Grumbling Into Gratitude


Along with C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the first Christian theologians I started to read when I came to an age where I wanted to start reading Christian theologians. While Bonhoeffer got some things wrong, there were a few things that he got very, very right. Ministering underground, in secrecy, in Nazi controlled Germany, with the constant threat of arrest and execution (which eventually happened on April 9, 1945 just two weeks before his concentration camp was liberated by the U.S.) Bonhoeffer is able to give us a unique perspective on Christian community. His extraordinary ministry flourished under persecution and the Christian community was bound through a particular sense of togetherness.

In his landmark book Life Together he gives a perspective on thankfulness in Christian community that I’m convinced was influenced by the persecution around him. His main point is unremarkable: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this.” (21) His application of this idea is where his love for God’s people and his shepherd’s heart shines through.

One of my favorite ways he applies this idea to community among brothers and sisters is by showing how Christian community is a divine reality not an ideal to which we might aspire. He condemns what he calls the “visionary dreaming” of brothers and sisters who critique the fellowship of God’s church and are constantly on the prowl looking for ways to hold others to his own standard of how we should do church together (27). Bonhoeffer confronts the “idealistic dream that binds the hearts of men and women” in churches rather than the spilt blood and broken body of Christ (28). While condemning this sort of attitude, he admits its consistent presence among the church and shows us how to strip it of its power and turn it into thankfulness.

“Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together — the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.” (28)

Brothers and sisters as we move into a season for gratitude and thanksgiving, let’s heed the wisdom of a German pastor who was familiar with disillusionment and sin in his persecuted community. When our hearts want to respond to a brother’s careless action with grumbling, or a sister’s accusing glance with complaining, or a pastor’s dismissive comment with moaning, let it instead be an opportunity for gratefulness and thanksgiving. Instead of holding each other to our idealistic vision for community, let us be filled with thankfulness that it is not ours or anyone else’s standard we must aspire to but the reality of community purchased for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For “when the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship” (29).

Bonhoeffer, Deitrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. Harper Collins: New York, 1954.
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