Do you feel like a stranger in the very places that are meant to provide safe havens of familiarity, belonging, and friendship?
A few weeks ago a somewhat transient-looking man stood up in the middle of the worship service I attend. My attention wandered as he told a lengthy, meandering story (I’m not clear on the details, but I think it had something to do with evil land developers, a member of congress, and a crusade to save a small paper mill on the East Coast…). But then he said something that woke me up:
“I’m not a member of this church, but I am a member of God’s family.”
In those few words, he described the core longing we’ve all felt: We yearn to belong.
Fitting-In vs. Belonging
We’re born with an inextinguishable need to belong. When you belong, you can freely show up as your authentic self, imperfections included. In communities and relationships where you belong, you feel a deep sense that you’re not only acceptable, but that you’re cherished. When you belong, others stand ready to embrace, love, learn from, and enjoy you—not only for the ways that you’re similar, but also for your otherness.
Belonging is incredibly different from “fitting in.” Where belonging encourages authenticity, space, and freedom, fitting in implies having to conceal or constrain the expression of who you really are or how you truly feel about and see the world. Referencing this wisdom from a 12 year old, Brené Brown sums up the difference between belonging and fitting: “If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, it’s fitting in.”
We can all get caught in the trap of trying to fit in when what we really long for is belonging. Trying to fit in is a desperate, losing game of seeking approval by forcing yourself into the roles, attitudes, and appearances thrust upon you by others’ expectations and judgements. Even if you manage to hammer and contort yourself into those awkward shapes, it comes at a terrible cost: the beautiful, unique contours of your soul were never meant to fit into a tiny box. As an unrepeatable child of the Divine with eternal possibilities, your soul needs a wide expanse where it can unfold, change, and grow.
Belonging Matters More in Some Places Than Others
We don’t need to belong everywhere. When you can’t find a sense of belonging in communities or relationships that don’t matter much to you, leaving (or just not joining) is an obvious and easy choice.
But in places or relationships that do matter, belonging is indispensable. Feeling like an outsider in your own church, marriage, family, or any community or relationship that you cherish isn’t just ironic; it’s devastating. We rightfully look to those places for connection, meaning, and identity. But when authentic belonging remains perpetually out of reach in a relationship or a community that you value, you’re left with pretty painful options: leaving or pretending.
A Raft of Divine Love
Most of us have felt the painful ache of not belonging. Notwithstanding being an active member of my church, I’ve often felt the loneliness of being a foreigner there. Although I’ve had some very encouraging experiences recently, I don’t know if I’ll always belong there, that there will always be a place in the church for my authentic self. I hope there will.
Whatever happens, I can take heart in what that man reminded me of during church several weeks ago:
I’ll always belong to God.
Knowing that I truly belong to God means I have a place within the Divine plan. If God loves me so deeply, and if I truly am His (and Her) child, then whatever others think of me doesn’t matter so much, even if it hurts. If I belong to God, then His love provides a shelter of acceptance from the storms of judgement from anyone who isn’t God—including myself. Knowing that I belong to God creates a raft of self-acceptance and Divine love that can carry me to wherever I need to go.
Some people might fear that this approach encourages laziness, promotes selfishness or hedonism, and generally points people toward hell. I say that’s nonsense.
I can only tell you what’s really happening in my heart as I experience God’s love and my belonging to Him. I feel encouraged to grow personally, and I’m finding more hope to work through the painful difficulties in my relationship with the church. Accepting my belonging with God guards me against despair, and promotes feelings of patience toward others, the church, and with myself. Feeling God’s delight in me fills me with hope and love, and invites me to reach out in compassion. Rooting myself in my identity as God’s creation reminds me that all of us are connected: we all share the heritage of the daughters and sons of God.
You belong to the Divine too.
You are a member of God’s family. No one can ever, ever take that identity and belonging away from you. It’s inborn.
You are so intimately known. God hasn’t missed a single moment of your life, and He lovingly watches over you still. You are so deeply loved. You are not a mystery to Him, even if you are a mystery at times to yourself. He is no stranger to how it feels to be left-out and alone. He’s experienced those things too. And compassion is His primary response to all those things that make you feel like an outsider—mistakes, sins, differences, quirks, whatever. He just loves you, and wants to create a raft of divine love, belonging, and acceptance that will carry you into the promise of your own divine potential.
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