I've been thinking a little bit about how painful church can be. It seems to be a sad fact that church communities - which are meant to be families of grace and places of gospel healing - are very often places where Christians suffer their most serious wounds. A house divided against itself cannot stand - and yet every church I know of is to some extent divided against itself, and the fallout of this division is very often deep personal pain for individuals.
What's going on?
To a certain extent I suspect we over-sell church, making it offer more than it can ever provide in reality. No community made up of sinful people can ever be a totally safe place. No community of miserable sinners will ever be free of pain.
But sometimes it's more than that. The division and fighting and pain is not just the inevitable result of any human community, but is specifically about church. I would guess there are a couple of things going on here. One is that the church is not a community we choose, and in that regard it is less like a club and more like a family. We find ourselves members of the church as a result of being joined to Christ, and we are stuck with that Christian family whether we like them or not. My guess is that we all know to some extent how families can be: the places of the deepest love, but also the most painful struggles to relate. That's church.
Then on top of that you have the fact that in entering the church we enter a place of acute spiritual conflict. The fight for genuine church community is not only a fight against our own selfish predispositions and sinfully warped characters; it is also a fight against the devil and all his angels. We have been brought into the cosmic struggle, won by Christ but still being fought - and it perhaps ought not to be surprising that there is a certain amount of friendly fire, given who we all are and given what is at stake.
Perhaps there is an analogy here to our personal experience. When we don't try to follow Christ - when we let sin reign in our mortal bodies - well then, to be sure, we're dying eternally, but it feels easy and even pleasant. When we turn to Christ and take up arms against our sin - well, that is the way to life, but it sure feels like a war. It feels like it because it is.
Church is hard. The Christian life is hard. We're at war, and entering into church community puts us on the front lines.