This weekend, I was fortunate enough to experience one of the most difficult yet beautiful things in the Christian life–to be humbled, to be given a sound kick-in-the-pants, as it were, and to be balanced out, tempered, reoriented, and edified thereby. In the midst of so much growth and change in my life, I like to think that every step forward marks a permanent step up on some imagined cosmic ladder of spiritual maturity. When I experience the fulness of an idea that had once been something I’d only vaguely grasped toward, I tend to think of myself as somewhat of an expert on how to reach that previously elusive experience. But in the moment when I think I’ve got most things figured out, to be soundly leveled by a crack in what I thought to be a certainty, or a blemish on what I’d hoped to have completed–this is a blessing indeed, painful though it may be in those first moments of disillusionment.
Disillusionment, since I’ve mentioned it, is somewhat of an epidemic these days. And in my lengthy journey towards community throughout the last few years, I’ve felt the ravages of this disease as forcefully as anyone else who’d like to maintain hope for mankind, for truly biblical Christian community, or for somehow reaching a state of Christian maturity. As community-minded friends have come and gone, as I’ve watched the failures of my own church body in struggling towards community, and as I myself have failed time and time again to love with genuinely Christian love and to live in community in a full and healthy way, disillusionment has intermittently taken hold of my sometimes-idealistic hopes and has, occasionally, in doing so, also squelched some legitimate hopes in the aftermath.
But time and again as God has brought me to the place of overcoming disillusionment with deeply renewed hope, I’ve discovered that defeating that sinking, flailing, floundering feeling that accompanies failures and disappointments can really only be accomplished when we accept those very failures, when we acknowledge the legitimacy of our disillusionments. For in all my experiences of community, this one thing I’ve found is essentially present: striving.
All of the Christian life is foundationally just that–a striving towards ever greater sanctification, and a dependence on God to do for us and for others what we cannot do for ourselves. We are profoundly uncomfortable with that idea, and we like, instead, to think of life in terms of mountaintops and valleys, victories and losses, achievements and mistakes. The problem with this dichotmizing is that most days are a mix of both, and very rarely are we either standing on the mountaintop of life or wallowing in its deepest ravines–most of the time, we’re just climbing, working our way in the general direction of holiness, but missing footholds and stumbling over branches here and there along the way. Very few victories are perfect, just as very few failures are total losses.
It is within this world of in-betweens, of mediocrities and mediations, of tension and striving, that true community exists. And it is only in the recognition of that striving that any true community can survive. For a Christian community is nothing more than a group of people striving together in the same direction, celebrating each others’ victories and allowing each other to fail. Only then can a community be truly communal–only then can our individual strivings become truly a striving together in unity, helping one another towards loving God. If we are not willing to call ourselves the worst of sinners, and if we are not willing to recognize that before a just and holy God we are each equally unworthy, equally squalid, equally incapable, then community will crumble as encouragements turn into condescensions and failures become not just something normal, something human, but rather something to be fixed.
I doubt if I could express this thought any better than a friend of mine, who I’ll quote without permission:
“I don’t want to be in a community where I’m the wounded bird and everyone else is capable of flight and oh-so-eager to explain to me how it is done. That’s vanity. We’re all wounded and ground-bound. Equality is a necessary condition of community.”
I certainly don’t want to be a part of such a community, either, and I doubt if anyone else does. And yet how often am I willing to think that I am fully capable of dictating to someone else what I myself only barely understand. How often do I take such pride in flapping my wings about wildly as I hop above the earth, teetering in the air for the slightest moment, as though this awkward attempt to soar were a fully-realized flight.
Thankfully, God has placed in my life not only friends who can lovingly point out these flaws in my thinking, but also a community with whom I have truly discovered this striving together. And yet, from within that community, I must not neglect these principles in regard to those without–for in order for a community to grow, both those who have already found a place there and those who would hope to do the same must hold themselves accountable to these truths. From within the community, I’d like to think of myself as holding a position of authority towards those without–I’ve found what they’re looking for–I know how they can get it. Oh, how easy from such a stance to slight these other wounded birds and to alienate them by approaching from a position of strength instead of that weakness that only God’s strength can bolster. And yet, what a great demand upon that outsider–for they must also allow the community to fail in its strivings towards them. They must also approach from a position of weakness, repentance, and humility.
That is why forgiveness is also so very important in Christian community, but forgiveness is a subject worthy of another post altogether. Suffice it to say that I don’t have everything figured out, nor, would I suppose, does anyone else. And yes–there are some who have reached greater levels of maturity, and who can truly help others towards attaining many truths–praise God for these and for allowing each person occasionally to be one of these. But none of us have truly arrived, and there is always something that the most mature can learn from the very least–a healthy community needs people at all stages of spiritual growth, as each is equally significant in the kingdom of God, and each is necessary to the edification of the others. We must accept this humble equality if we are to steward well the lives of those others God has brought into our paths, if we are truly to fulfill that scriptural behest to teach each other, and to submit to one another as we each submit to Christ, in order that by the grace of God and His continual work in our communities we may someday “present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.”