If you were celebrating your fiftieth birthday and your friends and colleagues asked you to speak about your life, what would you focus on? Your career? Your achievements? The things you were most proud of, or the people you loved best? On his fiftieth birthday on July 26, 1933, when Eberhard Arnold gave a talk to members of the Bruderhof community that he and his wife and sister-in-law had founded, he surprised his listeners. Instead of looking back at what he had accomplished, he saw only his own human weakness and pointed his audience to One who is truly great:
On this day I have been especially conscious of my lack of ability and of how unsuited my own nature is to the work I have been given, remembering how God called me when I was only sixteen years old and how I have stood in his way, with the result that so much of what God must have wanted to do by his instruments has not been possible. It remains a miracle that his work of the Church community and the Holy Spirit is nevertheless revealed and mightily testified to, in us feeble human beings – not through our merits, but because we are accepted time and time again through the grace of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins.
One thing concerns me very much: our powerlessness. Only God is mighty; we are completely powerless. Even for the work that has been given us, we are wholly without power. We cannot fit even a single stone into the church community. We can provide no protection whatsoever for the community when it has been built up. We cannot even devote anything to God’s cause by our own power. We are completely without power. But I believe that just this is the only reason God has called us into community: we know we are powerless.
It is very hard to give an account of how it has come about that all of us, especially we older members of the community, know we are so completely powerless. It is hard to describe how all our own power is stripped off us, how our own power has been dropped, dismantled, torn down, and put away. What I wish for our younger members is this same realization, that the dismantling of your own power might be carried out to its full extent. That is not attained so easily and does not happen through a single heroic decision. God must do it in us.
This is the root of grace: the dismantling of our own power. Only to the degree that all our own power is dismantled will God be able to give the fruits of the Spirit and build up his kingdom through us, in us, and among us. There is no other way. If a little power of our own were to rise up among us, the Spirit and authority of God would retreat in the same moment and to the corresponding degree. In my estimation that is the single most important insight with regard to the kingdom of God. How it actually happens is hard to say. It is as hard to speak of this as it is to speak of the mystic source of all things. The only thing that can be said is that the Holy Spirit produces effects that are deadly for the old life and that at the same time have a wakening and rousing power for the new life which comes from Christ and his Holy Spirit alone.
Let us then give glory to God. Let us pledge to him that all our own power will remain dismantled, and will keep on being dismantled among us. Let us pledge that the only thing that will count among us will be the power and authority of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit; that it will never again be we that count, but that God alone will rule and govern in Christ and the Holy Spirit. That means we declare our dependence upon grace. This is the testimony we are required to give. Everything we have is the unmerited gift of God. God can give this unmerited gift only to people in whom their own claims and special rights have been dismantled. And for this reason we acknowledge and ask for the grace that appeared in Jesus Christ and that comes to us in the Holy Spirit.