“Finally, one extreme statement must still be made, without any platitudes, and in all soberness. Not considering oneself wise, but associating with the lowly, means considering oneself the worst of sinners. This arouses total opposition not only from those who live at the level of nature, but also from Christians who are self-aware. It sounds like an exaggeration, an untruth. Yet even Paul said of himself that he was the foremost, i.e., the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). He said this at the very place in scripture where he was speaking of his ministry as an apostle. There can be no genuine knowledge of sin that does not lead me down to this depth. If my sin appears to me to be in any way smaller or less reprehensible in comparison with the sins of others, then I am not yet recognizing my sin at all. My sin is of necessity the worst, the most serious, the most objectionable. Christian love will find any number of excuses for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no excuse whatsoever. That is why my sin is the worst. Those who would serve others in the community must descend all the way down to this depth of humility.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together
Before I proceed, I want to say that I've shared only an excerpt from the book and if you haven’t read it, yes there are entire sections on confession and holding each other accountable. I wanted to say that so no one makes the mistake of dismissing the sentiment above or what I'm about to write as some kind of “everything is permissible, even blatant sin” argument. As much as I love and agree with the statement, “Christian love will find any number of excuses for the sins of others,” I do not, in fact, believe that means we should pretend that everyone can do whatever the hell they want with no consequences.
That said, I finished Life Together and think I've made peace with Bonhoeffer. I found so many insights in the second half of the book that it will take me years to process all of them. I may have a college degree from a Christian university and be a life-long reader, but I am still pretty new to reading theology. It can be inspiring, but sometimes frustrating and difficult to process. I'm learning as I go. I'm glad I committed to finish reading the book, because there is a lot I would have missed if I had stopped reading when I found the first part difficult to manage.
I think there are some things we each believe on some level, but that we don't fully understand until we read or hear them explained in a way that "clicks" with our own mind and heart. For example, when I was reading Exclusion and Embrace and I knew as I was reading I had always believed so much of what was in that book, but I hadn't put in the years of research and studies required to be able to explain what I believed with the wisdom and depth of insight in which Miroslav Volf is so fluent.
I had a similar experience when I read the above passage from Life Together, only this time with a twinge of realization of how far I am from that ideal. Of course I, like many people, don’t think my own sins are really THAT reprehensible in comparison to the sins of others, otherwise I probably couldn’t live with myself. But I am deceiving myself to think that when I mess up it is somehow not as bad as when others do. Thinking my sin is more acceptable or is more easily forgiven is prideful and wrong. Sin is sin.
It is okay to be disappointed when I feel that others have completely missed the spirit of love by clinging so tightly to the letter of the law. It is right to call out abusive words and actions. But none of that can be done from an attitude that I am more right or have the upper moral or spiritual ground. I can believe with all my heart that what someone has said or done is so wrong that I can’t even reconcile it with any thought of decency. Yet, I still must not think that my sin or where I go wrong is somehow acceptable compared to what I perceive to be that person's sin or where they go wrong.
I have to be accountable for the things I do and where I fail. I have to own the times I am wrong. I have to be humble enough to say that even though I can see those things right in front of me that seem like GLARING NEON SIN BILLBOARDS on others, I have to know that my own sin billboards are twice as offensive.
For quite a while I felt that I should speak up and point out what I considered to be glaring errors in the way others behaved or how they thought of certain things. I felt that because I was learning to think differently about things and that I should help others get there too. But that isn’t my job. My job is to listen. My job is to focus on removing the proverbial plank from my own eye.
It is a struggle to "descend all the way down to this depth of humility," let alone to stay there. It is always a temptation to justify my shortcomings by comparing them to what others do that I'd like to think is worse. But after spending time with this passage over the past few days, I realize I have no grounds for comparison. I have no grounds for feeling superior. I have no grounds for excusing myself while condemning others. Humility and love are the only acceptable lenses through which I can view the sins of others. My sin is the worst and I must act accordingly.
"This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it:
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—
and I am the worst of them all."
1 Timothy 1:15