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Key insights from

Life Together

By Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What you’ll learn

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor, theologian, and martyr. As Hitler continued to gain power, Bonhoeffer left the United States for his native Germany in hopes of strengthening the German church being pressured into submitting to Nazism. He paid for his subversion and ties to the resistance network with imprisonment and the gallows. In his short life, he penned several books about what it means to follow Jesus, which have become classics in Christian thought. In Life Together, Bonhoeffer gives insight into what Christian fellowship does and does not entail.


Read on for key insights from Life Together.

1. Christian community is richest not in moments of rapturous reunion but in the rhythms of daily life together.

There is nothing wrong with yearning for the physical presence of others in the family of God. We came into this world as a body, Jesus became a flesh-and-blood person, and we remember his body every time we take the sacrament of communion—in the bread and wine. What is more, Jesus rose in a resurrected body. For the Christians scattered all over the world, the embodied presence of another follower is comforting beyond words—especially for those who are in remote areas or places hostile to the faith.

For those in exile or isolated from the family of God, the visiting Christian becomes a sign of the presence of God himself. In those moments, each sees Jesus embodied in the other and trusts the other as they would Jesus—with joy and humility. Seeing Jesus’ presence in one another, they are nurtured and strengthened as if by Jesus himself. And this is just between the visitor and the visited. How much more glorious is life for those who live together daily?

Those who have such communion all the time tend to take it for granted, whereas for the lonely and isolated it is an oasis in the desert. Yet the gift is the same regardless of the context. Christians who take daily fellowship with their brothers and sisters for granted should thank God for the miraculous gift they have.

Christians enjoy fellowship because Jesus is the center. They would not be brothers and sisters except for Jesus. Anyone who wants more than Christ as the community’s foundation brings tainted desires to Christian community. The fellowship is muddied when we bring our own ideals. Genuine Christian brotherhood is not an ideal but a divine spiritual reality—not merely a psychological one. 

2. Many believers love their ideal-but-nonexistent community more than their actual community.

The rosy, idealized notions of community that many dream of do more harm than good to self and others. Many love their dreams of a perfect community more than actual community. When people obsess over the ideal, they can become arrogant toward the fellowship and judge others harshly. They rigidly insist on their vision and see themselves as chief architect of the community. They come to a community full of demands and expectations for others, for God, and for self. These dreams, however lovely, are delusional. But God, in his kindness, usually doesn’t allow us to linger in our chimeras too long. He often shatters those perfectionistic dreams quickly, forcing us to come to terms with our disillusionment and disappointment. Those who don’t come to terms when the vision shatters become angry and accuse others, then God, and then, when they are all alone and everyone has left, they blame themselves.

When we face that disillusionment, though, true spiritual community can begin—not an ideal, but a grounded reality which Christ enters. Because God binds us together and is the relational ground on which we stand, we come to fellowship with gratitude for what we’ve been given, rather than a list of demands.

Even in the moments of sinfulness and miscommunication in community, being wronged by a brother is an opportunity for healing and for a reminder of God’s forgiveness for both parties. If a person clings to the ideal instead of seizing such an opportunity, they miss the joy that’s available to them.

3. Jesus opens up a new kind of community—one that transcends normal human longing and transforms it into love and service.

Human love seeks direct connection not for the sake of the other, but for oneself. People prodded along by the compulsions of human love are not free in their love but bound to each other. The goal of such love is to have and control by whatever means available. Without Jesus, people look for fusion of I and Thou and use means of power and influence to procure it.

In human love, the truth is secondary (or tertiary or utterly beside the point), a superfluity that stands between a person and the object of affection. Human love yearns for the other, for companionship, and to express love and hear it echoed back. This is not the kind of love that sincerely serves others. When it does serve, it does so to extract something. Human love is desire, and as long as one believes that desire is achievable, the relationship continues—even if it is more false than genuine. As soon as that disillusionment sets in or it becomes clear the desire cannot be realized, human love ends because people cannot love an enemy.

Jesus makes it possible for us to love people we could not otherwise love, people we would be tempted to exclude. But excluding the weak or not-so-special brother is excluding Christ himself. When we structure our community around who makes the cut, who is the most spiritual, the  wisest or the smartest, human love has infiltrated and will taint the spiritual community. We have failed to see Jesus in the face of the weak and the lowly.

4. Comparison kills us and our community.

There is a story in the gospel accounts of the disciples of Jesus arguing among themselves over who is the best. It is common to compare ourselves to others, but doing so compromises fellowship. It is very natural for people to find their place in a group where they feel their footing is sure and defendable, whether their place is to be the social one, the quiet and withdrawn one, the strong one, the weak one, the smart one, or the unintelligent one.

Practice holding your tongue to help you avoid comparisons. This is a ministry to your brothers and sisters. When you sense an evil thought about your brother rising up in you, keep it to yourself. Wrestle it down. The moment you open your mouth and put words to evil thoughts about your brother—even under the pretext of being concerned for him and helping him—you are tarnishing the fellowship, comparing, and putting yourself in the position of judge. Words give thoughts life. When evil thoughts become words, they take on new reality and do real damage.

Something amazing happens inside those who develop the discipline of keeping their thoughts to themselves: They begin to see others as they are and as creations of God—not the people they would have designed if they were God. This sets others free to be themselves. Suddenly people become not things to be controlled or dominated, but people we love, whose uniqueness we celebrate.

When we let go of comparisons, we stop using people as standards against which we judge ourselves—favorably to our smug satisfaction or unfavorably to our shame. We free them and ourselves from the shackles of self-justification.

5. Your brother in Christ stands before you as Christ himself, extending mercy when you confess your shortcomings.

Sin thrives in secret and loves to keep people away from authentic fellowship with others. It bars us from the abundant life.

No one has to make a confession in front of the entire assembly. The entire fellowship of believers is assembled in the presence of one brother. In Jesus Christ you are perfectly free to be a sinner because you also inhabit the realm of the mercy of God. When you confess your sins to another as James 5:16 exhorts, you knock down the final barrier that stands between you and God, and between you and your brother. Without confessing to one another, sin thrives within us and fellowship is just a facade.

Pride sits at the root of sin. It is a desire to be like God, to deny that anything is wrong, and a refusal to die. Confession is a kind of death. It is humiliating to share dark secrets and bring them into the light of fellowship, to be seen by others in your humiliation. We find all kinds of creative ways to avoid the searing pain of death. But when we do confess, we take up our cross and follow in the path of Jesus, who willingly and humbly faced the jeers of soldiers and citizens and was stripped naked and crucified. By confessing in the presence of others, we likewise choose to stand exposed and broken.

God the holy and just judge, perfect in his Being, is far more intimidating to approach than a fellow brother who knows all too well the burden and struggle of sin. Those who go only to God and not to their brother to confess risk deluding themselves into thinking they’ve asked God for forgiveness, when in fact they’ve only forgiven themselves. The former is far easier, but doesn’t give us that same certainty of confessing to a brother.

The best way to safeguard against such a conundrum is to confess to a brother. Your isolation has ended once you let a brother in. Confession moves a person from shaky uncertainty to solid ground. Confessing to one another is the assurance of forgiveness of sin. We enter into a new life when we confess. Confession brings conversion.

Endnotes

These insights are just an introduction. If you're ready to dive deeper, pick up a copy of Life Together here. And since we get a commission on every sale, your purchase will help keep this newsletter free.

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