Around the same time I was thinking the thoughts that led up to the blog post “Lonely as a Star” our Life Group began talking about the logistics of “multiplication.” That just means that our Life Group has gotten too huge and we will become two Life Groups. In our discussion a week and a half ago about this we were talking about what it means to live in community. I said a bunch of stuff then, and afterwards a friend of mine asked me to write down what I said. This is the result of that endeavor:
We are all dearly loved Children of God. The strongest language God uses about individuals is that they are his children. Romans 8 talks about us having been adopted by God. That is the promise: God, the one who made everything, wants to be a daddy to us; a perfect daddy. When he asks us to talk with him, to walk with him, to spend our time with him it is because he loves us. Jesus notes that even evil people can take care of their kids, and God isn’t evil. But the metaphor can only go so far. There is a far deeper closeness we share with the Father that goes way beyond any language we have to put it in the context of earthly relationships. All we can say is that God knows us. He knows that we are dust. He knows us so intimately, no innately, so much better than we know ourselves. Since he made us, he knows how we work. What makes us tick. More than that: he designed each of us to tick in a certain way. What God offers to us when he offers us his fatherhood is, in reality, the only thing that can ever satisfy us. When we spend time with Him, he affirms our very identity. People can only ever be defined by their relationships to people and things. I am the son of Kathy and Kent, the brother of Doug, the friend of Drew, the student of Dr. Williams, a member at Beltway, etc. God offers us the only stable relational identification: you are a dearly loved child God. God spoke creation into existence, and one of the things he spoke was you. He named you. I don’t mean he gave you a name, I mean he crafted your very essence. Only he can satisfy. Only he can quench your thirst. Only in relationship with he who made you can you possibly exist as you were meant to. Hell is merely the slow decent of people walking away from God eternally, and the farther they go, the less human they are. The less they bear God’s image. But the closer we walk toward him, the greater it is apparent his image on us. This is what the bible means when it talks about going from glory to glory. Heaven is people walking closer to God, for eternity. This is a comforting thought! It means that when people fail you, and they will, your essence is still secure. Your identity is rooted in he who does not and cannot fail. He is eternally faithful.
And yet…people are important. Why? Because right now, for this tiny amount of time we are on earth, we perceive God as in a mirror. A mirror in the ancient world was polished metal. It reflected, but barely. God is invisible. We can sense him, but we cannot see him. Only a few times in history has God revealed his glory to people: Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. When all things are reconciled to God on the last day, then we will see him face to face and we will, oh happiest of thoughts, not die! We shall see and yet live. But since we exist in the world still partially veiled, other people matter. They are image bearers of God. We truly do care about the thoughts and opinions of others. We recognize and assign a depth and importance to the people around us. So, how do we do community? What does that mean? It is clear that community is part of God’s heart for us, but how do we exist in community without turning it into our idol. The only way that it is possible is if people bring God right into the middle of it. As Tim Keller has described, God is inviting us to join his dance of love: to weave in and out in perfect harmony. When we encourage one another, the encouragement cannot be from me to you. This is because you aren’t perfect and neither am I. If I were to say that you inspire me with your acts of service, you know in your heart that sometimes you don’t want to serve—that you sometimes rebel. And I know that I sometimes don’t want to be inspired to serve. If I say your musical talent blesses me, all I am doing is feeding a pride which says your musical talent is yours, and all I am cultivating in my heart is a jealousy, at least on some level. But, if we bring God into the middle of it, then things change. We gather together for the express purpose of reminding each other of God’s affections for us. We remind each other that we are dearly loved children of God. This is really important, because we often fail to perceive God in our dim mirror. Looking into another person’s eyes and saying: God has crafted you to be exactly who he wants you to be, he delights in you and sings over you, he is faithful in his promises and he will give you provision. Do not fear, God is a good father—the best of fathers. Telling each other that locates it in reality. Why? 2 reasons. First, as image bearers of God, our words have power. He spoke us into existence, by the word of his power the entire universe keeps running. When we name true things, those things become more real. Second, we are called to be a royal priesthood. A priest intercedes for the people. When we tell each other of God’s affections, then we act in persona Christi, which is just Latin for: in the person of Christ. We represent Christ to each other as priests under the authority of Christ, the High Priest.
So encouragement is not me to you, because that ultimately breaks down. Encouragement, living in community, is the Spirit of God in me prompting me to point out what the Spirit of God is doing in you. Rather than talking about your awesome acts of service, I say the father has gifted you to serve. You are faithfully walking in that gift by the power of the Holy Spirit. In case you didn’t perceive the fruit you are bearing, let me point it out. It is infinitely more comforting and satisfying to note God’s greatness rather than our own. As John Piper often says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” So when we exist in community, we are simply conduits for the Spirit of God. We are by no means robots or automatons, but we are us as we truly should be. My reality is that I am Greg, a child of God. Not Greg a proud jerk. Community allows me to live that identity now. We know that at the last day God will perfect us, but we get live now in a tension between the already and not yet. Community is a way for us to join the trinity in the dance of love. The Father, Son, and Spirit have, for eternity, poured out infinite love and affection on each other. We were created to feel that affection, and not only feel it as individuals, but as a family. When we live community like this, as God’s community, we can have no claim on each other. While multiplication, or people leaving, is painful, we do not mourn like those without God mourns because our identity is not in each other, but in God. When people leave the community we recognize that God is moving, and it is not a betrayal by that person. We also recognize that we are still united in the identity God has given each of us. In a community like this, I can trust God with you–because you are his. Jesus is coming back to marry one bride, not many brides. Community allows us to live in our identities so that we are more and more conformed to the image of Christ: a bride made ready for her husband. So that, at the end, the wedding can be consummated and we, as one, can experience the unending love and affection of our Lord. And yet, at some point all the metaphors break down. The metaphors of dance, marriage, children, etc. Those are human terms that cannot grasp what is to come. But it whets our appetite a bit. And, I believe, if we keep this vision for community in mind, if we continuously recognize the eternal significance of the way relate to one another, then our journey through this life will be a joy, reflecting in the present God’s ultimate future plan.