When Church is Hard But Your Faith is Strong

posted in: Special Needs | 17

When church is hard but your faith is strong.

I am going to be completely honest and vulnerable in this post. In fact, I’m not even sure I will hit “publish”.  It is Sunday morning, 10:46 am. Church is in session but I’m not there. Instead, I am at home, in my pajamas, with writing this on my laptop. Why aren’t I at church? Am I sick? Are the kids sick?

No.

Sometimes Church is Hard

I am sitting at home on my couch because church is hard. These days I can barely bring myself to attend. Sometimes I fantasize about attending a different church. A big one that meets on Saturday nights. I could slip in, listen to the worship music, listen to the Word being read, then sit on my couch guilt-free on Sunday morning, sipping coffee. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Church is hard because our family is struggling through an immensely difficult time right now and I can’t bring myself to go, sit through the service, say hello, smile at people. It feels too fake. But at the same time, I can hardly spill my dirty laundry, my anguish, my struggles, to some poor church member who shakes my hand and says, “how are you?”

I want to answer, “Terrible, thanks for asking” but we all know that is unacceptable. Especially at church.

The Blame Game from Fellow Christians Hurts

But that’s only part of the problem. I have written before about how when Apollo was diagnosed with his heart defect and we were in the midst of medical crisis after a medical crisis, no one blamed us. No one blamed our home, or parenting, or our discipline methods. Certainly not people from church. But I’ve experienced first hand a hard truth, when you have a child with mental illness, a child with an extreme behavioral disorder, you most certainly are blamed.

The root of my son’s issues started long before he was placed in my arms, before I rocked him to sleep at night, before I changed his diapers, before I walked for hours with an overstimulated, shaky unregulated baby, before I breastfed him for a year to give him the best start possible. They began at the moment of conception as his brain was steeped in a cocktail alcohol and drugs.

Judgment Disguised as a Compliment

Even when my son was a tiny baby with a halo of soft curly hair and latte skin, I heard judgment from people in church disguised, frequently, as compliments.

“He just needs love and structure”

“At least you got him as a newborn”

“Good thing he is in your home”

“He’s so lucky”

Post-birth, my son was nurtured and loved, given everything my other children were offered in life. He was breastfed and was carried in a sling to encourage healthy attachment. He slept on my chest at night so I could meet his every need. As he grew he had regular naps and bedtimes, nutritious food, exercise, he was read to for countless hours. He had regular health care and an endless supply of love.

Unfortunately, none of that can overcome the damage done to his brain before he even took his first breath.

It’s the Church I Struggle With, Not My Faith.

So here I sit at home. My son rarely attends church. The sound is too loud, the lights too bright.  When Chuck and I take turns, showing up to church while the other stays home with our son, no one notices. No one comments. No one asks about my son, who surely stands out in a church where he is one of just a couple of black teens. When I am willing to share a small part of our story of struggle as a family, I am met with averted eyes, awkward pauses, and vague promises of prayer.

None of this has anything to do with my faith, which is as strong as ever. None of it has anything to do with my relationship with Jesus or the free gift of salvation He gave me.

But the judge, the comments, the lack of empathy, those things certainly affect my church attendance.

The Truth: Jesus Has My Back

Here is the truth. My son loves cats. He loves babies. He loves video games and swimming. He also has a mental illness. He rages. He destroys things. He has been hospitalized in the past for extreme behavioral issues and will likely be in the future. He takes medication (because sometimes love, structure and prayers aren’t enough). His future is uncertain. He may never live independently. He may never hold a job. He might be fine, but then again, he might not.

If you can’t accept this, if you can’t accept this is the reality of our “nice” Christian family, then you are part of the problem, not the solution.

Church is hard but I know Jesus has my back.

{And if you are one of the small handful of people who have reached out to our family, know that we have noticed, we feel your support, and we love you.}

Edited to add: A few of you asked how you can help families who are struggling. Lucky for, there’s a blog post for that 😉

Practical Ways to Help Foster and Adoptive Families

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17 Responses

  1. thissquirrelsnest

    I understand. We moved churches recently because we needed somewhere that people wouldn’t badager my child with Selective Mutism and anxiety. we are lucky that there are many churches where we live and found a place that works for us. But that isn’t nearly as difficult as having a child with extreme behaviors. I don’t know how it feels to walk the road you are on or the fear you must have every day for a child who can’t help who he is, but who he is frightens people. How really, really hard and isolating. Christian Churches across the board need to get better at helping, welcoming, and understanding that mental illness isn’t a curse or something to whisper about.

    I pray that you continue to know Christ as you walk everyday in these hard, hard places parenting a child with such difficulty. And I pray that you you receive the help and support you need on that walk.

    • Renee

      These words right here: “a child who can’t help who he is, but who he is frightens people” are so raw and true, I’m afraid to write them myself. He cannot help it, I cannot help it, and while circumstances could have been different, God allowed him to be born with his specific struggles. While others might suggest “tough love” that isn’t what he needs. He needs love, support, and experts (ie: ABA and an external brain) to help him learn to manage day-to-day. He will need that external brain for the rest of his life because no one outgrows or “recovers” from FASD.

  2. Elizabeth

    I’ve not walked your journey. But I hear an echo of my mom’s church experience and I have had a season of it as well. Your relationship with the “church” and Jesus are not synonymous, you’re right. Your honesty is SO appreciated. Your more raw posts are always the ones I end up passing along to my mom. (Parenting some invisible special needs)

    • Renee

      Yes, church and Jesus are two very different things. I am okay because I know Jesus. The church is just a “bonus”.

  3. bemis

    Thanks for sharing, Renee. It’s too bad when church is the hardest place to go in times of trouble. I’ve had not-so-helpful “advice” at church for physical difficulties, and I can’t even imagine how it’s magnified when related to behavioral/emotional difficulties. I just attended a seminar on grace-filled parenting, and it reminds me of how all of our relationships should be grace-filled, especially those in the church. What a shame it is that in the midst of one of the most intensely difficult times, you’re not able to be comfortable or welcomed in church. It’s not your shame, but the state of our church (in general, not just yours, I’m sure). Church should be the place where you can feel surrounded by the love of your brothers and sisters in Christ.

    Thank you for the reminder to reach out, without judgment, to those I know who are struggling in similar ways in my own local church body.

    • Renee

      It is hard and while I wrote this post for myself, I am happy it is helping other people understand, even a little bit.

  4. Erin

    “But at the same time, I can hardly spill my dirty laundry, my anguish, my struggles, to some poor church member who shakes my hand and says, “how are you?”

    I want to answer, “Terrible, thanks for asking” but we all know that is unacceptable. Especially at church.”

    Church is absolutely the place to air your anguish and struggles. It might make people uncomfortable, but that’s something they’ll work through. Church isn’t real if people keep their struggles to themselves. We are meant to share one another’s burdens!

    Is there a small group you could become a part of – sometimes that can be an easier way forward?

  5. Sarah

    I, 100%, completely understand. I have a son, very similar to yours and had to stop attending too. In fact, I’m impressed how long you have made it. It is the most lonely feeling on the planet, because, you expect the church to be there. You expect people to understand, to say, “I can’t help, but I can listen. I can buy coffee.” But when a religion is centered on what it produces – and you don’t produce correctly – its hard, and it deeply hurts. The surcharge follows a prosperity gospel. Which is fine, as long as life can be maintained to be perfect. What I can tell you, is when I got pushed to the side – that’s when I found Jesus. I found a much nicer God. I also found some amazing people, who don’t share my faith, but can share empathy. My friend tells me all the time, “I’m so glad the church pushed you out, so we can be friends.” I’m still insanely lonely, and I see a counselor just to have someone to vent to – but over all I’m happy, and stronger than I’ve ever been before. I read Brene Browns book, Daring Greatly (self help book for standing against the crowd) and a book by kate bowler, “everything happens for a reason: and other lies I’ve been told”. It’s a non fiction about a christian woman dying from cancer rethinking religion, both of those were very comforting to me.

    Any way, when people say the old cliches about choosing to adopt, I think, the only difference between you and me is I said yes. And there you go, saying no.

    It’s not that they have to adopt, like I did, but saying yes, would mean being kind to those who did. We can all say yes to adoption, because even supporting adoption families is the same as saying yes.

    • Renee

      The only thing that has kept me attending for a long time is my children. I want to show them that church is a priority…but, unfortunately, they don’t feel connected there either. And yes, not everyone can (or should) say yes to adoption, but every Christian should be helping to support families that dol

  6. Ellen

    Been there … I so feel you on this! Things came back around to me that people noticed I wasn’t at church, so double the judging because it was the Pastor’s wife who was AWOL. But except for a handful of folks who knew our situation, not ONE SINGLE PERSON called, emailed, or even, for goodness sakes, asked Paul! This included the people on church council. I have ‘retired’ from church. 30+ years of being judged was enough for me.

  7. Suzan

    The story you tell resonates. I am so sorry that church and those who attend have increased your burdens. I stopped going to one church when one of the older women thought is was acceptable to blame my son for many things and hit him. It was far from a safe place. Then I went to another church where the members started suing each other. Then I went to another where there was help for many but not for me.

    People may think me mad but I truly believe that Jesus was most likely a shorter swarthy man. I wonder how well some people would accept that thought? Jesus welcomed the under dog and those who suffered and that seems to be lost. I worked with many young children who had alcoholic and drug dependant mothers. It is sad. I am so proud of your efforts.

    God bless you all.

    • Renee

      Thank you so much. No matter how my son behaves, he was made by the Creator and He loves him. It is just hard when we don’t live up to the “Christian” standard that Jesus never actually held us to.

  8. Corrie

    Renee, I am so sorry you feel this way. I’m sure I’ve come across just as you have said here – judgmental and sure I have all the answers. I am so sorry to not understand. Please forgive me and the people like me. Please, tell us, what should we do instead. How could we love you and your family. What would make you feel loved and cared for by the average person in church, not just a person who has been there.

  9. Jill

    Oh, Renee, I’m so sorry. There is such a stigma with mental illness. I’m dealing with an adult daughter with bipolar disease, PTSD, among other things. She had made some poor decisions. She’s been hospitalized three times in the last 16 months. She’s lost her job again and may file for disability. And move back home. I promised her she would not be homeless. Not only do you have to deal with the day to day issues of living with such a child but you have to deal with the guilt. Even when you KNOW it’s not your fault the guilt raises it’s ugly head. And then when your brothers and sisters in Christ heap guilt on you it’s unbearable. Jesus said, Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. That is my prayer for both of us.

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