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There’s an impulse in the human heart that makes us want to belong, to be on the inside. We want to be justified in our own eyes and in the eyes of others.  When it comes down to it we crave acceptance, don’t we? There’s just about nothing we enjoy more than the value and significance that comes from being welcomed by others. This desire for acceptance exists within every person. It’s part of the “make-up” of being human.

It’s also what C.S. Lewis called the desire for the Inner Ring. The way this desire plays out is that we identify a group or individual within a community of people and say to ourselves, “If I could only make it into the good graces of that group or person then I will feel like I belong. Then I won’t be a bum. I will feel better about my life because I will be able to look at those on the outside, and relish in the fact that I’m in and they’re not.” Lewis claimed that one of the most dominant drives in life is to be on the inside of the Ring. We feel pleasure when we get inside, but great anguish when we’re excluded. We base our identity, our very lives, on whether we’re in or not.

I’m not saying that the desire for acceptance is bad in itself. What I’m saying is that it’s bad when our value and worth depend on our acceptance by others. Because here’s the thing: “The quest for the Inner Ring,” writes C.S. Lewis, “will break your heart unless you break it.” He explains why:

The Ring cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic. Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends.

Lewis is saying that soon after entering the Inner Ring we grow bored. It doesn’t satisfy us or serve our identity after a while. There comes a time when we’re rejected, or when the elation of acceptance wears off and we’re forced to move on and identify a new Inner Ring. This goes on and on. We’re never ultimately fulfilled. The real acceptance and belonging we’re after is elusive. We think we’ve found it each time, only to be disappointed in the end. When acceptance by others is a driving motivation in life we become enslaved and distorted.  We do whatever it takes to gain that acceptance even though it never delivers on what it appears to promise. When we experience rejection we’re inflicted with deep wounds that linger and shape our lives dramatically.

Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, contains a parable called The Gatekeeper in which a man from the country comes before a gatekeeper requesting to be admitted before the “law.” The gatekeeper denies access, but implies that admission might be granted later. The man is tantalized since he can peer through the gateway into the interior whenever the gatekeeper steps to the side. He wants so badly to know what’s on the other side. The gatekeeper assures him, however, that unless permission is granted by him there’s no way in.

The man is given a stool upon which he waits and waits, and waits for years. He persistently requests access, only to be denied. Over time, he gives his possessions away, attempting to entice the gatekeeper to change his mind. The gatekeeper gladly accepts the bribes, but refuses entrance. Early in the process the man from the country curses his luck, openly and loudly. Later in life he simply becomes bitter and grumbles to himself. As an old man, he is but a child, unable to think about anything other then entering into the presence of the “law.” Darkness surrounds him in his later years, and in his darkness he see’s a light radiating from the gateway of the law. He’s grown obsessed. He must get inside. Time is running out. Before his death, unable to move, he gathers himself enough to formulate one final question. He wants to know why, if everyone strives to reach the law, is he the only one who begged for admittance all these years? The parable concludes with the reply of the gatekeeper: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. And now, I am going to shut it.”

Wow, those existentialists were real uppers, huh? Avoid reading Kafka when you’re depressed – or happy for that matter. There is something powerful, however, about Kafka’s parable. He captures the desire within every person to be on the inside, to be welcomed and invited in. Kafka’s parable, as do our feeble efforts to be welcomed and accepted, ends disappointingly. Kafka’s saying that the ultimate welcome and invitation we’re after is elusive. It’s unattainable. It doesn’t exist.

But what if it does? What if our striving for acceptance points to our need for welcome and acceptance on a cosmic level? What if our chasing after the Inner Rings of life, and their inability to provide ultimate security, is meant to show us that what we’re really after is God’s welcome. Lewis is able to get at how the drive for the Inner Ring is broken: “Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an ousider you will remain.” The good news of what God has done for in Jesus Christ uniquely addresses this fear. The biblical story tells us that we find acceptance with God, not based on who we are or what we do, but on who Jesus is and what he’s done. Therefore, as we lean on Jesus and entrust ourselves to him, our identity is firmly rooted. We have been reconciled to God through Christ and have no reason to chase after the acceptance of others because we have been embraced by God. In the ultimate sense, we are no longer outsiders. We belong. Philip Yancey talks about how sociologists have a theory of the looking-glass self. The idea is that you become what the most important person in your life thinks you are. What if we really believed that God has accepted us in Christ? How would that change the way we live? How would that change the amount of power we allow others to have over us? Acceptance by God through Jesus has the power to drive out our fear of being an outsider. Jesus became an outsider for us so that we don’t have to. God looks at us in all our guilt, shame, and woundedness and yet still embraces in Christ. We are known intimately (a scary thought) yet still belong.

C.S. Lewis writes in his essay The Weight of Glory:

Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

The good news of the Christian faith is that we have been summoned inside by God himself. We are treated with glory and honor and given all the value and significane we need. Can you actually believe this? Do you believe it?

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In chapter two, “How Could A Good God Allow Suffering?” Keller claims that just because you can’t discern a good reason why God might allow suffering doesn’t mean there isn’t one. He argues that the problem of suffering is a problem for both believers and nonbelievers alike, but perhaps an even greater problem for nobelievers. He cites the example of C.S. Lewis. Lewis initially rejected the idea of God because of the injustice and suffering in the world. Eventually though, he realized his response to suffering actually provided a better explanation for God’s existence. After all, where was he getting his idea of what is just and unjust? Why the instinctual response to suffering? How can one know a line is crooked without a concept of a straight line? Lewis’ reaction against the presence of evil and suffering in the world proved too problematic for his atheism. Keller, therefore, argues that the nonbeliever doesn’t have a good basis for being outraged at injustice. Recognizing what is wrong or unjust in the world implies that there is standard – one that must be supernatural since natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak.

What Keller is ultimately getting at is that the problem of evil and suffering is a problem for everyone – theists and atheists alike. He then argues that while Christianity doesn’t provide exact reasons for every experience of pain, it does provide deep resources for facing suffering with hope. One thing Christians know for sure is that the reason we experience pain and suffering is not that God doesn’t love us, or that he is in some way detached and distant from the human plight. Christianity tells us that God actually came into the world to take our misery and suffering on himself at the cross. Furthermore, the resurrection of Christ points to the eventual restoration of all things when the earth will be healed and repaired and all suffering will be undone, making the glory and joy even greater.

The relationship between suffering and belief in God is intensely personal for me as a few years ago in seminary my faith was severely tested as I wrestled through this topic both personally and intellectually. I eventually came to the same conclusions Keller does in this chapter by praying, reading, and talking with others. My faith was restored as I drank deeply from the resources of the Christian gospel. If you’re interested in checking out some of C.S. Lewis’ stuff on suffering I recommend The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. Other books I found helpful were Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft and Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be by Cornelius Plantigna.

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“I think it’s because people need to get together.”

This was the explanation given by someone in a local newspaper as to why the crowds grow larger each year at the annual Italian Festival here in Wilmington. It makes sense, doesn’t it? People get together because they need to get together. Living in isolation from others has never been viewed as ideal by most. Someone who is lonely or alienated from others is typically someone we feel sorry for. We humans have always valued being together. We’ve always needed to be part of community somewhere. But why? Why do people need to get together? Is it because we have been conditioned by our environment to live in community with others? Are we simply living out what we have been trained to do all our lives?

I don’t find these explanations very satisfying. My personal need for community runs deeper than what a purely naturalistic explanation can account for. There seems to be an ache or yearning in my inner person to be connected to others. I have an inbuilt desire to do life with others. As human beings, I believe we are compelled to share life together. Our longing to be together flows from our identity as humans. It is part and parcel to who we are.

The biblical drama makes sense of this. We learn in the first act of the drama (Creation) in Genesis 1 that we were made by Community. This brings us in on a remarkable reality: God himself is a community of persons. He is three in one (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). This accounts for why Christians use theological lingo such as triune, trinity, trinitarian, etc. Don’t ask me to diagram or explain what God as three in one means with any sort of precision. The Bible just doesn’t go there. And we shouldn’t be surprised that there are truths about God that boggle our minds. In fact, I would be a bit skeptical if this wasn’t the case. It seems logical to me that since God is God, since He is bigger than us and distinct from us, there should be some mystery involved in knowing Him. The Bible avoids presenting the Trinity as some abstraction we are to figure out. What the biblical story is apparently trying to tell us is that we should devote less time to analysis and speculation and more time to experiencing and knowing the Trinity. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “the thing that matters most is being actually drawn into that three-personal life.”

Among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit there is an other focus – a constant giving of themselves as each person of the Trinity is out to make much of the others. The Trinity is a community of divine love and delight. This assures us that God did not create the world because he needed something, but rather because He wanted to share and spread the wealth. Think about your own life, for example. Have you ever experienced something so meaningful that the joy you felt was virtually uncontainable, compelling you to share it with someone else? This gives us insight into why God made the world. He wanted to bring us in on what He experienced. The creation of the world was an overflow of the Trinitarian community. God desired for us to experience that community through knowing Him and living with and for others.

We also discover in the first act of the drama that humans are made in the image of this triune God. Since God is a community of persons, it would follow that one significant way we image Him is by being in community ourselves. We can’t help but to gravitate towards others because we were made by Community for community. Our “being together” is a reflection of our being made in the image of God. We are inescapably community-oriented. This is why Adam by himself was not enough. God declared in Genesis 2, “It is not good for man to be alone.” So He made Eve to compliment Adam. We are made for relationship with others. It is in our DNA. This means I’m not myself by myself. I’m incomplete when I live independent of others. I need community to live a fully human life.

I believe the biblical story explains why we need to get together. We were made by Community for community. What do you think?

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