Overcoming fear of rejection and finding community
The fear of human opinion disables; trusting in God protects you from that. – Proverbs 29:25, MSG
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. – Proverbs 3:5 ESV
Like most people, I crave meaningful connection with others. I’ve been searching for a church to belong to for years. I long for a feeling of safety where I am accepted for who I am. For a long time I blamed my feelings of rejection on the people of the church, looking to things like yoga and Buddhism for guidance. It’s too bad it took so long for me to see the truth: I am the problem. I’ve been aloof, reluctant to get involved. Over the years I’ve built up walls of protection to keep others out, and become accustomed to going it alone. It is difficult to let people in, to trust people who might see me in a state of spiritual vulnerability and judge me for that. You see, when I allow myself to be unguarded, worship brings on a flood of intense emotions for me: I cry during worship, prayer, and sermons. I know this from my first experiences of the Holy Spirit as an adult. My life opened up and the light came in when I found St. Thomas church in Fort McMurray. I felt real connection there, with a young congregation and lively worship music. I was pregnant with my first child and felt the joy of life growing inside me, and that joy was expressed through crying in church. During that time, I felt truly free to be part of something bigger than myself. But it faded as the stresses of motherhood closed in.
I had to stop going to St. Thomas when we moved away two years later. Since then, two other attempts to reach out and become part of a church congregation fizzled. The problem was, after a while I would look for any excuse to avoid going to church. My mind spins a silly story in my head: I’m too tired. I don’t feel presentable today. There is no-one else my age. There are no other children for my daughters to connect with. The pastor is an arrogant man. The pastor is an unfriendly woman. There are no women in leadership positions. The pastor said things I don’t agree with. I used to work with that person, and I don’t like them. That person looked at me funny. Those people won’t like me. That person said something mean to me. They don’t think I’m a real Christian because I’m a working woman. They think I’m a single mom because my husband doesn’t attend church. They think I’m an adulteress because I’ve been divorced and remarried. All the insecurities and judgments of a scared child’s mind trying to keep me safe and comfortable. Rather than admit I was wrong, I clung to this passage from Matthew to justify my lack of public involvement:
“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure – ‘playactors’ I call them – treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it – quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out. And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?” – Matthew 6:2-5, MSG
Crying is not a public activity for me. Nor is any kind of emotional display, for that matter, for a number of reasons. I’m a private person. After many bad experiences in childhood with shame, I learned to keep myself small and unnoticed to avoid negative consequences. If there were any strong feelings, I would deal with them alone, going deeper inward. On top of that, I come from a family of hard-working introverts. They consider modesty and a humble attitude the pinnacle of good character. They help others but do not brag about it. Popularity is looked on with suspicion. Displaying uncontrolled emotion is considered inauthentic and attention-seeking. For years I’ve hidden my meditation and prayer in private, finding a quiet moment to bring my troubles and triumphs to God. My built-in sense of what I thought was modesty led me to consider faith a deeply personal and private affair. My reluctance to allow others to know me had many consequences, positive and negative. On the positive side, it has allowed me to remain calm and impartial through many difficult situations. This is a professional advantage: I am often praised for being so calm and gentle. The downside is I sometimes struggle to express my true feelings, especially around other women. This inability to open up around other people has led me to avoid worshiping with others.
I justified my avoidance of “churchiness” by thinking I was avoiding attention-seeking behaviour. But my interpretation of Matthew’s message was way off the mark. Participating in church and authentically worshiping, allowing the Holy Spirit to flow through us, is not the same as seeking attention. My so-called modesty turned out to be fear of opening up to new people, insecurity, unfair judgment of others, pride, and laziness. I was expecting to be judged, so I judged them first to protect my ego. How unfair! I should have also read this passage:
“Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.” – Matthew 7:1 (MSG)
And this one, from the July 19th message at Life.Church:
It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then? – Galatians 5:13 (MSG)
While Jesus has brought me through many hardships in secret, there’s only so much I can accomplish on my own. The Bible can easily be misinterpreted when our bias distorts its message (like I did with Matthew 6). The Bible will not reveal all its wisdom without guidance from others. The end result has been a lack of connection and lack of service to others. As a result of my self-protection, I’ve struggled to build the kind of safety that comes with a real-life social network. Belonging to and participating in a church is essential, if you want to be a practicing Christian! The social network of a church is one of God’s gifts to us, where people have opportunity to give and receive and achieve wholeness within a spiritual family. Even if my husband never attends church, he can benefit from my safety and connection within the community of Christ. Even more than that, the community can benefit from our God-given gifts. Focusing inward on just my family and myself, and keeping myself “safe” now feels like a selfish and even self-sabotaging act. I don’t have all the answers, and the truth is not inside me as the yoga studio or self-help gurus would have me believe. Refusing to trust or get too involved may have denied others the help they need, because I haven’t been there to help.
I now attend the Castlegar United Church, and have registered to volunteer at Life.Church online. At recent United Church coffee-time over Zoom, a friend told the group “It’s not about what you get from the church. It’s about community and what you give to others.” She’s right. When we focus inward all the time, we neglect the community around us and God’s call to serve. We also lose the opportunity for personal growth. If I want to grow in Christ, I can and should be doing more for my community. Looking outward and being open to serving is the key to building healthy friendships and community. I refuse to fear crying in public any more, because I need to get over myself. I know there will be others crying and celebrating with me. We are not that different from each other!