The Burden of Friendship

In my blog post, There’s No Such Thing As Perfect Community, we explored how America’s value of consumerism socializes us into people who live with the mindset that the world should accommodate to our precise expectations. Whatever goes against what we expect, we can abandon the product and return it—“your money back guaranteed.” Consequently, this consumerist mentality impacts how we go about our relationships. As soon as things get uncomfortable or go against our expectations, we can abandon community before things get too difficult. We “return the product.”

Our dear friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most prolific theologians in the realm of Christian community in the modern era, writes that there is no such thing as a perfect community. If one thinks she will ever find perfect community, she is merely kidding herself. It doesn’t exist – because as soon as you run into discord, disharmony, and troubles, you have found community in its truest sense.

Bonhoeffer expands on this thought in his classic book, Life Together, when he writes that coming face-to-face with people’s sin, discord, and mess—their burdens—is not only a part of Christian community, but it is expected. It is the duty of friends within Christian fellowship to forbear and sustain one another through whatever hardships or sin issues that rise to the surface.

He writes that God maintained fellowship with humanity (i.e., befriended us) specifically in bearing their burdens. Jesus suffered with them. He “bore” our burdens. He didn’t just live amongst the adulterers, the sick, the impoverished, the pompously pious, the smelly, the self-righteous, the ignorant, the weak and the broken and the lonely – he bore the weight of our sin by dying on the Cross. Bonhoeffer quotes Isaiah 53:4-5, which says “Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows… the chastisement of our peace was upon him.”

In other words: Jesus put up with our crap! He embraced our mess. Him befriending us meant bearing our burdens, and he willingly—excitedly!—accepted that consequence. And because Jesus is the perfect template of what our friendships with each other ought to look like, this means forbearing each other’s burdens is characteristic of Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes:

“It is the fellowship of the Cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian. If any member refuses to bear that burden, he denies the law of Christ.” (Life Together, p. 101)

Christian community bound by the divine, self-sacrificial love of Christ found within spiritual friendship is a burden. If it was burden-less, then it would merely be “pagan” community in Bonhoeffer’s mind, because a pagan “simply sidesteps every burden that others may impose upon him” (p. 100). Pagans evade burdens. Christians embrace them.

Here’s our takeaway from Bonhoffer: If you want spiritual friendship without the burdens of it, then you miss out on the joys of it. Spiritual friendship welcomes discord, discomfort, and disharmony, because it is only through forbearing our burdens with Christ in our midst can we overcome sin and be made holy. If friendship is discipleship, the very means through which we are made more like our Savior, then embracing the mess and discomfort in true community is a dire necessity.

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