Discipline, part 3: Community

This will be the final part to this section of my post series on discipline. Mostly because my knowledge is quite limited still, and I am finding that I have much to learn and not-as-much yet to share. However, there is one final part to the art of discipline that I feel is lacking in most people’s lives: quality community. Yet in spite of this widespread absence, we can do something about it.

What is quality community? This is a large question with an answer that I am not prepared to give in full, but I will submit what I know and you can respond to it how you like–receive it, reject it, or redeem it, as I’ve heard some preachers say. Quality community has a few vital parts. First, it is constant. This group of people doesn’t abandon any of its members, no matter how hard times get. This creates a secure environment, and with this security, people can let down their guards and be their true selves, broken and yet still living and learning and (I hope frequently) rejoicing in their lives.

Second, it is honest. When problems arise, in an individual member’s life or that involve multiple people in the group, they work it out. And while they work it out, they stick together (sound familiar?). This fosters growth, both personally and inter-personally. Such a challenging environment, while being difficult to, well, be in, simultaneously allows and promotes growth so that tough situations in the future can be dealt with in a more mature and merciful manner.

Third, it is fun. This is a mandatory part of quality community. Without being fun, no one will desire to be constant nor honest–they will merely be absent, looking for an enjoyable group of people of which they can be part. Fun is the motivating factor to return to a community: it stirs a person up, gets them excited to spend time with the other people in the group. It is also the motivation to be honest: in hard times, enjoying the company of other people prompts a person to truthfully say what they are going through in life, good, bad and ugly. Then, as a result of the security of the group, the person can rest easy, knowing that the other people have their back and want to struggle through the speaker’s troubles with them (I call such speakers “spillers,” because they spill out all the unglamorized details of the hardships they are wrestling with in the present). When spillers can thoroughly discuss with others their struggles, then join these same others for a fun outing the next day, a quality community exists.

All that said, do we need quality communities? Absolutely. Without them, we will not take advantage of a myriad of opportunities to grow, we won’t have the joy of friendship motivating us to continue living responsibly and powerfully, and we won’t be able to strive toward leaving a legacy that is much bigger than anything we could have done on our own.

Let’s now take care of the elephant in the room: I believe that the best community of which anyone can be part is the local church. The church is a group of people who are in God’s family, taking care of each other as brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and children. This bond of kinship in Christ brings the responsibility to care for each other, and the joy and freedom to be people who will not reject each other, but will rather “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). The people who make the church, when living as they should, bring “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). In the obedient and faithful church, no one will be rejected, everyone will be accepted, and everyone will lead and submit to each other appropriately, following the lifelong process of discipleship to grow more mature in Christ.

Whew, that’s wonderful. But wait. We’re still missing it. But why? What are we missing? In my experience, we are very skilled at having fun; that comes quite naturally. We are also decent at maintaining constancy, though not great. This is, in my view, partly a result of our society’s infrastructure: we go through stages in life, and in each stage many people relocate to different locations. This makes us struggle to maintain friendships that otherwise could last decades. But, for the most part, we do well with fun and constancy.

The deficiency is, rather, in our ability to be honest with each other and ourselves.

I’m not talking about courtroom honesty. When asked a question, we usually give a true answer. I’m referring to core-being honesty. Yes, we usually give true answers, but those answers are often curt and vague. “How are you?” “Fine.” ‘Fine’ as in I’m managing to stay alive. But I have a lot of issues I’m dealing with now. Still, don’t get involved. I’ll get through them just ‘fine’ on my own.

We don’t let people know about our personal struggles.

This is crippling the depth of our relationships. We can’t expect other people to truly know us if we don’t speak truthfully with them. To create a quality community, we must be honest to the others in the community and let them know where in our lives we are facing challenges, problems and sorrows. There is also a necessity for success stories, happy memories and excitement, but we tend to be more forthcoming with the parts of our lives that are going well, so I won’t spend much time on this side of the issue. Rather, we must work on telling other people about our struggles.

And we must listen to their responses.

Even when we don’t feel like listening, other people’s insight is valuable. It helps us grow. It helps us avoid making decisions we will likely later regret while we are in a bad situation. The trouble is truly listening to other people when our emotions are volatile. But we always benefit from listening to what other people have to say in response to our troubles, whether or not we act based on their words. And I mean listening well enough to clearly remember what they said well after they have said it.

Now, what does this have to do with discipline? Quite a bit. When we are in quality community, we can speak in the group about the things about which we are trying to be disciplined. This will allow the other people to hold us accountable to what we say we are doing. Then, when we struggle to maintain the discipline, when our training gets tough, we can tell our friends in the quality community about our struggles, and they can help us carry the burden. This is one way in which Galatians 6:2 comes to life. But both parties in the community must be honest and helpful with their words and actions.

Interestingly, what people in the church say to each other seems to be a serious issue to the apostle Paul, enough to mention it numerous times in the same letter. In Ephesians 4 Paul discusses some themes of “living a life worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called,” which is being disciples of Christ and children of God. He says we are to be “building up the body of Christ” (verse 12) when we interact with one another. Regarding speech, he writes that, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v. 15). Paul then explains that we are to live as a new creation in Christ rather than as the old creation that we were before Christ saved us. As a result of living as a new creation, Paul writes, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (v. 25).  Another change in our behavior due to the new life we have been given is that we should “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (v. 29). Then, in chapter 5, Paul writes, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving,” regarding the behavior of the “saints” (vv. 3-4). Instead of this, he says we should “[address] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (v. 19). This should come as a result of the Holy Spirit living in us, after we have taken Jesus to be our Savior and have received a new heart from God.

Speech is not the only part of our behavior that Paul says we should change, but due to how much attention he gives it, it seems important. And from my experience, we tend to be particularly damaging with our words–more so than our actions.

Now, specifically regarding discipline and quality community, I have some specific suggestions. First, sarcasm and insults have no place here. The least they do is to create a mood of cynicism and condescension, and the most they do is to permanently damage other people’s confidence. The children of God are all made new and are growing in Christ, and so we should treat each other accordingly. Instead of speaking in ways that potentially tear each other down, we should speak in ways that build each other up. If we criticize, let us do it with the intention of helping a person grow more mature in Christ. If we joke, let it be with the intention of helping the other person enjoy their life and the Lord more. And finally, whatever we say about another person’s discipline, if it is a good discipline, let us have the intention of helping them toward their goal.

Being in a quality community is a vital part of maintaining a discipline, as long as it is done well. And when quality community is done well, the discipline and the enjoyment of its fruit is likely to not just continue, but thrive.

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