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)
Second, confession of sin to a brother or sister in the Lord can bring with it the grace of certainty, as we move away from the self-deceived and dangerous hypocrisy of attempting to confess (only) to God rather than to other Christians:
“Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to a holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness? Self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin; this can be accomplished only by the judging and pardoning Word of God itself. Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sin everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light. But since the sin must come to light some time, it is better that it happens today between me and my brother, rather than on the last day in the piercing light of the final judgment. It is a mercy that we can confess our sins to a brother. Such grace spares us the terrors of the last judgment.” (pp. 115-16)
Third, Bonhoeffer reminds us that the only qualification for hearing confessions from others is living under the Cross. Those who are closest to the Cross–and therefore most removed from boasting in their own (non-existent) righteousness–are the safest people in the world for other sinners to open up to:
“Anybody who lives beneath the Cross and who has discerned in the Cross of Jesus the utter wickedness of all men and of his own heart will find there is no sin that can ever be alien to him. Anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross will no longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother. Looking at the Cross of Jesus, he knows the human heart. He knows how utterly lost it is in sin and weakness, how it goes astray in the ways of sin, and he also knows that it is accepted in grace and mercy. Only the brother under the Cross can hear a confession. It is not experience of life but experience of the Cross that makes one a worthy hearer of confessions. The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of men. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ. It is not lack of psychological knowledge but lack of love for the crucified Jesus Christ that makes us so poor and inefficient in brotherly confession.” (pp. 118-19)
“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:6-10)
“Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)