As part of the preparation for my Adult Sunday School class on, "Causes of Persecution Against the Church and Our Response To It," we have been examining (and are now watching a video series on) the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian pastor and theologian martyred (hanged) by the Nazi's in the closing month of WWII for being outspoken opponent of the gross evil and injustices of Hitler's regime. In doing so I came across this excerpt from his wise and extremely insightful book, entitled, "Life Together."
It's book dealing with the nature of Christian community and the interdependent fellowship we are to have with one another (not independent, but interdependent). You will surely notice he is a deep thinker, having received his doctorate at only 21 years of age. Yet he's a thinker who was deeply devoted to Christ and His Church. With that being said, I will merely let his own words speak for him (with an explanation at the end for those who might struggle with a few of his comments)! Enjoy.
"Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone. Because they cannot stand loneliness, they are driven to seek the company of other people. There are Christians, too, who cannot endure being alone, who have had some bad experiences with themselves, who hope to gain some help by being in association with others. They are generally disappointed. Then they blame the fellowship for what is really their own fault. The Christian community is not a spiritual sanatorium. The person who comes into the fellowship because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear. He is really not seeking community at all, but only a distraction which will allow him to forget his loneliness for a brief time...
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ's call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. "The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone... I will not be with you then, nor you with me" (Martin Luther).
But the reverse is true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called; the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of a great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. "If I die, then I am alone in death; if I suffer they (the fellowship) suffer with me" (Martin Luther).
We recognize, then, that only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live within the fellowship. Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship... 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. Along with the day of Christian family fellowship together, there goes the lonely day of the individual. This is as it should be.
The day together will be unfruitful without the day alone, both for the fellowship and for the individual. The mark of solitude is silence, just as speech is the mark of community.
Silence and speech have the same inner correspondence and difference as do solitude and community. One does not exist without the other. Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech... The speech, the word which establishes and binds together the fellowship, is accompanied by silence. "There is a time to keep silent, and a time to speak" (Ecclesiastes 3:7). As there are definite hours in the Christian's day to speak, particularly the time of common worship and prayer, so the day also needs definite times of silence, silence under the Word and silence that comes out of the Word. These will be especially the times before and after hearing the Word...
Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God. We are silent before hearing the Word, as a child is quiet when he enters his father's room. We are silent after hearing the Word, because the Word is still speaking and dwelling within us. 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. We keep silence solely for the sake of the Word... not to show disregard for the Word, but rather to honor and receive it."
For those who have not tried to oversee a group of believers, or seek their growth in the ways of Jesus, some of his words may seem confusing. But for those who have, I'm sure his words resonated deeply in your soul as he spoke about the life-giving and spiritual-growth-enhancing need for God's people to engage in silence before God, and engage with His people. The need to spend time alone before Him, and spend time together. The need to still ourselves before God and His Word in purposeful respite from our hectic busyness, on the one hand, and then join with the community of the faithful to speak words of life regarding what God has spoken to us, on the other hand.
In it's simplest form this is nothing more than to follow the example left to us by Jesus. If ever there was anyone who did not need others, it was Jesus. Yet He gathered people around Himself and spoke truth into their lives constantly. Not because He "(could) not stand loneliness," and was "driven to seek the company of other people," but but because in His times of solitude, purposely going away to be alone with His Father in prayer, He had received from Him truth He needed to share with them. Jesus life is the prime example of a life of radical balance -- fellowship, service, instruction and ministry empowered by times alone, in solitude, away from the crowds, off in the wilderness or on the mountaintop. It was there in the alone times that He renewed His strength through a life of prayer that mingled silence with speaking. We could all learn an important lesson from His example! This is what Bonhoeffer advocates -- Along with the day of Christian family fellowship together, there goes the lonely day of the individual. This is as it should be."
And in relation to Bonhoeffer's last few remarks, I also have to encourage what he advocates -- silence before and after hearing the Word of God.
Too many times I have seen life-changing truth that wasn't taken in because the soul was not stilled or prepared before the presence of God to be able to hear it. And the same is true in regard to after hearing the Word. Often, people do not give it time to percolate deep down into the soul, because they rise from hearing the Word proclaimed only to engage in trivial chatter which immediately makes it drift from the memory.
As a pastor I know my words are obviously not God's words -- unless all I do is say what His Word says. Then they are His words. And to hear a message from God, and then rise to disregard it with speech that has no relation to it, is to reveal a desire to shelter the soul from His truth. We must prepare our soul to hear it, and we should then give it time (in silence) to seep down deep into our soul that we might be transformed by it. Bonhoeffer is right: "We are silent before hearing the Word..." and "We keep silent after hearing the Word... not to show disregard for the Word, but rather to honor and receive it."
Just some wise food for thought! Pastor Jeff