Do You Belong?

I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a particular place (or places) that everyone of us feels like we don’t quite fit, and the places where we think we do we still have a nagging sense that we don’t.  Just the word belonging feels like a nice warm blanket to me … and one I have to be cautious of lest I find my belonging in places of earth rather than places of ultimate rest.  The New Testament writers under the inspiration of the Spirit wrote plenty about not having our hearts fixed here, being citizens of heaven, living as strangers here, and the language of being aliens.  So there’s the theological foundation – God’s children don’t belong here.  But there’s more, isn’t there? He created us for relationship and whether it be marriage, family, or friendship, He wants us to taste of the richness of real community. But why is that so hard?

A Distorted Culture of Belonging 

Simply put, when being a “member” of something is so casual, a true sense of belonging is hard to find.  Reflecting on this last night, my wife insightfully commented about how easy it is for people to be members of just about everything, and as a result it doesn’t mean all that much.  You can join Sam’s Club or Costco, be a rewards member of just about every retail store out there, be a card-carrying Starbucks gold customer, and even your favorite credit card is eager to call you a platinum cardholder.  When we are part of so much, how can that not reduce actually belonging to something?  I mean just because you have your favorite rewards card to one store doesn’t mean you don’t shop at another store, so really what’s the big deal about a covenant commitment anyway? My armchair-quarterback purview of our culture is that we gorge on being “joiners” (in an effort to belong), but run from being “committers” (to avoid being truly known).  Those two provide a tumultuous conflict of interest in our own souls … and for those around us who may truly want to love us, accept us, and make us feel like we really belong.

Our Sabotaging Efforts in Belonging

But the cards are stacked against us to an even greater degree.  For as much as we want to belong, we fear the intimacy, vulnerability, and exposure we know it brings. Some of us are controllers, and every situation that starts to get a little “sketchy” we quickly try to manage so as to not feel on the “outside”.  We control our environments, managing what we attend, who we talk to, and sometimes even where we sit, so as to not allow the slightest hint of hurt or isolation to effect us.  I mean who wants to feel that stuff? Unfortunately, such controlling behavior to secure belonging only creates more isolation.  Some of us are connectors, and we think belonging is up to us and we have to “work the room” to make it happen.  If I can be outgoing enough, friendly enough, and engaging enough then how could I possibly not feel a part of something?  We are the social butterflies who never are lacking for someone to talk to, but still wrestle with that nagging feeling of never really feeling known.  We love the crowd, but later wonder if they loved me as much as I tried to love them.  Still others of us are complainers, and for as much as we want to belong and feel accepted, the prospect of rejection carries an even greater weight and motivation to stay away.  So we criticize the shallowness or superficiality of others.  We complain about what others are doing (or aren’t doing) in order to feel better about our own fears of “putting ourselves out there”.  We reason that belonging is an illusion, people will always hurt you, and the church will never get it right, so why try?  It’s no surprise then that we bounce around from “community”, to “social setting”, to “worship service” looking for something that both our culture has distorted, and our own hearts have sabotaged, in search for what our soul truly desires.

A Two-Sided Approach to Belonging  

There is a better way in the Gospel.  True belonging has the vocabulary of commitment, forbearance, steadfastness, and covenanting together for mutual care.  In other words, you cannot truly receive what you are unwilling to freely give.  God came near to us (we call that the incarnation) giving freely and drawing us to Himself without respect to our “worthiness”.  He committed Himself to His children, depositing His Spirit within, and making eternal promises to never leave us.  In response, we fasten ourselves to Him, binding our hearts to His promises, and choosing to make Him our only place of rest.  See how that goes both ways? His commitment to us, our commitment to Him.  His calling us out, our calling Him in … His preparing a home, our making Him home … His acceptance of us, our delight in Him.  At least this is how our Gospel-covenant ought to look.  It’s a good model for human belonging.  If we want to create belonging it must involve a mutual binding of ourselves together.  Two parties saying, “I’m in, I’m here, I trust”.  Yes, that’s hard for sinful people to do, but the best chance of it comes within the covenant context of a local church.  The marriage of Christ to His Bride, as expressed and practiced in our little local assemblies until the great consummation of our marriage in glory.  I know this much – my belonging will never come through the membership cards I carry in my wallet, never be untainted by my fallen heart, and never be fully realized until my Groom returns, but I refuse to stop trying … because I was created to belong, and so were you.

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Is God Fair?

I recently hit the Mt. Everest of our Isaiah preaching series (Chapter 53) and a woman hunger to learn and grow as a believer sent me the following question that I thought would be worth posting here on my blog for others who may be wrestling with the same difficult question or just want more clarity on the matter.  She asked:

“I understand that through faith we our saved, and Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Through his death, our faith and salvation is how we are made righteous and go to Heaven. My question is what if someone never learns about Jesus? Does that mean they go to hell? It’s hard for me to grasp that someone may go to hell because of where they were born, or because their family did not believe that and they were not exposed to the teachings of Jesus. It’s does not feel like unconditional love. Or are we all held to a different standard based on what we know and what we have been exposed to or taught?”

Here’s how I tried to help her … Perhaps it will be a help to you too:

It’s a good and hard question, and there is some “tension” in the answer. First a few key references: Acts 4:12“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” You are absolutely right in affirming that the Bible clearly teaches that salvation only comes through Jesus and his work on the cross. We call this the exclusivity of Christ … He alone saves. And yes, as you stated that is by faith in Him, not our works, religious acts, or “goodness”. So, first part of the answer – without Christ nobody can be saved, yes even those who have never heard. That’s the hard part … but there is more.

Because salvation is a work of God and not man, and He is the one who “opens” the heart to faith/belief, then God knows when (He created the when) a person’s heart is open (He opens it) and I believe He is always faithful to bring the truth and teaching of Jesus Christ to them. Romans 1:18-20 … I’ll not record it all here, but open your Bible and read it as I comment. The apostle Paul teaches that men suppress the truth of God – By their sinful nature (v18). He then goes on to say that knowledge of God is available to all men, so they are without excuse (v19-20). How is this knowledge available to all men? Through creation and in their conscience. We call the knowledge of God available to all men in creation – General Revelation. How does that work? Something like this I suppose — “Wow, check out those mountains, and that sun, and the birds … there is no way I could make that, or any man for that matter … there must be an amazing Creator God behind this in some way or another.” But that does NOT save anyone, because remember Acts 4:12 – they still don’t know about Jesus, and the cross, and their need for a substitute to deal with their sin and the judgment they deserve. Now, we call the knowledge of God needed for salvation – Special Revelation. How does that come? Through the Word of God and those who preach it, teach it, share it with others – Romans 10:13-18 deals with this issue very clearly (even quotes our Isaiah 53 passage). I believe that when someone responds to God with a soft heart to General Revelation that God supplies the Special Revelation. He brings a Christian friend across their path, directs them to church, etc.

But what about those who have no Christian witness? The “unreached” parts of the world? The tribes in the remote parts? Well, the same is true, they need more than general revelation, they need a witness to the person and work of Jesus. This is why we care so desperately about missions, and specifically missions to the unreached. People in NE OH have “access” to the Gospel if they choose to listen, ask, want to find out more (through you, me, and Leroy Chapel and other Gospel teaching local churches). But not everyone has that opportunity. So we hear the Great Commission of Jesus in Matthew 28:19- 20“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” Nations isn’t actually the geo-politic entities that have their own flags and national anthems, it actually means “peoples” or “people groups” and that is far greater than the nations recognized by the UN. For example Ethiopia alone has more than 70 people groups within its borders. Perhaps now you see why the work of missions is vital to the church, and why it so fills the story of God (“you will be a light to the nations”). Because God, like you, wants everyone to have a “fair shot” at hearing or having the opportunity to hear … and then they either choose to believe or reject.

And one last piece … I believe that this “preaching of the Gospel to all the nations” is why Jesus hasn’t returned yet. Not everyone has had a chance to have a Gospel witness. Matthew 24:14“And this Gospel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” So, He waits – lovingly and patiently – for the story to spread. We give ourselves to spreading the story … urging those who have an opportunity to hear the Gospel to respond (personal evangelism), and praying/sending/partnering with missionaries to take the Gospel to the unreached peoples of the earth (missions). And one great and glorious day – He returns and judges the living and the dead … those who have believed to life glorious and eternal, and those who have rejected to hell, awful and eternal.

I guess I’ve given you a whole other sermon on the subject. But I do hope it helps!