I know you have a few stories like these:
First day of junior high: I walk in to a new school building swarming with unfamiliar faces, but I see an elementary school friend and head her way. She glances at me, then hurries in the other direction, but I get a good look at her face- and she is wearing makeup??? All the girls are! Why didn’t she speak to me? How did I not know we are wearing makeup now? Am I the only one who didn’t know?
Monday morning, October of ninth grade: In the PE locker room, my “friends”(?) share their photos and stories from a spend-the night party the Friday night before. As I stand with my head in my gym locker, trying desperately not to cry in front of them, I wonder: why wasn’t I invited too? And why in the world are they sharing their photos with someone who wasn’t invited?
Junior year of college, sorority bid meeting: As Rush chair, I guide the sisters through the process of deciding who gets a bid and who does not. Discussing the rushees makes me feel like I am going to throw up. I am happy with our list, but I can’t stop thinking about the ones we didn’t give bids to…
Early married years, women’s book club: As we sip wine and giggle about newlywed life, I worry about my friend who is quiet in the corner. She confided on our ride over that she and her husband have decided to divorce. She doesn’t ever come to book club again.
All human beings long to belong. We yearn to be surrounded by people who approve of us and of our membership in whatever “group.” We think that being on the “inside” makes us comfortable and safe; we know that being on the “outside” is painful. God meets this basic human need when He places us in families and gives us friends. We weren’t meant to find wholeness and contentment in ourselves, by ourselves. “It is not good that man should be alone…” (Genesis 2:18) Even Jesus chose twelve disciples and three closest confidantes: Peter, James, and John. It’s just not possible to be best friends with everybody.
The problem comes when the longing to belong causes us to behave in a way that is out of character or even wrong. CS Lewis addressed this basic human tendency in one of his most famous speeches entitled “The Inner Ring.” Speaking to the young adults at Magdalene College, Cambridge, Lewis warned his audience “the quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.”*
Have you ever watched your child be unkind to another child, just to win the approval of a group of children? She’ s grasping for the Inner Ring. Have you ever worried that your child will pull that prank or drink that beer just so the cool crowd will accept him? He just wants to belong. Sometimes we try to ingratiate ourselves with the “in” crowd; other times we exclude people so our group remains “PLUs”- people like us. Either way we seek to shore up our own insecurity.
Shortly after we were married, my husband and I wanted to have a few friends over to watch the Super Bowl- only Anna could not stop inviting people. I told my husband I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, which was true. But I also couldn’t stand the thought that if I left someone out then that person might leave me out when he or she had a party. I was buying insurance against the certainty that someday somebody would have a party and we wouldn’t be invited. I wanted the good opinion of all FORTY of our guests… our house wasn’t big enough, our tvs weren’t big enough, and our food and beverage budget certainly wasn’t big enough to accommodate all FORTY people I was trying to please. Unfortunately, the unhappiest person there was my husband.
Kids are not the only ones susceptible to the lure of the Inner Ring. If our methods become less obvious as we age, they are no less conniving. Unfortunately, the church world is full of rings: there are denominational and non-denominational rings. “We” preach this, and “you” teach that. And of course there is the odd tension between believers and non-believers. In our quest to carry out God’s commission to make disciples across the globe, we unwittingly offend with our quarrels and Christian lingo, somehow appearing exclusive when we are trying to be welcoming. It’s not wrong to have denominations and individual church bodies. This is a practical necessity for now. But an exclusive Church does nothing to glorify God or demonstrate His love to the lost.
So we have to do as Lewis suggests and break off our futile quest for the Inner Ring. Lewis offers practical advice: on the job, focus on the work itself instead of trying to be part of special projects or special professional circles. Socially, just hang out with people you like, without regard for any of their other associations. While this is very good advice, I am going to go one step further than Lewis (I know, pretty arrogant, right?) and say that believers DO belong to the most desirable Inner Ring of all: we belong to the family of Jesus Christ.
Christians often refer to our “identity in Christ.” That’s one of those phrases that gets used so much that I personally lose sight of what it means, if I ever really knew. But knowing how valuable, cherished and loved we are, how completely, irrevocably and eternally we fit in- this is the answer to the insatiable longing to belong. The Kingdom is where we find that wholeness and contentment we yearn for so desperately.
This is why our Bibles are so vitally important. In order for me to grasp what it means to belong to Christ, I need to know Who He is. I need to know Him, His character, and His personality. Who is He? What has He done? What is He doing? When He speaks, what does His voice sound like? What matters most to Him? (The Gospels are a really good place to begin answering these questions.) As I spend time in the Scriptures and in prayer, I get to know the One who created me.
As I realize how awe-some God is, how very holy and “other” He is from me or from anyone I know, I begin to appreciate that He has been unspeakably gracious to me. When I see the unimaginable lengths He has gone to in order to reconcile with me- and with you- I begin to see how much He values us. We have His love and acceptance, and that is secure. He has pledged, and He cannot lie, to give us everything we need for life and godliness. Truly, if He is for us, who can be against us?