ost of us have had experiences in church that take all the fun out of playing on the same team. Who hasn’t felt the sharp knife of betrayal, of having been too open too early, only to discover later that the person you confided in didn’t have your back? Experience can make us wise, but too often it makes us hard.
My friend Marsha struggled as a new wife and mother with several tasks relating to managing her home. As a young woman, she felt embarrassed that tasks which came so easily and naturally to others were overwhelming to her. She was raised in a loving home—too loving, as it turned out. With so much done for her by her own mother, she was ill-equipped to manage her own home. Thankfully, a couple of older women from the church came to her and offered to help her—to show her how she could become more organized and productive. Admittedly, it was a little embarrassing revealing her secret failures to these women, at first, but Marsha humbled herself and was ready to grow.
It was a great plan. Marsha was so encouraged . . . until she happened onto a conversation . . . behind the slightly ajar door, where the two women laughed and joked about her incompetence.
The net effect of hits like that makes us impervious to real relationship. Facing the pain of false relationships does that. It’s just not worth the cost. Billy Joel was wrong about a lot of things, but he was right about honesty in relationships: honesty is such a lonely word. To this day, Marsha will tell you she trusts no one. It’s sad—and God does want her to grow in this area—but at one level, I can’t blame her.
Let me emphasize again that this is a messy process. It is not safe and contained. All people struggle, so you will be surrounded by even more problems. As much as the idea of community was never more positive than in the months following the car accident with my son (leaving him a quadriplegic), I must also say that I have never received more criticism and judgment from the Christian community than during this same time period.
When you let your struggles be known, you will also be inundated by the “answer people.” These are the people who can solve all your problems without even knowing you. They are followed closely by the Bible-verse people who simplify your entire life into one or two verses, which, though true, are more likely to incite violence toward them than peace within you. These people are closely related to the “I” club who will instantly relate your story to something in their own lives and then proceed to talk about themselves until you are nauseated. And even the people who act as your friends will occasionally hurt you.
I’ve lived it, and I’m sure you have too. If we’re not careful, we become like a sea anemone, recognizing the slightest touch as a dangerous threat and pull into ourselves.
So, are we going to go with our experience and pull in like that sea anemone? At least we’ll be safe, right? No, not really . . . if we’re honest with ourselves. Even though it might feel safe in the moment, closing ourselves off from true relationship is a place of profound powerlessness. Illusions often provide momentary comfort. The fact is, a sea anemone can’t find nourishment pulling into itself and staying there, and neither can you.
The results are always the same when
in our hearts we retreat to some desert island. You begin to starve, then you give up, then you die. Not an option for the believer, but neither is avoiding struggles. They’re either coming or already here. We were designed to love and to be loved. So, what do we do?
The life of surrender isn’t a life based on achieving equilibrium in our feelings. It’s not a path to wholeness based on how I perceive reality and decided how to proceed. If we are to be truly surrendered, as believers, it must be to what we are told to do. Not what I say or think, or how I feel when struggles come, but what I am instructed to do. Where do we get that kind of information?
It’s not complicated: the Bible.
We will only find strength to struggle well if we surrender our will, our determination to walk in isolation and do what we think best, and embrace the instruction found in the Scriptures—the sword of the Spirit. What do they have to say about this?
“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other” (James 5:16 NIV).
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2 NIV).
Are you feeling the heavy weight of a struggle or burden right now? God never intended for you to carry it alone. In fact, He doesn’t want you to. Certainly, it can feel like it sometimes. But God wants us to walk together—to keep risking it—to experience the lightness of sharing our failures, struggles, wounds, and burdens, and in so doing, receive a blessing and be a blessing to others.
You risked it before . . . is God asking you to risk it again?
Certainly, we need to be wise, not being careless with whom we are willing to divulge sensitive information. But when it comes to our struggles, God wants to help us and His plan often comes in a disguise that we typically recognize as risk—a person. If God’s answer to sharing your burden and helping you through your struggles (a person He brought into your life) is going to be able to provide the help God intended, the voices of fear and pride have to be silenced and the voice of truth has to be listened to. If we are to bear one another’s burdens, we need to be willing to confess our faults, shortcomings, failures, fears, and wounds to each other.
Where can I find people like that . . . people I can trust . . . people who will have my back after they know my whole story? Where are they?
I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t know …but God does. He knows right where they are, at this very instant, and He wants you to walk in fellowship with them.
I hate to say this, but for many people, finding real community will never happen on Sunday morning.
You’ll find great music, powerhouse preaching, entertaining stories, big programs often reaching past the local community to the world—orphanages in Africa, building project in Mexico, food distribution in Bangladesh—but Christian community and fellowship across the aisle on Sunday morning? Not going to happen.
Fellowship won’t happen until you and I spend time with each other. Watching a show designed to delight the spectators on Sunday morning doesn’t qualify.
I’m not saying it’s an incontrovertible fact, but taken as a whole, you can’t find true community in a large church unless you become involved with smaller groups of people within the church. We need relationships, not acquaintances. Real community starts with knowing people and being known.
We have to be willing to defeat the impulse to hide from each other. We have to recognize the impulse to live a hidden life as one that does not come from heaven, but from the other place. Because, until you and I are ready to be known, until you and I are prepared to defeat the fear of someone knowing who we are, we will never be ready—we’ll never be able to enter into true community.
So, after failed attempts, false starts, and frustration, why should we try again to pursue Christian community and fellowship?
We do it, first, because God has said this is how He wants it done. God’s way is always best—even after we screw it up. If we won’t share, we can’t bear (one another’s burdens). He doesn’t want His followers living lives of disconnected independence, regardless of how lonely the average person is in the happening megachurch, or the small Bible church down the street, for that matter. We were made for each other—made to love—to walk in fellowship, love, and unity.
In the countless circumstances and trials that encompassed my family’s journey after a horrific car accident, God was right there, loving us through the love of people in the church. Whether it was our roof being replaced after a storm blew a tree onto it, a van needed to safely transport our quadriplegic son, or one of us was feeling low and needing someone to pray with, God repeatedly showed His love to us through other people. Whatever our needs, God meets them through Christian community.
But there are other reasons.
We are to risk it (with those we believe God would have us to be open) because God isn’t at work only in my life, or only in your life. God desires to work His will in the life of the other person as well. When we open up and share our need, our emptiness, our loneliness, our financial need, our pain—risking relationship—we create a safe place for someone else to share what fear had prevented him from being open about.
When you do seek a local church for true Christian fellowship, look for a group of believers who place a premium on open, honest fellowship through relationships in the church rather than programs and activities, even if they sound fantastic. Don’t confuse activities with fellowship. It’s easy to find a church where you can find something to do. The local church must be a place where we actively practice our beliefs, not just show up and be entertained. The apostle Peter said it like this: “Love one another fervently with a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22 NKJV).
That word fervently comes from the word furnace—the furnace used in refining gold. It’s an intense, refining fire that burns away impurities, leaving only pure gold. You and I were made to be refined in the crucible of fervent, loving relationships.