Bonhoeffer as Counselor: The Selfishness of Human Love

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor executed in 1945 for his part in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, had profound insight into the human heart and its self-centered depravity. His treatise on the nature of Christian fellowship, entitled Life Together, contains a piercing contrast between what he terms “human love” and “spiritual love.” Human love is that which the unregenerate man is capable of apart from God, but spiritual love is supernatural love that can only flow from true conversion. Without the Holy Spirit, human love can never give from a pure heart, but ultimately is self-serving. It is dominated by selfishness. Only a new heart from God, given at salvation, can love as God loves. Bonhoeffer’s counsel is some of the most insightful I have read. Because of this, I will let Bonhoeffer speak for himself with no further comment from me.

Unlike spiritual love, which loves freely, human, unregenerate love only loves when it can control people and use them to feed itself. “Likewise, there is a human love of one’s neighbor. Such passion is capable of prodigious sacrifices. Often it far surpasses genuine Christian love in fervent devotion and visible results. It speaks the Christian language with overwhelming and stirring eloquence. But it is what Paul is speaking of when he says: ‘And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned’ – in other words, though I combine the utmost deeds of love with the utmost of devotion—‘and have not charity [that is, the love of Christ], it profiteth me nothing’ (1 Cor. 13:3). 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 wants to gain, to capture by every means; it uses force. 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. 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.”

Unlike spiritual love, which desires truth and genuine community, human, unregenerate love feeds itself even at the expense of truth. “There are two marks, both of which are one and the same thing, that manifest the difference between spiritual and human love: Human love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a fellowship that has become false for the sake of genuine fellowship, and human love cannot love an enemy, that is, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it. Both spring from the same source: 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 to be fulfilled, there it stops short—namely, in the face of an enemy. There it turns to hatred, contempt, and calumny [false and malicious statement].”

Unlike spiritual love, which serves others, human, unregenerate love is idolatrous. “This is why human love becomes personal hatred when it encounters genuine spiritual love, which does not desire but serves. Human love makes itself an end in itself. It creates of itself an end, 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 Christ, it serves him alone; it knows that it has no immediate access to other persons.”

Oh, let us pray that what was said of the Thessalonian believers may one day be said of us: “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another” (1 Thess 4:9).

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