Community is hard -- and that's a good thing

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves… - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As we’ve been sharing the idea for Le Voisinage with our students, several have made comments along the lines of, “This is a really exciting project! But I could never be part of it, because…” and then some variation of, “I don’t know if I could live with other people,” “I like living alone,” or even, “I don’t want to be around awkward Christians.”

Or to paraphrase, “Living with others is hard and uncomfortable”.

They have a point.

I’d like to share a few thoughts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together on this subject. In the early 1930s Bonhoeffer had left Nazi Germany to pastor expatriate German churches in London. In 1935 he received a call to lead an underground seminary for young pastors near the German-Polish border. To do this, he took residence in emergency-built houses with 25 young clergymen. Personally, having lived in a house of five young men, I cannot imagine living with 25. But it was his experience of this community that led Bonhoeffer to write Life Together.

Bonhoeffer offers a smack in the face to our contemporary sensibilities. I’ll let his wisdom speak for itself, and attempt a few applications of his ideas to our situation.

Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.

So to one who fears that community will be hard and awkward, Bonhoeffer sas, “YES! And that is God’s plan, so embrace it heartily.” But why? We desire a greater community, but:

We (should) not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.

To the modern world, people that stick it out through hardship, sin, awkwardness, and a thousand moments that, nautrally, should destroy our fraternity clearly must be disciples of Jesus. They must be animated by some greater love than what this world has to offer. This is what Jesus said :

“In this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

And beyond displaying Jesus to the world, these moments, days and weeks of frustration with our brother are good for us. They teach us to give thanks, to rely on the grace of God that we need. Bonhoeffer goes on:

In the Christian community thankfulness is just what is anywhere else in the Christian life. Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good. Then we deplore the fact that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experience that God has given to others, and we consider this lament to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts.

How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even when there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith an difficulty; if on the contrary, we we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.

Our North American society is well beyond simply not being satisfied with the small and awkward. If we avoid even the small and awkward, not only can we not expect to have any “better” sort of community, but we cannot expect to have any community at all… and this is the precise situation in which the modern world finds itself. We as a society have come to a point of being so unwilling to tolerate the imperfections of our neighbours that the only course left to us is to withdraw within ourselves.

But God’s plan is to use the imperfections of our brothers and sisters to pour out on us the greatest gifts He has for us. It takes stepping away from comfort and from what we know. It involves sacrifice. But the reward is the gift of God – a gift that is incomparably better than what we need to lay down, both for ourselves, and for the brothers and sisters we will love. It is hard, but it is good.

Next post : The Gospel of the Kingdom

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