THE MINISTRY OF HOLDING ONE’S TONGUE
(from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)
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 judgement 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 3:2). Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him. This prohibition does not include the personal word of advice and guidance: on this point we shall speak later. But to speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will; for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers always creeps in when it is seeking to create mischief.
This is not the place to discuss the limitations upon this rule in particular cases. They must be a matter of decision in each instance. The point, however, is clear and Biblical:
“You speak continually against your brother and slander your own mother’s son. These things you have done and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like you. But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face.” (Ps. 50:20-21).
“Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him, speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (Jas. 4:11-12).
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Eph. 4:29)
Where this discipline of the tongue is practiced right from the beginning, each individual will make a matchless discover. 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 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 the 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.
In a Christian community everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable. A community which allows unemployed members to exist within it will perish because of them. It will be well, therefore, if every member receives a definite task to perform for the community, that he may know in hours of doubt that he, too, is not useless and unusable. Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong but also the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of fellowship.
Not self justification, which means the use of domination and force, but justification by grace, and therefore service, should govern the Christian community. Once a man has experienced the mercy of God in his life he will henceforth aspire only to serve. The proud throne of the judge no longer lures him; he wants to be down below with the lowly and the needy, because that is where God found him. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” (Rom. 12:16).