The Dark Side of Community

(This is an old post from 2008)

Mama always said, “It is better to give than receive.” This quip usually surfaced around Christmas time in order to lower my full-tilt frenzy, thinking of all the toys I hoped to get. Or when I was going to a birthday party and had to buy some other kid the toy I wanted! “It is better to give, than receive,” she said, but is it really?

Is there something nobler about always being the giver and never being the receiver? What happens when all we do is give, give, give? Is it possible to work cross-purposes against the kingdom of God by always being a giver?

One of the hottest buzzwords in the culture today is “community.” Everyone from grocery stores to churches want to foster a sense of community, want to give back to the community or want to be a community. One company’s has a core value to make its stores into “community meeting places where our customers meet their friends and make new ones.” Similarly, my worship community (at the time) holds community high because, “Christianity calls us out of individualism and towards a life focused on the well-being of others.”

However, there is a dark side to community. Oh sure, we may be willing, in the name of Jesus and for the sake of love, to have our lives complicated and disrupted by others in order to promote community. But are we willing to allow our lives to frustrate and intrude into lives of others?

In order to push past the common and superficial understanding of community, where it is better to give than to receive, we must strive for deep community. By this I mean true community, reciprocal community, mutual community is a two way street. Those who wish to share in a deep sense of community must give and take. Or to flip the pancake over, community members must give and allows others to give to them.

Giving without receiving is a power trip. Giving without receiving does not allow others into our need and ache. Giving without receiving deprives others of the joy of serving us. Giving without receiving does not require trust, humility or vulnerability.

In my life I have been able to give and receive within community. And trust me it is easier, requires less and is more emotionally gratifying to help others than it is to be helped.

One time we moved from one state to another. Even though we only moved 15 miles we still needed to go through the hassle of packing, unpacking and bribing our friends with Subway, chips and copious amounts of Mountain Dew in order to help.

One of our friends, we will call him “Brian” because that’s his name, showed up for the unload. He could only stay a short while since our church was having a community dinner that evening and he and his family were planning on attending.

After driving back across town to go home, he started cooking food to take to the dinner. Not long before he left for the dinner he received a phone call from someone informing him we still needed help unloading the truck since most of our help left, heading to the same community dinner he was.

When Brian heard we needed help, he called and told me he was going to come back to help us finish. I told him we would be fine and he did not need to come back. This was a lie because we were dog-tired. I told him we didn’t have that much left to unload, which was another lie since we still had about a third of the truck to unload. I told him I didn’t want him to miss the community dinner (which was true) but we needed the help.

The real reason I did not want Brian to come back was I did not want to appear weak or needy. I don’t like being the one to complicate and interrupt the lives and plans of others. I pride myself on helping others and not being the one helped. I am stubbornly independent to a fault.

I was truly sorry he was going to miss the community dinner and I told him so. His response was, “I am going to have a community dinner, it is just that the community is going to be smaller than I thought.”

With Brian’s help we got everything unload. He even rode with me to drop off the rental truck. It turned out to be a great time of helping, talking and discussing theology, of all things, ending about 10:30pm. It was an even better example of Jesus’ love and deep community.

I can only guess how late I would have been up unloading the truck if he had not come back. I don’t even want to think about what might had been broken as finishing became a higher priority than being careful with valuables.

Spiritually speaking, I can only wonder what my life would have been like if I would have had the same feeling towards Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and redemption as I did to my Brian’s offer of help. “Oh, you don’t need to die for me,” I would say. “I’m not that important.” I would with false humility explain, “My sin is not that big of a burden, I can figure some way of shouldering the load. Please do not inconvenience yourself on my account.” This kind of thinking is as silly as it sounds.

Usually the problem is getting people to part with their hard-earned money or their ever-evaporating time instead of dialing down their ego in order to accept help. Somehow – is it due to rugged individualism or the church making a saintly characteristic out of something that isn’t? — we think accepting help is a sign of weakness and that spiritual maturity is displayed in false humility. Somewhere we have picked up that, yes it is more dignified and holy to give than receive.

Full-bodied, authentic, give-and-take community is scary, sometimes painful and awkward, and other times beautiful and gracious. But, in reality, the kind of community that only gives and never receives is not really community at all; just a cheap imitation.


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