Just finished Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – again (see my review on the BookCellar site) and I absolutely loved the section that kicks off chapter four, a chapter entitled “Ministry.” In the chapter, Bonhoeffer discusses multiple areas of ministry in our “life together” including meekness, listening, helping, bearing, proclaiming and authority…but at the head of them all? The ministry of holding one’s tongue. This has got to be one of the most neglected areas of ministry across the land today. Allow him instruct us again in this lost art:
Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words. It is certain that the spirit of self-justification can be overcome only by the Spirit of grace; nevertheless, isolated thoughts of judgment can be curbed and smothered by never allowing them the right to be uttered, except as a confession of sin, which we shall discuss later. He who holds his tongue in check controls both mind and body (James 3:2ff). Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him…
Where this discipline of the tongue is practiced right from the beginning, each individual will make a matchless discovery. He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place where he can gain ascendancy over him and thus doing violence to him as a person. Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be. His view expands and to his amazement, for the first time he sees, shining above his brethren, the richness of God’s creative glory. God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. Now the other person, in the freedom with which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy, whereas before he was only a nuisance and an affliction. God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image. I can never know beforehand how God’s image should appear in others. That image always manifests a completely new and unique form that comes solely from God’s free and sovereign creation. To me that sight may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every man in the likeness of His Son, the Crucified. After all, even that image certainly looked strange and ungodly to me before I grasped it.
Strong and weak, wise and foolish, gifted or ungifted, pious or impious, the diverse individuals in the community, are no longer incentives for talking and judging and condemning, and thus excuses for self-justification. They are rather cause for rejoicing in one another and serving one another. Each member of the community is given his particular place, but this is no longer the place in which he can most successfully assert himself, but the place where he can best perform his service.
And then, a related point under the ministry of listening:
Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words (what a wonderful definition of too much ‘sermoning’! mf).
And one more Bonhoeffer thought to add to this wee thought thread, this time from the ministry of “proclaiming”:
The person who has really listened and served and borne with others is the very one who is likely to say nothing. A profound distrust of everything that is merely verbal often causes a personal word to a brother to be suppressed. What can weak human words accomplish for others? Why add to the empty talk? Are we, like the professionally pious, to “talk away” the other person’s real need? Is there anything more perilous than speaking God’s Word to excess? But on the other hand, who wants to be accountable for having been silent when he should have spoken? How much easier is ordered speech in the pulpit than this entirely free speech which is uttered betwixt the responsibility to be silent and the responsibility to speak!
Who dares force himself upon his neighbor? Who is entitled to accost and confront his neighbor and talk to him about ultimate matters? It would be no sign of great Christian insight were one simply to say at this point that everyone has this right, indeed, this obligation. This could be the point where the desire to dominate might again assert itself in the most insidious way. The other person, as a matter of fact, has his own right, his own responsibility, and even his own duty to defend himself against unauthorized interference.
Wow. What counsel to consider before we speak (pontificate), before we FB (once again, pontificate), before we blog (did I mention the word ‘pontificate’?)! What a foreign thought that we would prohibit ourselves from saying much that occurs to us – especially when engaging in the impersonal and faceless world of social media where we will “accost and confront” with “pious (or impious) prattle” to a degree that we seldom will face to face.
Lord may we grow in the ministry of holding our tongue…
“Where words are many, sin is not lacking…”