If you follow or survey any progressive Christian website, social media account, or youtube page, you’ve likely read the slogan “Religion shouldn’t hurt”. Maybe it was a hashtag, a topic, or just the name of an organization, but you’ve seen it. Normally you will hear it in conjunction with someone’s story of church trauma or what they would say is bad or abusive teaching. It’s a popular phrase and it’s not hard to see why. Who would disagree with it? Seems like a pretty normal and obvious thing to say. But there’s a problem. Like most of the popular phrases and slogans within the progressive church, this sounds well and good at face value, but is misleading and void of any real spiritual substance.
Now up front it’s important to acknowledge that church pain is a real thing. There are many that have experienced false or abusive teaching that has caused great pain and confusion. Maybe you’ve been part of a church where your doubts were chastised or you were shamed for not being the biggest donor. Whatever the case, many have experienced hurt within a church community and my greatest prayer if that’s you is that you would see that what you walked through is not a true representation of Jesus and His Body. I pray you find a loving, spirit-led community where you can grow and thrive in your faith. And I pray that all of us do our part in helping our churches become true expressions of what Jesus envisioned for His people.
With that being said, the more ‘religion shouldn’t hurt” stories you read, the more you’ll find that someone’s hurt had far more to do with their personal worldview and spiritual preferences.
The first question that comes to mind when I hear this phrase is do you mean Religion or Church? Most stories seem to describe church pain rather than simply religious pain. If by “religion” you mean “church shouldn’t hurt”, then there should be a strong amount of agreement. A simple reading in the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul would show that the Body of Christ should be a place of hope, encouragement, generosity, and love for one another. It should be a place where people can discover life in Jesus and grow in their faith daily in the context of a healthy, supportive community. But we’ll come back to this at the end.
But the slogan remains, “Religion shouldn’t hurt”. Religion here refers to the Christian faith. Of course, there could be a discussion on what is meant by “hurt”, but going on the context of most progressive ideologies, it’s clear what this meant to convey. From a progressive point of view, teaching on the topic of Hell can be hurtful. Taking a strong stance on sin and our complete moral bankruptcy before God is hurtful. Teaching about holiness, repentance and the wrath of God can be hurtful. If you haven’t seen it by now, for the Christian faith not to hurt anyone requires a complete transformation of the Gospel message.
In reality, the Gospel message does hurt. Not a physical or vindictive hurt, but a hurt that is much more intense and far more valuable to our soul. The Gospel forces each one of us to see ourselves for who we are in God’s eyes. Lost, sinful, and morally seared. Far from the progressive view that we are good people with good intentions, Jesus steps in and says that in order to inherit the Kingdom of God, we must be born again (John 3:3). We need a do-over. That there really isn’t anything in our lives worth holding onto. We have to experience a new life found in Christ alone.
Throughout the teachings of Jesus and the writing of the Apostles, there is a constant theme of surrender, sacrifice, and death to self. The Gospel forces each of us to see our lives not through our cultural or even personal lens, but through the eyes of God. It presses against our pride and calls us to set aside our passions, dreams, and lives to serve the Kingdom. To love and serve God supremely, regardless of what it requires of us. And that process hurts.
Consider the story Jesus told of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” (Luke 18:11-14)
The one who was found justified is the one who experienced hurt. He was confronted with his sin and rebellion against God. He saw what his actions have done to the heart of God and those around him. Jesus says he “beat his breast” in spiritual pain over his guilt before a holy God. He calls himself a sinner and all he can do is cry out for the mercy he knows he doesn’t deserve. And this is what God honored. Not the one who’s religion didn’t hurt, but the one who was broken over his sin, to the point of emotional and spiritually hurt, that brought him to a place where he could experience the grace and mercy of God.
This is the problem with slogans like ‘religion shouldn’t hurt”. Even though at face value many would agree, it begins to paint a picture of the Gospel that requires very little of us. It subtly begins watering down the uncomfortable aspects of Jesus and His call to complete allegiance to Him. It conditions people to push back on any teaching that may press against their ego or personal life preferences and worldviews. It leads people to resist appropriate church discipline and reject the leadership God has placed over them.
This is the reason the Gospel cannot be boiled down to soundbite statements. What sounds catchy and appealing can often lack the substance that the Bible is leading us to see. Jesus didn’t come to hurt people, but He did come to change people. And that can hurt. The change Jesus taught requires every aspect of our lives coming under His authority. The Christian life is a lifelong journey of surrender and sacrifice. It will stretch us, break us, mold us, and transform us. Any version of the Gospel that doesn’t confront us with our sin and depravity, is not the Gospel at all.
But this is why the message of Jesus is Good News. Yes He exposes our sinful state and calls us to deny ourselves, but He also provides forgiveness, mercy, and the grace to move forward into His will in our lives. Without this redemption promise, there really wouldn’t be any Good News.
As believers, we are to embrace people where they are and show them the wonderful love of Jesus. What we cannot forget is that experiencing that love requires being broken over our sin. To have the posture of the tax collector and cry out for mercy to the only one who can rescue us.