By Dr. Michael A. Milton, Crosswalk.com
Christmas is a very busy time for pastors. However, in my experience, it is not the busiest season. Most pastoral work happens in places much less public than the pulpit or conducting worship. If I were to chronicle and categorize the hours of my adult life, the majority of my time would have surely been devoted to pastoral counseling. And there is no busier time of the year for pastoral counseling than the weeks following the new year. Why? I think it is because people tend to hold their problems inside, consciously withholding any tangible action on the problem, until after Thanksgiving and Christmas. For most of us, decorum matters more than we might want to admit. Most people find it is just too difficult and untimely to announce a major life transition, serious sickness, relationship breach, or other personal concerns during the holidays. So, what they save up in November and December, they release in January. That is why pastors — counselors and other behavioral health providers — are so very busy in the new year.
Of the many types of issues that come to the pastor's study, there is one that is so pernicious, pervasive, and painful that I determined to write a book about it. Hit by Friendly Fire: what to do when you are hurt by another believer was first published as a sermon pamphlet some years ago. Later, Evangelical Press of Great Britain picked it up, and we expanded it to book format. It is now released in a new, updated edition by Resource Publications. I wrote the book to help believers navigate the dangerous shoals of intra-church conflict, which is not only epidemic in the Western church but is infectious and can affect generations of those impacted by the wounds of a friend. That phrase, "the wounds of a friend," is from the Scriptures, "and if one asks him, what are these wounds on your back? He will say, the wounds I received in the house of my friends (Zechariah 13:6).
What is the "hit by friendly fire" syndrome?
"Hit by friendly fire" is, of course, a phrase that is used on the battlefield. The bullet that goes astray and hits one's brother-in-arms is no less lethal than the bullet aimed at the enemy. In the life of the church, believers sometimes say things, omit other things, gossip, make innocent but hurtful remarks, and a host of other indiscretions that range from sins of omission to sins of commission that leave another believer hurt.
Having served for 32 years in the Armed Forces, active and reserve, I have encountered actual "hit by friendly fire" incidents. Are battlefield cases less severe in psychological trauma than betrayal within the church? Debatable. Yet, I will always remember a fellow clergyman serving a large suburban congregation in a major city in the US South. He called me to speak with me and to announce that he had a major ministry transition about to happen. "What's going on?" I began. "Well, Mike, I have just volunteered to be a chaplain in combat in Iraq." I sought to be supportive of his decision but asked him, "what made you decide to make this move? It is obviously courageous, patriotic, heroic, and self-sacrificing." He smiled, one of those facial gestures that is intended to hide the opposite feeling. "Well, I just figured I would rather be shot at with real bullets by those I know are the enemy than be the target of invisible but very real emotional firepower from those who claim to love me. Mike, I’m just tired of being hit by friendly fire.” I put my hand on his shoulder and gave him a reassuring nod without speaking. That particular pastor survived combat in Iraq but would never return to the local church. He remained a chaplain for the rest of his career.
It is not just pastors, of course, that are hit by friendly fire. In fact, pastors are as guilty of inflicting wounds on other believers as anyone else.
So, to be hit by friendly fire, is to experience a wound in the house of your brothers and sisters in Christ. Whether intentional or not, omission or commission, verbal or nonverbal, it is a unique pain. It is also an emotional wound that is high on the taxonomy of emotional hits that we take in this life. That is so because being hurt by someone you love, hurt by a fellow believer in Christ, goes against the grain of our expectations. So, what do we do?
How to treat victims of friendly fire in the church:
A biblical response to this kind of emotional wound is as relevant for the believer as the nonbeliever. However, the response is couched in the ruling motif of the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. In applying the treatment, the wise Christian Shepherd is, in fact, announcing the gospel of Jesus Christ and calling for repentance and faith in him. All pastoral counseling should be Christ-centered, gospel-heralding, and warmly evangelistic. While I prescribe a gospel treatment more specifically in my little volume, Hit by Friendly Fire, I want to share the essential movements of the Christ motif here. These biblical understandings are at the heart of trying to help those who have been wounded by other believers.
1. Betrayal is a painful but sadly familiar trope in the Christian story.
While the word "betrayal" has severe overtones and could be too strong a word to describe some situations, it is nevertheless helpful as we locate and identify a repeatable offense within the body of Christ. Our Lord and Savior was betrayed. He was betrayed not only by Judas Iscariot but betrayed by Peter. We must remember that it was only the Apostle John who remained with Jesus's mother and the other Mary beneath the cross. Jesus was also betrayed in a much greater sense as he was crucified on the timber of trees that he created, shamed and ridiculed by human beings that he made, and cried out to his father and ours without an immediate response of salvation. When we review the gospel story, we have to admit that betrayal is a significant juncture in the biblical narrative. Likewise, the Lord Jesus warned his disciples that if men did these things to the master, would they not, also, persecute the followers? This part of the gospel motif, the ruling pattern that helps make sense of our lives lived in Christ, is sometimes omitted. Understandably so. However, faithful gospel preaching must not deny or diminish the role of suffering for Christ as a normal and expected part of being a Christian. Nor should we cloak that most egregious reality, viz., Believers sometimes hurt other believers.
So, recognizing that "hit by friendly fire" is not uncommon but is rather a true reflection of the panoramic story of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, helps us to move beyond initial shock and unbelief. In a word, saints are merely sinners saved by grace and called to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. The road of sanctification — growing to be more like Jesus — is filled with the potholes of residual sin. So, what do we do?
2. Take off your crown.
The force of this statement is that we must remember God is God, and we are not. We have not arrived at glorification — the spiritual state of perfection that can only come in being home with the Lord. We are sinners saved by grace living in community with other sinners saved by grace. The New Testament epistles were composed to deal with the constant barrage of "friendly fire" in early Christian communities. Despite a common faith that binds believers as one, abiding as God's people demands cultivating the grace of forgiveness, long-suffering, and love that transcends people doing stupid things. In fact, there are times when you and I are the perpetrators, and there are times when we are the victims. Grace, as we observe in the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, is a very messy business. So, the second step in healing from friendly fire is to take off our crown and acknowledge that God is sovereign — sovereign in our lives, sovereign in other lives, and sovereign in the building of his church. The crown of absolute monarchy, a privilege belonging only to God, is unbearably heavy. When we remove the concept and expectation of our ability to control the spiritual growth of others, we can ask God's forgiveness and leave the rulership of the universe to him. What follows? The contented Christian recognizes that the church is filled with people moving along the spectrum of sanctification. Some have progressed farther than others. Others are in the infancy of their spiritual development. Let God be God. He is, whether you choose to acknowledge that are not.
3. Take up your cross.
The fact that you and I experience suffering because of being hurt by another believer is neither unexpected nor strange. That is not to deny the depth of pain. It is real and tragically consequential. Yet, once again, the ruling motif of the Christian life is the life, passion, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. In an era of outlandish claims of prosperity, health, and wealth, erroneously proclaimed to a culture that is already in denial of sin, death, and hell and in narcissistic infatuation with self, the preaching of the reality of suffering for Jesus Christ gets little press in the church, much less the world. Nevertheless, we must take up our cross, take our place in the community of Saints, where we exercise our gifts in the context of others, get hurt, sometimes hurt others ourselves, and learn to love and forgive the way God loved and forgave us. That is a very difficult pill to swallow, but it is biblical medicine that will lead to healing. Take up your cross and follow the one who was also betrayed, the one who cried, "Forgive them. They know not what they do."
Whenever we move from acknowledging the reality of spiritual dysfunction within the earthly family of God to recognizing that the Lord is in control, we can move from the cross to the resurrection. Some of you reading this have been hurt by another believer. You have been living in a perpetual black Saturday — post-crucifixion death and darkness. As you receive God's word on these things, you may repent of your sin to carry the wounds caused by another without acknowledging that they are likely children of God just as you are. The best you can do is to pray for them, leave them with the Lord through the prayer of forgiveness and release them to his providential care. To do so is to experience the golden beam of resurrection light illuminating the tomb you have lived in since the day you were hurt.
We may have been wounded in the house of friends, but we can rise again to live in the presence of God. That is my prayer for you, and that is why I wrote "Hit by Friendly Fire: What to do when you are hurt by another believer.”
For personal reading, a small group study, school or higher education, or pastoral counseling, get "Hit by Friendly Fire: What to do when you are hurt by another believer" (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2022). https://kennedyinstitute.net/Hit-by-Friendly-Fire
From the newly revised edition "Hit by Friendly Fire: What to do when you are hurt by another believer" (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2022).
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Sarah Mason
Michael A. Milton (PhD, Wales) is a long-time Presbyterian minister (PCA) and a regular contributor to Salem Web Network. In addition to founding three churches, and the call as Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, Dr. Milton is a retired Army Chaplain (Colonel). He is the recipient of the Legion of Merit. Milton has also served as chancellor and president of seminaries and is the author of more than thirty books. He has composed and performed original music for five albums. He and his wife, Mae, reside in Western North Carolina. His most recent book is a second edition release: Hit by Friendly Fire: What to do when Another Believer Hurts You (Resource Publications, 2022). To learn more visit and subscribe: https://michaelmilton.org/about/.