When Shared Brokenness Trumps Shared Beliefs


I get a lot of emails from people who've read Sober Mercies, which means so much to me. But I keep noticing how one particular line from the book keeps coming up. Last week, after three people in a row quoted the same sentence, I went back to read it in context (italicized below):

"The particular brand of love and loyalty that seemed to flow so easily here [in recovery meetings] wasn't like anything I'd ever experienced, inside or outside of church.

But how could this be? How could a bunch of addicts and alcoholics manage to succeed at creating the kind of intimate fellowship so many of my Christian groups had tried to achieve and failed?

Many months would pass before I understood that people bond more deeply over shared brokenness than they do over shared beliefs."

Aha! Clearly, a lot of you have shared my experience -- felt a lack of community in a church setting or been surprised by the depth of community in another kind of group. I think my conclusion resonated because it hints at the reason why. After lots of thought, here's a more developed theory:

  • When folks gather around a system of shared beliefs, the price of acceptance in the group is usually agreement, which means the greatest value -- stated or not -- is being right. Unfortunately, this often creates an atmosphere of fear and performance, which in turn invites conformity.
  • But when people gather around a shared need for healing, the price of acceptance in the group is usually vulnerability, which means the greatest value -- stated or not -- is being real. This tends to foster an atmosphere of safety and participation, which in turn invites community.
  • Let's agree that many churches do work hard to provide the kind of openness and safety that invite intimate fellowship. And of course, beliefs and brokenness aren't mutually exclusive; you can embrace both, and most Christians I know try to do this.

    That said, I do think the church could learn something from recovery groups about how to create safe places where intimate community can happen.

    Too often, it seems like we Christians care more about what people believe than we do about loving them. And when "right beliefs" become the basis for inclusion in our fellowships, some of the most broken among us don't feel welcome.

    Of course, we all face the same challenge on how to foster authentic connection. As much as our souls crave it, our ego fears it. For most of us, it's fairly easy to share intellectual head space with someone: We know this, we think that. Not much risk there.

    But inviting that person into our heart space where we may feel broken in places takes courage, sometimes even desperation.

    Lately a friend of mine who recently lost her husband came to stay in our guest room for a week. As much as she was tempted to isolate at home, she had the bravery to finally admit she needs to be around people right now, and let them into her grief.

    And here's the beautiful part. Dave and I needed this, too. Since all our kids are long gone, her presence in our home felt like such a gift. Having her join us for dinner or watching TV -- she in her pajamas -- gave us a dose of that family feeling we keenly miss.

    Today, I find myself thinking about how all this relates to the gospel. How the Old Testament Law failed to bring mankind close enough to God. How God sent his Son to die -- beaten and broken on the cross -- so He could make his home in our very soul.

    Maybe God understood that we bond more deeply over shared brokenness than we do over shared beliefs -- not just with each other, but with him, too.