Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Day Alone

Anyone who knows me knows my fascination with everything written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor in the mid 1900's who died at the hands of the nazi's at the close of WWII. While I disagree with some important points of his theology, the one thing I find myself in nearly complete agreement with is his excellent book, Life Together. This book flowed from his practical experience as the leader of a tight-knit seminary. In this book, we find so much treasure on how to get along as Christians in community. Things like: what makes Christian community distinct from other kinds of groups, healthy love that serves versus 'selfish' love that consumes, the tragedy of trying to make others live up to your wishful image of love and community, the danger of allowing your mouth to utter even one word of gossip or slander, the activities a Christian community should do together, the struggle for self-justification at others' expense, the battle for 'weak' Christians to claim power over the 'strong' ones, how 'strong' Christians can dominate the 'weak' ones, the freedom of one Christian from another while living in community, the necessity of public confession and the blessing of the Lord's Supper taken in unity.

Each of these topics is enough for book-length study on its own, and I've piddled around with several of them in past posts. But the one topic that has recently struck me anew is one I haven't mentioned yet: the day alone. Bonhoeffer's chapter entitled, "The Day Alone" is a testament to his depth of thought and insight into human nature. He really thought a lot about these things. I've read numerous books on 'the church' or 'small groups' or 'Christian community' or 'fellowship' and you might have, too. But how many books on being a community have deep appreciation for being alone?

Bonhoeffer wrote, "Many persons seek community because they are afraid of loneliness. Because they can no longer endure being alone, such people are driven to seek the company of others. Christians, too, who cannot cope on their own, and who in their own lives have had some bad experiences, hope to experience help with this in the company of other people. More often than not, they are disappointed. They then blame the community for what is really their own fault. The Christian community is not a spiritual sanatorium. Those who take refuge in community while fleeing from themselves are misusing it to indulge in empty talk and distraction, no matter how spiritual this idle talk and distraction may appear. In reality they are not seeking community at all, but only a thrill that will allow them to forget their isolation for a short time. It is precisely such misuse of community that creates deadly isolation of human beings. Such attempts to find healing result in the undermining of speech and all genuine experience and, finally, resignation and spiritual death. Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community (italics in the original)."

Every sentence is filled with weight, and you find yourself saying, Wow, after each one. The last sentence is heaviest. My paraphrase: If you can't be alone, you'll suck being around others. That's not my attempt to sound cool. I mean that if you can't be alone for any length of time, content with just you and God, then you will suck from others what you can't get from yourself or God. This is idolatry, making another person or group give you some sense of security or peace or pleasure or significance. It's selfish.

And when you realize the person you're with (like a spouse) or the group you're with (like a church) isn't giving you what you think is your right, then you'll get scared and try your hardest to get them to perform like you think they should. You'll bribe: "Honey, why don't we go out tonight?" (for a spouse). Or "Why don't all of you in my small group come over for dinner?" (for a church). And then you'll measure everything that's said and done to see if it gives you some feeling of comfort. Sometimes that can last for awhile. But when such bribes don't eventually provide the payoff you're looking for, you'll manipulate: "Honey, we used to be so close, and now I feel so far away from you." (for a spouse). Or "I wonder why our church doesn't seem as loving as we used to." (for a church). So you're always expecting someone else to make you feel loved and accepted.

Now, most people love bribes or can't long stand manipulation without caving in, so this kind of unhealthy, idolatrous community can go on for some time unchecked. It's like a cancer in a marriage or a church. But eventually, something has to give, because your spouse, and your Christian community cannot be your God and the problem is you. When the bribes and manipulations don't seem to get you the community you're sure you deserve, you try to punish: "Oh, I didn't even realize we haven't spoken in days, is there something you want to talk about?" (for a spouse). Or "Let's skip church a few weeks and see if anyone even misses us." (for a church). Punishments are painful. Nobody likes them, least of all those who don't know why they're being punished. Most people who can't stand being alone punish people who don't even get it. So it's not going to work. You're just going to make yourself miserable while everyone around you wonders why.

When bribes, manipulations and punishments fail to fulfill the demand for a certain kind of community, it's time for separation: "I want a divorce because we're like two strangers living under the same roof." (for a spouse). Or "We need to find a church that actually loves and accepts us, where we can be ministered to." (for a church). So when you can't stand being alone, you go on a quest for the next spouse or church, hoping you'll finally find your 'soul mate' (for a spouse) or 'a real church home' (for a church).

If you'd just stop in your tracks, stop looking for another human being or group of human beings to bring you what they cannot, then you will have time to look in the right direction. The heart and soul of the day alone is the Word of God. Just you, sitting silently and humbly before God and his Word. What happens when you sit silent and humble before the Word of God? You are confronted. Not your spouse. Not your neighbor. Not your church. YOU. Pride goes to the Word of God to find fault with others, how they're not living up to your expectations. God says the Bible is a sword, but not for you to use against your brothers and sisters in Christ. It's a sword for each Christian to use to kill his own wicked selfishness so that when individual Christians come together, their flesh is too mutilated to kill each other with thoughts and words.

So if you're going to Scripture to accuse your spouse or your brethren, STOP IT! Go to Scripture begging God to help you be satisfied with him alone, so you have no need or desire to judge your brother or sister. Sinners go to the Word of God to talk, using Scripture like lawyers trying to bring suit against others. Saints go to the Word of God to silently listen to God bring them the cut of confrontation and the grace to cover the wound.

Sit before the Word of God and soak it in. Let it pierce and let it heal. Thank God for his beautiful gospel. You know the one, the gospel that tells of a Warrior King who knew how to spend his day alone, who eventually died alone on a cross. You know that gospel don't you? It's the news about the Savior who continues to accept you even though you've proven yourself entirely unacceptable to him. It's the news about a Husband who stays with his bride even when she proves to be a whore. Remember? It's that story about a Savior who laid down his life so that his followers could go to Heaven while using and consuming one another with misguided notions of marriage and fellowship.

The next time you wonder why you aren't feeling loved, the next time you go looking for a cause to your loneliness, the next time you're tempted to blame your spouse or your church for your lack of satisfaction, stop in your tracks and ponder whether you might not be ready to assess the quality of community because you've not yet figured out how to spend the day alone.