The first weekend of December Kay and I presented ideas in this piece to friends at the Mt Hermon annual retreat. We later had opportunity to discuss the ideas in depth with several good companions in the Northwest. The following is the original paper we presented with several comments from others that deepen our understanding of the issues. As always, this is a work in progress so if you have ideas you would like to share with us or others please do so. . . Kent and Kay
A paraphrase of the writings of E. Stanley Jones reads:
“Fellowship in Jesus with a few close companions is so precious that it has to be carefully cultivated; for while it is a tough-fibered tree and can withstand almost any storms and pressures from without it is easily hurt from within. Little borers can eat out its heart and can ruin the tree and its fruit.
What are some of these inner dangers to the life of the fellowship?
- One or more who try to control and to dominate it
- Secret criticism
- Unwillingness to confess faults
- Regarding our fellowship as exclusive and superior
- Expecting perfection from others
- Individuals who do not honor others above themselves – or lack of humility”
The underlying fault in our lives that creates these failures in our fellowships is fear! The protection against all these difficulties is God’s love to us, in us and through us. Let us consider how this love impacts these issues
Control and domination
The moment any member tries to dominate the fellowship, at that moment the fellowship ceases to exist. The life of the fellowship is stifled and suffocated by the controlling person. Proper leadership is given when servants take initiative. The leader is a sort of intellectual midwife helping each give birth to his or her insights. The role of the person of initiative is not to dominate the others but to help them grow in insight and experiences of Jesus.
“Control takes may insidious forms. Pressuring people into conformity, shaming their lack of performance, rewarding only those who meet our standards, withholding relationship—these are some of the common ways we manipulate with illegitimate control. The root of control is our own fear—fear that we will look inadequate or unsuccessful unless others perform as we expect. The Upside Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill
Jesus addressed this issue in these words: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Mark 10:43, 44
- When are you most tempted to control others? (One response in discussing this was that we are grappling with our insecurities that come from unhealed wounds given us in the past. It is difficult to get these healed because often we have buried them so that we are not aware of how much they are driving our relationships.)
- Who are you most tempted to manipulate? (An insight that came in one of the discussions is that we are tempted to manipulate everyone we are with when we think we should have an agenda for their lives. To decide to have no agenda for any of those in our fellowship frees us from the temptation to manipulate.
- How do you deal with those who manipulate you? (This has been one of the most difficult questions as various ones of us have discussed it. Two thoughts that may be helpful: The first is to emotionally detach from the manipulation, pause and reflect so that our responses are gentle and do not escalate the tension of the encounter. Then ask the question of how we can serve the person so that we are proactive in love rather than reactive out of hurt.)
The next three issues probably have at their root the element of competition which is the antithesis of love and serving that Jesus lived and taught.
Secret Criticism (malicious gossip)
On the walls of E. Stanley Jones Ashram at Sat Tal in India was this motto:
“Fellowship is based on confidence.
Secret criticism breaks that confidence.
We will renounce all secret criticism.”
Each day at the Ashram, Jones held “the family meeting.” All were given a chance each day to bring up suggestions for change or improvement for a group decision. They insisted that if people did not bring up things in the family meeting they were not to be brought up outside the meeting. Thus the family meeting was an escape valve where pent-up steam could be blown off each day. The habit of constructive criticism was formed and the grievances that, if suppressed, would lead to gossip were dealt with.
Paul writes: “Let the word of God dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one other.” Colossians 3:16
- Do you have a place and an agreement so that issues are addressed with your close companions? (One idea that came to light that may be a help on this issue and also the next one is that the reason God gives us discernment is so we can pray. As we live in close fellowship with family and friends we inevitably discover the weaknesses of those we love. If we use that information to pray for them in this place of their struggle and we walk alongside to encourage then the relationships get deeper. If we do not use the insights in this way we will always use it to gossip about them or to push back from them.)
Unwillingness to confess our faults
The moment we begin to confess faults we melt into a fellowship. The competition between our areas of strength is removed as we relate in our areas of weakness. When we close up and refuse to acknowledge faults the closeness of fellowship becomes impossible. We can only go as deep with each other as the person who is most unwilling to admit faults. If our initial fellowship with Jesus and each other begins by confession of sin it will need to be maintained in the same way.
Again the words of Paul: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 34:32
- Are you free to confess your sins to others and are you a safe place for them to confess to you?
Regarding the fellowship as exclusive or superior
This was the worm that ate at the heart of Gnosticism. The Gnostics had possession of knowledge which the common herd did not possess. Paul struck a dart into this when he wrote: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” In that sentence is the essential difference between a fellowship centered in Jesus and Gnosticism. One builds up others by their love and the other puff up to their own destruction. An esoteric group, claiming an inside and superior knowledge, destroys itself by its false sense of superiority. This is a constant temptation to Young Life and “Fellowship” people (and to most serious followers of Jesus) because we think the way we do things is better than others. And our insecurities drive us to want to be in a special core that sets us apart from other ordinary followers of Jesus.
C.S Lewis writes: “Your genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion. There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. Exclusion is no accident: it is the essence. The quest for the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.”
(One of our friends in D.C. who had a strong desire to be in this inner ring, once said, “When I get into the special group I know it is not really the inner group or they would not let me in.”)
And John writes: “We must write and tell you about this fellowship, because the more it extends the greater joy it brings to us who are already in it.” 1 John 1:3 Phillips
- What helps you know you feel secure in your relationships and thus to know that your fellowships are but a small part of the Kingdom of God?
Expectations of perfection in the way others treat us
We must accept others and ourselves as we are – imperfect human beings. If we expect perfection in a group we are bound for disappointment, for there are no such people to make up such a group. Jesus chose the Twelve, not because he found them to be perfect, but because they wanted to be perfected.
“Jesus did not lace his relationships with expectations, and he refused to be trapped when others sought to put these expectations on him. He refused to manipulate people even for their own good. Expectations are resentments waiting to happen. We sabotage many of our relationships by imposing expectations on others or trying to meet theirs. It cannot be done. People who live with expectations will never be satisfied.” Authentic Relationships by Wayne Jacobson
Again, the words of Paul: “Bear with each other.” Colossians 3:13
- What is helping you and those in your fellowships deal with your insecurities so you can embrace your dark side? (A helpful comment was that when I accept my own imperfections I am better able to release my unrealistic expectations of others.)
Lack of humility
The one who is always seeking the limelight is not “walking in the light of Jesus”. Jesus made himself of no reputation in his incarnation. He hid who he was and succeeded in filling the world with his name and fame. Those who push themselves will have to, for no one else will. Have you noticed that humility is not mentioned in the description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians? Instead we are told, “Humble yourselves before the Lord.” James 4:10
“How little is humility preached? How little it is practiced? How little the lack of it is felt or confessed? I do not say how few attain to it, but how few ever think of making it a distinct object of continual desire or prayer? We need now to learn another lesson—that Jesus calls us to be servants of one another, and that this service will be a most blessed one, a new and fuller liberty from sin and self. At first it may appear hard; this is only because of the pride which still counts itself something. Here is the path to the higher life. Down, lower down!” The beauty of holiness by Andrew Murray
“Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith that God has given to you all.” Romans 12:3, Phillips translation
- What are you doing to humble yourself? Some responses include:
- A grateful heart brings a perspective that allows humility to flourish.
- When we maintain a servant’s heart and live this in specific actions we grow humility as we put others first.
- It may help to hold a funeral service for our independence.
- Develop the discipline of listening to others rather than always wanting to pass on our wisdom.
How do we apply the ideas presented and discussed in this paper?
“Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be. Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
“Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause? Did we pretend to be ‘hurt’ in our sensitive and tender feelings (fine natures like ours are so vulnerable) when envy, ungratified vanity, or thwarted self-will was our real trouble? Such tactics often succeed. The other parties give in. They give in not because they don’t know what is really wrong with us but because they have long known it only too well, and that sleeping dog can be roused, that skeleton brought out of its cupboard, only at the cost of imperiling their whole relationship with us. How we should deal with it in others I am not sure; but we should be merciless to its first appearances in ourselves.” Reflections on the Psalms by C. S. Lewis
“Even when we disagree with or regret the action of another, we can emphasize ‘I still love you. When disagreement is called for, we can be honest and open instead of masked and hidden. Instead of remaining silent, we can speak out when a different position needs to be expressed. But such a reaction can be held within a framework of basic support for the other. We can help others feel that we are still on their side when it comes to appreciating and encouraging them as persons.” Liberation of Life by Harvey and Lois Seifert
Let us continue seeking to be transformed to be like Jesus as we journey with those God has given to us as companions.