When Aaron and I got married, we enjoyed snippets of community in our first few years as a family but ultimately came to the conclusion that we were designed for more—designed for intimate relationships with several people, doing life side by side, being known and loved for who we were. We longed for the kind of community that wouldn’t shame us but would embrace us when we struggled, that would remind us of our identity in Christ when we forgot. And whom we could love in the same ways.
But we couldn’t find it. We searched for years. It was a desert time for us, a painful time. We were parched and I remember feeling like my heart was shriveling. God eventually led us to a wonderful place of community where we found healing and growth and redemption. And I am so grateful. Yet when I look back on that hard season, I think of several mistakes I made when we were so desperately looking for community.
- Having rigid expectations. After we decided that we needed deeper, more meaningful community, we visited my sister and attended her church. She and her family were part of a wonderful, warm church plant that did life together well. They loved well and supported well and laughed and cried together. They grew together. It opened our eyes to what community could look like. Our vision grew as we studied community and attended conferences and grew in our very small small group. But at some point, I crossed a line. I decided that I—and only I—knew what our potential community should look like. My ideas were good and healthy, but my heart was prideful and became closed off. I am not sure that we actually missed any opportunities to be a part of community during that desert time, but I am sure that my heart was closed off to anything that didn’t meet my expectations. And I see this in others who are looking for community. Many of us have specific expectations of what community should look like, and if we don’t see it, we decide not to engage or to lean in. We miss a lot of opportunities for community, grace, and love by holding onto such rigid expectations.
- Thinking community is found instead of built. During this desert time, Aaron and I did actually build community, but it was inadvertent—I had in my mind that we needed to find it. That we would walk into a room of pre-made community, be pursued and engaged, and fit right in. I didn’t realize that even if we find community that is already established, we still have to work to carve out a place for ourselves and figure out how our personalities and gifting can contribute to the community. And even once community is established and thriving, we still have to work on building it, including new people, pursuing each other, serving each other, extending grace to all.
- Wanting community without wanting to sacrifice. This is a big one. I remember entering places of safety and community, voicing a need, and being sorely disappointed when my need wasn’t met. That really hurt; yet the truth is that I was not willing to sacrifice my time, emotional energy, money, or other resources to serve others, either! And I know I was not alone; I’ve seen women who are disappointed by how community doesn’t “happen” to them, by how they don’t fit in right away or aren’t loved immediately. I understand this—when I was shriveling away in our desert time, I didn’t have a lot of emotional energy to spare and was disappointed easily. But I didn’t trust God in that; I didn’t look for ways to serve joyfully or pray for patience. I simply retreated in disillusionment.
- Becoming bitter and resentful. I’m just going to say it: being rejected again and again and again causes one’s heart to wither. We were created for relationship, created for love, created to be delighted in and to delight in others. It’s unnatural and against God’s design for us to live in isolation. I remember having so much excitement and hope for community. And every time we were rejected, a little bit of that hope disappeared until it was almost all gone. Its replacement? Bitterness and resentment. I was doing everything right, and yet we still couldn’t find community. We just couldn’t fit in anywhere. And it hurt. I grew tired of turning to the Lord—why did He give us hearts and a vision for community and then not provide it? I allowed a chip to grow on my shoulder. Charming, right? Who wouldn’t want to include a bitter, resentful woman in their community…
- Refusing to be vulnerable. This is a tricky one because when we have been hurt by community (or a lack of it), being vulnerable can be very scary. And sometimes, it’s even unwise. But I can remember the bitterness taking over my heart and preventing me from being vulnerable. I would sit in our small group, unable and unwilling to open up. I decided it was them, not me—something must be wrong with this group or my heart would soften and open up. I knew that without vulnerability, people couldn’t love me because without revealing my heart and struggles, I couldn’t be known. The very thing I wanted was the very thing that my bitterness prevented. I had forgotten to trust the Holy Spirit in others. I had been burned and hurt, and I was convinced that it would happen again. And of course it did. And it will again. But I needed to take that chance. I needed to trust God’s hand in my situation, His love for me, His plan for goodness. Refusing to be vulnerable prevented others from knowing me, which in turn prevented relationships and community from forming.
What are mistakes you have made when looking for or building community? What have you learned from these mistakes? What encouragement would you give to someone who has made the mistakes you have made?