In the past few weeks, several conversations I've had highlight the fact that many churches are ill-equipped to deal with people who suffer emotional pain, especially men in pain. The band R.E.M. has a song "Everybody Hurts" with these opening lyrics:
When the day is long and the night, the night is yours alone,
When you're sure you've had enough of this life, well hang on
Don't let yourself go, 'cause everybody cries and everybody hurts sometimes
Everybody hurts because everyone is affected by the Fall. Sadly, for many men, pain is often dismissed, ignored, or confused with sin. Many men do sinful things not out of a rebellious spirit but to self-medicate real pain. We all find ways to deal with pain, and sometimes it opens the door for sin.
In challenging a former pastor's high school-aged son about his chronic pot smoking, I realized that he was using drugs as an escape. It was the best way he thought to deal with the relentless verbal abuse received from a father who thought it was a good idea to be harsh and emasculating with his son to teach him how to be a man. It didn't work. Telling this teen simply to "stop" smoking pot did not really address his real problem: He was bleeding.
I have heard stories of men who have lost teeth because of regular beatings at the hands of their fathers-men who heard phrases like "I'm going to kill you" (with a screwdriver pointed at the face). One 21-year-old recently told me about how his father used to put a knife to his throat to threaten him (this young man smoked a lot of pot, too). Moreover, if we really knew about the high percentage of men who were sexually abused growing up and developed a distorted view of sexuality, it would change the nature of men's ministry. Or imagine if men could be really honest about how angry they feel for reasons they cannot explain.
With some frustration, a recent Christian college graduate inquired as to why the church was not a safe place for men to be open about their pain. Women have "support groups" and men have "accountability groups," he pointed out. Women hurt, but men are nothing more than disgusting sinners who need behavior modification and group penance. I didn't know exactly how to respond but I have been curious about this fact for some time now.
Many churches do not provide safe space for men to confess being in need of healing (Luke 4, Isaiah 61) due to the hands many men have been dealt, sins committed against them in the past or present, their own addictions, confusions, passivity, anger, and so on. As a result, we have churches full of unhealed and wounded men who often medicate their pain in secret or take it out on their wives, children, friends, and co-workers. The dysfunctional cycle of self-medication creates even more generational sin and pain. Many wives foolishly think that they can heal their husbands instead of the Triune God.
I look forward to the day in ministry contexts where I hear stories of men growing up in churches who were able to get help early because it was a normal way the church loved their men. I long for the day when Chap Clark's book Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers is no longer the normal high school student's experience. I look forward to the day when the knee-jerk response to R.E.M.'s song is "Find a church and meet the Trinity," even for men because they need lots of help too.