The Way of Belonging: Reimagining Who We Are and How We Relate
By Sarah E. Westfall

Sarah E. Westfall wants us all to exhale. Individually, yes, but also with one another — a breath released, pretense going out the door with it. In Westfall’s new book, The Way of Belonging, she reminds readers they belong: to God and to one another. She encourages them to extend the same invitation to others, empathizing with the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. 

Westfall spoke with Common Good about first steps toward vulnerability, the differences between acceptance and belonging, and how grief can point us toward togetherness. 

Early in the book, you introduce the idea that perhaps the “very wounds we want to hide can help us find our way back to God and to each other.” How would you encourage someone who finds that idea scary or too vulnerable to take a first step?

For most of us who live within a Westernized culture, we have put a high value on independence and bravado, on bootstrapping ourselves to the top. And as a result, we often feel the need to hide our wounds and weaknesses. We think they will make us less human somehow. But the thing about being human is that we all carry aches of some sort, and the more we let a little weakness show, the more I think we will begin to exhale around one another.

And those first steps don’t have to be drastic. We can give each other the gift of gradualness when it comes to vulnerability and transparency. We don’t have to let our wounds hang out for all to see. So maybe we begin by simply demonstrating a posture of need. Ask a neighbor if you can borrow an egg. Tell a friend about a particular problem you’re having at work, at church, or at your kid’s school. Admit “I don’t know,” rather than try to cobble together a response to a tough question. Develop reciprocity. 

Then, as we build trust, transparency can grow. Admitting weakness can turn into confessing wounds, and as we bear compassionate witness to one another, we learn to hide a little less. We find commonality in our longings and our finitude.

Reflecting on your attempts to find welcome in high school, you note that belonging and acceptance are not the same. What are the differences?

High school is rough for many of us, because we are wrestling with really big questions of identity and meaning. The desire to belong is front of mind, and many of us look for answers by trying to gain acceptance within various groups. But if you’re like me, some of these struggles to differentiate between acceptance and belonging don’t end in high school.

I often think of acceptance as conditional. It’s something that’s handed to us by another person or group. There are requirements for entering, for who is “in” and who is “out.” Often, acceptance is synonymous with fitting in, which often means we have to bend, flex, hide, or deny aspects of who we are. Waiting for acceptance can feel like holding your breath.

But belonging is more like exhaling. It is based on who we really are, without conditions. Researcher and author Brene Brown writes, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” Unlike acceptance, belonging is built on the idea that every human person has inherent worth. Our belonging is built in as image bearers of God. We do not have to hide, shrink, or pretend, because that welcome is already within us, inviting us to encounter God within the specifics of who we are and extend that embrace to the people in our everyday lives.

As an eldest daughter who has often tried to curate my identity by following the rules I, too, have sympathy for the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son. What wisdom or comfort would you like to share with those of us who have elder-brother tendencies? 

What I love about that story is how the father went to both sons. The older son was just as lost as the younger son, in his own way, and the father noticed his absence and went to find him. I spent so many years trying to be good enough, hoping for signs that I belonged through recognition or a pat on the back, but we don’t have to work for that embrace. The welcome of the Father is for us too. Like the elder son, God wants to take our face in his hands and say, “You don’t have to try so hard. Everything I have is already yours.”

You share that the loss of your son, Carter, created pain so raw that you “learned how to be loved in the dark.” How might grief point us toward belonging?

As someone who worked really hard to curate appearances, I could not be anything other than broken in that season of intense grief. My needs were large and looming, and I could not paste on a smile, let alone comb my hair some days. But friends kept showing up to sit with me, watch our other son, or bring a meal. 

I experienced the potency of God’s presence in a way I hadn’t before, in a way that invited me to say all the ugly things out loud. And while the grief was still overwhelming, what I found was a belonging that did not ask me to be anything other than what I was. And that experience really changed me, in how I related to both God and other people.

How do belonging and spiritual formation relate to one another?

Belonging is tightly related to our identity, in knowing and naming who we are. Despite all my years of working in community building on college campuses, in creative spaces, or with our church, I did not make the connection between belonging and spiritual formation until I read The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. 

As Nouwen points out, many of us relate or find our identity in either the younger son or the older son in Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. But toward the end of the book, Nouwen points out that the invitation extended to us is not to become like one son or the other, but to become like the father. Our identity is in the Father.

The more I thought about this invitation from the lens of belonging, I began to see that the more we learn to encounter God within the specifics of how he made us and the abundance of his love, the more we let him inhabit the whole of who we are and become formed more and more into his likeness. Belonging is no longer something we simply embrace within ourselves, an identity we have and hold, but is also wrapped up in who we are becoming as daughters and sons.

You write about the importance of God inviting humanity to participate in “the art of naming.” How does naming our desires help us connect with God and others?

I find that when I bury my desires they become more of an ache. I begin to perceive that ache as lack or personal deficiency rather than a longing for something good, and as a result, I turn inward. I pull back from God or from people. 

But by taking time to name our desires (which often requires reflection and pulling back the layers to get to the thing beneath the thing), I often find that underneath the desire is a want for something eternal or communal. We are people longing for that sense of home. When we can name that thing and get honest about what it is — really is — we are wanting from God or each other, we can then begin to see the longing for what it is and let it move us toward deeper connection and wholeness.

“Seeking out the stories of others helps us slow down our assumptions and grow our compassion,” you write in chapter nine. How might someone begin to seek out stories of others? 

With the people already in our actual lives, we can certainly begin to ask more questions: How did you arrive at this opinion? What was that like for you? Tell me about that experience. Even if our stories differ, we can usually find aspects of our human experience that are the same or begin to see people within the context of their stories.

Another great way to seek out the stories of others is through reading memoir. Consider picking up a book from someone who on the surface seems very different, and read with curiosity. Note the places where you find yourself relating to their story, or the parts where you struggle to understand. Let yourself imagine what that life might have been like. Yes, we may still arrive at different conclusions, but we can let our curiosity lead us to greater compassion.

I really appreciate how you acknowledge and honor the idea that many of us often wonder if the way of belonging is even worth it. What would you say to someone who is wondering about that today?

Some of us have been really hurt in relationships or estranged from places where we once experienced a strong sense of belonging. Some of us are simply weary of trying, of being the one to constantly reach out with little reciprocity. And I get it. I have been there. In fact, I had to pull back quite a bit from some friendships to even have the time and capacity to write The Way of Belonging, so I often felt lonely while working on the book.

Two things are helpful for me in these seasons. First, I remember that belonging is not fully dependent on people and places. People change. Places change. And we can let them. In any relationship, even our most intimate ones, there will be seasons of pressing in and pulling back. When we have been wounded or we are weary, maybe we are in a season of needing to pull back and return to the embrace of the Father, to let his welcome remind us of who we are and how much we are loved.

The other thing I do when hope seems really distant and really dim is to remember Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Before being taken away, he prayed for all believers, asking God for them to experience a oneness reflective of the divine communion. He prayed in verse 21, “May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you.” I have to believe that prayer echoes over us still, that even when I cannot see or feel the connection I crave, Jesus does. And sometimes, that pinprick of hope is enough to keep me putting one foot in front of the other, to continue to embrace belonging not as a place of arrival but a way of being in the world.

Many of Common Good’s readers are heavily involved in ministries vocationally or as volunteers. What else would you like to share with them?

When I recognize I need to make a change, I have a tendency to go from one extreme to the other. I go from falling behind in doing dishes to repainting kitchen walls. I get lonely and instead of asking a friend to grab dinner, I contemplate opening a coffee shop. When we begin to shift how we think, it is easy to want to change everything all at once — to start a program, throw a massive block party, or begin a new campaign. 

And maybe those things will happen somewhere along the way, but we can let ourselves go slowly — because belonging is not something to attain, but someone to become. We can return home to the Father and let his love shift how we relate with him, with ourselves, and with each other. We can reorient ourselves to his welcome in small, unseen moments and see what grows from there. We let ourselves be moved gradually, rather than changing everything all at once.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. The Way of Belonging is available from IVP.