“We humans are an evil, untrustworthy bunch.” I said to a friend recently, by way of explanation/cold comfort, after he had been cut to the core by fellow Christians who were uncomfortable with his vulnerability. His was only the most recent float to pass by in the seemingly endless parade of those wounded by “their own”. In a sense, I was saying to him and to myself, “Just accept reality and don’t set yourself up by expecting anything more.” Cynicism: The unfortunate by-product of a low anthropology.
Just a few days earlier, while chatting with a friend on the phone, I first recognized my cynicism when she began to tell me about her amazing church community and the desire she had to share with others what they had experienced. I was shocked at the degree of resistance I felt as she spoke. I truly believed that her congregation had formed a deep bond, a genuine fellowship, but I felt her reality collide with my somewhat sub-conscious resignation to the idea that humanity is incapable of being non-judgmental, forgiving and accepting and therefore can never be safely trusted. In order to reconcile those things, I suggested to her the possibility that her community might be an aberration, albeit a great one; possibly a divinely orchestrated deviation from the norm, and not something which could actually be replicated.
Because there is a possibility that might be the case, we agreed that we would both pray about it; but, for me, the most significant thing to come out of that conversation was my realization that my belief in the sinfulness of humanity had wrecked my belief in community! Suddenly those two things felt mutually exclusive, and that rocked my world!
You see, I had once been Mrs. Community. I ate, breathed and dreamed community. I was a small-group-facilitating, retreat-leading believer in Koinonia who, somewhere along the way, had apparently started doubting that community was even possible. How had I gotten to this place? During what now seemed like my idealistic phase I belonged to a congregation which came to embody for me the concept of biblical fellowship. We learned to know each other beneath the surface. We shared our histories; we knew each other’s pain and struggles. We grew to care deeply for each other. When one of us hurt, we all hurt, and we surrounded the wounded one with love and support. We treated each person’s weaknesses with gentleness and respect; never with ridicule or contempt. Although that was over forty years ago, many of us are still close today.
While that period predated my discovery of the gospel as I now understand it, my experience in that congregation was ultimately what freed me to receive God’s grace when it found me. But, life had already happened by that point and pulled us in many different directions. I began to see and feel more of the reality of man’s inhumanity to man, particularly among Christians. This coincided with my deepening understanding of original sin and its all-pervasive effects until at last I arrived at the point of my uneasy acceptance of our depravity and my lack of faith in mankind.
Now face to face with my resulting cynicism, I wanted to know whether true community—the kind where you make yourself vulnerable to each other—was merely a foolish pipedream which would lead only to hurt, disappointment and disillusionment, or if it was possible that the salvation freely given to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ might also offer us the hope of a safe place here on earth, among his blood-bought sinner/saints.
As it happened, today I had a rare chance to talk with an old friend from my long ago church family. We had so much catching up to do, and as the conversation meandered from topic to topic it naturally led us to the days we spent together in that congregation. “You know,” she said, “I think all we were really doing was comforting each other,” That struck an immediate chord with me, and as I was still thinking about it she continued, “and most comfort begins with ‘your sins are forgiven’.”
There it was. At the heart of any true biblical community is comfort. Comfort implies recognition of sorrow, sadness, pain, suffering and need. One cannot receive comfort unless there is a felt need. One cannot give comfort unless there is an awareness of the need. Where two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, recognizing their mutual brokenness they are free to offer to one another the comfort of the forgiveness of sins and every other blessing we possess in Christ. Mutuality is key; where no one person considers himself to be above any other but all recognize our universal need for comfort. It is possible for us to be safe with each other because we know each other’s stories and what we have each been given.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Community is born in the mutual admission that we humans are an evil and untrustworthy bunch who are deeply loved and irrevocably forgiven by a good and trustworthy God.b