So for instance, in my case, the gift of teaching/preaching has before been perverted by my sin nature & the Enemy for self-glorifying & prideful purposes in my heart. A more obvious example is the internet -- through which churches & Christian organizations are reaching millions with the gospel, through which we can more easily give both financially & with other resources, and by which we can keep in touch with friends & loved ones. But it's 'shadow side' is quicker access to things to which we are prone to being addicted -- wasting time in chat rooms/gaming, gossip, and of course pornography.
Relationships & Community are no different. At Sunrise, we've been stressing, preaching, highlighting community over the past few months in our church with the advent of a major Community Group launch--and, to say the least, the Lord has been so gracious in using these groups to draw us closer to one another and to Him!
However, there is a shadow side to surrounding oneself with people.
This truth is vividly portrayed by the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah -- who himself experienced very little community and so had time on his hands to carefully observe how the sin nature/Satan could pervert it. God used these observations and spoke to & through the prophet about it.
5 Thus says the LORD:Cursed is the man who trusts in manand makes flesh his strength,whose heart turns away from the LORD.6 He is like a shrub in the desert,and shall not see any good comeHe shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,in an uninhabited salt land.- Jeremiah 17: 5-6
Now hang on, there is a medicating & healing balm to come. But let's not miss Jeremiah's point. Namely -- you can surround yourself with people and, yet, be incredibly isolated. The phrase "He is like a shrub in the desert" should stand out -- as these are two contrasting images. Here's a guy who thinks he's doing okay, I've grown myself into a well-watered little shrub, & surrounded myself with other shrubs who can help me...oh wait (and here comes the irony) there's nobody here! It's desert. "Wilderness" in Hebrew thought always denotes isolation (as opposed to images of Tarzan, vines, savages with spears & gorillas in the mist like we might think of when considering 'wilderness'). The sad irony here is that the person Jeremiah is describing thinks he has surrounded himself with other plants, foliage, and the like -- indeed, he has 'trusted' and built his life around this supposed reality. But it is not reality. The community is really a mirage
Ask yourself, even at age 25, 30, 40, when you sit down to eat lunch in an office cafeteria or you contemplate going to a movie/social event, do you make sure you have always have a wingman or wing-woman? Would it still make you uncomfortable (though maybe not 6th-grade-uncomfortable) to sit or do things by yourself? Have you ever experienced this before? I sure have. I would surround myself with people, yet feel lonely and the Lord proceeded to 'cure' that loneliness by taking away people. "Lord, I don't want to tell you how to do things as you've done a pretty nice job stewarding the universe," I would say, "but this seems counterproductive." But it is exactly how the Spirit usually goes about shifting our trust in others (and usually what they can do for us) to Him.
God could be giving you the gift of loneliness. Do I mean that God's ultimate goal is for you to feel lonely? Not at all, only that He, even as you relate to many different persons, might temporarily cause you to feel lonely so that wouldn't begin to or wouldn't continue to trust in man. Which is all to easy to do, right? People at the church are so kind to me, people in my Community Group now open up to me and I to them -- "Finally," we often conclude, "I have found what I'm looking for...for what will satisfy my needs." It's true that we are created for community with our fellow man. But we are primarily created for Community with God and such community is, alone, all-satisfying. Hence the Lord going on to say to & through Jeremiah:
7 Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,whose trust is the LORD8 He is like a tree planted by the water,that sends out its roots by the stream,and does not fear when the heat comes,for its leaves remain green,and is not anxious in the year of drought,for it does not cease to bear fruit.- Jeremiah 17: 7-8
God gave Jeremiah the gift of loneliness so that his trust might be forged & shaped into an unwavering fidelity to His God & Savior. This gift often seemed like a curse to Jeremiah. His messages were not well-received (7:1-8:3; 26:1-11), he endured a great deal of persecution for speaking up as God asked him (20: 1-6; 37: 11-38; 43: 1-7). He had only two people we know of who responded well to his message -- one being his own scribe, Baruch (who some might argue 'had' to buy into it since, well, he worked for the guy). And, at God's command, he never married (16: 1-4). But for Jeremiah to surround himself with others in trust & vulnerability would have been disasterous, as he lived amongst persons who weren't exactly going to encourage him in his walk with God.
Responding like a Tree. Here's the point, in the midst of this loneliness, Jeremiah started to trust and live like a tree planted by the water. Even while alone, when persecution, mocking, and (worse) those inner lies & discouragements came his way, he simply went to God and God alone with his prayer & with his pain.
Soon after God speaks the above words to Jeremiah, he has a rabble of people say "Let's get together for a few days and just make plots against this dude." Can you imagine people getting together for the expressed purpose of plotting against you? My natural tendency would be to either (a) Move; (b) Break out the Rolodex and Start forming my own alliance. Jeremiah's first response: "Hear me, O LORD, and listen to the voice of my adversaries" (Jeremiah 18:19). He doesn't mince words or speaking kindly of these people in his prayer, but the key is that he goes to God first with his complaint because his "trust is the LORD" (17:7)
Next up, the head overseer of temple supplies & activities (like the church's activities n' fun coordinator), steps up to persecute Jeremiah. He has him beaten and put in stocks (basically, publicly humiliates him). Jeremiah's response is, again, very genuine & real with God -- but the key is He goes immediately to the Lord, his trust.
O Lord, you have deceived me,and I was deceived;you are stronger than I,and you have prevailed.I have become a laughingstock all the day;everyone mocks me.- Jeremiah 20:7
Are you lonely right now? Nobody seems to care or show interest. Are you lonely -- even while you've surrounded yourself with many friends, co-workers, acquaintances? Perhaps You might be helped this new perspective from Jeremiah -- that God is giving you this loneliness as a temporary gift that might spur you on to make Yahweh your trust & that He might fashion you into a well-watered tree whose roots are sent out by the stream. If you think this might be the case, I implore you to stop reading and, like Jeremiah, go immediately to the Source of Living Water with your prayer &, yes, even your complaint.
---In my next post (Part II), I just want to touch on: (a) Why it is that we can feel lonely with people surrounding us and (b) how we might consider striking a healthy & God-honoring balance between an unyielding trust in God & learning to trust our brothers & sisters in Christ.---