Criticism can be hard to accept. I learned this working as a co-facilitator with the Batterers Intervention Program, a group program designed for people who had committed intimate partner violence.
Our program was for male offenders, and we had group sessions to teach skills to have healthy, nonviolent relationships with significant others. We would ask newcomers to introduce themselves and say exactly what happened that brought them to the group. Stories were often filled with minimization, justification and denial. They were often unable to even name their role in the conflict that landed them in the program.
Our goal as facilitators was to help them realize the need to take responsibility for their actions. They could not leave the program without admitting they had a problem. Acknowledging the harm they had done was the only way for healing to take place.
Facilitating these groups made me realize how often we fail to admit when we have a problem. We have a hard time coming to terms with the reality that we make mistakes. We want to be perceived as good people. We want to do the right things. I believe most humans want to be good, and this makes it hard to confess our sin.
As the sins of the church are uncovered, there is a lot of minimization, justification and denial. When someone brings up the sins of colonization, we say it was a long time ago and the church did good things for those people, too. When the church’s role in slavery is mentioned, we point out that there were Christian abolitionists and that not all Christians owned slaves. When sexual abuse allegations come up, we pretend it never happened.
Denial of problems has hurt the church’s witness. It is hard to make disciples when no one can trust the church to be honest, transparent and accountable. Our participation in what God is doing becomes tainted when we refuse to look at our flaws.
This becomes clear in Isaiah’s story of receiving the prophetic call. Isaiah 6 tells us of a vision Isaiah has in the presence of God.
Before God can even speak, Isaiah calls out in confession that he is a man of unclean lips who comes from a people of unclean lips.
Isaiah acknowledges the problem: Uncleanliness. Not only the sin of the people, but his own sin has made it difficult for him to participate in what God is planning.
God extended grace to Isaiah by sending a seraph to touch his unclean lips with burning coals to cleanse him. Isaiah’s sins were forgiven, and God extended to him the call to be a prophet.
Isaiah received the call not because he was perfect but because he was willing to admit he had a problem. Through this admission, God was moved to give him grace.
We as the church have to be willing to take a step back and look at what we have done. We have hurt our neighbors. We have been guilty of supremacy and erasure of difference.
For repentance and healing to take place, we must admit we have a problem. Honesty and accountability can lead to healing for the offended and the offender.
One of the beautiful moments from my work with the Batterers Intervention Program was when the guys would graduate. They were able to name harms they caused without justifying, minimizing or denying. They were able to admit they had a problem. This was the breakthrough moment when they began to understand and embody the wisdom of the group. It was hard to get to that point, but worth it.
It takes a lot of work to be honest about our flaws — our sins. But when we come to terms with not being perfect, we are able to participate in what God is doing. We can begin the process toward healing and wholeness.
We will never solve all the problems that plague the church. But we can address them with humbleness and accountability. I believe God can use that.