“Only Christ in His Word tells me what love is. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love for my brothers and sisters really looks like. Therefore, spiritual love is bound to the word of Jesus Christ alone.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 17.
The preeminence of Jesus Christ and His Word resonates throughout Life Together; we must find reality in Jesus Christ for Jesus Christ alone is reality. In Jesus Christ we have the Word of Jesus Christ, and our understanding of the reality of Christ is informed and molded by His Word. Saying that Christ is reality is not advocating a nebulous reality without definition, on the contrary, it is advocating the image and reality of Christ Jesus as communicated to us in the Scriptures. And so to be people living in the reality of Christ we must be people of His Word, and to truly be people of His Word we must be people living in relationship with Christ. It is possible to know the information contained in the Bible without knowing Christ; and it is possible to claim “spiritual” experience outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ; God has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), without the in Christ we have a counterfeit.
Bonhoeffer writes, “I do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of the general idea of love that grows out of my emotional desires,” (page 17). God has placed a desire and need for love in our hearts for we are created in His image and He is love (1 John Chapter 4). However, our desire for love and our knowledge of love is fractured and marred through sin and as a result our “general idea of love” cannot be trusted. God’s Word and the Holy Spirit inform our hearts and minds, teaching us what love is. Paul writes that our love should “abound still more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent,” (Philippians 1:9 – 10).
There is pressure not to love in Christian community, pressure to sacrifice love on the altar of harmony, to sacrifice truth in order that we all might get along; when truth is sacrificed, love is sacrificed. Society pressures the church not to love it, not to speak and live the truth. If the church’s notion of love is derived from the world then it will acquiesce to the world, submitting its will and understanding of love to the world – it is then subsumed in the world. Within the church, love without Biblical definition results in a chameleon culture, ever changing according to emotional whims and desires. Only the Word of God can nurture, direct, and teach us what love is within life together; only the Word of God in Christ can mold the church into the love that we are called to communicate to the world.
For the Word of God to inform and mold our love our relation to the Word must be one of submission and not one of utilitarian lordship. The Word is not something for us to use to augment our lives, it is for us to submit to in order that it might permeate all of life and that we might obey the Word of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Word is otherworldly, it is supernatural, and it calls us upward into the image of Jesus Christ; this is contrasted with our self-centered propensity to pull the Word down to this world and to our natural thinking. We can allow the Word to capture us and teach us obedience to Jesus, or we can attempt to capture the Word and pollute its holiness as we attempt to subjugate it to our emotions and desires.
When we submit to the Word of Christ we trust the Word of Christ – even when things do not appear to be going well. This is critical because the temptation is to fix things, to smooth them over, to mitigate the truth, to take the edge off the Gospel, to water down obedience to the Word of holiness, and to preserve ourselves (individually and as a community). This is why success can be lethal to the church – when we make success the arbiter of our decisions, rather than the Word and the Cross, we will avoid the Cross and the truth of the Word; in so doing we also substitute our notions of love for the well-formed love of Christ as revealed in His Word.
We have the notion that love’s goal is to mitigate pain; therefore we do not teach obedience lest there be pain in obedience, we do not teach the Cross for we know there is pain in the Cross, we do not teach honesty for we know there is pain in honesty, we do not teach witnessing because we know there is pain and rejection in witnessing. We do not trust the Scriptures to teach us the Way of Life in Jesus Christ and to preserve us in obedience (through the Holy Spirit) regardless of appearances – and so we make our notions of emotional love our guiding force.
On the other side of pain there is healing, joy unspeakable, peace that passes understanding, and love. On the other side of the Cross is resurrection. When we substitute emotional love for the Word of Christ we may avoid pain, but we also turn away from the love of God waiting for us in the midst of the pain and on the other side of the pain. Those in life together can trust their heavenly Father and Lord Jesus to guide them by the Word, through good times and bad, through times of mutual understanding and times of misunderstanding, through clarity and perplexity – knowing that as they mutually submit to the Word and to one another in Jesus Christ that Christ is well able to shepherd them in the Way of Life, in Himself…in life together.