by Ann Scallorn, Resonate Moscow member
“What do you think you will accomplish over there? You don’t speak the language.”
“You are too young.”
“You’re headed to a region that is hostile to the gospel. It’s too dangerous.”
“You should leave this to the professionals.”
“There’s plenty to do right here at home.”
These were some of the reactions I received from people in my faith community when I was preparing to spend a summer on mission in Southeast Asia when I was in college nearly 20 years ago. Rejection from followers of Jesus was not something I had anticipated.
During the previous year, my college minister had challenged me to consider giving up just one summer to serve others in some ministry capacity. He saw within me a heart to serve and to engage people in spiritual conversations, and he wanted to see those ministry skills grow. I was quite resistant at first, mostly because I wanted to do my own thing during the summer. Once I finally let go and took his advice, I was ecstatic to share my plans with the rest of my own faith community, which spanned several individuals in my family and home churches growing up. I soon experienced a strong tension between those who supported me and those who did not. I did not know how to navigate the terrain of such complicated relationships in a community of people who loved Jesus. How do we handle well-meaning Christians who oppose God’s leading? Had my objectors been strangers or mere acquaintances, it would have been easier to brush this off, but they knew me well, and I loved them dearly. Going overseas meant I would potentially lose their approval and respect, two things I wanted so desperately. My decision also began to expose the reality that I wasn’t on the same track as many of the people who had considerable influence over my life.
There was one person, however, who sat me down and said, “I see what God is doing in you. You cannot allow other people to dictate your obedience to God. Sometimes following God means learning to stand alone and to own your own life.” I had a choice to make and I was the only one who could make that choice.
As I reflect back on this pivotal season of my life I can see three main areas of spiritual growth: Community (connection with others), Theology (connection with God), and Solitude (connection with my own inner life). If we are to address this question of what to do when our faith community rejects our obedience God, we need to address all three areas. This article is simply my story and what I’ve learned thus far in each area.
Solitude is a really old word with a rich heritage in Christian history. It’s not talked about much in many modern Christian circles, but our faith has countless examples of individuals who’ve experienced solitude before God. Their silence taught them how to speak, to live, to reemerge, and to serve others. Simply put, solitude means to be alone. Loneliness is the negative side, but stillness is the fruit of solitude with Jesus. I don’t have to extract myself from society to experience solitude, nor is this the goal. Solitude with Jesus leads us to a deeper engagement of his Spirit, which then produces a deeper engagement of those around us. Loneliness isolates and alienates, but solitude transforms and engages us in a deeper experiences of ourselves, our God, and others.
Solitude happens when I pray honestly, asking God to bring about truth in the innermost places of my heart and mind. It happens when I face myself as I truly am, not as I pretend to be. It happens when I take time to be alone with God (on a hike, on a personal retreat, early in the morning, etc.). It happens when I journal or meditate on scripture. Solitude exposes who I actually am, and Jesus gives me the means and the courage to face this truth, to set me free from its negative realities and to make me still, genuine, humble, and ultimately free in his Spirit.
Solitude in this season of rejection forced me to face a darkness in myself I’d rather not confront: I am such a people pleaser. I’m incredibly indecisive, afraid of failure, and terrified of looking like a fool. These things have often prevented me from forming deeper relationships with people, trying new things, and doing what is right. This darkness was paralyzing, and it had to die. I would never be “the big deal” to many of these people and the shameful truth is that my desire to be their hero was in direct conflict with following Jesus.
When I was younger, my focus was often what to do (whether or not to serve overseas) and how to deal with difficult people. Do I ignore them? How can I prove myself and my case to them? How can I set this person I disagree with straight? Solitude revealed my insecurity and my arrogance, and now 20 years later I’ve learned that there are better questions to ask. Questions that deal with God’s will for my life on a different level: Who is God in this situation? How do I love this person? How do I forgive this offense? How do I lead others into a deeper experience of God? Am I hearing what this person is actually saying or am I just reacting? Am I truly seeing this person? What is God already doing in this person’s life? How do I follow Jesus better? How do I love someone that I do not love? Thankfully the answer to almost all of these questions is found in Jesus and in the way he lived. They are by no means easy answers, but they are good. And they are true. And they bring life where there is none.
I thought that growing spiritually meant I would reach this point of being immune to rejection, that I would be so certain in my path that I’d be unmoved by harmful comments. While I have grown thicker skin over the years, this wasn’t always the case. It’s not like Jesus revealed truth to me and the sting of rejection completely evaporated. The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus is asking us to trust that there is life on the other side of any death we are called to die. The life on the other side of dying to myself is not a pain-free existence. It’s the power to emerge and live without resentment, apathy, and the weight of proving myself to people who have rejected me. It’s the power to forgive, and to continue loving. It is the power to continue being vulnerable with others and to reject the inner compulsions to shut down and hide. I am learning to no longer need applause, accomplishment, or the approval of others to experience life. I don’t need to prove myself or even set anyone straight. I know who I am, and I am free to exist entirely for something and someone else. I still have a long way to go and I fail often, but this is what I’ve gleaned thus far from solitude with Jesus.
When I was rejected by my community, it felt like a death and an abandonment. I felt alone even though I wasn’t. Solitude really overlaps here because many of the realities of Jesus’ experiences with rejection were illuminated for me in seasons of solitude with Jesus. There’s so much I want to say here, but this is a blog not a book. In short, Jesus knows rejection and abandonment on a level I never will. He claimed to be God and Messiah. He experienced rejection from his community on all fronts. According to Jewish law he died a blasphemer. According to Roman law he died a traitor and zealot (a potential threat and insurrectionist). And within the context of the Triune God, he died God-forsaken. Jesus dies the death of the blasphemer, the traitor, the God-forsaken. Jesus knows rejection on a level I can hardly comprehend and will never experience. The most beautiful thing about the gospel is this great exchange. God dies God-forsaken so that those who are forsaken in their sin can be transformed into vessels of God’s grace, of his very Spirit. The forsaken become the worshippers. The outsiders become the insiders.
I found myself in a place of rejection different from Jesus’ death and alienation on the cross. But because of what he has done, because of the great invitation he extends through his sacrifice, he can step into my lesser experience and speak with authority and truth. He experienced God-forsakenness so that even in my own seasons of abandonment I will never experience God-forsakenness. “Be content with what you have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).
Jesus’ kingdom is filled with transformed and rebirthed communities: transformed people invited into the ultimate community of God Himself. It’s as if Jesus extends a hand saying, “Come and die with me. There’s life on the other side.”
Dallas Willard once said that the realities of Jesus’ kingdom are made evident in the context of relationships, not mere rules. How do we navigate rejection? How do we love our enemies? How do we discern whether or not others in our church are misguided in their advice? In Christian circles we often talk about God’s will in terms of destination and accomplishment: What does he want me to accomplish? What is my purpose? What should I do about this situation? These are not bad questions to ask. However, when we look at the scriptures, God is equally concerned with who we are becoming along the way. At the end of my life will I look more like Jesus? Will I have learned how to love God and love others like Jesus did? Josh did a great job in the previous blog (resonate.net/blog/willofgod) unpacking this for us. Journey is everything. And how we journey together is critical.
As I continued to raise support for life overseas both that initial summer in college and the following two summers, I discovered something completely stunning about the church. Some of the very people who outright rejected my decision to go, later came to me and said things like, “I don’t understand you, but I’ll pray for you. And by the way, here’s a donation. I feel led to give financially to you.” This happened with not one or two but several of those people who initially rejected my decision to serve overseas. Even in our division, God was bringing us all together. God uses our obedience to not only create new communities but to transform old ones.
While I was overseas, I kept a journal and when I returned I spent hours typing up excerpts from my summer as a thank you to everyone who supported me, including those who rejected me. Several of them came to me and asked me to speak at their churches, asked me to share more stories, and even in the years following told me things like, “I decided to go on a short term trip overseas. I can’t speak the language, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I know God is leading me. Will you pray for me as I go?” “Hey, we read your journal and are now praying about how we can serve better.” “If you could do that, we’re asking what God might want to do with us.”
Three areas of growth for me on display here: community, theology, and solitude. All vital. All leading me into a deeper experience of Jesus.