“We talk to one another about the help we both need. We admonish one another to go the way Christ bids us to go. We warn one another against the disobedience that is our undoing. We are gentle and firm with one another, for we know both God’s kindness and God’s firmness.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 82.
Bonhoeffer thinks it “inconceivable” that Christians not speak God’s Word and will to one another. This is, of course, the New Testament picture of the Body of Christ; encouraging one another, building up one another, correcting one another, weeping with one another, rejoicing with one another. We all have blind spots, none of us enjoy total vision and perspective, and we all have something to offer others. Sadly, we tend to see two extremes in the church; one extreme says nothing, the other extreme arrogantly spouts Scripture and “thus says the Lord” to the point of domination, manipulation, and cheapening the Bible – for the Bible becomes not a Word from God but a document forced into the service of man. Paul writes that we are to submit to one another in the fear of Christ; we ought to be conscious of the fear of God when we listen to the Word from a brother, and we most certainly ought to be conscious of the fear of God when we speak the Word to a brother. We ought not to listen apart from submission, and we ought not to speak apart from submission.
People who are quick to speak the Word to others are often people who have not first provided the service of listening and practical help. Those who never speak are often those who do not know the Word, or who do not want to take the risk of rejection and misunderstanding. Those who never speak often defer to social norms; social norms should never be the norms of life together; we are called not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the Word and the Holy Spirit. Do I love my brother enough to speak to him? Do I love my brother enough to listen to him?
Pride is an enemy of those who speak, of those who don’t speak, and of those who listen. Those who listen may pridefully reject the Word spoken to them. They may do this because they deny there is anything wrong with them, and they may also do it because of the vessel through whom the Word comes. It may be one thing for a well-respected brother to counsel us, but how do we react when a brother of low-esteem and humble means speaks to us? It is one thing for someone with whom we are comfortable speaks to us, but how do we react to a brother with whom we have nothing in common?
Pride is an enemy of those who speak for they can mistake themselves for the Word of God in the sense of thinking themselves to be something they are not. We know nothing worth knowing in and of ourselves, everything comes to us through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we have something to share with a brother, if that something is from God then it does not belong to us…we are but stewards. We are to share only what we have been given and no more, and we are to be careful with what we share lest we inject our own speculation. As Peter writes, we are to speak as the oracles of God, but we are not the oracles, it is God’s Word not ours. It is better to speak a little and stop, not going beyond what we know to be the Word. If we stop and are quiet and then have clarifying thoughts, we can speak again – but too much talking often takes us beyond the Word, diluting it, overlaying it with our “wisdom” and “common sense” and speculation. We can take others out on a limb of a tree that they were never meant to be. We do not want to create or foster dependence on us, but on Christ and His Word.
At this point I want to gently make an observation; there are those always seeking “a Word from God”, it is better to seek the Word of God rather than a Word from God. The Word of God will sustain us every moment of our lives, whereas seeking “a Word from God” (in the sense I use the term) creates not a life of relationship with Christ and others, not a life of the Word living and growing within us, but rather a mentality of neediness and immaturity and dependence on others. Interdependence in life together is Biblical, dependence on others for constant direction is unhealthy for the church. Preachers and teachers who foster dependence in others have departed from Biblical eldership and teaching – and this can take many forms.
Pride is also an enemy of those who do not speak the Word of God to brothers. They may be retreating within the walls of social norms, “We don’t do that around here. Religion is a private matter” (even in church!) They may be uncomfortable, which is generally good. They may be concerned of what others may think – “He is taking things too seriously!” They may not want to expose themselves and thus be vulnerable (who does?) Do we love others to the point of deciding not to protect ourselves? Agape does not protect itself, its nature is sacrificial; it does not protect but rather offers itself. If we feel like we are dying when we share the Word of God with others that is fine, for we are called to the Way of the Cross – dying may not feel like a good thing but it is a good thing.
As Bonhoeffer mentions, sometimes the words spoken to us are “inept and awkward” – but those words can still be the Word of God. Too often our focus is on the messenger or the medium through which the message is delivered, as C.S. Lewis wrote, there were three images he was always fighting against; his image of God, his image of others, and his image of himself. In other words, our perceptions are not always accurate and they can lead us to false conclusions and ways of living. (Consider Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress and Till We Have Faces for examples of how he dealt with this – one written at the beginning of his Christian life and one toward the end of his journey).
I recall words a brother once spoke to me about myself that were true, but I couldn’t hear them at the time because at the time he and I had a deep conflict between us (we had once been quite close). He could have spoken them more gently and more considerately, but the fact remains that what he spoke was true but I didn’t hear it because I was focused on who was saying it and how he was saying it and not on what was being said. Alas, we remain human…it will be liberating when this tent is put off and we are clothed with eternal garments.
Who are we speaking the Word of God to? Who is speaking the Word of God to us?