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Between me and all others

Emotional, self-centered love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a community that has become false, even for the sake of genuine community. And such self-centered love cannot love an enemy, that is to say, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it. Both spring from the same source: emotional love is by its very nature desire, desire for self-centered community. As long as it can possibly satisfy this desire, it will not give it up, even for the sake of truth, even for the sake of genuine love for others. But emotional, self-centered love is at an end when it can no longer expect its desire to be fulfilled, namely, in the face of an enemy. There it turns into hatred, contempt, and slander. . . Self-centered love makes itself an end in itself. It turns itself into an achievement, an idol it worships to which it must subject everything. It cares for, cultivates, and loves itself and nothing else in the world. Spiritual love, however, comes from Jesus Christ; it serves him alone. It knows that it has no direct access to other persons. Christ stand between me and all others. I do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of a general idea of love that grows out of my emotional desires. All this may instead be hatred and the worst kind of selfishness in the eyes of Christ. Only Christ in his Word tells me what love is. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love for my brothers and sisters really looks like. Therefore spiritual love is bound to Christ alone. Where Christ tells me to maintain community for the sake of love, I desire to maintain it. Where the truth of Christ orders me to dissolve a community for the sake of love,. I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my self-centered love. Because spiritual love does not desire but rather serves, it loves an enemy as a brother of sister. It originates neither in the brother of sister nor in the enemy, but in Christ and his word. Self-centered, emotional love can never comprehend spiritual love, for spiritual love is from above. It is something completely strange, new, and incomprehensible to all earthly love.

~ Dietrch Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 43.


  1. Ah, I love dichotomous Lutheran thinking. It’s a straight shot from here to Anders Nygren.

    Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    And Paul.

    Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  3. Wes Ellis wrote:

    Dichotomous as it may be, I find this to be a beautiful quote! Thanks for sharing!

    Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I’d say its what J. Louis Martyn would call an “apocalyptic antinomy” such as the Bible commonly speaks of: this age v. the age to come, the spirit v. the flesh, freedom v. the law, etc.

    Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Bruce Hamill wrote:

    so is there no relationship between love and desire?

    Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink
  6. Zac wrote:

    Bruce, I like your comment as I think it draws out the key question that I would pose to Bonhoeffer: “By emotion, do you mean desire aimed towards sinful ends (ie. self-centered) or do by emotion do you mean desire “as such”?” Since really there is no desire “as such” (it is either desire aimed towards the good or not) I would take “emotional” here to mean desire being improperly aimed. Bonhoeffer is not concerned that our love manifests itself as desire (for indeed one could never say that when I love my enemy that desire is completely uninvolved or only ever suppressed) but rather that our desire manifests itself in the form of Christ.

    RE: Halden’s comments on J. Louis Martyn — I think the above distinction holds as I think in this case the “emotionally” that B describes as the form of love to condemn is the love or desire of this age, not the love or desire apocalypsed in the new age of Jesus Christ.

    Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  7. As much as I admire the quote, I agree with the first commenter that its somewhat polemic, and presents a false dichotomy. What Bonhoeffer seems to suggest is that sanctification makes no headway towards aligning our desires with God’s. If Jesus offered a play-by-play on how to interact with each person in our lives, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about discernment.

    Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 11:17 pm | Permalink
  8. elias wrote:

    I don`t agree with this qoute. people know what love is, maybe not perfectly, but they know. alot of people who don`t know christ and his teachings practice love for others and look after the needs of others.
    If we don`t know what love is how can it be that the world will be judged by it care for the needy and oppresed (matt 25)?

    Friday, July 30, 2010 at 1:03 am | Permalink
  9. roger flyer wrote:

    Bonhoeffer is perhaps the mater of false dichotomies? (Though he was German and unaware. Just a thought.)

    Friday, July 30, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  10. roger flyer wrote:


    Friday, July 30, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink
  11. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    If Bonhoeffer is the master of false dichotomies did some of that rub off on Driscoll? Somehow it seems more excusable in Bonhoeffer. Not quite sure why. ;-)

    Friday, July 30, 2010 at 8:38 pm | Permalink
  12. Jason Knott wrote:

    Let me go on record for the quote, “dichotomy” and all. Surely Bonhoeffer doesn’t commit himself here to the view that desire is left behind, as if Christians become cold automatons. The point, rather, seems to be that something comes in and traverses our desires as such. And important point in Bonhoeffer’s day, and in ours.

    Saturday, July 31, 2010 at 2:49 am | Permalink
  13. Jason Knott wrote:

    Automata. Sorry.

    Saturday, July 31, 2010 at 4:04 am | Permalink
  14. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    I’ve just begun N. T. Wright’s book on Justification and was reading where he says that many Christians make important points using arguments and rhetorics that go too far. This doesn’t mean they weren’t making essential points in their own time but it also means we’re not beholden to retaining every aspect and every implication of the language and argument used from that time in our time when we see limits. I would say it seems pretty obvious that’s what’s going on here. Having seen love of and promotion of community serve as the basis for all kinds of decisions I either simply disagreed with or found unethical I don’t consider Bonhoeffer’s statements to be a false dichotomy. A rhetorical dichotomy isn’t always a false one. We could talk about how extreme Paul’s dichotomy is between the spiritual and unspiritual and whether or not, as unbelievers have said for a while, Christians are automatically drawn to false dichotomies but I think that territory has been amply covered elsewhere.

    Saturday, July 31, 2010 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  15. “And such self-centered love cannot love an enemy, that is to say, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it.” What a statement! So true.

    Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 6:31 am | Permalink
  16. skholiast wrote:

    I see I am 2 weeks late in commenting on this, but as a staunch Bonhoeffer fan, it’s hard to resist. I think nearly all theology of any stripe is bound to be hyperbolic. This does not excuse loose or sloppy thinking, or paradox-mongering; but every genuine insight is bound, in isolation, to sound too strongly put. I want to bear in mind both this formulation by Bonhoeffer and at the same time the objections one immediately feels like raising. Dialectics is not quite the same as love, but it does cover a multitude of contradictions.

    Friday, August 13, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Permalink
  17. Tim McGee wrote:

    Sorry to jump in way late, but I wanted to point out that Bon. actually contests our ability to set up our own dichotomies by reminding us that we are under the rule of Christ. Given the context in which he is writing, Bon. effectively interrupts any “us” v. “them” logic by placing love out of the “natural orders” (where we justify our community and our rule) and into the context of discipleship. Between me and all others stands Christ, and therefore, the true “dichotomy” is never the one I create to solidify my community over against another but is the “dichotomy” between the right and left hand of God, or to put in Barthian terms, between the Yes and the No (which, as we know, isn’t an actual dichotomy, nor is it the gift of generic criteria that we can use to set up or establish our own dichotomies: the loving action is the one ordered by Christ to Christ’s mediation of my relationship with another).

    And Bonhoeffer has no problem with “non-Christians” loving others through Christ: his statement “Christ stands between me and all others” is true regardless of a person’s faith in Christ as mediator.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink

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