If there is no room in the heart, there is no room in the house.
There are many things in our lives that fall into the category of “Difficult but Necessary.” For example, denying our impulses to overeat, overspend, or over-react. Or behaving responsibly on days when we’re just not feeling it. Or exercising patience in the face of frustration. Or just exercising.
I would place the practice of Christian community into this Difficult but Necessary category as well. Loving one another, welcoming one another, and caring for one another in the name of Christ are not easy tasks. Relationships require hard work. In the normal course of all relationships, there is hurt, disappointment, and frustration.
Our relationships in community are further challenged by our yearning to be free and unencumbered, able to do whatever we want to do. Every relationship cuts into our personal autonomy. Every friendship exacts a price on our time and emotional energy. Every community we commit ourselves to comes with some sacrifice of our personal preferences.
Additionally, our society trains us to be consumers: we get our burgers our way, stream the movies we want when we want, and customize our music playlists to suit our tastes. All these choices train us to expect similar things from our communities: if a relationship fails to give me what I want, I’ll just take my business elsewhere. But expecting to always have it our way in relationships is neither realistic nor wise.
So community is, in a word, inconvenient. What we’d really love is to be connected without being encumbered, to have community on our terms, with lots of choices and minimal responsibilities. But this is not how community works. Just ask anyone who has a family: all of us are complex and have sharp edges when you get close to us. Richard Neuhaus observes that real community “is the discipline and devotion of disparate people bearing with one another in the hard tasks of love.” In other words, people who willing to put in the difficult but necessary work.
Is this work worth the trouble? Christine Pohl argues that “The best testimony to the truth of the gospel is the quality of our life together. Jesus risked his reputation and the credibility of his story by tying them to how his followers live and care for one another in community (John 17:20-23).” That whole bit about “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” May we engage more deeply in the difficult but necessary work of welcoming one another, as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God (Rom 15:7).