The Wish Dream

The following article comes from the book Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It applies to any church, community, or relationship. It is one of the most profound and helpful things that Bonhoeffer ever wrote.

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.

A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse.

Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.

He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise.

We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day?

Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ?

Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary (=favorable), because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.

In the Christian community thankfulness is just what it is anywhere else in the Christian life. Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for the daily gifts.

We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good. Then we deplore the fact that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experience that God has given to others, and we consider this lament to be pious.

We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even when there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our  fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ . . .

When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him in to this predicament. But if not, let him nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God.

Let him rather accuse himself for his unbelief. Let him pray to God for an understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in the consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren. Let him do what he is committed to do, and thank God.

Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature.

The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases. Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.

Click here to see my review of Life Together and how to order it.

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Comments

  1. PTD says

    God is not a god of emotions, but a God of truth – because emotions are fleeting, unreliable, confusing, ever-changing and easily manipulated. Truth is truth and does not change. You can be angry at your spouse one minute and love them the next. You may be angry at the parent who doesn’t parent well, whose children are yelling and bothering others so you say something and your anger turns to compassion when you discover his wife, the children’s mother just died.

    Most importantly, you may not feel God. You may feel God has left you. God is punishing you. God doesn’t care. God hates you. But those feelings are not the truth. Who God is, what God does, where God is – is truth not emotion. Truth does not depend on emotions. Emotions do not depend on truth. God is a God of truth.

  2. Matt says

    Please explain the quote ” God is not a God of emotions, but a God of truth”? Isn’t He the source from which our ability to have emotions comes from?

    • says

      DB wrote that line, so I’d be presuming to get into his head. But I *assume* he means following the emotions when they aren’t under the control of the Spirit. Which is a common occurrence.

  3. Al says

    God has a plan (dream) for man and in the context of DB article. We see His plan for community practiced in the garden. Eve was influenced to exchange God’s dream for one of her own, conjured by the devil, who of course has his own. Adam, faced with the idea of life with God, but without his wife, chose his own dream and life with her on their own. All 3 characters in this drama rejected the true dream, exchanging it for their own.

    Everyone born in Adam since that day has begun life without a relationship with God or with the ability to know God’s dream for them. So we build our dreams out of the things of this life and the world. We seek love, respect and acceptance from man and become idolators, dependent on man for what only God can give. We also seek to become gods by imagining a dream of our life, attaching our desires and beliefs to false objects, hoping they will fulfill our hearts.

    This is the “wish dream” of DB’s article. Each of us, based on our influences and experiences has formed our own image of what life must be, what love must look like, what family must be like and to the point, what church must be like for us to be fulfilled. As gods with our wish dream image as our central priority, we try to bend the rest of the universe, even God to fit the image. This is what DB is describing, the false image imagined by man of what Christian community “must be” for each individual man to meet his/her needs. My image of what my life “should be” competes directly with God’s dream in my heart.

    Note this profound phrase from the article: “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

    God allows adversity to frustrate our dreams that we might be disillusioned with them and abandon them for His. We must become disillusioned with other people and what they can provides, with Christians in general who are often chasing their own dreams (even great pastors) and then especially with self so that we can be freed from our own dream chasing.

    Great quote Frank! Thanks for sharing what God is giving you.
    Al

  4. says

    Great excerpt. We all enter a new experience with expectations. The willingness to allow God to adjust those expectations and persevere when things don’t go down how we thought speaks volumes about the heart of an individual.

  5. Meulepas says

    I always liked Bonhoeffer’s writing. Especially knowing the context, and, the courage he showed to walk the talk.

  6. Thomas Jones says

    This bit makes me angry somehow. I think I understand what he means: a person pursuing a vision without gentleness can be rough and hurt people. I’ve been that like myself, as well. Also, we Christians (maybe especially western christians?) don’t really understand how much God has already done, and therefore how much we don’t have to do.

    At the same time, though, I think we’re in far more danger of not dreaming enough; about what God wants to do in the church, about our own calling and who we’re meant to be, about what life could be like. I know that for me, in any case, the periods of my life (including this last year) where I’ve not been ‘visionary’ have been periods of boredom with life and resignation. Neither of those things are very Jesus-y. I hope that I have the humility now to dream and not be consumed by my own ideas, but I’d rather risk being ‘proud and pretentious’ than try to reconcile myself to a normal, unadventurous life.

    • says

      Guess you didn’t see my earlier comment. Vision and dreaming that’s motivated by flesh is wrong. Vision and dreaming that’s motivated and inspired by God’s dream is good and right. No reason to be “angry” over an excerpt from a book. Read the whole book before making a judgment.

  7. says

    This spoke to me right where I am recently. It is the most comprehensible bit of Bonhoeffer I’ve ever read–he is usually over my head, unfortunately. :(
    Many thanks for posting it!

  8. Lynn says

    My goodness, He looked straight into my heart and spoke to me through this.
    Thanks Frank
    Agape

  9. jpd says

    Brother Frank,
    A lot of us are in situations where we are with other believers, but they are not committed or even aware of God’s dream, God’s eternal purpose. God has worked in many hearts through what you have written to stir us up to want to pursue God’s heart. I don’t believe your intention was to tell people who are seeking God’s dream to just stick with it in institutional situations for the sake of “perseverance” or “unity”. That does not fit with what you have written elsewhere. I hear you giving a word of warning to those in non-institutional situations who would keep jumping from group to group looking for perfection to evaluate who’s dream they are truly pursuing. Am I understanding you correctly?

    • says

      JPD: First, I didn’t write that piece. So it seems you’re reading an awful lot into it that’s not there. Bonhoeffer’s piece applies to ANY Christian community or relationship, no matter what form. Second, I have never encouraged or asked anyone to leave any church — institutional or non-institutional. And I’ve gone on record saying many times that I have found more of Jesus Christ in some “institutional” churches than I have in some “house” or “organic” churches. To me, structure or location is never the issue. The issue is Jesus Christ and the measure of Christ in a given group. That has been my consistent testimony in all of my work. Finally, my focus right now is not on “church” as I’ve discussed in my post “Is Your Ministry in a New Season?” Most of the people who read this blog are people in institutional churches, and my focus on the blog since January has been the deeper Christian life (Andrew Murray’s term) which applies to all Christians in all kinds of churches. The truth is: There are people who understand the eternal purpose of God better in some “traditional” churches than in some “house” and “organic” churches. In short, Bonhoeffer’s words apply to any type of community or relationship. Hope that helps.

  10. Homer Owen says

    I feel one of the great problems we have in having a personal relationship with the Lord is to think that He is not emotional. Realizing where Bonhoffer lived I can understand his feelings about emotions. God so loves us that He came and died for us in a very emotional sacrifice fashion.

  11. SETH G. says

    This is a very challenging little read. I know that it has made me evaluate my approach to the community God has placed me in. One thing i really walk away with here is that we need to be very thankful for what God has given us in the moment. I know it is easy for me to look at my community and see potential greatness and lose track of what has already happened. It is too easy to get frustrated like that waiting to see more break through and renewed minds. Its important in shared life to not let that seep in. I think DB nails it. This is from my limited community life experience (3 yrs)

    That part about God hating visionary dreamers was interesting, and i still have to process that. I do know that there is a shift in the younger gen’s to dream with God. I’m not sure how DB would feel about that. Dreaming with God is different than dreaming for God. It seems like that could be true, but the way some have interpreted dreaming with God it seems like they put heavy reliance on the importance of THEIR dreams.

  12. Jeff Stucker says

    I recognize this passage — my wife read it to me when she was reading through the book. It had such a personal impact for her.

    A short time later, we watched a biography of Bonhoeffer and almost wished we hadn’t. You see, Dietrich’s words were so personally applicable, my wife took them as timeless principles and struggles. After watching the biography, as she read through the rest of the book, she couldn’t help but picture the words in context of the struggle against the Nazis. That made it harder to relate to the words as clearly and personally as when she was reading with a blank slate, filling in her own context.

  13. Jared Gustafson says

    This so spot on and timely for our fellowship. “We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace?” great! Thanks for sharing!!!

    • SETH G. says

      I agree bro! Just posted on our fb page ;) This challenged me to be very grateful for what we have even though we could have more :)

      Didn’t know how you would take this though considering DB writes…”God hates visionary dreaming.” I know Bethal is a big proponent for people dreaming. How do you reconcile these two pov’s?

      • says

        I take DB to be speaking of dreaming out of line with God’s grand dream. Writing our own story instead of discovering the story that God is writing in Christ.

      • Jared says

        I understood his comment within the context of a community. Sometimes dreams can yield tension, agendas, or dissatisfaction. I think in life dreaming with God is important because it has the potential to help foster a consciousness of Him all the time. As we dream we think about Him and His ability to invade our world with supernatural interventions. Bethel does a good job at teaching about the awareness of His presence. As we grow with Him we understand His desires, character, and nature and our dreams are really birthed from His heart not our own.

  14. kenneth dawson says

    it appears to me that this post about dreams or wishes brings out the importance of us understanding our being crucified to our own ideas of how things should operate and let god do the arranging–am i correct or what

  15. Nancy says

    Without hesitation this morning, after reading your post, my fingers got going on my keyboard to send off an email to a Christian leader whom I had, in my self- righteousness offended. It had to do with my wish list. Rebuke from the Lord is sweet because it’s from Him.

    What now though; do we give up our lofty dreams of what church life should be and head back to the place of rejection, unfulfilled fellowship, where women are not celebrated as leaders, where dead works are applauded, where worship seems like a ritual … what do we do? How long can we pray? Where do we go from here?

    I am wrong in the way I have been fighting but do I give up the fight? God has clearly softened my heart through your words to us this morning but it leaves me with a feeling of such weakness and sadness. Is God in the process of doing something only He can do? Hmmm?

    Thanks for the needed insight.

    • sarah nell-griffin says

      Tony, Maybe God placed you there to share what you just read..it’s never a coincidence where He places us. Be a freind and share good things you read that bring life to the body…you may not find what you are looking for somewhere else…it’s always right in front of us, we just need new eyes..and heart.

    • sarah nell-griffin says

      softening of the heart is what God desires..the heart is what He sees..in slience and trust your strength lies..check out what it is you are praying for..to be heard? to be noticed? LIVE IT, girlfriend. That is the most powerful of sermans…Blessings.

  16. says

    What a challenging revelation about the nature of our fellowship with Christ and His community. I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory and this particular quote stood out:

    “When humans should have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.”

  17. Jim Puntney says

    “Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise.”

    Where we are (spiritually & physically) is within the preordained plans of the Eternal God. We as his children, come in Christ to learn and grow together. This is where we “take up our cross” and in and through Him we die to our self-centered, individualistic, and egocentric perspective.

    It has been said that humility is not thinking less of ones self, but thinking of ones self less. I do believe this to be true.

    DB’s words ring a true today as they did in his day “We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even when there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ . . .”

    May we/I learn to be thankful for the “small things” and rejoice in Christ that His life is our life, no and forever.

  18. Philip Moore says

    It looks as if I’m to be thankful for being ‘overwhelmed by great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general’ and myself, and for my wish dream being shattered! God’s ways are definitely not our ways, but what a relief to find out that my experience, though painful, actually means He’s been at work through it all.

  19. TONY says

    This is something I’m wrestling with now as I am working on transitioning out of the congregation where I’m currently a member. Am I leaving because of this dream of mine? Or am I leaving because I fee stuck in the dreams of others?

    I’ve done a lot of discerning on this and I’m afraid it’s the latter. If too many Christians get together and share the same wishdream, you end up with a community that is not of God. I want to follow God and Christ but I feel like I’m being dragged down and held back because my calling does not fit the dream.

    Thanks for sharing these wonderful words from Bonhoeffer.

  20. Josh says

    This is Challenging me much more than I wanted today…because if I’m honest with myself:

    I am a dreamer
    I tend to nudge things the way I want them to go
    I am often dissatisfied with (seemingly) small gifts from God
    I rarely thank God for the daily gifts
    I complain about what I haven’t received yet from God

    Humble pie for breakfast. Thank you Brother. It was just what I needed.

  21. Greg says

    Wow! This was perfect timing (obviously God’s timing)! I needed to read this exact thing. Thank you!

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