Today’s post is a little different from the others, as I share a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together. The reading is from Chapter 4: Ministry. Although it is very dry, it’s an excellent read, one that certainly challenges my perception of Christian fellowship. I would recommend it for anyone looking to understand common devotions or seeking ways to improve personal devotions. Available on Amazon.
The speaking of that 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? If it is contradicted by one’s own lack of active helpfulness, how can it be a convincing and sincere word? If it issues, not from a spirit of bearing and forbearing, but from impatience and the desire to force its acceptance, how can it be the liberating and healing word?
Moreover, the person who has really listened and served and borne with others is the very one who is likely to say nothing. A profound distrust of everything that is merely verbal often causes a personal word to a brother to be suppressed. What can weak human words accomplish for others? Why add to the empty talk? Are we, like the professionally pious, to “talk away” the other person’s real need? Is there anything more perilous than speaking God’s Word to excess? But, on the other hand, who wants to be accountable for having been silent when he should have spoken? How much easier is ordered speech in the pulpit than this entirely free speech which is uttered betwixt the responsibility to be silent and the responsibility to speak?
Bonhoeffer strikes very true here, the very real trouble of speaking the Word to one another. Specifically, he is referring to Christians offering correction to their brothers.
In many ways, preaching is much easier. Sure, more people can hear you, but fewer are listening. When you speak directly to a fellow Christian, it can be harder to talk about things in absolutes or to offer direct correction. For example, if I stand in front of a congregation and say, “Americans drive like manics!” I’m likely to get a few chuckles, some yawns, and the occasional offended individual who forgets about it in a week. But if I go to Jake and say, “You drive like a manic!” it impacts him directly, and his response is more focused on me. If he accepts it, he may be grateful. If he doesn’t, he will likely be angry at me. If I’m wrong, he will remember.
This effect can make it uncomfortable to speak truthfully to one another in this way. Unfortunately, avoiding confrontation in the name of amity is not an option, as it only breeds simmering anger:
The person whose touchiness and vanity make him spurn a brother’s earnest censure cannot speak the truth in humility to others; he is afraid of being rebuffed and of feeling that he has been aggrieved. The touchy person will always become a flatterer and very soon he will come to despise and slander his brother.
And finally, to avoid this boil of distaste forming, we must lance it with the sharpness of truth. In doing so, we must recognize our own uselessness, relying on God to provide the words, effect, and result.
It is inconceivable that the things that are of utmost importance to each individual should not be spoken by one to another….the humble person will stick both to truth and love. He will stick to the Word of God and let it lead him to his brother. …
Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more merciful than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin. …
Our brother’s ways are not in our hands; we cannot hold together what is breaking; we cannot keep life in what is determined to die.
Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Translated John W. Doberstein. Copyright 1954 HarperCollins Publishers.