Lesson 8: Loving Your Community Means You Have to Stop Using It

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” --John F. Kennedy

“Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt whatever situation you believe to be the will of God.” --Jim Elliot

I Love New York?

“I’m here for the party on the roof,” I told the doorman as I walked into the towering Manhattan apartment building. I was new to New York and had been invited to a friend of a friend’s rooftop birthday party. I took the elevator to the 42nd floor, and as I walked out onto the roof I was looking eye to eye with the Empire State Building. “Wow,” I said to myself as the party kicked off, “what a life!” That night as I left party, I silently exhaled that classic phrase, “I love New York.”

Few things are as ingrained in New York City as much as the slogan “I love New York.” It’s become more than just an ad campaign, but a phrase that encapsulates the feelings of awe that only a place like New York could create. It slips out during those sunny days and sparkling nights, when your dreams and desires magically fall into place.  

But the longer I lived here, I realized something was off. One night I would love New York, and couldn’t envision a better place to live. When I was happy, everything was great. But when things were hard, uncomfortable, or expensive, I started to think of any way to move somewhere else. Eventually, I began to understand that I didn’t really love New York, I was just using it to make me feel a certain way.  

Our Culture’s View Towards Community  

My attitude towards New York City wasn’t an accident, but a byproduct of cultural changes over the last seventy years. Starting in the 1950s, as the United States became more and more suburban, our society’s view towards community changed. Previously, people spent all of their time in one community, creating strong networks built on reciprocal sacrifice, since people knew if they helped others now, those people would help them in the future. But as the car became more prevalent, this culture slowly passed away.

In America's new suburban society, people stopped going to to work, school, and church in the same community that they lived, but instead drove past thousand of strangers every day to live isolated parts of their lives in other communities. This changed everything. People went from being a part of one community with strong overlapping ties, to participating in many distinct communities, which led to lots of individual weak ties. This change weakened communities, as it created a more anonymous lifestyle, which reduced the incentive for people to invest in the reciprocal communal bonds required to build strong communities. 

Over time, this switch altered how all of us view community. Due to the limited mobility of pre-World War II America, people were forced to focused on the public good of their local community, since their futures were intertwined. But as people utilized the mobility created by the car, they were now able to pick and choose from individual aspects of different communities. They could live here, work there, go to church somewhere else, and then do all of their shopping in yet another community. As a result, a new culture emerged, one that emphasized the private good over the public good.

A Contract With Your Community

Now that people could choose communities based on what they could offer to them, it produced a culture that prioritized your own personal good. People weren’t forced to invest in one community for the public good, but instead became consumers of multiple communities, looking for ways to maximize their own personal good. Instead of asking what they could do to help the community succeed, people now ask how the communities around them can help them succeed.

We've all soaked up this attitude in our current culture. Today, few young people commit to the success of a place, instead, prioritizing to the success of themselves. This causes us to use places interchangeably, always looking for a community that could give us more of what we want out of life. This creates an unspoken contract with our communities that is at the foundation of the “I love New York” mentality. The contract goes like this: I’ll stay in this community as long as it give me what I want, but if and when it doesn’t, I will move on to another community that'll give me more of what I want.  

In this mindset, when we say "I love New York" we're not declaring our desire to sacrifice and serve the city, but instead that we love the way New York makes us feel. It’s just another form of self-love. This subconscious contract explains the hot and cold relationship that so many people have with the place they live. We are constantly judging our community (I hate crowded subways and cold winters), wondering if there is another community that could give us more while asking for less from us (maybe I should move to Austin or LA?). That’s a major reason why people in cities like New York are always moving. After a few years they find a community somewhere else that potentially offers them more.

The Idolatry of the Community Contract

The goal of contract with your community is always to get more of the things we idolize. Idols are good things that turn bad when we try to make them ultimate things. An unspoken contract is attractive, since it gives you a feeling of control over your life to get what you really want. Living in one sustained community is hard, and the contract helps us to justify our desire to avoid anything that's uncomfortable. In my experiences, every person in the contract mindset wants one of two idols from their community, either success or comfort. 

Success: these people don’t mind being less comfortable as long as they are successful. These people main goal in life is to achieve, and to get the accompanying status and prestige. They’ll move to a global city or a foreign country, willing to sacrifice comfort and safety to reach their dreams. Their worst nightmare is a quiet life in an obscure small town.  

Comfort: these people don’t mind being less successful as long as they are comfortable. They want material and physical comfort, but usually also want safety and comfort from people and ideas who are different from them. These people often live in the suburbs or small towns, since they are willing to make less money and have less prestige in order to feel safe and secure. Their worst nightmare is living in a tiny apartment in a dirty, crowded city.

Neither success or comfort are bad, but when either one becomes an ultimate thing, we use our community to make sure we get it. And if our community can’t provide it to the level we want, we either leave or live in fearful anxiety. “What if I stay here and never achieve?” says the person idolizing success. “What if I stay here and my kids aren’t safe?” says the person idolizing comfort. In this mindset our idols are the most important thing to us, even more so than God. 

God Wants Us to Stop Using Our Communities

God makes it clear in the book of Proverbs how much he hates when we choose communities based on what they offer us. Throughout Proverbs God shows his vision for a healthy community by contrasting the actions of two recurring groups, the righteous and the wicked. Here’s one of these comparisons:

When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness. By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown. Proverbs 11:10-11

To English speakers, righteous and wicked are distant words difficult to fully understand. But in the original Hebrew, these two words have more depth of meaning than comes across in English. Here are one scholar’s definition of how Proverb's uses these two words:

Wicked Person: someone who disadvantages the community for his own benefit.

Righteous Person: someone who disadvantages himself for the benefit of his community.

These definitions show how your subconscious contract with where you live violates God's design for health communities. The wicked might appear successful, but as they disadvantage others for their own glory, they leave a trail of poverty, injustice, and abuse of the poor. God calls this behavior wickedness, and shows throughout Proverbs how this attitude causes much of the suffering we see in our communities. So, if you want to see change in your community, you need to stop using it, and instead love it so much that you will disadvantage yourself for the good of the people around you.

How Do You Love Your Community? 

So how can you live to this impossible standard? None of us love our community the way we should, but God provides an answer in Jesus Christ, the ultimate Righteous one that Proverbs points to. Jesus lived the perfect life towards his community that we could never live. He lived an obscure life in a small town, never yearning for the success and prestige of the big city. Later, he moved to the big city, not put off by it’s danger, crowdedness, or undesirable people. That danger ultimately led to Jesus’ crucifixion, his giving of his life for his community.

Jesus’ death on the cross showed how we should sacrificially love our neighbor, but also took the punishment from us for how we don’t. When Jesus’ community had deserted him leading up to the cross he didn’t say, “I’m not getting anything out of this, so I’m leaving,” but instead kept loving us. And as he slowly died the torturous death of the cross, he didn’t look out at his fleeing community and say, “This is getting uncomfortable, so I think I’m out.” Instead, he stayed, because he loved the people that he came to save. As you experience the Christ’s love for you, let it melt your heart to love your community, even with its many difficulties. 

Let God Show You Your Community 

So this leads us to the question, how should you choose where to live? One important thing to remember is that Jesus didn't go out of his way looking for pain and suffering, but only sought to obey God's will. Leading up to the cross, Jesus tells God, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” This is important to realize, as many people think that following God means moving to the most dangerous or exotic place that you can. 

Your role in God's kingdom is not to live a wild or flashy life, but is to obey, like Jesus, God's will for you. God calls you to renounce your predisposition towards either success, comfort, or both, and invites you to follow his plan for your life. When you’re following God’s will for your life, it doesn’t matter if you live in a crowded city, sprawling suburb, or tiny town, since God wants you there to love and serve your community.

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” --Jeremiah 29:7

Lesson 7: A Thirst For More Will Always Leave You Thirsty

Lesson 6: Your Limits Lead You to God

Lesson 5: Relationships Are By Grace Alone