Community and Intimacy
“There has been a great growth of group movements in modern days. They are attempts to put back into the church the koinonia, the fellowship of the Acts. I used to think that the church was born out of Pentecost, but the church is not named until the eighth chapter of Acts. It was the koinonia that was born out of the Pentecost, for the koinonia is mentioned in the same chapter with the coming of the Spirit: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship (Koinonia). This koinonia was a close-knit fellowship across all racial and class boundaries, transcending age and sex. It was a fellowship of the Spirit. The group became an organism of the Spirit. This group became the soul out of which the body of the Church grew; the organism out of which the organization grew. Where you have the koinonia you have the Church, but where you do not have the koinonia there you do not have the Church.” The Word Became Flesh by E. Stanley Jones
E. Stanley Jones presents the essence of the life of a community. However in my experience there is a difference between being part of a community of believers and having a friendship of intimacy where this koinonia can be experienced at a deeper level. Because koinonia is with the Father and the Son (I John 1:3) we can experience community and a degree of fellowship with hundreds of like-minded people but intimacy only happens with a few. If we have an expectation of being intimates with all in the larger community we are sure to be disappointed.
Does this process of seeking intimacy in the midst of community become divisive? I think not. This unity with such friends causes the few to look outward to encourage and care for the larger fellowship. And if we live in submission to such trusted friends we will have an attitude of submission to all who are in Christ. The same degree of intimacy will not be present but we will be of a mind to learn from everyone.
All of us probably have different definitions of what intimacy means. Intimacy begins with Jesus. As our need for love is met in God’s initiating love to us we can then relate to brothers and sisters without putting demands on them that they cannot meet. It is helpful to look at two statements Jesus made to his closest followers.
Two things that engender community
In John 14:21, after Judas had gone off to betray him, Jesus said to the Eleven: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” Jesus said obedience is the path to intimacy. As we obey Jesus we are submitting to the character transformation that brings us to the unity Jesus promised in John 17. In our obedience to Jesus we also will be submitting to one another which deepens our intimacy with each other.
A little later in his discourse (John 15:15) he says, “I have called you friends, for everything that I have learned from my Father I have made know to you.” Intimacy grows on shared knowledge from the Father. As we let others in on the things God is speaking into our lives we grow in intimacy with each other. The impact of such intimacy is seen historically by the amazing expansion of the church in the first few years because of these few unremarkable people who decided to share their lives at the deepest level.
Aelred of Rievaulx
wrote on the subject of friendship and his thoughts about the intimacy of friendship gives some insight about the ones to whom we submit our lives.
“We are compelled by the law of love to receive in the embrace of love not only our friends but also our enemies. But not all whom we love should be received into friendship for not all are found worthy of it. We embrace many with every affection, but yet in such a way that we do not admit them to the secrets of friendship, which consists especially in the revelation of all our confidences and plans. For since your friend is the companion of your soul, to whose spirit you join and attach yours, and so associate yourself that you wish to become one instead of two, since he is one to whom you entrust yourself as to another self, from whom you hide nothing, from whom you fear nothing, you should, in the first place, surely choose one who is considered fitted for all this. Then he is to be tried, and so finally admitted. For friendship should be stable and manifest a certain likeness to eternity, persevering always in affection.”
Perhaps Aelred overstates his case. Each of us is a separate, mysterious being created with an inner self that deserves the dignity of a certain degree of privacy. We all hide things from even those the closest to us, partially because no one wants to know all the random thoughts that go through another’s minds, partially because there are things we are dealing with in our lives that we are not yet ready to bring into the light, and partially because some things we are meant to interact with God alone and to share them becomes a betrayal of our special communion with Him.
With whom do we share our lives?
They should be secure enough that they can listen to us without being intimidated, or being fearful of the issue presented. Otherwise they will not allow the issues to be sufficiently discussed and developed.
They should demonstrate a desire to walk with Christ and live responsibly. Otherwise they will not have a Godly perspective or Godly wisdom to bring to us.
They should want the best for us and be ones who will pray about the deep issues we share with them. Otherwise they will betray our confidences or be alienated by our weaknesses.
When I think about my friendships I realize that there are levels of intimacy. Aelred writes about the deepest level and in a lifetime this only exists with a few for me. I don’t think this is lack of desire for greater depth with others but we are limited by time together and by each of our capacity for space in our inner life. In my experience the space increases as Jesus become the one who orders my inner life for there is less of me demanding attention and thus greater freedom to let others into my inner space.
And as I think about others, I know that we have differing desires for intimacy. Some are content without great depth in their friendships. For others the risk of pain is not worth the perceived benefits. Fortunately, we don’t have an intimacy meter to gauge our relationships and there is no value placed on how much this is part of our lives. But I do think we are meant to ponder the subject.
In light of the above here are some of the things that seem characteristic of friendships of intimacy at any level.
To be known and to be loved and accepted when known.
To love and to accept others as I discover their strengths and weaknesses.
To experience a mutual place of safety fostering freedom to express unfiltered thoughts. And out of this safety help each of us to be willing to risk for the sake of the Kingdom.
A mutual desire to serve and to please the other person.
A commitment to each other’s transformation of character. A freedom to share what Jesus is speaking into each of our lives.
We care about the same things in the work of the Kingdom.
A consistent journey towards wholeness in Jesus so that the friendship is less need based.
A quiet companionship with each other and an enjoyment of each other in several facets of our personalities..
A sense of humility that we should be favored with such a rich friendship.
And this still leaves me with questions about my friendships.
What is my God-given limit in relationships? When does my desire for deep friendships turn into superficial relationships because I have invited too many people into my life?
When do I allow the level of intimacy to plateau because of limited time or limited desire on the part of one or both of us?
How do I live with differing desires for intimacy where one of us wants more than the other?
Often relationships begin because one person is needy. How do I discern when his need will devour me or that it is a first step to wholeness and to the intimacy of partnership?
The above makes it obvious that I don’t have all the answers, but I want to stay on the journey with good companions to keep learning from Jesus and from them.
Kent Hotaling — December 2005