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Bonhoeffer on Love

January 26, 2009

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who opposed the Nazi Regime. Eventually he was banned from any form of public speaking in Germany. He was offered a teaching position on the safe shores of the United States but chose to remain in hostile Nazi Germany in order to love and serve his people. He spent many years in prison for his protests against the Nazi regime and wrote several books. In his book Life Together he explores the meaning of Christlike love and Christian community.

Human Love vs. Spiritual Love

Bonhoeffer makes a distinction between human love and spiritual/Christlike love. From the cold, lonely confines of his cell he wrote this about love: “Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake. Therefore, human love seeks direct contact with the other person; it loves him not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself…It desires to be irresistible, to rule. Human love has little regard for truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person.”[1] Human love ultimately fails us. Why? Because it exists ultimately for that person whom we are trying to love. Because its ultimate aim is making much of a person instead of making much of God. If God is the most important, most beautiful, most pure person in the universe, then it would only make sense that our ultimate love fall on him. But we have betrayed him. We have sought lesser loves and as a result, our love for others fails, flounders. Bonhoeffer points out that human love bent on failure because it is ultimately self-serving not self-crucifying. It loves another by binding together, selfishly holding close instead of freely serving. In particular, he notes that human love does two main things. One, it seeks to be irresistible/attractive (and make much of itself) and Two, to ruling/demanding over others (and make little of others).

Attracting Love

How might attractive love work? One expression of human love is built on attracting another, through looks or through intellect. Its aim is to win another person’s affection, attention, and devotion. It is less love and more manipulation. This person gets a thrill from being noticed, desired. These people are everywhere in my gym…and sometimes I am one of them. Human love can be manipulative. We want people to notice us, to attract them to us, so we do certain things in the name of love. Then you get married, and we love to be loved. We serve to be served. We show affection to receive affection and if our love is not reciprocated we recoil or grow angry. It makes the truth relative because it aims to please the other at any expense. Not even the truth can come between the two persons in human love. Perhaps you know someone like this? They will do anything for someone else in the name of love. They will even lie. I know someone like this who lies to me all the time. She tells me that she goes to church when she does not because she thinks I will approve of her if she does go. Her human love dispenses with the truth in order to maintain some kind of relationship which is really no relationship at all. I am merely an end to her means of feeling accepted and loved based on some weird rules she has made up about going to church as a basis for my acceptance of her. Human love sacrifices truth, and in so doing, proves that there it is hardly love at all, but instead a kind of lust for personal meaning and significance. This love attracts others to a person that really doesn’t exist. Human love is destined to fail, unless, the love begins from outside of us and end outside of us. If our love arises from God and is expressed in genuine service and sacrifice to others in order to show our love to God, the all of a sudden our love becomes true and meaningful.

Demanding Love

If I come home after a long day of work and find that the house is messy. I can exercise human love which cleans with a grudge, sacrifices with a scorecard. Eventually this human love, though appearing noble on the outside, is quite corrupt and falls apart under pressure. Eventually I clean with a weird vibe; I’m upset I’m having to sacrifice again. I am not loving. The scorecard comes out and I enumerate my acts of love, proving them to be hardly loving at all but rather ways to rule over my wife. My superficial sacrificiality is exposed and my love becomes demanding—I demand the house be clean! Others of us demand affection from our spouses. Or we demand attention, respect, but we do not love them. We do not serve them. We do not sacrifice for them. We cling onto them and demand. However, if I come home and clean the house as a genuine act of service, resting in the perfect love and example of Christ, cruciform love, then I keep no grudge or scorecard. I simply clean from Christ to Robie and for Christ. I draw on the rich self-crucifying love of Jesus to serve my wife and aim to magnify his cross-centered love in service of my wife. This is spiritual love. Its end is ultimately Christ and its resources are infinitely deep. Does this render your love cheap or second rate? No, because human love has another agenda, self-love, reciprocated love. Only the sacrificing love of Jesus can free us from self-love to truly serve one another. God is love and we know him in that he gave up himself for us. If this is love, then turning to Jesus for love fills, not drains, our actions with virtue. How then do we get this love. How can we know Christ? Jesus stands between me and my wife and enables me to love her with a spiritual, holy love. Because I am loved perfectly by God in Christ, I need not fear the disapproval of my wife, since I do not love her as an ultimate end. I love her through Christ. I tap into a Love that frees me from trying to rule over her with my love and begin to truly love and serve her. From the place of perfect acceptance and love in Christ, I can truly serve and honor and love her.

[1] Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 30-31.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sara permalink
    January 26, 2009 6:04 pm


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