Alcoholics are often considered the life of the party. They are usually loud, sometimes obnoxious. They are silly, goofy, funny. They are the center of attention. Occasionally, you might get upset with them because you think they are just too much, but more often than not, people kind of laugh and chuckle and say things like, “That’s just Paul being Paul.”
But as weird as it sounds, most of those attention-grabbing, life of the party alcoholics are overwhelmed with an incredible feeling of loneliness. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that most addicts of any kind are people who feel incredibly lonely. A lot of addictive behavior grows out of the pain of isolation.
We don’t always get that. We think, since they are drawing so much attention, that they are comfortable. That they are good. But consider how this plays out:
Alcoholics and drug addicts are able to use their substance to overcome social anxiety and fit in.
People who self-harm are able to relieve their stress and hide their physical scars so they go out and be among people.
Those who are addicted to athletic performance can hit the gym or run a few miles or flex their muscles and rest on their on-the-field accomplishments to garner well-wishes from people they want to be around.
Students overly focused on grades are able to point to their class rank and say, “See? You need to be friends with me so I can help you succeed, too.”
Whatever it is we may be addicted to, it is often because we are covering up the pain we feel.
For years, I gave in to that temptation. People have often asked me why I drank so much. The answer is actually rather simple: there was too much noise in my head and alcohol shut it up. Of course, the more I drank, the worse the noise got (after sobering up). The guilt I felt made the noise even louder, so I had to drink more to quiet the noise which made me feel guiltier which led to…
You are all going through your daily lives with people who are living out that cycle.
And I dare say you are all going to church with people who are living it.
And what do those who are living out that cycle do? We try to fit in. We try to look good. We try to hide the hurt and the pain so that everyone will accept us. We want so badly to belong, but we are settling for fitting in.
Fitting in means we try to make ourselves according to thoughts and whims of others. Belonging means we are who we are.
Fitting in means we take the path of least resistance; we do what is easy to fit in or to be accepted. Belonging means we are true to who we are and we look out for others, even if it may cost us.
Fitting in means we take part in laughing at others or putting others down so that we don’t upset our friends. Belonging means we interrupt the laughter and mocking and say, “Let’s pray for this person, instead.” Or belonging might say, “Why are you making fun of them? Don’t you know I struggle in the same way?”
Fitting in means we participate in locker room talk, dirty jokes, sexually inappropriate language. Belonging means we comfort and befriend those who are put down. It means we uphold the value of men and women and don’t degrade them to nothing more than their sexual parts.
Fitting in means we retweet and share or like insults and vulgar statements, because after all, we’re just clicking it, it’s not like we actually typed it, right? Belonging means we stand up for the value of all humanity.
Fitting in means we show up for worship and attend classes and say all the right words when we are together. Belonging means we are vulnerable and we open up and truly share who we are with others. It means we create safe spaces for others to do the same.
We all have this desire. We want to be accepted. Now that looks different for each person. The ways we comfortably interact with groups changes depending on how we are made up. But that connection, that belonging, I believe it is something that is innate in all of us.
But desire is a dangerous thing. Because when we feel desire, when we feel that longing, we want to satisfy it. I had a desire to shut up the noise inside my head. I have had a desire in the past to fit in with the larger group so I would laugh at instead of stand up for.
Desire can lead us to want a close relationship with another person. If we don’t get that relationship, desire will often lead us to looking for intimacy in a bottle, or a needle, or a computer, or random people whose names we never know.
We need to be careful with desire. We need to learn how to direct that desire towards belonging, not just fitting in.
When I shared these lessons with the high school students this summer, some of the high school students also spoke. Jackson talked about this topic. He pointed out something that was a real shame. A lot of young people have a desire to belong. And they are finding it in gangs instead of churches.
Can I point out how convicting it was to hear an 18 year old call out the church for not doing as good a job as gangs do? We need to be creating places where people who desire to belong are welcome. We do that by being people who desire to belong by being open and vulnerable and loving with one another.
Consider this story in Galatians 2:9-14:
9When James, Cephas (whom you know as Peter), and John—three men purported to
be pillars among the Jewish believers—saw that God’s favor was upon me to fulfill this
calling, they welcomed and endorsed both Barnabas and me. They agreed that our ministries
would work as two hands, theirs advancing the mission of God among the Jews and
ours toward the outsider nations, all with the same message of redemption. 10In parting,
they requested we always remember to care for the poor among us, which was something
I was eager to do.
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, there was a problem. I got in his face and
exposed him in front of everyone. He was clearly wrong. 12Here’s what was going on:
before certain people from James arrived, Cephas used to share meals with the Gentile
outsiders. And then, after they showed up, Cephas suddenly became aloof and distanced
himself from the outsiders because he was afraid of those believers who thought circumcision
was necessary. 13The rest of the Jewish believers followed his lead, including Barnabas! Their
hypocritical behavior was so obvious—14their actions were not at all consistent with everything
the good news of our Lord represents. So I approached Cephas and told him in
plain sight of everyone: “If you, a Jew, have lived like the Gentile outsiders and not like
the Jews, then how can you turn around and urge the outsiders to start living like Jews?”
Peter wanted to fit in. So when he was with Gentiles, on his own, things were great. But when some Jews showed up who were more concerned with one particular act than with relationship with Jesus, Peter (who was a Jew) started fitting in with the Jews. He turned his back on the Gentiles because he was afraid the Jews would not accept him.
Peter chose fitting in over belonging. It’s addictive to fit in. Because it’s easy. Because it hides our own pain or shortcomings. Because we don’t think we have to work as hard to just fit in.
But my prayer for all of us is that we have a desire to belong. That means I can be open with you without fear or you turning your back on me. That means you can come to me with anything that is weighing you down. Belonging means you have someone to celebrate with you AND someone to cry with you. Belonging means that there will be times that no words need to be shared—you can just sit next to somebody in silence and it will be good.
Take that desire you feel and learn how to belong. The first step: greet people. Get to know their names. The second step: be willing to be open. Be that person we talked about last week: be the “me, too.”
Let us be people who belong.