Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Is the Church the Safest Place on Earth? (Sep-Oct 2001)

Filed under: — @ 2:14 pm and
Author and counselor Larry Crabb asks, “Where can we run when life deals us crippling blows?” and “Can the church be this safe place?”

by Larry Crabb
September – October, 2001

I don’t always like the way God works. In my life, shattered dreams too often have been his instrument for teaching me what he seems to think I can learn no other way.

Two weeks after the plane crash that took my only brother’s life, after all that required immediate attention had been handled, torrents of pain poured out of me and I crumbled. Late one night, I sobbed till the tears were gone. Then, from depths in my soul I hadn’t known were there, I cried, “God, I know you’re all I need. Please, let me know you better!” In that moment I wanted to know God more than I wanted anything else.

Four years ago during my battle with cancer (by God’s mercy, a battle won) I was surprised by a realization that dawned during my worst fears. I became aware that I could actually enjoy God in the midst of pain. For a few intense moments, I discovered that I would rather be sick and near him than healthy and distant from him. My thirsty soul panted after the water of his presence. I wanted joy, and I knew where to find it.

A few more rough times, too personal to mention, opened my eyes to another truth related to the first two that I learned through pain. There is, I now see, a way to live in the world rather than cushioning myself against its pain and arranging for its pleasures. When I live for blessings, such as a successful family or a close community, I find that I try to do whatever it takes to make them happen, and that creates pressure.

Instead, I’m learning that I can live to draw near to him, that I can come to God for the satisfaction I can’t live without. Paul put it this way: “We’re released from bondage to the law to live in the new way of the Spirit [enjoying God more than anyone or anything else], and not in the old way of the written code [under pressure to get it right so blessings come]” (Romans 7:6, NIV). Christ has opened a path into the Father’s presence; and once there, I can engage with life – not to find satisfaction for my soul but to reveal the One who is already satisfying.

Three lessons that I’m learning through shattered dreams:

1. Nothing matters more than finding God, than knowing him better

2. More joy comes from intimacy with God than from any other blessing

3. That joy becomes the energy for moving into life with godly passion and purpose, not with the ego-driven passions and self-protective purposes with which I’m more familiar

But there’s a fourth lesson I’m learning, and it’s the one I most want to highlight: I can’t live the New Way alone. Without good community, I slide back into the Old Way. God’s blessings become more important than his presence, and the pressure to secure those blessings returns. If we Christians are to live the New Way, if we’re to treasure God above everything else, we must do it together. Community–real community–not the more common superficial kind, has unique power to change our lives, to move us toward the New Way and keep us there.

Can community really heal us?

Look beneath your struggles and distress and psychological symptoms and you will find, not a damaged psyche in need of repair, but a disconnected soul in need of relationship. The root of our non-medical problems is a tangle of stubbornness and terror–a stubbornness that thinks we can handle life’s challenges on our own and a terror of abandoning ourselves to anyone’s love lest it prove undependable.

The effect of that fear-inspired resolve to make life work on our own is isolation and loneliness. Church becomes a place where we pretend we’re doing fine as long as we can; then, if we fall apart, we run to a specialist for treatment when what we really crave and need is a community of love.

Remember Jesus’ prayer just before he died. “Father, may they be one, the way you and I are one.” He was telling us that the healing he provides comes through relationship, through involvement with a community that relates as the members of the trinity relate.

Jesus provides the resources we need to build that kind of community. The primary healing resources in the gospel are these:

New Purity that allows us to celebrate God’s grace in the middle of shared brokenness. A friend told me during a time of spiritual counseling that he had gone to a topless bar. I spontaneously shouted, “Praise the Lord.” I quickly explained I was not praising God because my friend frequented a place no Christian should ever go; rather, I was happy that perhaps now he could more fully comprehend the depths of grace that still accepts us despite our worst failure.

New Identity that lets us see each other as God’s children no matter what else may be true. As a child, my wife endured four years of sexual abuse. She was victimized by evil. But love touched her soul more deeply than evil. She is not defined by what she suffered. She is a redeemed woman of unique beauty who carries the scars of the evil that was done to her. My wife must not be identified as a victim of sexual abuse. She is rather a loved woman who suffered sexual abuse.

New Disposition, an appetite for God that can actually be felt as stronger than all other appetites. We can believe in each other because of the gospel. We can believe that the desire to glorify God is stronger in the Christian teen struggling with anorexia than her desire to be thin. And we can stir up that desire until the new affection expels the old.

New Power that lies within every believer, waiting to be released for the glory of God and the benefit of others. The Holy Spirit has taken up residence in the center of our hearts and now stirs us to pour into others what is most alive in us. Shortly after my cancer surgery, a mentor called to say, “I am about to board a plane for South America, but I felt impressed to call you. Larry, I believe God has you in commander training. I’ve heard others speak of you in your hospital bed as ‘Poor Larry,’ but I think of you as ‘Privileged Larry.’ God is deeply working in you. You are privileged. Well, I must board my plane now. Goodbye.” He hung up. I laid in bed and laughed. Yes, I was privileged. I was stirred to worship. I felt power in that phone call.

With these resources provided through the New Covenant, see Dwight Edwards’ book Revolution Within, Waterbrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO, 2001, for an excellent discussion of new covenant resources.

True community is within reach
The gentle breeze of God’s Spirit is blowing across the church. A revolution is underway. It is a revolution in how we approach life, from the Old Way to the New Way, a revolution that can be best sustained and deepened through true community.

What Does True Community Look Like?

I envision true community as a few Christians coming together for a few hours every week or two, united by their hunger for knowing God and by their confidence that it’s possible. Together, with clear intentionality, they purpose to draw near to God, not only through worship, prayer, and meditation on God’s Word but also through a definite plan for relating.

A covenant is made: they agree to pay whatever price is required, to take whatever risk is necessary, to Know, Explore, Discover, and Touch one another, to connect with each others’ souls in the Spirit, depending on the resources of the New Covenant for their confident hope that it will happen.

Practical Steps Toward Community

First, they express patient, non-intrusive curiosity about one another, taking turns inviting others to know them. Their courage to risk exposure is grounded in their confidence that no exposure can drain the supply of grace available in Christ. No one need fear rejection. No one will be discarded as a weakest link.

Then, over months–and it does take time–they explore one another, tracing their histories of pain and pleasure that have shaped their goals for life. For example, I might share how good I felt when a graduate professor raved about the quality of a paper I had written. That memory helps me understand my overly strong reactions to both good and bad reviews of the books I publish. Rather than seeing myself as a victim of my experiences, however, my friends could help me affirm the truth that I am not defined by my past; I am not defined by what others think of my work; I am instead defined by my primary identity as God’s son. Not that much is at stake in how my writing is received.

Third, the group would search to discover the new heart that lies beneath all the fleshly ambitions and fears in each person. A woman frustrated by a neglectful husband would be explored till her desire to draw near to God in the middle of her pain and to reveal Christ to her husband was clearly visible to the group.

Finally, group members would share whatever stirs within them as they present each other before God and listen for the Spirit’s voice. Christians touch one another with the new power that is alive within them, a power that is most richly accessed through prayer.

We’re told to never stop getting together. And when we do meet, we are to think hard about how we can ignite in each other the love that God has already placed within us (see Hebrews 10:24-25). That’s spiritual community.

There is a New Way to live. It’s all about knowing God, not solving problems, enjoying God, not arranging for lesser pleasures, revealing God, not trying to get it right so life works better.

The New Way can be richly lived only in community. The Spirit is calling this generation to a revolution in how we live and how we relate. It’s time. Be part of that revolution. It’s what you deeply want to do.

Larry Crabb

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