Where Do I Belong? With God!
The need to belong seems to be part of the basic human experience. But what does belonging really mean? Does having a membership card for a gym, having our name on the sports team roster, being in a club at school, making the theatre cast, or being part of a team at work automatically make us feel that we belong? Not necessarily. But "joining up" is something we do to try to belong. Some people seem to fit in with others rather easily. Others seem to struggle. Sometimes the yearning to fit in is so desperate and the understanding of what creates a true sense of belonging is so poor that people do whatever it takes -- get with the wrong group of "friends," take drugs or drink alcohol, listen to degrading music, join gangs, get involved in unethical work practices … all to feel on the "inside."
How do we know when we belong? For what feelings are we longing?
When we're searching for a sense of belonging, aren't we longing to be ourselves? Don't we yearn for approval of who we are, appreciation, comfort, security, a sense of home, happiness, and love? So when we feel these things, we often assume that we have found where we belong. We are often correct. But we have to be careful. We need to look at the effect on us and on others to see if our union with a particular group of people or set of activities is hiding or allowing us to express our God-given identity, is hurting or blessing us and others. If we are truly being blessed and are being a blessing, then we have found what it means to belong.
To what do we want to belong?
It's interesting that the studies done regarding why people join gangs reveal that one of the main reasons is to feel part of a family. But we want true family, don't we? So many people today find themselves in broken or dysfunctional families that the real sense of "family" is elusive. So, they go in search of or learn to make their own family out of friends. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, sometimes those friends fit the real definition of "family" more than blood relatives. But family isn't the only thing to which we want to belong. There are many other ways we want to belong.
When we try to fit in, we're really conforming to a standard. It can be a good, God-given, principled, lasting, meaningful standard or it can be a poor, societal, comparative, changing, meaningless standard. So, let's rephrase the question: To what do we want to conform? What qualities, characteristics, feelings do we want to bring into our lives that will bless us and others?
Paul provides a great answer:
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Rom. 12:2)
Eugene Peterson explains Paul's statement this way:
Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (The Message, Rom. 12:2)
When we take time to think about it and are honest with ourselves …
- Do we really want to be affected by a group of people, a kind of activity, and an overall culture that demean or degrade us, compromise our integrity, drag us down, make us immature, and rob us of our own God-given individuality?
- Do we really think we'll find what we're looking for in superficial popularity, greed, fast-paced living, dishonesty, guilt, stress, chemical substances, violence … the worst?
- Wouldn't we rather link ourselves to joy, satisfaction, success, peace, love, comfort, self-worth … the best?
When we're doing God's will, we certainly don't have to worry about what the consequences may bring. And, as we've just read, it's God, not those other things, who brings out the best in us. When we align ourselves with God, we get to "prove," experience, revel in that which is "good, and acceptable, and perfect." We are accepted by God! Only God's approval really matters. Others' approval of us comes and goes. But God is always approving of us as the perfect children He made in His own beautiful image.
How do we find that feeling of belonging?
We have to make sure we're searching in the right places, doing the right things, being the best individuals we know how to be. When we long for that which is good, we can rest assured that we will be satisfied. The psalmist declares: "For he [God] satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness " (107:9). So, in our search, we can ask, "Does affiliating myself with this group or activity make me feel good, truly good, about myself and others?" If so, then we're on the right track.
Here are some things that DON'T work:
- changing who we are in order to please others -- giving up our own identity
- adopting others' fashion, music, speech, likes, dislikes
- constantly talking about ourselves
- criticizing others to make ourselves look good
- trying to impress people by what we say or do (bragging)
- being clingy
- wallowing in self-pity
- giving up by having the victim, loner mentality (nobody likes me; there's nothing I can do; etc.)
- turning to drugs, alcohol, gangs, etc. to fit in (only lose ourselves)
- attracting the wrong type of attention by what we wear, say, or do
- ignoring our own and others' real needs
- compromising our integrity
- blindly following others' opinions and lead without questioning or listening to ourselves or God
- looking to others for approval of our identity and sense of belonging
Here are some things that DO work:
- cultivating and maintaining our own individuality
- knowing what we like and what's important to us without pushing it on others
- asking others questions and listening to them
- focusing on others and making them look and feel good
- expressing the qualities God has given us
- seeing the good God is always giving us
- being grateful for who we are
- loving ourselves (which allows us to be independent and part of a group)
- continuing despite hardships (we're not the only ones struggling with something)
- turning to God for help, approval, and a true sense of belonging
- knowing that the real attraction is God
- maintaining our integrity
- following God's direction (rather than others' opinions)
- relaxing about things
- being attentive to others' and our own needs
- including others
Including others is one of the best ways to discover the true sense of belonging.
In order to make others feel that sense of approval, self-worth, and love for which we all long, we just have to follow the example of the Master. Jesus reached out to the "outcasts" and "outsiders." Among many other acts of pure compassion …
- Jesus called publicans (tax collectors, who were considered to be sinners because their business practices were neither reputable nor unethical) to follow him; and they did, such as Levi (Luke 5:27-32) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:3-10). Jesus responded to the Pharisees' disgust and disapproval of his association with such people: "I'm here inviting outsiders, not insiders -- an invitation to a changed life, change inside and out" (The Message, Luke 5:32)
- He allowed the "woman … which was a sinner" to touch him, to "wash his feet with tears" (Luke 7:37-50).
- He healed lepers who were totally ostracized. He even touched them. What that touch must have meant to those who had not felt the warmth of human touch in years (Matt. 8:2-4)!
Jesus included the un-included and so gave them a sense of belonging and worth for which they desperately longed. He changed their lives forever! And yet, Jesus was NOT in the in-crowd. He was ostracized, attacked, persecuted, and crucified by the very people he came to save. That didn't stop him from reaching out with pure compassion. What's more, we never think of him as being frustrated, worried, or concerned that he didn't fit in, didn't belong. He knew to Whom he belonged.
What enabled Jesus to reach out to others, to transform their lives, to help them feel worthy, to give them that sense of belonging?
Among other things, he understood his unity with God: "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30). What is so wonderful is that he didn't keep this sense of oneness only for himself. Jesus prayed for his disciples and all of us to feel and know our unity with our Father, just as he did:
Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are…. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one … that they may be one, even as we are one … that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. (John 17:11, 20-23)
We are one with God. We are one with each other. We are all God's children, all part of God's one family. We are all part of God's in-crowd. There are no outsiders. We are all one, for we all belong to God: "And ye shall be my people, and I will be your God…. And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them" (Jer. 30:22, 32:39). This is what it means to belong -- to understand and feel our inseparable unity with God and His entire creation. What a difference it would make in the world if we all recognized, understood, and practiced our oneness, our true "belonging!"