Silence and Solitude (Bonhoeffer)

Tim Keller writes in the forward of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas that Life Together “is perhaps the finest single volume I have ever read on the character of Christian community.” I concur, for since I began reading it last week, I can’t shake myself from re-reading it, blogging on it, and discussing it with others over and over. Briefly,

  • Chap 1 on Community states that even a noble sincere Christian (perhaps myself?) can destroy authentic Christian fellowship by trying to impose his biblical idealistic “wish dream” on his Christian community.
  • Chap 4 on Christian Ministry stresses silence and listening before talking/teaching. (My wife loves to remind me that this is the most important chapter for me!)
  • Chap 5 on Confession encourages all Christians to confess their sins to one another without which we will become an elite Pharisees club, a collegium pietatis, an assembly of the pious and super apostles, where real sinners are not allowed to join.

My 4th and final blog on Chap 3 is silence and solitude. (Someday I may reflect on Chap 2–The Day with Others–about how Christians spend each day from morning to night.) Silence is crucial for Christians to hear the Word: “There are 3 purposes for which the Christian needs a definite time when he can be alone during the day: Scripture meditation, prayer, and intercession.” “Silence is nothing else but waiting for God’s Word. (Silence) is something that needs to be practiced and learned, in these days when talkativeness prevails.” “Let none expect from silence anything but a direct encounter with the Word of God.”

If you cannot be alone, beware of community. Why? “You cannot escape from yourself.” “Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone. Because they cannot stand loneliness, they are driven to seek the company of other people. There are Christians, too, who cannot endure being alone…(hoping to) gain some help in association with others. They (become) disappointed. Then they blame the fellowship for what is really their own fault.”

If you are not in community, beware of being alone. “If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Christ, and your solitude can only be hurtful to you.”

Only within the fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live in the fellowship. “Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in fellowship. Both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Christ.”

Alone and Community: Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. “One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.” “Along with … fellowship together there goes the lonely day of the individual. The day together will be unfruitful without the day alone.”

Silence and Speech. “The mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community. One does not exist without the other. Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech.” “Silence does not mean dumbness, as speech does not mean chatter. Dumbness does not create solitude and chatter does not create fellowship.”

“Silence before the Word leads to right hearing and thus also to right speaking of the Word of God at the right time. Much that is unnecessary remains unsaid. But the essential and the helpful thing can be said in a few words.”

Meditation. “Read God’s Word as God’s Word for us. Do not ask what this text has to say to other people. For the preacher this means that he will not ask how he is going to preach or teach on this text, but what it is saying quite directly to him. Often we are so burdened and overwhelmed with other thoughts, images, and concerns that it may take a long time before God’s Word has swept all else aside and come through. God’s Word…strives to stir us, to work and operate in us, so that we shall not get away from it the whole day long. Then it will do its work in us, often without our being conscious of it. Spiritual dryness and apathy, an aversion, even an inability to meditate…must not keep us from adhering to our meditation period with great patience and fidelity. ‘Seek God, not happiness’–this is the fundamental rule of all meditation. If you seek God alone, you will gain happiness: that is its promise.”

Prayer. “The most promising method of prayer is to allow oneself to be guided by the word of the Scriptures, to pray on the basis of a word of Scripture. Prayer means nothing else but the readiness and willingness to receive and appropriate the Word, to accept it in one’s personal situation, particular tasks, decisions, (clarification of our day), (preservation from) sins, and temptations….for growth in sanctification, for faithfulness and strength in our work.”

Intercession. “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. How does this happen? Intercession means no more than to bring our brother into the presence of God, to see him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace. Then everything in him that repels us falls away; we see him in all his destitution and need. Intercession is a daily service we owe to God and our brother. He who denies his neighbor the service of praying for him denies him the service of a Christian. The ministry of intercession requires time of every Christian, but most of all of the pastor who has the responsibility of a whole congregation. We should train ourselves to set apart a regular hour for it. This is not ‘legalism’; it is orderliness and fidelity. For the pastor it is an indispensable duty and his whole ministry will depend on it.”

Time alone with God enhances community together with others.


  1. James Kim

    Hi Ben, thank you for the wonderful article from Bonhoeffer. Peter Scazerro talked about similar ideas in his book, “Emotionally healthy spirituality”. He talked about the examples of the Benedictin monks disciplined life like this. “The monks were well disciplined with daily rules: (5 hours labor, 3 hours of study, many times a day have time of silence and solitude. They have fixed hour of prayer to be with God” Although it is not easy to follow the exact lifestyles of the monks, I believe the principle is important especially in this busy, busy life of 21st century. “Ora et labora” (pray and work) was their motto. This kind of lifestyle helped and contributed to maintain the western Christianity for the last 1500 years. More than ever before we need this kind of life style if we want to survive spiritually in this post Christian era.

    • Silence and solitude. Indeed, both are necessary for all Christians to be healthy. I think, though, what this generation so desperately needs is the calm, clear, thunderous voice of a preacher who declares the ancient gospel of Jesus. 

      So many have turned the pulpit of our God into a cesspool of ambition or a platform for politics and personal gain. How I wish I could have heard Spurgeon’s sermons! What we long for, I think, is a lionhearted lamb:  

    • Just a footnote… as I considered Jesus’ words and the phrase “lion hearted lamb”, I realized what I really long for, and what Jesus really was, is a “lamb hearted lion“. I will explain more in further blogging, but I believe such paradigm shift is helpful to understand and articulate the gospel correctly.

      And Bonhoeffer’s words show me that he was clearly a lion, but with a lamb’s heart.  

  2. Silence and solitude is not an end in itself. As you alluded to, proper spiritual silence and solitude leads to bold, relevant, timely, and fearless speech (preaching, teaching, blogging), even touching on subjects that make others very uncomfortable or even angry.
    Jesus’ silence (and timely rebuke) silenced the Pharisees. Their only response was to kill him.
    Those who do not speak up and speak out openly (or they speak trash) expose that their moments of “imagined” silence might be cluttered with a lot of inner noise, such as their own ideas, expectations, preferences, agendas, etc.

    • Intriguing thoughts, Ben. Your phrase “imagined silence” interests me greatly and articulates something I haven’t been able to very well.

      If I characterize my inner life in this way, comparing now to 5 years ago, I would say my inner life used to be very noisy. I was always complaining to myself or imagining all sorts of ways to “rebel”. I was always trying to find God and had to constantly look for some sense of accomplishment to appease my soul.

      Now my inner life is silent, peaceful and joyful. I am filled with such a tranquility now that I am resting in grace. 

    • Dare I say, my heart has become my monastery and my soul has become a monk!

  3. Thanks, Brian. When your heart and soul is a monastery and a monk, then your community and fellowship becomes vibrant and life giving to others, both to “immoral” younger brothers, and even to “super-spiritual” older brothers, though the former may love you, and the latter may “hate” you. Personally, I need much work (and God’s mercy) on the latter.

  4. James Kim

    “We are slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to become angry. The wise man comes to God without saying a word and stands in awe of Him”(Francis Chan)
    Silence and solitude in prayer is mainly listening to Him and contemplating and gazing His beauty and praise Him. Through regular discipline in this kind of prayer our relationship can be restored. I need much discipline and to overcome my busy mind, because there are so much distractions, living in this Internet age. The first thing I do in the morning is to open up my e-mail and etc. rather than prayer in silence.

  5. James, would you elaborate more on this? “Through regular discipline in this kind of prayer our relationship can be restored.”

  6. James Kim

    Hi Brian, silence and solitude prayer contemplation cannot be done naturally. It requires spiritual discipline and decision to come to God and listen to Him regularly like Jesus did in Mark 1:35. Probably you know this already.

    • James, I do understand the value of spiritual discipline. My confusion lies in why you seem to be binding discipline with restoring our relationship with God. Is that what you are saying?

      I find often it is letting go of discipline when my relationship with God and other people are restored.

      I was hoping you could explain your thoughts further on how our discipline relates to restoration of relationship with God and with other people (family, friends, enemies, unbelievers, etc.). 

      In other words, why is discipline such a key to relationship? 

  7. An excellent reminder by Bonhoeffer to both beware of community, and to beware of being alone:

    What Bonhoeffer is saying is that if I spend much time with people but not with God, I should beware. The converse is also a caution: If I spend much time with God but not with people, I should also beware.

    True spirituality in Christ can only be lived out by the help of the Holy Spirit to both convict us (Jn 16:8 [ESV, NASB, HCSB]) and guide us (Jn 16:13).

    • Excellent reminder Ben, thank you! Yes I remember reading that in Life Together recently. Sometimes we need to be alone; sometimes we need to be in community. And this is PRECISELY why is it so important to respecte each other and the autonomy of each person. I hate the fact that most preachers only exhort one way: either they always exhort to “be in community” (I find this to be the case most often) or they stress the importance of silence and solitude (less rare though).

      The Lord instructs us to respect the seasons of life, and not exhort others to one process or method, especially we are not to exhort fellow believers to one kind of lifestyle because there is one Lord and one Shepherd.

  8. Yeah, Brian, respecting autonomy could be regarded as a significant weakness of UBF as a whole.

    This is because UBF originates its (core) values from the East, with a strong (over)emphasis on community and “absolute obedience to leaders” at all costs (even at the cost of marriage and family and personal individual preferences that are not in line with UBF), while most of the indigenous people (sheep), are more strongly influenced by individualistic tendencies.