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Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

by davesandel on August 29th, 2011

Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published in 1939, translated by John W. Doberstein, 1954

128 pages

In his introduction, Doberstein writes of Karl Barth’s first notice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “In one of Barth’s Bonn seminars, Bonhoeffer quietly inserted into the discussion a quotation from Luther: “The curse of a godless man can sound more pleasant in God’s ears than the Hallelujah of the pious.” “Who threw that in?” asked the delighted Barth, and so he became acquainted with Bonhoeffer.  This was the young student, with an insight into Luther’s forthright realism, who was later to expound so clearly that other paradoxical and often misunderstood statement of Luther’s: “Sin boldly but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still.”

Before his participation in a failed attempt to kill Adolf Hitler and his subsequent imprisonment and execution, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was dean, mentor, teacher and friend of 25 seminary students between 1935 and 1938.  This small seminary was an illegal, underground gathering of men who refused to cooperate with the church and state in Nazi Germany.  They were drawn together and driven together by events and their consciences.

For these guys, maintaining community with each other was a matter of life or death.  Their purpose, as a group and as a group investing in each other as individuals, was not to profess theology or pastor churches so much as it was to foster and nurture life.  Or rather, Life.  Or rather, life together.  Or rather, Life in God together.  Or rather, Life through Jesus, together.

Bonhoeffer breathes with Jesus, and sleeps with Jesus.  He awakens with Jesus and meets his brothers with Jesus.  He shares silences and words, through Jesus, with his brothers.  They sing “hymns and spiritual songs” with each other, they work together.  In their respective and communal sin, they invite each other’s confession and listen quietly but thoroughly.  They sometimes admonish one another.  They always forgive one another.  And they return over and over and over to Jesus together.

Because Jesus is in “their midst”, they do not relate to one another directly, but Only Through Jesus.  Life together with Jesus, and then with each other.  This is their salvation from “human” community, which is doomed to failure.  Bonhoeffer brilliantly contrasts “human” community with “spiritual” community (p. 31-39).  He does this before describing what happens in spiritual community, because otherwise, one can so easily look like the other, though they are utterly different.  “Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake.  Therefore, human love seeks direct contact with the other person; it loves not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself” (p. 34).

Can I live this way except by force and deprivation?  Choosing freely from my home complete with office and bedroom and computer, from this not quite enforced solitary confinement chosen day after day after day through circumstance and preference … can I live together with Jesus and then with … anyone?

Start with Margaret, and life together with her.  In thirty-two years, and with our kids, we reach toward life together.  We do know something of doing this through Jesus.  Bonhoeffer’s words bring both our success and failure, and especially our often passive acceptance of that failure, quickly into focus.

I think we are best surrendered to Jesus and consequently best together, when one or more of us is reaching out to someone suffering.  Short of that, we rise up to meet one another when one of us is suffering.  But at best, one of us reaches outside ourselves to hold the hand of someone suffering.  Then, the other grabs her other hand, and also grabs the hand of Jesus.  Hold each other up.  Life together.

I look each day, these days, for a new “way” to meet Jesus.  Conversations, quiet times, acts of service, giving up some money or time or privilege, imagining my way into the Bible stories, examining my life and confessing my sins, all have their place.  But “I” continues, for the most part, to be the first word in the sentence.

Bonhoeffer speaks with authority and tells me to replace that first word with “Jesus,” and then with “we”.  Mother Teresa says the same darn thing.  I’m sure there are many saintly people who say exactly this.  Did they say it from their privately owned, quietly privileged sanctums?  Did they say it before or after they paid their property taxes?  As for me, when do I not just say it, but mean it?  God is patient, and He shows me how to grow through my resistance:

Bonhoeffer writes, “Confession is within the liberty of the Christian.  Who can refuse, without suffering loss, a help that God has deemed it necessary to offer? “ – p. 118

At the same time, he cries out against what he calls “pious confession.”  Words without action or change kill me on the inside.  Their sincerity is shallow, and their repetition makes me numb.  They are worse than saying nothing at all.

Margaret and I watched “Get Low” recently, a movie in which Robert Duvall plays a mountain man from Tennessee who holds a shameful secret within himself for forty years.  (Spoilers follow) He looks for ways to pay for what he has done.  Words seem too cheap.  But as they go unsaid, he feels life being choked off inside him.

Forty years a hermit, he finally begins to look for others who might speak out loud of what he cannot say.  Finally, he commissions the local funeral director, played by Bill Murray, to organize a death party, but he wants to be there.  On the radio he offers his property to the winner of a $5 raffle.  Have to be present to win.  “Come and tell your stories of what you know about me.”

As his heart begins to fail, Duvall grows more desperate to share his story.  Finally an old friend, Rev. Charlie Jackson, consents to help.  On stage at the big party, Rev. Jackson says, “We like to imagine the good and bad, right and wrong are miles apart.  But the truth is, very often they are all tangled up with each other.”

Duvall’s story tumbles out.  At last.  Forty years late.  Finally he says, “If I left her in there, everything I know about myself is a lie.  I didn’t get her out of (the fire) and I’m sorry.  And that’s my story.  I would like forgiveness now, if possible.  And then I don’t mind dying for real next time, but please forgive me.”

I think Bonhoeffer worked hard to turn away from self-protective decisions.  As is true for me, as was true for Duvall, that was not easy for him.  And I want to say that if he could do it, so can I.

Thank you, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The story of your life brings me to my knees.  Your words throb inside my heart.

Make me true, Jesus.  Open doors in my life that I can go through, to make me true.

Outline of Life Together

  1. Community
    1. Through and in Jesus Christ
    2. Not an Ideal but a Divine Reality
    3. A Spiritual, Not a Human Reality
  2. The Day with Others
    1. The Day’s Beginning
    2. The Secret of the Psalter
    3. Reading the Scriptures
    4. Singing the New Song
    5. Saying Our Prayers Together
    6. The Fellowship of the Table
    7. The Day’s Work
  3. The Day Alone
    1. Solitude and Silence
    2. Meditation
    3. Prayer
    4. Intercession
    5. The Test of Meditation
  4. Ministry
    1. The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue
    2. The Ministry of Meekness
    3. The Ministry of Listening
    4. The Ministry of Helpfulness
    5. The Ministry of “Bearing”
    6. The Ministry of Proclaiming
    7. The Ministry of Authority
  5. Confession and Communion
    1. Breaking Through to Community
    2. Breaking Through to the Cross
    3. Breaking Through to Certainty
    4. To Whom Confess?
    5. Two Dangers
    6. The Joyful Sacrament

Quotes from Life Together:

From Chapter 1: Community

 “It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day … It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren … It is the ‘roses and lilies’ of the Christian life.” – p. 20-21

“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.  No Christian community is more or less than this.  Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this.  We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.” – p. 21

“The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.” – p. 26

“Christian brotherhood is threatened by … confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood … Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.  Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a psychic (human) reality.

 “God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.  The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself.” – p. 27

“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” – p. 30

“Perhaps the contrast between spiritual and human reality can be made most clear in the following observation: Within the spiritual community there is never, nor in any way, any ‘immediate’ relationship of one to another … such desire of the human soul seeks a complete fusion of I and Thou … one soul operates directly upon another soul … but where it can no longer expect its desire to be fulfilled, there it stops short – namely, in the face of an enemy.  There it turns into hatred, contempt, and calumny.

“Right here is the point where spiritual love begins … it comes from Jesus Christ, it serves him alone; it knows that it has no immediate access to other persons.” – p. 32-35

“This spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ.” – p. 36

“Nothing is easier than to stimulate the glow of fellowship in a few days of life together, but nothing is more fatal to the sound, sober brotherly fellowship of everyday life.” – p. 39

From Chapter 2: The Day with Others

“The Psalter (Psalms) is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in the truest sense of the word.  He prayed the Psalter and now it has become his prayer for all time.  Now do we understand how the Psalter can be prayer to God and yet God’s own Word, precisely because here we encounter the praying Christ?” – p. 46

“The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his Church.  Now that Christ is with the Father, the new humanity of Christ, the Body of Christ on earth, continues to pray his prayer to the end of time … Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship; so it is quite certainly the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ and his Body on earth.” – p. 46-47

“It is not that God is the spectator and sharer of our present life, howsoever important that is; but rather that we are the reverent listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the history of the Christ on earth.  And only in so far as we are there, is God with us today also.

“A complete reversal occurs.  It is not in our life that God’s help and presence must still be proved, but rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ … The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I shall die … In this light the whole devotional reading of the Scriptures becomes daily more meaningful and salutary.  What we call our life, our troubles, our guilt, is by no means all of reality; there in the Scriptures is our life, our need, our guilt, and our salvation.  Because it pleased God to act for us there, it is only there that we shall be saved.  Only in the Holy Scriptures do we learn to know our own history.” – p. 53-54

“God has prepared for Himself one great song of praise throughout eternity, and those who enter the community of God join in this song … This song has a different ring on earth from what it has in heaven. On earth it is the song of those who believe, in heaven the song of those who see.” p. 57-58

“The unity of prayer and work, the unity of the day, is discovered; for to find, back of the “it” of the day’s work, the ‘Thou,’ which is God, is what Paul calls ‘praying without ceasing’ (1 Thess 5:17).  Thus the prayer of the Christian reaches beyond its set time and extends into the heart of his work … in a real breaking through the hard ‘it’ to the gracious ‘Thou.’

“Then from this achieved unity of the day the whole day acquires an order and a discipline.” – p. 70-71

From Chapter 3: The Day Alone

“One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.  Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” – p. 78

“Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God … We are silent at the beginning of the day because God should have the first word, and we are silent before going to sleep because the last word belongs to God.” – p. 79

“Whereas in our devotions together we read long consecutive passages of Scripture, in our personal meditation we confine ourselves to a brief, selected text, which possibly may not be changed for a whole week … Here we go into the unfathomable depths of a particular sentence and word … waiting for God’s Word to us … Often we shall have to stop with one sentence or even one word, because we have been gripped and arrested and cannot evade it any longer.” – p. 81-83

“It (is not) our right to have nothing but elevating and fruitful experiences (in meditation and silent prayer), as if the discovery of our own inner poverty were quite below our dignity.  With that attitude we shall make no progress … ‘Seek God, not happiness’ – this is the fundamental rule of all meditation.” – p. 84

“It is one of the particular difficulties of meditation that our thoughts are likely to wander and go their own way, toward other persons or to some events in our life … When  this happens it is often a help not to snatch back our thoughts compulsively, but quite calmly to incorporate into our prayer the people and the events to which our thoughts keep straying and thus in all patience return to the starting point of the meditation.” – p. 85

“Intercession is also a daily service we owe to God and our brother.  He who denies his neighbor the service of praying for him denies him the service of a Christian … Intercession is not general and vague but very concrete … the more definite my intercession becomes, the more promising it is.” – p. 87

The test of one’s experiences in community and meditation: “Does it transport him for a moment into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns, or has it lodged the Word of God so securely and deeply in his heart that it holds and fortifies him, impelling him to active love, to obedience, to good works?” – p. 88

From Chapter 4: Ministry

“Where is there a person who does not with instinctive sureness find the spot where he can stand and defend himself, but which he will never give up to another … All this can occur in the most polite or even pious environment … Self-justification and judging others go together, as justification by grace and serving others go together.” – p. 91

“Where the discipline of (holding) the tongue is practiced right from the beginning (in a community), each individual will make a matchless discovery … God did not make this (other) person as I would have made him.  He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator.  Now the other person, in the freedom with which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy, whereas before he was only a nuisance and an affliction.” – p. 92-93

“If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.  My sin is of necessity the worst, the most grievous, the most reprehensible.  Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever.  Therefore my sin is the worst.” – p. 96

“Just as love for God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.  It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.  So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.” – p. 97

“One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it.” – p. 98

“It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.  The burden of men was so heavy for God Himself that He had to endure the Cross … God took men upon Himself and they weighted Him to the ground, but God remained with them and they with God.” – p. 100

“It is, first of all, the freedom of the other person, of which we spoke earlier, that is a burden to the Christian.  The other’s freedom collides with his own autonomy … This freedom of the other person includes all that we mean by a person’s nature, individuality, endowment, his weakness and oddities … everything that produces frictions, conflicts and collisions among us.

“… Then, besides the other’s freedom, there is the abuse of that freedom that becomes a burden for the Christian.  In (this) sin, fellowship with God and with the brother is broken … But here, too, it is only in bearing with him that the great grace of God becomes wholly plain … Since every sin of every member burdens and indicts the whole community, the congregation rejoices, in the midst of all the pain and the burden the brother’s sin inflicts, that it has the privilege of bearing and forgiving … He who is bearing others knows that he himself is being borne, and only in this strength can he go on bearing.” – p. 101-103

“The speaking of the Word is beset with infinite perils.  If it is not accompanied by worthy listening, how can it really be the right word for the other person?” – p. 104

“The (one being spoken to, being admonished) has his own right, his own responsibility, and even his own duty, to defend himself against unauthorized interference.  The other person has his own secret which dare not be invaded without great injury, and which he cannot surrender without destroying himself.  It is not a secret dependent on knowledge or feeling, but rather the secret of his freedom, his salvation, his being.  And yet … a seemingly sacred respect for another’s freedom can be subject to the curse of God: ‘His blood will I require at thine hand’ (Ezekiel 3:18) … The basis upon which Christians can speak to one another … is to accord him the one real dignity that man has, namely that, though he is a sinner, he can share in God’s grace and glory and be God’s child.  This recognition gives to our brotherly speech the freedom and candor that it needs.  We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need.” – p. 105-106

“Why should we be afraid of one another, when we only have God to fear?” – p. 106

“The more we learn to allow others to speak the Word to us .. the more free and objective will we be in speaking ourselves.”

“Reproof is unavoidable … Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin.  Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin … when we allow nothing but God’s Word to stand between us, judging and succoring.” – p. 107

“We cannot hold together what is breaking; we cannot keep life in what is determined to die.  But God binds elements together in the breaking, creates community in the separation, grants grace through judgment.  He has put His Word in our mouth.  He wants it to be spoken through us.” – p. 108

From Chapter 5: Confession and Communion

 “It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness.  The final break-through to fellowship does not occur; though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the un-devout, as sinners.  So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners.” – p. 110

“God does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone … You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers … you can dare to be a sinner.  Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but He hates sin.” – p. 111

“In confession the break-through to community takes place.  Sin demands to have a man by himself … The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ.” – p. 113

“I meet the whole congregation in the one brother to whom I confess my sins and who forgives my sins … no one acts in his own name or by his own authority, but by the commission of Jesus Christ. … If a Christian is in the fellowship of confession with a brother he will never be alone again, anywhere.” – p. 113

“The root of all sin is pride, superbia.  I want to be my own law, I have a right to my self, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death.” – p. 114

“The Cross of Jesus Christ destroys all pride.  We cannot find the Cross of Jesus if we shrink from going to the place where it is to be found, namely, the public death of the sinner.  And we refuse to bear the Cross when we are ashamed to take upon ourselves the shameful death of the sinner in confession.” – p. 114

“In confession the Christian begins to forsake his sins.  Their dominion is broken.  From now on the Christian wins victory after victory … Confession is the renewal of the joy of baptism.” – p. 115

“(Have) we deceived ourselves with our confession of sin to God?  (Have) we rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution?  … Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God?  God gives us this certainty through our brother.  Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception.” – p. 116

“It is precisely for the sake of this certainty that confession should deal with concrete sins … One experiences the utter perdition and corruption of human nature, in so far as this ever enters into experience at all, when one sees his own specific sins.  Self-examination on the basis of the Ten Commandments will therefore be the right preparation for confession.”  – p. 117

“Confession is not a law; it is an offer of divine help for the sinner.  It is possible that a person may by God’s grace break through to certainty, new life, the Cross, and fellowship without benefit of confession to a brother.  It is possible that a person may never know what it is to doubt his own forgiveness and despair of his own confession of sin, that he may be given everything in his own private confession to God.

“We have spoken here for those who cannot make this assertion …

“Confession is within the liberty of the Christian.  Who can refuse, without suffering loss, a help that God has deemed it necessary to offer?” – p. 118

“In daily, earnest living with the Cross of Christ the Christian loses the spirit of human censoriousness on the one hand and weak indulgence on the other, and he receives the spirit of divine severity and divine love.” – p. 119

“Every person should refrain from listening to confession who does not himself practice it.” – p. 120

“Confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil.  It is only God’s offer of grace, help and forgiveness that could make us dare to enter the abyss of confession.  We can confess solely for the sake of the promise of absolution.  Confession as a routine duty is spiritual death; confession in reliance upon the promise is life.” – p. 120

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