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February 9, 2010

By Nick Nowalk

Good books should be reread throughout our lives for an assortment of reasons.  One particular consideration that ought to drive us into the cultivation of this discipline is simply the passing of the years.  As we grow older our changing insights, questions, experiences, and our deeper awareness of our own brokenness and inadequacy conspire together to make great authors more helpful to us than when we were younger and more immature.  What may have bounced ineffectively off one’s youthful, unformed heart a decade ago now lands with immense force, simply because you have become a more well-worn (and, hopefully, humbled) traveler in a different season of the journey.

Or at least this seems to me an accurate way to describe the unexpected impact Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little gem, Life Together, had on me when I returned to it recently.  I remember not being very impressed with it in college.  Such an indifferent reaction embarrasses me now.  I had earlier read and loved his highly regarded The Cost of Discipleship, but Life Together seemed too focused on the community (rather than on the rugged individual taking up his or her own cross and following Jesus faithfully), too aesthetic, too gritty, and not enough occupied with deeper theological concerns.  Don’t misunderstand me to be claiming that I once thought it a bad book–far from it.  But this Bonhoeffer piece didn’t do much for me at the time, and was quickly forgotten.  Renewing my acquaintance with it has been eye-opening in the best possible way.

I am tempted to try to highlight many aspects of the book’s genius in the excitement arising from my new found discovery.  But I will content myself here to let Bonhoeffer speak for himself on the reality of confession of sin.  Admitting our trangressions regularly to one another within the Body of Christ is an increasingly lost art (for many reasons, no doubt).  The final chapter in Life Together provoked a deep restlessness in me to see this trend reversed among followers of Jesus.  What would it look like for this discipline, this habit, this routine to be reclaimed among us, to actually become normal when Christians gather together?  To propel us in that direction, perhaps these selections from Life Together can stir up such holy desires and sanctify our imaginations at the prospect of what could be in our communities of faith.

First, Bonhoeffer illustrates how the confession of our sins to one another can lead us from isolation to community:

“He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.  It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness.  The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners.  The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.  So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners.  Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous.  So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy…In confession the break-through to community takes place.  Sin demands to have a man by himself.  It withdraws him from the community.  The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation.  Sins wants to remain unknown.  It shuns the light.  In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person.  This can happen even in the midst of a pious community.  In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart.  The sin must be brought into the light.  The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged.  All that is secret and hidden is openly manifest.  It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted…The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power.  It has been revealed and judged as sin.  It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder.  Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother.  He is no longer alone with his evil for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God.  It has been taken away from him.  Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.  Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God.  He can confess his sins and in this very act find fellowship for the first time.  The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ…If a Christian is in the fellowship of confession with a brother he will never be alone again, anywhere…” (pp. 110-13)

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