Bonhoeffer on self-denial, service, and identity
The church is the church only when it exists for others. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not by dominating but by helping and serving.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This statement has nothing to do with "unselfishness" - that abominable word never mentioned in the Bible, and with good reason. Bonhoeffer is just truly reporting the requirements for life, just as biological life requires certain items like air, food, and water. The alternative to this life of service is futility and death. Our identity is to live this way; otherwise we perish. Like Jesus, we do the will of God because to do so is our food, and for no other reason, or we won't do it at all.
None of this has anything to do with being nice, virtuous, or superior in any way. That's not the business of the Christian life. Our aim is simply to have life, which is found in the will of God alone.
Like anything else, we can counterfeit this. In one place Paul writes that he has made himself the slave of all, but elsewhere he says that if he were the servant of men, he would not be the servant of Christ.
Was he contradicting himself? We need to think about this. Abused people often learn to make nice on everyone and let themselves be walked on as a means of survival, but this is not service to God but the alternative. Thus, to paraphrase Paul in 2 Corinthians 7, the service of the world is death.
The service God calls us to is to do, like Jesus, what we see our Father doing. We have to see God serving people, and the first one we need to see being served is ourselves. If God does not serve us, we have no part in him, as Jesus tells us in John 13, and so we will be unable to serve anyone else in truth. The service we attempt in that case will always be tainted with slavery, sucking up, manipulation, spiritual pride, or some noxious mixture of these. If we don't learn to let God be our servant, we die and become a fountain of death to others.
Jesus comes to us as one who serves, and in him we see the Father, the Servant of all. As we permit him to wash us, we can become servants as his imitators, participating in his life, and with rivers of living water coming from our bellies like the temple in Ezekiel 47.
This afternoon, I felt the urgent necessity of going up to see my friends. On the way, I found a kid whose car had died in the middle of the main drag. I had to give him the bad news that it was probably his fuel pump and that he would have to have it towed away, but I did get to help him push it into a parking lot while he waited for his brother so he wouldn't get hit or at least have a conversation with the Chino cops. That turned out to be the whole purpose of my trip. God wanted to take care of this kid, even though he will probably never know that it was the unseen God, not really me, that served him. We need to become like that. It's a great life - living with God instead of chasing the empty praise of men - and the only alternative to defiance, rebellion, sucking up, flaunting our virtue, and all sorts of other painful futility.