The heart aches to be known, truly known in its deepest recesses and loved even in the midst of the ugly parts that expose our weaknesses, those things about which we are often ashamed. Exposing these places involves great risk. It means being willing to be vulnerable and seen for all that you are, and all that we are is quite often not very pretty. We are broken. We struggle. We are selfish, driven by pride and self-preservation. Most of us, I believe, know this is not the way it is supposed to be. We want to be different, better, more than just a solitary, lonely person trying to survive.
So we try. We open up ourselves and allow some of the darkness to be brought into the light. Sometimes we find love and acceptance, at least on the surface, because we live in a world that highly values tolerance and faux kindness that can seem genuine on the outside, but often is just a veil masking the judgment that exists deep down. People do wish to be kind and friendly and part of a real community, but under the surface exists a festering blight of comparison, competition, prejudice, a shrinking back from anything that might also expose what most wish to keep hidden. When someone is raw, vulnerable, and rugged, it frightens us, and the fight or flight mode takes over whether we want it to or not. As a result, we rarely find the authentic, unconditional love for which we long from a community of people committed to loving us even when it’s hard. It is a jewel that eludes us, a fleeting vapor we may breathe in feeling refreshed for but a moment, but it always fades.
The temptation here is to cast blame on our fellow humans. The problem is society. The problem is that we begin to believe that those whom God considers the pinnacle of His creation, really aren’t. “People are the worst. People are to blame,” we convince ourselves, and we shut down, we hide, we retreat. While there may be a vein of truth in this in that all people are sinners, just like me and you, all people make mistakes, all people struggle to find and express their true selves, the self God created them to be because sin has so marred us we fumble and we fail, it falls short. The reason for this is that we’ve got the order backward. Our love for community and longing for belonging drives us to look for acceptance and love from the wrong sources. Incomplete, broken humans cannot truly love us like we need to be loved. Only God can do that. Only our Creator who knows what lies in the crevices of our darkness and still pursues us and loves us as we are can mend the brokenness and make us whole.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his work, Life Together, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church.”
The moment we try to create for ourselves the belonging for which we pine, we destroy it. It will never last if we are the builders. It will eventually crumble because it lacks the solid foundation that only exists in Christ. Therefore, the path to a loving, Christian community that withstands the test of every fire and storm is starting at the feet of Jesus, looking to Him for unconditional love, acceptance, and belonging that will never fade. He is the only One who can fulfill His promise to satisfy the deepest longing of our weary souls. He is the only One who can follow through on these words, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” (Hebrews 13:5).
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food,” (He defines what this rich food is in the following verse), “Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast sure love for David,” (Isaiah 55:1-3, ESV).
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” (Matthew 11:28-30, ESV).
Are you hurting? Are you weary? Do you feel rejected, unworthy of love, acceptance, and belonging? Run to the feet of Jesus! Cast those burdens on Him as many times as it takes. Trust Him and His goodness. He loves you, dearly. You always belong with Him. You are royalty, and He will never make you feel less.
The beauty in finding wholeness in Christ is then, and only then are we fit to find the community we wish to have with our fellow humans. Whole people who do not need approval from man because they have it from Someone far greater, are the only ones who can withstand the inevitable disappointment they find in others because they know Someone whom they have disappointed over and over who loves them no less, who will never reject them, in Whom they will always belong. It’s a truly wondrous gift of which few ever truly take advantage.
This is not to say this journey is easy. Jesus is not some bandaid to throw on our aching hearts who magically takes all of the struggle and pain away in an instant. The road onto which we are called is narrow and difficult. It requires work, persistence, and perseverance. It involves an everyday crucifixion of the self, a daily dependence on Christ for the sustenance we need in Him.
This is where I find myself as I enter a new year, a new decade. The past couple of years have been a painful journey. You see, there have been countless times when I thought I had discovered that dream of the community for which I had always longed, close friends, belonging. However, it was a fake, a whitewashed tomb in which I was believing for hope rather than Jesus, my only hope, and it crumbled as soon as life got real, real like really tough. Don’t misunderstand me to be criticizing anyone. It is just simple truth, and it is my fault for getting the order wrong, for thinking my identity was wrapped up in and fulfilled by people I had come to love dearly and still do.
God is faithful when we are not, and He took all of that away and has used it to refine me, break me, and mold me into a stronger vessel through which His love can flow. It’s difficult for anyone to be vulnerable and real; however, it is especially difficult for pastors and even perhaps more so for church planters. There’s little to no room for truly being yourself. When you are, it often hurts people because you’re not supposed to ever hurt people by being vulnerable, by exposing all your true feelings and emotions. Not everyone wants to be challenged by the new things God is doing in your life, especially if it means you’re leaving them. The abandonment people feel is acute, and it isn’t wrong. Not prepping for this reality was naive of me, and it has created a deep wound that has festered and struggled to heal. No more!
My 2020 is going to be a year of healing, a year of growth, of letting go and moving on to that which God has called me to do where He has currently placed me. Contentment with the present by being present, stillness with Him, rest in who He is and who He says I am is what I long to find. So to the feet of Jesus, I run, and in His love, I will dwell. Rather than build a community myself, I will choose to trust Him to build it in His time and form something far more significant than I could ever accomplish on my own. He will because He is faithful and good and promises to build His church. My job is to obey and get out of the way and let Him sweep me along in His unstoppable current.
Last year in my first seminary class, my professor had us write down in our journals the answer to this question: “What does the Shepherd say to me?” I rediscovered what I wrote recently, and it was a much-needed reminder. May it encourage you as it has me:
“Do not be ashamed. Take off the robe. You are not lacking. I, the LORD, am enough. You do not have to be enough. Let Me kill the roots of shame, places of missing pieces, the sense of not belonging…let Me have those burdens. I will carry you. Rest in Me. Be content to be with Me. I love you. Do you love Me? Feed My sheep. Stop hiding. When you doubt, come back to Me. Trust Me. I see you, all of you, the real you, the inner you, and I see in you My life, My heart. Let me live My life in you. I understand you. I made you, and I dearly love all of you. You are Mine. I am proud of you. Be free in Me.”
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loves me and gave himself for me,” (Galatians 2:20, ESV). – The life verse of Shaunna Marie Sturgeon, beloved daughter of the King of Kings, the constant and faithful Shepherd of her soul.