Why Community Matters in the In Between Places

Practical Steps for Life in a Spiritual Wilderness

How do we live in the place between plea and praise? How do we keep going in a spiritual wilderness? How do we encourage friends who are there even if we aren’t?

While there isn’t a “one size fits all” answer to these questions, in the coming weeks I’ll be sharing some of my path. The following are three practices that I either engaged in (or wish I had!) in the middle of the wilderness and as God slowly brought me out of it:

  1. Staying in community 
  2. Practicing spiritual disciplines
  3. Walking in obedience

For me, these steps have formed a well-trodden path. Sometimes I’ve wandered off of it. This path shouldn’t be viewed as a series of steps to be checked off, though. Instead it is a group of practices to return to again and again. It’s goal isn’t simply to help us survive, but rather to make space for God to speak into our lives. In the wilderness we can encounter Him in new ways that teach us more about who He is and how He works in the world and in our individual lives.

This path isn’t just for those who are struggling in their relationships with God, though. Even if your relationship with God is flourishing right now, making room for Him to act and speak in different ways can deepen that relationship.

While these practices may sound pretty obvious, I want to dig into each one a bit more deeply in the coming weeks. Most of us would agree that that we should be doing them. I’m hoping that by looking at how they make a difference, though, that we might be able to see how God is using them to work in our lives or the lives of those around us. This week and next I want to focus on staying in community.

Called to Community

The idea that we are to stay in community may be quite familiar. The book of Hebrews commands it:

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. 

Hebrews 10:24–25

Sometimes the idea that we need to continue “meeting together” is interpreted as suggesting that we just need to keep going to church on Sunday morning. Yes, we need to do that. In the context of Hebrews, though, these verses aren’t simply referring to going to a church service. Instead they are focused on staying connected with people. Hebrews points to the role of spiritual friendships in helping us as we walk through life’s difficulties.

So what does this call to community look like? Volumes and volumes have been written on the subject, but for now let’s focus on two points:

  1. Life in community goes back at least in part to God’s call to love our neighbor. This command was originally given to the Israelites and was then reiterated by Jesus as one of the two great commands (Lev. 19:18; Matt 22:36–40). Indeed, Jesus tells us that His followers will be known by their love for one another:

    By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. ~John 13:35

    Love is not just an emotion, though. It includes demonstrated action that is often self-sacrificial. When we isolate ourselves we don’t have the opportunity to obey God’s command.
  2. While the first point focused on our obedience to God’s call to love others, Scripture also tells us that as the body of Christ we need other people. We were never called to go through life alone. The idea of the rugged, lone individual who achieves great things may be culturally appealing, but it isn’t Scriptural. In 1 Cor 12:12-31 Paul compares believers with a physical body. The metaphor highlights the importance of each member, but in verse 26 Paul also comments

    If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. ~1 Cor 12:26

    Implicit in this observation is the idea that when we are suffering—and I’d suggest even just struggling—we are not to do it alone. We celebrate together. We mourn together. We struggle together. We emerge from the wilderness surrounded by those who’ve helped carry our burdens. And through it all, we help others carry theirs too. (If you’re interested, I talk about this idea in a recent CT article.)

When we are suffering—or even just struggling—we are not to do it alone. We celebrate together. We mourn together. We struggle together. We emerge from the wilderness surrounded by those who’ve helped carry our burdens. And through it all, we help others carry theirs too.

Maybe you’re one of the people that hasn’t been around in a while. If you aren’t currently living in community with others, I’m not judging you! Sometimes you’re in over your head. Sometimes isolation seems preferable to dealing with others. Sometimes it’s physically unavoidable. I’ve been there.

Living in community with others can be messy, but it can also be a gift beyond words. Jesus didn’t avoid the mess, but dove right in. So today I’d like encourage you to follow Him into that mess. And as I encourage you to go there, this is my prayer for all of us:

Precious Father,
Today we thank You for the gift of community. We thank You that You haven’t called us to walk alone. You have given us Your Spirit and Your body. We confess that we have not always loved others as You have called us to do. We confess that sometimes we do more harm than good. But we ask that You redeem those acts and words. We ask that You bring healing. Make us instruments of Your love in the lives of those around us. Season our words and actions with Your grace and love. For those of us who have been hurt, we ask for Your healing; for courage to step back into community; for wisdom and discernment in our relationships. Show us how to be obedient to Your call and strengthen us to follow You into the messiness of life with others. Help us to honor and glorify You in all that we say and do, especially in the ways that we live out our faith with others in Your body—that those around us will know that we are Your disciples by our love for one another.
In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

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