Partnership in the gospel is a gift from God. Few passages in Scripture remind me of this more than reading of Paul’s goodbye to the Ephesian elders in Miletus in Acts 20:36-38:
And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship.
While gospel-centered friendship is a sweet gift, it also can be a great source of pain when it goes away. Some of my tightest hugs have been with believers leaving to take the name of Jesus overseas, knowing we will most likely not reunite this side of eternity. Ministry is full of gospel goodbyes, and I have had my fair share.
Taking a new job, moving to a different place, or entering a new stage of life often alters relationship rhythms. But how should we respond when separation between friends occurs not by weeping together through the night but with an unceremonious, dry-eyed goodbye? When someone does not walk away from the faith—they just walk away from you?
In the past few years, I’ve experienced betrayal by other believers that left me breathless. We live in a digital, fast-paced age where there is hardly time to mourn the division in our churches or personal lives before the next dissension occurs. If you find yourself trying to catch your breath, here are four encouragements for you to pause and reflect upon as you seek healing in the Lord:
As one who has experienced it, I know one of the worst questions to ask a person who feels betrayed is, “Are you sure they sinned against you?” Even so, I think it is an important question for believers ask ourselves as we evaluate how to move forward in prayer and reconciliation with one another.
What one person may receive as a personal betrayal may actually be another believer’s obedience to God’s calling.
It can be easy to forget that not all decisions revolve around us. For example if a pastor prayerfully pursues a position in another place, it could be a temptation for some congregants to view the move as a personal abandonment rather than a movement of God. Assuming the worst of others’ intentions allows a root of bitterness that could eventually grow to choke out the relationship.
There is a better way! By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can trust God through difficult situations and lovingly seek understanding. It is appropriate to be honest about feelings, ask questions, and take the person’s previously displayed character into account. But it is essential to recognize that relationships are a gift that can be given, changed, and taken away by God.
People who genuinely submit their lives to Jesus do not usually make decisions to be malicious. They make them based on their understanding of God, His Word, and the world. These choices form from their own conscience, convictions, wounds, sins, and experiences. Combine those factors with a broken world and the result? Even the best intentions (or truly holy actions) can still hurt. Processing pain from someone else’s decision does not mean the decision was inherently wrong or sinful.
Have grace for them.
That all sounds good in theory. But what if it is personal?
Betrayal from another believer hurts. It cuts especially deep because the blood of Jesus binds us in love. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, we break bread together, walk with one another through joys and sorrows, and share the same Holy Spirit. In God, we are family. To share in such intimacy only to experience a betrayal of trust is devastating.
Releasing this kind of hurt to God requires us acknowledging that even someone who stands justified before God through the blood of Christ is still a sinner in the process of being sanctified by the grace of God.
Recognizing people are sinful does not mean we have license to villainize them. Do they slander you? Spew lies or hatred? Mock your ministry? God will hold them accountable for these actions. It’s easy to justify pride or retribution by labeling it as a desire for justice. But regardless of how much pain we endure at the hands of others—believers or unbelievers— we need not look further than the nail-pierced hands of Jesus to know forgiveness is possible. Who are we to withhold it when God so graciously extends it to us through the blood of His Son?
Humans are all sinful, and no matter how hard we try, we will fail in this broken world before we reach heaven. Romans 5:6-8 reminds us that the peace with God we experience through faith is not because of anything in us, rather:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
For this reason, we should be willing to demonstrate the grace God poured upon us to others so they might remember the gospel. Though their sin may still elicit consequences like loss of trust or removal from leadership, we can still pray for the Holy Spirit to enable us to be kind, speak truth, and show grace even when the offender does not.
Have grace for yourself.
There are always two sides to a betrayal. I am confident we have all been on both.
Do you find yourself in the position of the betrayer rather than the betrayed? Confess your sin before God and find healing in confessing to others (James 5:16). If you have made mistakes or there is truth to the words of your hurt brother or sister, you may want to run from or deny the reality of the situation. Denial is dangerous for you and unloving to them. Instead, lean on the truth that no matter how badly you’ve messed up, you are not outside of God’s grace. Cherish the reality that according to Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”
If you are the one who is hurt and need to distance yourself from a relationship because it no longer produces fruit for the Kingdom, there is grace for you as well. That person’s life does not rise and fall on your decisions, and if it does, that relationship may be an idol for them. Sometimes the most loving thing is to help break that idolatry by refusing to enable them. You can recognize your bond in the body of Christ without being best friends. If your loving distance is unforgivable in their eyes, pray for them from afar and trust God to work in their life even if you no longer are part of it.
Trust the character of God.
God our Father is just. When people act unjustly, God knows. When we act unjustly, God knows. You may not have seen it coming, but God did. Before the foundation of the world, He foreknew our sinfulness and ordained for His Son to bear the wrath we deserve (Isaiah 53:10).
The only sinless person ever to walk the earth was betrayed.
Our Savior experienced betrayal from his closest friends on earth. Imagine: the friends he shared meals with, traveled long distances with, and shared the gospel beside abandoned him in his darkest hours. These men knew Jesus. They were his disciples. They were his friends.
Jesus experienced betrayal by his friends, by previous followers, by crowds that had at one time praised him. Yet he still faced the path before him, praying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). The Son’s fulfillment of the Father’s will meant bearing scorn from the world. Christ was let bleeding to an instrument of torture and died, uttering to his Father: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
It was the sins of his betrayers that Jesus atoned for on the cross. His blood atones for the sins of fellow believers just as much as it atones for yours.
So, look to Jesus as you heal from betrayal. Whether you are processing pain caused by a friend turning against you or find yourself in the process of your own repentance, know God alone is wholly trustworthy. His sovereign hand lovingly holds you through your failures and the failures of others.