Help from Bonhoeffer on Humility and Unity

In Philippians 2:1-4, Paul tells us to pursue unity through humility. Pride promotes division, but humility nurtures harmony. He pleads with these believers to be of one mind, one purpose, and one love by laying down their personal priorities and privileges.

Humility is cultivated as we consider the gospel-blessings received by grace (2:1), esteem others higher than ourselves (2:3-4), and follow Christ’s example (2:5ff). The Spirit gives us the mind of Christ (2:5) to counter the “me, me, me” voice screaming in my head.

In chapter 4 of Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer opens with one of the challenges the disciples faced (or created) that every local church must extinguish with the slightest sight of its smoke. “An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest” (Luke 9:46).

Though some division is purposeful, most is subtle, maybe even stirred up unknowingly. We often live unaware of how we act selfishly, out of self-protection, with walls put up we might not see, and with self-centered motives. Even in the local church, we think the ministry we serve in is most important or our opinions and ideas for what the church should do must be expressed and embraced. There are a thousand ways we might act selfishly, pridefully, and divisively.

“All this can occur in the most polite or even pious environment. But the important thing is that a Christian community should know that somewhere in it there will certainly be ‘a reasoning [argument] among them, which of them should be the greatest.’ It is the struggle of the natural man for self-justification. He finds it not only in comparing himself with others, in condemning and judging others. Self-justification and judging others go together, as justification by grace and serving others go together(91).

Bonhoeffer roots our serving others humbly in our justification by free grace (as Paul does in Phil. 2). Only those freely receiving grace, can freely give it. Only those amazed by how Christ humbled himself and served us can follow suit by humbly serving others. We need Paul’s words to pursue unity by practicing humility, a humility grounded in the gospel of grace.

Below are five ways from Bonhoeffer to minister to others from a posture of humility (his chapter includes two more, so go read it). These aren’t always easy to do, and his chapter is a like wrecking ball to the ego, but it’s helpful to have clear steps for preserving and promoting unity through practicing humility.

1) The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue and Listening

Did you know you don’t have to say everything that comes to mind or get the last word One way we can humbly serve others well is holding our tongue. It takes true humility and the Spirit’s power to hold back that comment you really want to let loose. But just because you think of something, and just because you have an impulse to say it, doesn’t mean it needs said.

“Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him” (92).  There is a place for speaking, but we need to be slow to speak and quick to hear.

“Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear” (97). If we don’t listen before speaking we won’t actually know what the fitting word needing spoken might be. This simple act of selflessness goes a long way towards promoting peace as others feel heard and understood.

2) The Ministry of Meekness

The gospel makes us meek, not because we always think poorly of ourselves but because we’re given eyes to see who we truly are and are utter dependence on God’s mercy and grace. “Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think of himself” (95). Remember who you are by nature, your weaknesses, what God has forgiven you of, and that everything good in you or done by you is God’s work. A gospel-awakened heart sees the depths of our own sin rather than getting caught up the sins of others.

The gospel helps us be hones about our sinfulness (which decimates pride) but it also creates stability, confidence, and rest because we know we’re fully loved and accepted in Christ. We no longer have to prove ourselves or justify who we are by being the top-dog or climbing over others. Then we can bear insults, release the need to defend ourselves or retort back, or always clear our name.

3) The Ministry of Helpfulness

We’re often more than happy to give advice but are we willing to actually help? Words can be cheap but sacrificially serving others is costly. “We must allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions” (99). Rather than seeing people as impediments and interruptions to our plans, see them as the people God purposefully put in our path.

“But it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God” (99). Humble yourself through acts of helpful service to others, even when it’s inconvenient.

4) The Ministry of Bearing

This ministry is at the heart of the Church and the “one anothers” in the NT. We are to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). The greatest example of this is seen in Philippians 2 where Jesus bore on his back the full weight of our sin. Although we’re not like Jesus because he alone pays for sin, we are like Jesus in that we’re called to take up our cross by dying to self for the sake of others.

“It is the fellowship of the Cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian” (101). We might have to sacrifice what is a better option for us personally in order to put others before us. We will have to carry the burdens of others when life would be easier without them. Relationships are costly in that they require a lot from us, but as we bear burdens, concerns, and stresses, we reflect Christ’s humility.  Individualism and keeping our distance is easier, but it doesn’t cultivate oneness and unity like burden-bearing.

This is the nitty-gritty reality of being part of a community where we’re all sinners who continually must forgive, show patience towards one another, let love cover sin, and bear with one another. “He who is bearing others knows that he himself is being borne [by others too], and only in this strength can he go on bearing” (103). We each must be willing to absorb body blows at times and let our pride be wounded as we love others. And we must humbly acknowledge others are doing the same to us and for us.

5) The Ministry of Proclaiming

Just as there is a time for listening so also there’s a time for speaking. This isn’t preaching from the pulpit but the off-the-cuff encouragement of a fitting word. We are to “speak the truth in love to one another” (Eph. 4:15) and let the word dwell in us so we can admonish one another in all wisdom (Col. 3:16).

We can only do this when we have listened, actively helped, and borne one another’s burdens. We can speak to one another because we’re aware all of us are “lonely and lost if not given help” (106). We speak out of humility and the awareness of our need, and we speak as those willing to receive both encouragements and rebukes.

Bonhoeffer roots this in James 4:11-12, Ephesians 4:29, and the NT guidelines for how we should speak to one another. Rather than speaking ill of others, judging or condemning, asserting our authority, seeking control through comments, getting a jab in, or putting others in their place, we should speak to lift others up, affirm and encourage one another, point to God’s promises, give thanks rather than grumble, speak of our own need for mercy, and testify to God’s faithfulness.

Bonhoeffer adds that at times are words might wound in order to heal. “We are gentle and we are severe with one another, for we know both God’s kindness and God’s severity” (106). If we cannot speak both encouragements and exhortations and we cannot hear both, something is out of balance. When we speak the wisdom of God’s Word rather than our own opinions, we have greater confidence our words of truth will be gracious and our words of grace will be truthful.

Pursue unity by practicing humility.

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