This article is based on a talk given at the CCL evening, “How to find your best self”.
Where do I meet my best self?
This essay takes up where David Hohne’s piece on Dietrich Bonhoeffer left off. David outlined Bonhoeffer’s view that when Jesus Christ confronts us (as he confronted Paul on the Damascus road), he exposes the total inadequacy of our attempts to make sense of our own lives and craft an identity for ourselves. The shabby little construction we’ve built for ourselves—either by thinking our way to it or choosing our way to it—falls to pieces. And standing amidst its rubble, our inwardly curved hearts begin to turn outward: we find our attention being drawn away from ourselves to the figure standing before us, and we ask, “Who are you, Lord?” Jesus Christ simultaneously destroys my rebellious and puny efforts to make me the centre of my own universe, and wonderfully gives me a new, redeemed identity or self with him at the centre.
But this leads us to two further questions: who exactly is this new me—this new self? And where can I find him?
1. Who is the new me?
When Jesus Christ confronts us and draws us out of ourselves, he reveals two things to us: he reveals who God is, but he also reveals to us who we are. And the two are very closely connected.
a) Christ the man-for-others reveals God to me
As David explained, Bonhoeffer describes Christ as “pro me”—as for me and for us. In revealing God to us, Christ reveals a God who, by his very nature, is “outward-looking”—who is for us. He is not a removed or distant God, or a self-enclosed God who exists only for himself; he flows out to others. In his very being, he is love.
This is seen in his creation of the world and of humanity. Creation is an act of generosity, in which God freely brings into existence persons other than himself—beings who have a reality and an agency separate from his own who can relate to him. Creation is an act of unconditional love—the unmerited giving of life to another.
And of course, the love of God is revealed most starkly and gloriously in the incarnation, death and resurrection Jesus Christ.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, [says John] that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)
In Christ, we see God acting in love pro me, and doing so freely and graciously from the outside—crashing into our world and into each of our lives, smashing through the inwardness of our sin, selfishness, rebellion and rejection of God, emptying himself in humiliation for others, and dying so that we might live. Christ is the man-for-others—the man who shows us who the God-for-others really is.
b) Christ reveals myself to me
In sending Christ (the Christ who is pro me), God doesn’t only reveal himself and his nature as love; he also reveals us to ourselves in two ways.
Firstly, we see the reality of our rebellious selves with a terrible clarity. We realise that we are the people hanging there on the cross with Christ—the people deserving judgement, the people being crucified. A light shines in our darkness and exposes all the things that are hidden there. In that sense, the cross starkly reveals our sinfulness to us and our complete inability to do anything about it.
But secondly, the crucified Christ also shows us what man was always meant to be and created to be—that is, to be for others: to be in relation to others and to love others.
In contrast to the “heart curved in on itself” (Luther’s great description of our natural, sinful states), Christ reveals to us a new self—the self we were created to be—the self that curves out to others. In Christ, we see who we were always meant to be—people who find their meaning and existence not in our own little autonomous quest to be something ourselves, but people who exist to be in relation to others and to love others through Jesus Christ.
Our freedom to become who we really should and could be is a freedom just like God’s: a freedom that is expressed for others. God is quite free: he can do whatever he likes. But his freedom is a freedom not from us, but for us: he pours himself out for us. And freedom as a human being is the same: it’s freedom for others.
In Creation and Fall, a series of lectures Bonhoeffer gave in Berlin on the image of God, he argues that the image of God is not a bundle of properties that we have—such as having the ability to reason, or having a soul, or being capable of morality, or some similar bundle of properties. He suggests that humanity is created in the image of God in that, like God, we are relational beings—man and woman—who are created to be for others, as God in himself is for others. 1 John 4:8 famously says that “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love”. We could give that a bold little twist and say, following Bonhoeffer, that “Anyone who does not love does not know himself, because man is love”. We are created to be like God—selves who are fundamentally for others and in relation to others.
Through Christ grabbing hold of us and standing at the centre of our reality, we discover this most remarkable thing: our selfish quest to be our best selves was misguided from the start. The best self we were looking for in the debris of our own lives is actually found in Christ—and through him, in loving other people.
And so the new self that Christ reveals is a radical overturning of the whole project of modern life, which is to become a happier, healthier, better, more complete, more realised, more actualized me. In Christ, that is all overturned and destroyed, and we are shown that the self we always should have been, and which we are now liberated to become in him, is not autonomous and individualistic, but fundamentally related in love to others.
2. Where do we meet Christ?
If our new self is only to be found in Christ, the next question is, “Where is Christ to be found?” Where do we confront or meet this Christ who confronts us, draws us out of ourselves and shows us a new self?
a) In Christian community, we meet the Word from outside
When we talk about meeting Christ or being confronted by Jesus, it might evoke a kind of mystical encounter in which Christ, in some mysterious way, “meets us”—in a vision, or in a personal spiritual experience of some kind—and changes our lives.
This is not what Bonhoeffer is talking about at all. He insists, as the New Testament does, that Jesus confronts and encounters us in one way only: through speaking to us. It’s in the gospel word that Christ meets and confronts us. And according to Bonhoeffer, that word comes to us in two main ways: it comes through the visible word of the sacraments, but most especially, it comes through the lips of his people. As God’s people speak and confront others with the gospel word, Christ meets people and draws them out of themselves.
This speaking happens in the community of Christ. The German word Bonhoeffer uses for this—Gemeinde—is not quite the same as our word “church”. It overlaps with “church”, but is not quite the same. He says this:
Christians encounter both death and life only in the Word that comes to them from the outside, in God’s Word to them … It can only come from the outside. In themselves they are destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside; and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing us redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
But God put this Word into the mouth of human beings so that it may be passed on to others. When people are deeply affected by the Word, they tell it to other people. God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians, in the mouths of human beings. Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves without cheating themselves out of the truth. They need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation. 1
This is why the idea of community is so important for Bonhoeffer: it’s the place where Christ encounters us, meets us and changes us, because it’s in the community of Christ that that word is spoken one with another.
b) What does Bonhoeffer mean by “Christian community”?
What, then, does Bonhoeffer mean by “Christian community”? He doesn’t mean just any gathering of people, although it is always a gathering of at least some people. He doesn’t mean that we encounter Christ and ourselves in the warmth of a community, as if the community experience itself was the mediator of Christ. Nor does he mean that the church as a structure or institution is the bearer of Christ, as if we could construct a body or an institution that infallibly and always communicated Christ’s word.
By community, Bonhoeffer means the reality that Christ himself creates by speaking his word in different circumstances and situations. He means that through Christ, we belong to each other and we speak God’s word to each other, and wherever that happens, there is Christian community—there is Christ giving us the gift of himself through the lips of other people.
Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily community of many years, Christian community is solely this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. 2
Bonhoeffer wrote those words in his book Life Together to describe a kind of “Moore College of Germany” in his time. He had established the Finkenwalde Seminary as a community of theologians and students who would live together, pray and sing and read the Bible together, study together and be a Christian community together. Life Together is really about that community and the principles by which he wanted it to live. Fascinatingly, he spends quite some time in that book speaking against the idea of an emotional community—that is, a community based on personal relationship only, or an emotional desire for community and togetherness. He speaks quite scathingly of the dysfunction that can arise when that is the kind of community we seek, as opposed to one that is really based on Jesus Christ and him alone. Jesus Christ himself is the one who draws us together with other people and gives us a connection with them. Jesus Christ is at the centre of the relationship and community. He remains the mediator not just between God and us, says Bonhoeffer, but between us and us. It’s only through Jesus Christ himself that we can have any genuine community, one with another.
c) In Christian community, we are set free to love others through Christ
In Christian community, then, we are set free to love others through Christ. As we meet and relate to one another, we not only meet Christ as the word is spoken to us by others, we bring Christ to others as we speak that word to them. We’re set free to love others in and through him—set free, in other words, from the inward curve of our natures to an outward curve to others.
This only can happen through Jesus Christ. Just as we really only understand ourselves and God through Jesus Christ, so we can only relate to others properly through Jesus Christ. We can only really know and understand other people as we see them with the eyes of Christ, as it were. Only as we speak to them as Christ speaks to them do we speak to them truly. Bonhoeffer writes,
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 the word of Jesus Christ alone …
Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person as seen from the perspective of Jesus Christ. It is the image Jesus Christ has formed and wants to form in all people.
Therefore, spiritual love will prove successful insofar as it commends Christ to the other in all that it says and does. It will not seek to agitate another by exerting all too personal, direct influence or by crudely interfering in one’s life. It will not take pleasure in pious, emotional fervor and excitement. Rather, it will encounter the other with the clear word of God and be prepared to leave the other alone with this word for a long time … This spiritual love will thus speak to Christ about the other Christian more than to the other Christian about Christ. 3
3. Conclusions and implications
We are most truly ourselves—we are our best selves—when Christ confronts us and sets us free from the inward curve of self-regard and self-improvement to be Christ for others. To become like Jesus—to become truly human—is to become a person for others. I see and meet other people through the eyes of Jesus. I see you as he sees you, and I seek your good and your benefit as he sees it and as he defines it. And I want you to be set free to be for others in the way that only Jesus can set you free.
This is really the message of Galatians 5 when you think about it: the Galatians had become trapped in a new project to improve their Christianity by adding the law to faith, and were slipping away from Christ to law-keeping and justification. Paul says to them:
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery …
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love … (Gal 5:1, 6)
The only thing that counts for anything is a faith in Jesus Christ that is active and worked out in love.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Gal 5: 13-14)
This is a radical view of human identity, human freedom and human community. It runs totally counter to our every instinct, and to the instincts and beliefs our entire culture is built upon—instincts and beliefs that we live in and swim in every minute of every day. Our culture is utterly committed to the quest of the autonomous self to find its own happiness, fulfillment and satisfaction in terms that it alone defines. We may deride the current batch of millennials as “the selfie generation” if we wish, but as David pointed out very astutely, the current generation is really just the louder offspring of the Baby Boomers, who were just as committed to the self-absorbed pursuit of a better, happier me. Our culture is largely organised around that principle—the quest to be the very best version of ourselves through consumerism, sex, sport, weight loss, or whatever it might be.
If this quest is futile and ultimately self-destructive, the first obvious implication is simply to wake up and become aware of the influence that our culture has on us in this area. It is constantly pushing an autonomous self-improving view of self as the presupposition of everything it does. In Christ, we must leave this behind and resist being drawn back into this way of thinking, even though our non-Christian family, neighbours and friends, and everything we see in every form of media, will assume that this is normal and right.
Just as significantly we need to resist being drawn into a Christian version of self-focused personal aspiration. We might label it the “soft prosperity gospel”—a gospel that regards Jesus as a kind of cheerleader and enabler of my personal aspirations and dreams—the one who will help me accumulate around myself the things I’ve always dreamed of being and becoming. The me with a successful marriage and family; the me with a great career; the me who is financially secure; the me who is creative and meaningful—it’s all the same. We might not fall for the blatant prosperity gospel that says, “Come to Jesus and get a BMW”, but we may well be seduced by a softer version that says, “Come to Jesus and your life will become a better version of the you you’ve always wanted to be”. The soft prosperity gospel is as blasphemous as the hard version, and Bonhoeffer’s critique of it is just as devastating.
A third implication concerns the importance of Christian community—by which I mean not only our Sunday gatherings, but every facet of our relationship with others in Christ. A Christian community is an encounter with others in and through Christ, where the word of Christ is spoken between us. Of course, it is not only speaking. As Bonhoeffer points out, there are other normal activities of Christian community that surround speaking and are drawn out by speaking: there’s listening; there’s gracious, helpful action based upon that speaking; and there’s bearing with one another as we speak the word to one another and struggle to put it into practice. They all culminate, Bonhoeffer suggests, in that fundamental practice of Christian community: being Christ to each other as we speak the word of God to each other.
That’s a rather different view of church. Church ceases to be somewhere I go in order to complain and be dissatisfied, or in order to just consume a certain product that is presented to me. It’s somewhere where I go to be Christ to others and for them to be Christ to me through the mutual speaking of the word of Christ. It’s where I can teach and encourage, rebuke and apply, and help others understand the word, and it’s where they do the same for me. That’s Christian community.
Finally, we can only begin to reflect on how this view of Christ and ourselves affects every sphere of our lives. If we have a view of ourselves as being for others rather than for ourselves, imagine what that would mean for our daily work: we would work not for our own advancement, satisfaction, dignity or identity, but for others—for their benefit, growth and flourishing.
In other words, this radical Christ-centred vision moves us from personal aspirations to interpersonal aspirations—from wanting to build my life into what I want it to be, to being ready to lay down my life for others—as, of course, Bonhoeffer himself literally did, in imitation of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together; Prayerbook of the Bible, edited by Gerhard Ludwig Muller and Albrecht Schonherr, translated by Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, Vol. 5, DBWE, edited by Geffrey B. Kelly, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1996, p. 32.
2 Ibid., 31.
3 Ibid., 44.