by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
FES Library book call number: 250.3 BON
“Help must come from the outside. In themselves, Christians are destitute and dead.”
This was a poignant quote from Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer that spoke directly to a season of struggle I was in. Having left community for a large part of my formative years, community was never something that happened naturally for me, nor was it something I found easy to grasp. I was convinced that people who grew up in church were “different” and “won’t understand”, and was therefore restrained in how much I gave of myself to community, and likewise, how much I allowed community to enter into my life. After all, the idea that people “understand you” and are somewhat “like you” are the basis of most friendships outside of God’s kingdom.
Life Together completely transformed my understanding of community – its character, purpose, and our role in it. In differentiating the “emotional community” from the “spiritual community”, Bonhoeffer deconstructed a conflation I was guilty of – that a Christian community was not meant to be held together by affection, but rather by a shared truth, a coming together of people bound by covenant. Alongside some life events that were taking place in that season, I was confronted with the hollowness of affection and familiarity in relationships, and tasted for myself the richness of life that resides in the living waters of God’s truth itself. While this seemed to diminish people as these vessels of truth, Bonhoeffer stresses the need for such vessels, precisely because we as individuals are incapable of bringing complete truths to ourselves, and need people to point us back to these truths. In his words,
“Christians need other Christians who speak God’s word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves without cheating themselves out of the truth.”
Yet, Bonhoeffer reminds us that this call to embed ourselves in community is not a call to be tolerant of our human differences for the sake of a self-benefitting end. Instead, he makes clear that community is about people, and that the strength of community lies in these very differences. The human tendency to dismiss “different” people reveals a self-exalting desire to mould others into our own image, an image that seems good to me – a complete disregard for the ultimate desire of God to create man in His own image. In further pointing out that we can never know in advance how God’s image should appear in others, Bonhoeffer gives a sobering wake-up call – it is not me that others should do right by.
I see liberation in such self-forgetfulness, and find rest in the freedom this gives, to cultivate and partake in all of the beauty of God’s unique and diverse creation.
Life Together has been a life-changing read that has teased out the nuanced nature of community that isn’t commonly talked about. I highly recommend this book to anyone else who may be struggling with things of community.
Student from NTU CF