We all want to belong. Life is hard and dangerous and lonely. We yearn for a safe place where we can feel connected. When we do realize that there is a force in life larger than us that cares for us we feel that we belong. Then we feel that something larger than us has come to us, sought us out, and has provided something for us that we couldn’t do ourselves. Sometimes in life, in order to feel like we belong, we join a variety of groups hoping to find our place. But the greatest sense of belonging, perhaps the only real sense of belonging, comes when we realize that this force larger than us has come and brought us into its warm center.
Our need to belong sometimes gets us in trouble. We find that in teenagers from time to time when they need the approval of someone or some group so badly that they begin to make choices that lead them astray. They may need affection so much that they become promiscuous. They may need to feel included so deeply that they consume alcohol or drugs in order to fit in. We try to teach our children about peer pressure and invite them not to rise and fall with their approval ratings but that lesson takes more than a few mistakes to learn.
Adults have issues with belonging too. So insecure are we with our own value that we may take on the identity of a group in order to feel more stable. To be part of something feels good and we tend to sell our souls to groups which give us a sense of inclusion. We react in horror when we learn of people joining a cult and totally losing themselves. But sometimes we are so lost that we allow groups to do our thinking for us and tell us what we believe. We divide the world into competing groups and do battle with our enemies. We come to define others by the groups they belong to and forget to look for the individual within the group. Maybe worse is when we only think of ourselves in terms of which group we belong to. The “liberal” and “conservative” name calling we are doing is symptomatic of our misplaced needs for belonging. “My” side becomes the only good side.
A big mistake we make in life, in our attempts to belong, is that we stake claims. We come to think of things as belonging to us when they really don’t. We do that a lot with family members and put pressure on them to be what we think we need them to be. We can view children as little people that belong to us and need to be what we need them to be. Rather than allowing them to blossom and grow in their own ways, we push them into things that will make us feel better about who we are. When our first child was born, our priest said, “Don’t hold her too tight. She doesn’t belong to you. She belongs to God.” A truth I haven’t always remembered.
Christians are famous for viewing their churches as things that belong to us rather than places we belong. The Church has been through a lot of changes in my lifetime. I’ve watched people resist every one of those changes and done my own share of resisting. Claiming a church as “my church” can mean that we feel a sense of belonging but it can also mean that we look at it as something that should only do what I think it should do. When I was a very young priest, a parishioner told me: “This is my church. I was here before you came and I’ll be here after you leave.” Parishioners may forget that the church is God’s, not theirs. Priests, by the way, can make the same mistake. The church doesn’t belong to us. We belong to the church. It is here to teach us and guide us, comfort us and challenge us, give us a sense of home and send us out to serve others. When I view the church only as “mine” I am not open to what it can teach me.
We have done the same thing with creation. When we think of the earth and its resources as things which belong to us, we justify our wastefulness and mistreatment of creation. Shifting the focus to creation as something we belong to brings a different perspective. We can then see creation as something we should care for and respect.
People of faith have seen God as something that belongs to us. We have thought that God is just a bigger form of us. We have thought that God acts like us. We have looked at others in the world as less important than us, or even evil, and assumed God agrees with our assessment. When I assume God thinks like me, I am acting like God belongs to me.
Jesus comes to show us that we belong to God. Jesus is the statement by God that all of creation belongs to him and that God cares for all manner of life. We belong to God, not God to us. We belong to life, not life to us. The more we know that we belong, the less harm we do, and the more loving we become.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.