Are You a Church Member?
Part 1 of 2
Our desire for companionship is a basic human need, along with hunger and thirst and a need for safety. We probably spend more time and money on our social needs than we ever do for food and drink combined. We will travel anywhere on earth it takes to spend time with family or close friends. Most of us never even considered going out of the state we live in for food or drink. Do you plan to travel to British Columbia just to get fresh blueberries, or Wisconsin for fresh apples, or Brazil for fresh açaí and papaya?
The same is true of your house. Half the money that most of us put into our house has nothing to do with keeping us warm, dry, or safe. That money is to make guests comfortable or to impress them. Hermits do not need big or expensive housing.
We not only want others, we need them. We need others for three reasons:
1. We need others because we are helpless. We can’t do everything ourselves. We cannot accomplish everything alone.
2. We need others because we were created to share. Each of us is like a fountain that is going to explode if we can’t share.
3. We also need others because we have a deep need to belong.
The wise man told us, “Two are better than one. . . . For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up” ().
We spend all day, every day, thinking about family and friends. That is what keeps social media like Facebook going. Part of our fascination with the Internet is to educate or entertain ourselves. The rest is to enhance our social activities. Everyone reading this demonstrates all day long, every day, the truth of Jesus’ words that it is not good for even perfect and holy people to be alone—much less sinners.
Not only our actions but also our words demonstrate the truth of those words. We could talk for days about each of the relationships God gives us. What do we do about our family, our community, our ethnicity, and our friendships? What are the social laws of the universe? How do we obey or violate them? What makes relationships good and what ruins them? Our world is filled with these subjects. From songs to books to TV shows to gossip, there is no end to the discussion of relationships.
Angels don’t talk about relationships nonstop. They don’t need to. Angels are friends. They know how to communicate, how express their own needs and interests, how to appreciate the needs and views of others, and how to negotiate the best solution for everyone affected by the choice. Country music, with its songs of pain and frustration, has no market in heaven. Self-help relationship books don’t much matter in a perfect world. It’s here, in the middle of a sinful social world where we hurt and betray each other enough to make relationships an interesting topic.
We have just observed that as long as humans have existed they have been social creatures that seek out social relationships. It is part of who we are. Or is it? Some of you are starting to question me already. Many of you agree with me, but not all of you. You know someone that claims to be happier living on the moon in isolation than in your community. You know someone that loves to be alone. I have known those people also. There are people who do not need other humans very much. Their social appetite is small. They never have to go on a social diet. Their lives are simpler. But even the most introverted people want a friend sometimes. I have to laugh when they tell me how much they want to live alone. For in telling me, they prove that they want to talk about being alone. They want to talk to someone else about being alone. And you cannot talk to anyone when you live alone. Even hermits want a friend sometimes.
But there are probably moments when everyone wants to be alone. We need solitude. All those beautiful pictures of nature sell, because we want to feel a little alone sometimes.
Loneliness is necessary. We need it to hear our own selves. My father used to say that it was necessary to be alone, so that you could hear yourself think. Growing up, as many of us have, without much time alone, we don’t even know ourselves. We don’t know the voice of our own thoughts. We know what our friends think or like better than we know ourselves. Just stop and ask yourself what you would do. For example, take your three closest family members and friends and ask yourself what they would say if they met the President of the United States. What would they say if it snowed on the beaches of Los Angeles in July. What would the look on their face be? You probably can tell me the words and the exact expressions your friends are likely to use. Now tell me what would you do in the same circumstances? Most of us do not know ourselves as well as we do our friends. We need to be alone, just to meet and get to know ourselves.
In all our busyness, we lose knowing ourselves. We also lose knowing God. We lose out on the best friendship in the world. For each of us can know God personally. But knowing Him requires loneliness.
“Everyone needs to have a personal experience in obtaining a knowledge of the will of God. We must individually hear Him speaking to the heart. When every other voice is hushed, and in quietness we wait before Him, the silence of the soul makes more distinct the voice of God. He bids us, ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ (1). Here alone can true rest be found. And this is the effectual preparation for all who labor for God. Amid the hurrying throng, and the strain of life's intense activities, the soul that is thus refreshed will be surrounded with an atmosphere of light and peace. The life will breathe out fragrance, and will reveal a divine power that will reach men's hearts.”
The Bible doesn’t talk much about sinners being alone. It only mentions occasionally the loneliness of our forefathers. But it tells us that Jesus was alone. Several times it says that the Holy One was alone. No one else in the Bible is repeatedly said to be alone. Our Example knew how to be lonely enough to hear His Father and ours. Will we follow His example? You will each one be lost in this world and lost for eternity if you do not learn how to be lonely enough to hear God.
But solitude is not enough. Some solitude opens the soul to God and heals our battered and bruised souls. Too much solitude is a form of selfishness. It is an escape from a life of service. It is a way to reject the work God gives us for the pleasure we desire.
I remember the glory of the Norway pine forests of northern Minnesota. Watching the birds land on any one of the state’s thousand lakes is a thrill. Seeing loons and moose and porcupines restores the soul. Listening to the snipe endlessly laugh at us all is heartening. Looking at the pink lady slipper is fantastic. Having a bear so close I could almost touch him is heart thrilling. Watching a golden eagle fly down the road just feet away from me, with his wings almost touching the tree branches on either side of the road is majestic and captivating. But I chose to leave that for something else. Service to others is better than all the solitude in the world.
And so we turn ourselves to those around us. God designed several solutions to our loneliness. Marriage is the dearest and most satisfying. We each want that and we want more. We look for extended families, communities, the church, and the nation as well.
We should talk about God’s advice for each of these relationships. We should talk of how to have happy marriages. For our church needs as much happiness as it has marriages. Discouraging remarriage is a doctrine designed to lock people in a living hell if we do not know how to have happy marriages. Happy parent-child relationships and happy sibling relationships and happy friendships matter as much as marriages. The reason most of us do not act like we want to go to heaven is that we do not enjoy our relationships here on earth. An eternity of living the way most of our marriages, families, and friendships exist would never be heaven! It’s already purgatory at least, and we only have to survive a few decades together. If most of us had to live together for centuries, hell would be a pretty word for the chaos and agony.
One valuable social relationship that the Bible presents to us is church involvement. One of the places that the Bible discusses this social connection is the New Testament book of Philippians. In order to grasp its message about the church, we are going to drink in the entire book of Philippians. Paul first went to Philippi because God told him to go in a dream. After he arrived in the town, Paul started meeting with anyone interested in listening and telling them of the Messiah. This made the Jews so angry they stirred up the whole town and got Paul and his friend Silas thrown into prison. Not a very kind way to treat a Roman citizen who meant them no harm at all.
But each of those two apostles were more of a man than almost anyone today. Beaten and bruised, insulted and injured, Paul and Silas began singing from the maximum security ward. No curses or whining from their lips. These real men praised God when everything went wrong. I have no doubt that many of us would sing in prison also. Our tune would be the blues. We would complain all night of the injustice that took our freedom away. But Paul and Silas weren’t singing blues. They were singing praises.
Now God seems to like what we don’t. He also seems to hate what we like. We like complaining. Millions of Israelites on their way home from Egypt proved that for the rest of human history. God hates it. We don’t like being grateful in the middle of terrible moments. But God likes it when we are adults. Paul and Silas praised the God of heaven and He heard them.
The earth itself shook. God timed the earthquake to the rhythm of the apostles’ song. If you want the problems of your life to shake until they are solved, praise the Lord. If you want out of the prison that other people’s injustice builds around you, tell God how grateful you are out loud.
The earthquake shook more than the ground. It shook the jailer. Fearing that all the prisoners were free, and he would be killed for failing at his job, he started to commit suicide. And Paul, the prisoner, stopped him. In the rubble of that prison, God saved the jailer from committing suicide and turned him into one of the founding members of the Philippian church. Next time you think God can’t reach the people around us, remember God founded the Philippian church with the jailor and his family.
Now, each Sabbath, the Philippian jailor and Lydia the seller of purple and their families spent the time together. So when we read the statements of Paul to Philippi, we are eavesdropping in on what he told that jailor, that seller of purple, and their families, and friends.
In the book of Philippians, Paul is writing to them from his confinement in Rome. Maybe being in prison again reminds him of Macedonia. He is writing to his friends. Let us digest together his message to them and to us. Paul is writing to talk about what is on his mind. He speaks intimately and lets the Philippians in on his own retirement planning. He exposes his own decision-making process to them and talks of life-and-death decisions that many of us never imagine we could make. He talks freely of how seriously he, Paul, takes the work of the gospel ministry, how deeply he cared for converts and how he suffers for their good (). He admits comfortably to the humility he has regarding his own salvation, even though he is one of those that is almost ready to walk into heaven and for sure will be saved. “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but . . . I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” ( ). Paul admits that he trusts God to be in charge of and direct all Christian growth and experience. “He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” ( ). He talks of his own flexibility. “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” ( ). He tells of his own source of strength for the demands of his work. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” And he speaks of his trust in God to take care of the physical needs of every human. “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (verses 13, 19). “Our conversation [or citizenship, Young’s Literal Translation] is in heaven” ( ). “Let your moderation be known unto all men” (verse 5). Don’t worry about anything. “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (verses 6, 7). Be careful what mental food you give yourselves. “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (verse 8). And finally, always be cheerful and content. “Rejoice in the Lord alway” (verse 4). Some of Paul’s most intimate and most inspiring statements come from the book of Philippians.
Out of the various church centers Paul founded, the Philippian is one of the stronger ones. Paul is not concerned about the church, for it is free from the great problems of his time. But he is concerned that the church at Philippi be the best church possible. His topic in the epistle is all about how to be the best church member one can ever be.