Excerpt by Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1954
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.
Human love desires the other person, his company, his answering love, but it does not serve him. On the contrary, it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving.
Human love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a fellowship that has become false, for the sake of a genuine fellowship.
Human love is by its very nature desire – desire for human community. So long as it can satisfy this desire in some way, it will not give it up, even for the sake of truth, even for the sake of genuine love for others. But where it can no longer expect its desire (for community) to be fulfilled, there it stops short – namely in the face of an enemy. There it turns into hatred, contempt and calumny.
Right here is the point where spiritual love begins.
Human love makes itself an end in itself, an idol which it worships, to which it must subject everything. It nurses and cultivates an ideal, it loves itself, and nothing else in the world. Spiritual love, however, comes from Jesus, it serves him alone; it knows that it has no immediate access to other persons.
Jesus stands between the lover and the others he loves. I do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of the general idea of love that grows out of my human desires – all this may rather be hatred and an insidious kind of selfishness in the eyes of Jesus. What love is, only Jesus tells in his Word. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus will tell me what love toward the brethren really is.
Spiritual love is bound solely to the Word of Jesus. Where Jesus bids me to maintain fellowship for the sake of love, I will maintain it. Where his truth enjoins me to dissolve a fellowship for love’s sake there I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my human love. Because spiritual love does not desire but rather serves, it loves an enemy as a brother. Human love can never understand spiritual love, for spiritual love is from above; it is something completely strange, new and incomprehensible to all earthly love.
I must release the other persons from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Jesus became man, died, and rose again. Because Jesus has long since acted decisively for my brother, I must leave him his freedom to be Jesus’; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Jesus’ eyes.
Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other persons which he has received from Jesus; the image that Jesus himself embodied.
Spiritual love will not seek to move others by all too personal, direct influence, by impure interference in the life of another. It will respect the line that has been drawn between him and us by Jesus, and it will find full fellowship with him in the Jesus who alone binds us together. Thus this spiritual love knows that the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Jesus and that love of others is wholly dependent upon the truth in Jesus. It is out of this love that John the disciple speaks ‘I have not greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.’
Human love lives by uncontrolled and uncontrollable dark desires; spiritual love lives in the clear light of service ordered by truth. Human love produces human subjection, dependence, constraint; spiritual love creates freedom of the brethren under the word. Human love breeds hot-house flowers; spiritual love creates the fruits that grow healthily in accord with God’s good will in the rain and storm and sunshine of God’s outdoors.
The existence of any Christian life together depends on whether it succeeds at the right time in bringing out the ability to distinguish between a human ideal and God’s reality, between spiritual and human community.