Shalom is commonly understood to mean “peace” or “health” or “prosperity.” It carries within it the idea of “completeness.” Neil Plantinga writes that the word “shalom” is “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight.” Shalom is the vision of community; it is what community strives to be.
It reminds me of something I once read about Mother Teresa. When asked how she could give so much of herself to the poor, she would always say that when she looked at them, she saw Jesus in a distressing disguise. That is the heart of authentic community; being Jesus to others, and seeing Jesus in others. If we’re married, we are interacting with our spouse as if unto Him. If we’re a child, we’re obeying as if unto Him. If an employee, we’re working as if we’re working for Him. And the reverse is true: we’re parenting as if we’re parenting for Him; we’re leading others as if we’re leading for Him.
It’s a radical idea.
Even more radical is what such shalom is built on. Namely, grace. Grace, at its heart, is getting what you don't deserve, and not getting what you do. Grace is the essence of any successful relationship. Grace toward other people’s differences. Grace applied toward other people’s weaknesses. Grace applied toward other people’s sins.
And that is quite the challenge. Not that we don’t like grace – we do. Not that we don’t want to experience grace – we do. It’s just that we are better at receiving it than giving it. But it is precisely the giving of grace that allows us to work through the relational stages that afford community.
You know the stages. You’ve lived with them your whole life.
The first stage is usually some kind of general attraction. Not many people instantly hit you wrong. Usually there is something there that’s likable, or at least you’re openly neutral. So stage one is extending a general welcome to the relationship.
But you know what that stage is almost always followed by?
You start off by viewing someone from a relational distance. All you have are short, quick, interactions that haven’t been subjected to the test of time. But once you get to know someone beyond that level, you start to see their dark side. And they will have a dark side. They will have weaknesses. Differences. Sins. Now here’s our tendency – to let the second stage of disappointment be the defining stage in your relationship with someone. Sometimes it’s called for. When you find out that someone’s dark side is too strong to deal with, or you realize you’ve got an unsafe person on your hands; or that what you thought was chemistry turns out to be an allergy, then it’s okay to let this stage be a wake-up call.
But a lot of the time, the differences that we often let end the relationship are trivial and we just don’t extend the grace or maturity to let the relationship go through the necessary – yes, inevitable – disappointment stage. But if you don’t work through it, you will never move on to the third stage, which is where real community begins to take place.
And that third stage is acceptance.
This is when you work through the disappointments, you do the labor of extending grace and understanding, and from that allow yourself to come to a healthy understanding of someone's strengths and weaknesses. Then you accept them on those terms. The Bible specifically challenges us on this. In the book of Romans, it says: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Romans 15:7, NIV). If you're not able to do this, you will never have meaningful relationships in your life.
If you are unable or unwilling to move into the stage of acceptance, then you will be a very lonely and isolated person. No human on earth is free of things that might disappoint you. If you don’t believe this, you’ll just go from person to person, relationship to relationship, and never have any of them move into real community. But if you’ll journey through the second stage and into the third, then you can move into the fourth stage – which is appreciation. This is getting back to what you found attractive about the person to begin with, and enjoying all that is good and wonderful about them. It’s almost like a return to the first stage, but with wisdom and insight. If the first stage is like a first date, the fourth stage is like seeing a couple having their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and you see the look in their eyes toward each other – the deep, mature sense of love they share.
And it’s a beautiful thing.
Is there anything more? Yes. Intimacy; a fifth stage where you can love and be loved, serve and be served, celebrate and be celebrated, and know and be known.
So do you see how the work of commitment is key?
Too many of us have a brightly illuminated “EXIT” sign over every relationship in our life – where we work, where we live, where we go to church, even in our marriages. As long as we hang that sign over the door of our community life, we won’t do the work of commitment that is needed to experience the community we long for. The secret of the best friendships, the best marriages, the best job situations and churches and neighborhoods, is that they’ve taken down the exit signs. And when there is no exit sign, you have one and only one choice: do whatever it takes for the relationship to flourish.
I recently read of a family who brought home a 12-year-old boy named Roger whose parents had died of a drug overdose. There was no one to care for him, so the parents of this family decided they would raise him as if he were one of their own sons. At first, it was difficult for Roger. This was the first environment he had ever lived in that was free of heroin-addicted adults. As a result of the culture-shock, every day – and several times during the day – either Roger’s new mom or dad would say, “No, Roger, that’s not how we behave in this family.” Or “No, Roger, you don’t have to scream or fight or hurt other people to get what you want.” Or “Roger, we expect you to show respect in this family.”
In time, Roger began to change.
For so many of us, community – particularly the new community that the Bible calls us to – demands new behavior. The death of old practices, and the birth of new ones. We’re like the boy, adopted into a new family, needing to re-learn how to interact with people.
But here’s the good news: when we hear the Holy Spirit say to us, “No, that’s not how we act in this family,” we can say, “You’re right. It’s not.”
And change. And begin to have the relationships with others we want as part of the new community God desires for us to experience.
James Emery White
James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity).
Neil Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin.
“How God’s Children Change,” PreachingToday.com, cited from Craig Barnes from sermon, “The Blessed Trinity,” May 30, 1999.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.