Several years ago, my son began his first season of little league baseball. He was six years old at the time, and had no previous baseball experience. So we worked with him on all the fundamentals in order to prepare. At his first game, he gets up to the plate with his little bat, and looks at this seven-year-old pitcher who is about to hurl a ball in his direction. First pitch? Swings the bat like a pro. And then the second pitch? Bam. Hit by pitch. He cried for about five minutes and then he was alright. But for the rest of that season, he was skittish. On most pitches, he would flinch, if not full on jump out of the batter’s box, even if the ball was nowhere near him. I would say, “Drake, if you want to hit that ball, you’re going to have to stay within striking distance.” But it didn’t matter. He didn’t want that pitch coming anywhere near his body. He wanted to be as far away as possible, and yet, still make a connection. That is how many of us feel about deep community.
The prospect of opening up your life to other people, once you have been hit by a wild pitch, is just terrifying. We flinch when we get near community. There is no way that we are going to be within striking distance of strangers. There is no way that we’re going to be honest and vulnerable with others. That kind of relationship frightens us. We don’t want to get hit by a pitch. However, we fail to see that we will never hit the ball unless we step up to the plate. We will never grow into the people and the disciples that God wants us to be unless we are vitally connected with deep community. Real change happens in deep community.
Community is one of the resources that God has provided in order for you to grow into the likeness of Jesus. As I have said before, you have about three resources to grow spiritually—the Word of God, the Spirit of God and the people of God—and I would say that none of them are optional. You have to be in striking distance of others if you want to grow in grace. There are many places that I could turn to in the Bible for this admonition, but I find Psalm 141 particularly arresting.
1) Real change does not happen on the surface.
“Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips.” The psalmist makes a plea to God that immediately resonates with me. How many times have I said something and wished that I could take it back? How many times have I sent an e-mail or posted something online and then found myself regretting my choice of words? Too many times to count. These days, I almost always have my wife read anything remotely controversial that I am writing. Why? Because I need some kind of guard over my speech and my words. I desire a filter to keep hurtful things from damaging my relationships or my reputation.
As much as I resonate with that statement, however, I realize that it doesn’t really solve the underlying problem. Restraining our speech might be a wise thing to do because it keeps our relationships from blowing up, but in truth, it doesn’t address the real issue. He follows this request with another, deeper one: “Do not incline my heart to any evil thing.” The real problem is not our words, but in our hearts. Our words come from a much deeper reservoir in our lives, and sooner or later—under the right circumstances—the “real you” will invariably come out.
Growing up, our family had an elderly couple who were like grandparents to us kids, and mentors to my parents. We would visit them at their home in the forest, and later, at a care facility. The father was truly a wonderful gentleman, and so as he began to lose his mind to dementia, all of us kids were given the opportunity to witness that process in him. I don’t know if you have ever experienced this with a loved one or not, but their behavior can change drastically. Well, this man was as sweet as ever. One day, my mom was doing some needlework at their house, and he said to her, “Ruth, are you making a dress for school?” All of us kids heard his words and looked askance at one another, and so we brought it up in the car on the way home. My mom said something startling that none of us have ever forgotten. “When you lose your mind, the person you are on the inside comes out.” While that may not apply in every case of dementia, it still scares me to this day.
The problem of change goes so much deeper than words. If you look closely at this passage, you’ll find that the psalmist is chiefly concerned with guarding, not what comes out of his mouth, but what goes into his heart. He looks at the group of wicked people that surround him and says, “Do not let me eat of his delicacies.” The guard over his “mouth” is not primarily to keep his speech bottled up, but to keep him from ingesting things that will pollute his heart with ungodly desires. Fortunately, God provides that resource, and it appears in the next verse.
2) Real change happens in deep, intentional relationships.
“Let the righteous strike me; it will be a kindness. And let him rebuke me; it shall be as excellent oil.” Now, it is easy to gloss right over this statement and not think deeply about what it actually means in real life. The psalmist desires to activate a deep, caring community of righteous people in his life to enable him to see clearly what is coming out of his own heart. He is not asking for superficial community. He doesn’t want a legalistic tribunal to police his tongue. How silly that would be, even though that is what our communities sometimes become. Instead, he wants to build a network of intentional relationships that will go beneath the surface in his life and his behaviors and assist him in searching his own heart.
In light of the question that I am about to ask, let me just mention that the psalmist is speaking metaphorically here—he isn’t condoning physical violence of any kind. But having said that, under what circumstances would you invite someone to strike you, and see it as a kindness? If I was in immanent danger, it would be a kindness. If it was someone who knew me well and loved me, it would be a kindness. If this was someone whom I had invited to correct me and hold me accountable, it would be a kindness. But let me add to this list, it would have to be someone who was within striking distance. This would have to be someone who was in my life.
Let me suggest something to you. Deep community is not something that we stumble upon. No, it is something that we intentionally create in our lives and in which we invest ourselves. In general, we don’t cultivate this type of relationship. We cultivate polite relationships. We cultivate superficial relationships that won’t do us any harm, but won’t really do us any good either. We like to keep a healthy distance between us so that we don’t get hurt. I understand. Many people strike you out of something other than love, and in any community, there are people at many levels of spiritual maturity and social poise, and so grace will always be a challenge. So what do we do as a result? We maintain distance to avoid hurt. Well, maybe distance will insulate you, but maybe it isn’t too healthy either.
If real change goes deeper than the surface, then the only way that community will help you in that regard is if your relationships go deeper than the surface. If all we do is promote community where we don our masks—our fake selves—then change is hindered and the power of community is lost in that regard. Whenever I meet a person who says they are a Christian but distances themselves from community, this red flag goes up in my mind. That is a recipe for spiritual stagnation.
What would this community look like? Well, that is probably the subject for another post, but let me say one thing: it would need to be a gospel community. It would need to be a community of people who understood that they’re saved, not by the righteous works that they do, but by the righteous work that Jesus did for them on the cross. What that means is that it would be a grace-filled community, and a forgiving community. It would be a community of mercy, but also a community that thirsted for truth. And finally, it would be a community that was on a real journey together, who lived in spiritual striking distance of one another.
Daniel Radmacher © 2017