Congregations of Bruised Reeds

by Benjamin Vrbicek May 10, 2021

My parents adopted my cousin when she was a baby. While she slept in her crib, a man murdered her mother in the living room. I was about ten years old when we adopted her, and, for a time, I remember being afraid at night.

In this life there are so many ways to become bruised.

Sexual abuse has bruised many in our churches. The New York Times reported last year that in my own city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the local diocese declared bankruptcy “to seek protection from creditors as it faces tens of millions of dollars in outstanding claims from people who were sexually abused by clergy members.” Of course the Catholic church has no monopoly on sexual abuse. At this point, we’re all aware of the reporting by Christianity Today about Ravi Zacharias and the reporting done by the Houston Chronicle about the largest Protestant denomination in the world.

But I don’t think of abuse as mainly something “out there” done by and to others. Each week when I stand up to preach, I stand in front of women who have been sexually abused. Some I know about, and others I only suspect are there based on statistics.

There are so many ways to become bruised. A ministry friend of mine used to be on staff at a large church. When he addressed with pointed questions the verbal and emotional abuse taking place by a leader, my friend was promptly dismissed and forced to sign an NDA, a non-disclosure agreement. In other words, they told my friend to take the money and shut up. Newly married, he had just bought a home in a new city. The firing process all happened so quickly. Years have now passed, and now that abusive pastor has since been fired, but my friend’s heart has struggled to fully heal.

There are so many ways to become bruised. A few people in my church grew up with belligerent fathers. Now, every time a man raises his voice, they become disproportionally afraid. Others in my church have lost loved ones to suicide. I officiated the funeral of my grandfather who took his life. A dozen people in my church suffer from chronic illness. And to one degree or another, all of us struggled over the last year with aspects related to Covid. There are just so many ways to become bruised. In fact, in Romans 8, we read that not only people but all creation groans under the futility it has been subjected to because of sin (Rom. 8:22).

Sometimes we don’t even recognize our woundedness. If your temper roars out of control such that the people around you must walk on eggshells and handle you with mittens, then you’re probably not as tough as you think. You’re probably wounded, and for the sake of protection, you’ve become a snapping turtle with sharp teeth and a spiky shell so no one can ever know the real you.

What is God to do with wounded, bruised people like us? If you have a plastic grocery bag that gets a hole, you don’t save it. You don’t try to fix a disposable grocery bag. You throw it away and get a new one. Seven billion other, better grocery bags fill our world. Why duct tape a ripped and ruined one?

Thankfully, that is not how God treats us. His ways are not our ways. In Isaiah 42 we read about the compassion of our healer. “A bruised reed he will not break,” Isaiah writes, “and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (42:3).

Do not, however, be confused about the strength of our savior. When Isaiah writes that a bruised reed Jesus will not break, it’s not that Jesus can’t break a flimsy reed. God could break us as easily as a lion could crush a wounded hummingbird in his paw. God could crush us with no effort. Or he can set us down underneath him and protect us while we heal, which is what our savior does.

I’ve been competing in sports for the last thirty years, and over this time I’ve become a decent judge of how long a particular injury might keep an athlete sidelined. For example, I have a decent sense of how long it takes for a lightly sprained ankle to heal (three weeks, not three months) and how long it takes for broken ribs to heal (three months, not three weeks).

But how long does it take to heal from abuse? If a previous church treated a pastor badly, and that man shows up in our pews, has he suffered a five-month injury? And if a woman goes through the trauma of divorce or widowhood, has she suffered a five-year injury? I suppose the answer is, It depends.

Over the last decade of pastoral ministry, I have learned the time required to heal from abuse and other trauma is always longer than I would have guessed. I’ll say it differently. When I was a less experienced pastor, I’d find myself looking at the spiritual equivalent of a broken arm and thinking, “Yeah, that will heal in a week or two,” when in reality a compound fracture takes far longer to heal—if the bones ever do. I didn’t guess wrong to be demeaning or triumphalist. In hindsight, I think I was just naïve.

Thankfully, the book of Isaiah does not treat the wounds of God’s people lightly. As Isaiah writes later in the book, our Messiah was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and with his wounds, we are healed (Isa. 53:4). God does not treat the wounds of his people lightly. Our redemption came through a bloody cross. And whatever bruising remains unhealed in this life, God will fully heal in the next. The good work he begins in us, Paul writes, God will see to completion (Phil. 1:6)