Paul (not his real name) is a no-nonsense, somewhat cynical loner with piercing eyes and a stoic demeanor. He’s the kind of guy whose dream vacation would be hiking the Appalachian Trail all alone. His hobbies included collecting an absurd arsenal of firearms (for the coming zombie apocalypse) and building a home brewery for his favorite IPA craft beer.
One day I asked him if he’d like to grab lunch. He reluctantly said “yes”. I think I had to ask him half a dozen times before he set a date. I like to think my persistence wore him down.
I let him choose where we would meet because he was a picky eater, someone who would be satisfied with the predictable choices on the kid’s menu in every American restaurant. We grabbed our sandwiches at a local deli and wrestled our way through a conversation about IPA’s (he was mostly educating me because I don’t drink beer and couldn’t understand why he finds it so fascinating or tasty), raising children and Jesus. I say we “wrestled” our way through the conversation because extracting words from Paul was an exhausting exercise, kind of like Jacob must have felt when he wrestled God and said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). My internal resolve was saying, “I’m not going to let you go back to work until you bless me with a few substantial, meaningful words.”
As we walked to our cars I said, “I had a nice time, Paul. I enjoyed getting to know you better.” He said, “Yeah, it was better than I thought it would be.” I thought to myself, “Thanks… I think.” I then said, “Would you like to get together again sometime soon?” His reply made me thankful that my sense of worth didn’t depend on Paul. He replied, “Not really. I mean, this was okay, and I appreciate you taking the time to grab lunch. But I don’t really need community. I’ve got my wife and two friends (he was serious). I’m not really interested in having relationships with anyone else.”
I was simultaneously shocked by and in complete admiration of Paul’s candor. Most people would have simply lied to me. They would have told me they were willing to meet again, and then they would have manipulated their calendar in such a way that I would eventually stop trying to connect with them because they would be perpetually too busy to connect.
I’ve thought a lot about my friend’s words of over the years. Is it really true that he doesn’t “need community”? I know why he feels this way. He’s an introvert. People exhaust Paul. People are like energy sucking vampires who suck him dry. Turning inward is as much about survival as it is comfort.
Theologically-speaking, we all need community. It was God who said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). But Paul would say, “I’m not alone. I have my wife, my two friends, and Jesus.” Is that enough?
I find it interesting that when Jesus came into the world, he came to accomplish his mission and purpose in the context of community. He was God, and he had experienced the intimacy of community with the Godhead (Father, Son, Spirit) for all eternity. He knew true community in a way most of us have never experienced. Yet, even Jesus welcomed other people into his life. He journeyed to the cross in Jerusalem with twelve friends. That’s four times, the community my friend felt he needed.
There are at least two reasons I believe community is important. The first is that becoming a Christian means that you and I are a part of a new people – where I am theirs and they are mind. Ephesians 2 reminds us that God’s goal in the Gospel is that “he might create in himself [Jesus] one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (2:16). When we are born again in Christ, we aren’t just experiencing an individual transformation (i.e., becoming a new creation). We are also embracing a new corporate identity. We are welcomed into a new family. We are bound together by love, sharing life together under the authority and wise leadership of Jesus Christ, our “head” (Colossians 1:18).
The second reason community is important is because “community has a fundamental role in living according to the way of Jesus” (Kyle Strobel). The truth of the Gospel is this: we cannot create true identity apart from Jesus. We don’t have sufficient power to create our truest self. In truth, we aren’t even fully human apart from faith in Jesus Christ. We have been made in the image of God to display God. But we cannot rightly display God apart from having our lives “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
We need community (other Christians) to reveal to us how desperately we need Jesus. We always underestimate our need. We can only find ourselves in Jesus through weakness and vulnerability, and we need others to help us see how weak and vulnerable we really are, and how much we need Jesus. I think that’s why we fear community. We fear being exposed as weaklings. We fear vulnerability. And this is why we always seek out idolatrous ways to create self. We try to create identity in our work, our families, our accomplishments and accolades, our sexuality, our religious expressions, etc. We are blind to our own strategies for creating our own identity. We need others to help us see what we can’t see for ourselves.
Gospel community exposes our weaknesses, vulnerabilities and idols. When we let other Christians into our lives, and when others let us into their lives, we are often confronted with the truth about ourselves. This can be painful and embarrassing, but it is also necessary if we are to grow more into the image of Jesus. As James Houston once wrote, “Genuine humanity is never in isolation, but is always with others.”
Because God has existed in community for eternity within the Godhead (i.e., Trinity), “then to be with God, who is always with us, is to be in community” (Jamim Goggin). If I am to walk with Christ, I must walk with Christ with his people. That means something more than reading the Bible, listening to sermon podcasts, and showing up to Sunday worship gatherings on occasion. Walking with Christ with his people means opening up your life to others. It means being comfortable with how uncomfortable it is for people to lovingly pursue you when something doesn’t seem quite right. It means humbly receiving correction. It means having hard conversations to help each of us guard our hearts against sin and temptation.
Who are the Jesus-followers walking with you through life? The more Christians there are that “know” us, the more weak and vulnerable we will feel. But that weakness is where we experience the grace of God: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect In weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). We experience the power of God as we live in authentic community, a world where we are our truest selves because we are known and loved, not despite our weakness and vulnerability, but because of our weakness and vulnerability. I never gave up on Paul, even when he thought he didn’t need me. Let’s resolve not to give up on one another, even when what we see in one another is confusing and disheartening. We are not wired to embrace weakness and vulnerability, but if we want to experience Christ in unprecedented ways, that’s precisely what we must do. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that we “find the Creator by means of [one another].” What he meant was that we experience more of God as we share life together – even when it’s hard to do so. You will never experience God as intimately as he wants you to alone – or even with your three friends. We’re a family, and families are messy, frustrating, and exhausting. But that’s where God’s grace is found, and I want as much of his grace as he is willing to give. How about you?