’t trust them until they’ve regained your trust.
22) Rant to God, He’s a safe place to go and complain your brains out.
23) Number 13 again.
The truth is, false accusation from friends and church leaders is often more about their own hurt than it is about you.
Why it hurt so much
I think one of the reasons it hurt me so much was because I was scared they were right. Perhaps I do have a bad heart. Perhaps I am unsupportive. Perhaps there is something wrong with me.
“When you’re on the receiving end of friendly fire, the battle is to stay in grace and not to fight back on a justice level.”
Once God reassured my heart that I am loved no matter what, it was easier to get perspective on the situation. I even started to see how maybe I was at fault. Not totally, but I certainly did and said things that weren’t helpful. Finally, I saw things from the other person’s point of view, and I felt sorry that I’d caused them any pain when they were already suffering.
The sane place to run
These things are complicated. There are reasons we do what we do. It’s not easy to resolve them quickly. But if we open fire ourselves, if we toss in hand grenades, we’ll really blow things up for good. The only sane place to run is to Dad. He knows us. He knows them.
Grace or Justice?
When you’re on the receiving end of friendly fire, the battle is to stay in grace and not to fight back on a justice level. Yes, you might be in the right. But if you destroy someone by proving that, you’ve both lost. You can only live in one camp: justice or grace. If you want justice from your friend/leader accuser… then be prepared to get justice you don’t want in other situations where you aren’t so squeaky clean. None of us is without sin. If someone has cast the first stone at you, bite your hand so hard you can’t bend down and pick it up to lob back at them. And run as hard as you can into Dad. Into grace. There we can all live as free, forgiven people who don’t have to defend our names or establish what is right or wrong.
“Hurt people hurt people.”
I’m very glad to be in restored relationship with my friend. I’m very glad we’re both off the roller coaster and can enjoy each other again. It took years, but we’re here now. And I hope the next time I come under friendly fire, I’ll be a little bit better at handling it. Because hurt people hurt people. And to some extent we’ve all been hurt.
I’m certainly not saying that it’s OK, for church leaders especially, to open friendly fire on you. It’s devastating and can take people years to recover from. But I am saying, from a safe distance, let’s forgive and let’s walk a mile in each other’s shoes. Because we’re all on the same team. And it’s the only team to be on. (Of course, there’s a big difference between false accusation and leaders giving gentle instruction and calling you to account — that’s good and important if it’s done in love.)
It gets real ugly in here
If you’ve been hurt by church leaders or friends, I’m so sorry. I know it gets real ugly in here sometimes. On behalf of those who’ve opened fire on you, I’m sorry. Please, can you do one thing? Can you forgive those who hurt you? If you’ve suffered spiritual abuse at the hands of leaders, please will you get some help? Some counseling? Would you please consider coming back? Coming home? Because, even though we’re all flawed, there are safe places. There are safe pastors and leaders. And Dad knows how to heal and protect your heart. You don’t have to keep it hardened. You don’t have to stay in isolation.
Is it time to get off the roller coaster? I hope so.
We need you back on our team.
We miss you.