This was a question that someone asked me who hadn’t been to church in a while, because for some, the church can sometimes seem hurtful.
As I’m wont with expressions that seem trendy, I said, “That expression seems trendy, and it isn’t in the Bible. So let’s just talk about what it means to love each other.”
Then today I was reading in Philippians.
“If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (2:1-2 ESV)
Well, if we want to talk about living in community, I thought, this is what it’s going to look like.
I guess the main problem that I have with the trendy concept of “living in community” is that the one thing that’s emphasized about it is also extra-Biblical. That’s “transparency.” We’re supposed to be “transparent” with a group of people that we may or may not know well, a group that can have some significant turnover over the course of months.
Transparency, as I understand it, is subtly different from being guileless or non-hypocritical. To be guileless and non-hypocritical, we only have to live in truth and walk in truth. But to be transparent, we’re supposed to talk about our struggles.
I don’t have any problem with talking about my struggles with the right person or people. But besides the fact that any given church group may not be the best group of people with whom to discuss our struggles, the understood definition of “struggles” seems to be “sins that I’m battling.”
If, on the other hand, the struggles are nightmares, flashbacks, or other symptoms of PTSD because of what someone else did to me, then the community who wants us to be transparent all too often doesn’t have a slot to fit those problem in. If I try to explain the reason for my struggles without incriminating someone else (because I’m not ready to do that, or because I fear the backlash, or a host of other reasons)—and especially if I do name another person who in one way or another did something to cause my struggles— then I’m in danger of being disbelieved, dismissed, or even accused. Belittled and ignored and even blamed.
There are few things more soul-crushing after the initial trauma than receiving this kind of treatment by the people of my very own church who have assured me that they want to “live in community.”
But Philippians says something about the community of love. First, there’s a Foundation, and it isn’t transparency.
* We have great encouragement in Christ. You may have heard, “Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” I ask you, if you’re in Christ, why are you still a beggar? Aren’t you feasting on His riches? Hasn’t He promised that you’ll be a river gushing out for others to drink? Some of us must know that deep fountain of encouragement, so that others can drink and be satisfied and then themselves become a river for others to drink. Does anyone want to be one of the disciples of John 6, passing out the bread and watching it multiply? I do.
* We have the “coming alongside to strengthen” (comfort) of His Holy Spirit. How important it is for us to know—even begin to know (as I believe I’m doing)—this Holy Spirit power! What does this mean in our lives? Shouldn’t it be making a difference in capacity to love—and to receive difficult stories?
* We have deep, genuine, soul-connecting fellowship with God in the Holy Spirit, and deep, genuine, soul-connecting fellowship with other lovers of God through the unity of this same Spirit. That’s the foundation for the tenderness and compassion that will “fulfill” Paul’s joy. We can meet together to be able to talk together about the love of God and the joy of God in Christ. If there’s “transparency” here, it’s showing Christ in us, the hope of glory.
If these three things are the case, then, THEN we can have available to us all the tenderness and compassion that Christ can bring to a heart. Encouragement, love, fellowship, empathy, kindness—these are all heart things, all evidence of the transformed lives that transformed ones will display.
Then when churches come together in our small groups, we’ll come together in Love. We’ll listen with compassion. If a person chooses not to share, and you find out it’s because he or she believes it’s not “safe,” we won’t just dismiss it with frustration, but seek ways to provide a safe atmosphere. We always want the Truth to win out, and we won’t refuse to listen just because the story is uncomfortable.
This is how we can live in Love. And, if you like, this is how we can live in Community.
“I already have joy,” said Paul. “Hearing about your oneness in Love will just put it over the top.”