“Wherever the service of listening, active helpfulness, and bearing with others is being faithfully performed, the ultimate and highest ministry can also be offered, the service of the Word of God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 80.
Bonhoeffer now explores what it means for brothers and sisters to speak the Word of God to one another, not as a pastor from the pulpit, but as Christians living life together. He writes of “all the comfort, the admonition, the kindness, and the firmness of God” that might be communicated in our relationships. He points out (page 81) that “if proper listening does not precede it [speaking the Word], how can it really be the right word for the other?” He points out that if we are not being helpful in service to others then our words lack credibility.
We must listen before we speak, we must bear with others before we speak, we ought to be aware of our own failings before we speak – but speak we must for “… on the other hand, who wants to accept the responsibility for having been silent when we should have spoken?
Paul writes to the Colossians (3:16), “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hears to God.” The New Testament picture of life together is every member of the body serving the entire body; this includes speaking the Word of Christ to one another as a way of life – not as something that only occurs in structured settings.
Bonhoeffer discusses the tension inherent in the idea of being a people who speak the Word of God to one another…and to others. As he has previously discussed, we are not called to dominate others or to make others into our image of what they should be. We are not called to stamp our motif of religious life on others. We are not called to arrogantly presume to know what is best for others. We are called to listen, to pray, to intercede, to be respectful…and then to speak. As James writes, the wisdom from above is first peaceable – those who think they must shout and clothe their words with super-spiritual code words and jargon don’t understand the spirit of the Lamb and the One who will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoking flax.
“Other persons have their own secrets that may not be violated without the infliction of great harm. Nor can they divulge them without destroying themselves” (pages 81-82). There are times when we need to explicitly confide and confess to another in an appropriate and wise fashion; and such times can bring closure, relief, release, and forgiveness. But we are not dentists looking to pull the teeth of others and we ought not to coax, force, or manipulate others to tell us things which perhaps they ought not to share, or are not ready to share. We ought to seek the healing and health and welfare of others; others are not here to make us look spiritual or wise, they are not here to entertain us with stories of their struggles – we ought not to use the world and its model of continual self-disclosure in our relationships with one another. There are likely things in all of our lives, things in our past (if we have lived long enough) that we must speak to God alone about…and if it should be otherwise then we can trust Him to reveal it to us.
Yes, we are to live transparently in our life together, and part of that transparency is that I don’t pretend to be someone I am not, it is acknowledging that outside of Christ I am capable of extreme wickedness, it is acknowledging that I have things in my past which I deeply regret and for which I have sought God’s forgiveness (and the forgiveness of others as appropriate). It is also respecting my brothers and sisters who make such a confession, and respecting whatever “secrets” they may have – loving them where they are and how they are as we walk this pilgrimage together. Then hopefully they will speak the Word of Christ to me, and hopefully I will love them enough to speak the Word of Christ to them. There is a tension, but it is a healthy and holy tension, a tension of the sacred, a tension of caring for friendships, a tension maintained in the humility of sensing and knowing that we have invited one another to share life together in Jesus Christ.