As I read Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during an intense two-week period of travel, I slowly came to feel like I knew the man. It was almost as if he was travelling with me, sharing his stories, describing his adventures. That was until the last page was turned and I finished his story. The power of that journey is still with me and as I reflect on my few days with Dietrich Bonhoeffer a number of important lessons spring to mind:
- The two paths for God’s people – the path of adversity and the path of prosperity. Bonheoffer’s adult life was marked by adversity: he was misunderstood by his fellow pastors, opposed by the established state church, suspected and finally imprisoned by the Gestapo, separated from his fiancée and martyred for his part in the conspiracy against Hitler. Yet though it all there was a peace and a confidence that he was doing God’s will. Those of us who live in times and places when we are fortunate enough to regularly walk along the path of prosperity need to remember that this is not the normal experience for the Christian. God, in his grace, may allow us to be very blessed materially, but many of our brothers and sisters only ever know the path of adversity. Our momentary visitations or swift passage across this path are nothing compared to living every day on it.
- He was always ahead of the pack – he saw the danger of Hitler’s version of Positive Christianity before any of the other church leaders; he saw the pitfalls of the impotent Confessing Church as it finally took a stand against the “German Church”; and he saw that German had to lose the war if Christianity in Europe was to be reborn. “Bonhoeffer advocated a Christianity that seemed too worldly for traditional Lutheran conservatives and too pietistic for theological liberals. He was too much something for everyone, so both sides misunderstood and criticized him” (page 248). Often he was so far ahead of others that his logic was misunderstood and his appeals ignored. Yet he faithfully proclaimed and lived out his prophetic message. It reminds me that there will always a part of prophetic insight that means the prophet will be lonely, by the very fact that they see things earlier and speak more clearly than most people are ready for.
- He was holistic in his life and ministry. He blended the best of academia and culture, Christian community and intellectual rigour. He loved music and the arts, trained as an academic, lived as a pastor, discipled others by teaching, example and exhortation. He was a holistic person who believed the scriptures should not, indeed could not, be studied without daily prayer and meditation. He sought to build a living Christian community but rather than become isolationist, they purposefully discussed the most pressing issues of the day and Bonhoeffer pushed them to understand the times.
- He was a true anti-celebrity. Not only in the way he lived his life, but also in what he wrote, Bonhoeffer saw through the mirage of success and fame. “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best an object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done…The figure of the crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard (from his book Ethics)”. Metaxas’ adds his own postscript that Bonhoeffer realised that “God was interested not in success, but in obedience” (page 363).
- The Christian life must be modelled. For his students he would seek not just to impart knowledge, but a way of life, he always wanted to model what he believed the Christian life and Christian community should be. “Bonhoeffer’s interest was not only in teaching them as a university lecturer. He wished to disciple them in the true life of the Christian. This ran the gamut, from understanding current events through a biblical lens to reading the Bible not just as a theology student, but as a disciple of Jesus Christ” (page 128).
- The challenge of direct action. When evil surrounds and it is your nation’s darkest hour, what direct action would your conscience allow you to take? More to the point, what does God require of you in that situation? Bonhoeffer was prepared to enter unchartered territory, arguing that he followed a God who “demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture”. Metaxas’ again sums up the issue “here was the rub, one must be more zealous to please God than to avoid sin” (page 446). In the mayhem that was Germany in the height of World War II, Bonhoeffer challenged people to rethink their scruples: “Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God” (page 446).
- The willing embrace of death. Unlike our anaphylactic reaction to the topic of death, Bonhoeffer often considered what it meant to die well; he was ready to die for a noble cause. “We hardly dare admit that we should like death to come to us, not accidentally and suddenly through some trivial cause, but in the fullness of life and with everything at stake. It is we ourselves, and not outward circumstances, who make death what it can be, a death freely and voluntarily accepted” (page 447).
- The affirmation of a redeemed humanity. In the midst of enormous suffering, horrendous violence and world war Bonhoeffer fell in love. His engagement to Maria gave him a greater appreciation for, and affirmation of, God’s earth. Bonhoeffer “was constantly trying to correct the idea of a false choice between God and humanity, or heaven and earth. God wanted to redeem humanity and to redeem this earth, not to abolish them…Bonhoeffer was trying to reclaim everything for God.” He understood the blessings of marriage and argued that “the “desire for earthly bliss” is not something we steal from behind God’s back, but is something that he has desired that we should desire. We mustn’t separate that part of life and marriage from God, either by trying to hide it from him as belonging to us alone or by trying to destroy it altogether through a false piety that denies its existence” (page 457).
Bonhoeffer was passionate about figuring out what it meant to be a disciple of Christ in one of the darkest times in world history. However, he was not only committed to academic excellence, but also devotional living. He was prepared to model, and die for, what he believed. This is his challenge to me – to model what I believe God is saying to me in these days. I feel like I have much to learn in each of the areas highlighted – but I am seeking to understand how this works itself out in today’s church and society.
Through it all Bonhoeffer stands as a man who overcame adversity, temptation, doubt and fear. Even the Gestapo could not defeat him, they could only remove him. The same picture played out in the church; God was using the persecution to refine his church. Ruth von Kleist-Retzow commented to Dietrich “We live in strange times, but we should be eternally thankful that poor, oppressed Christianity is acquiring greater vitality than I have ever known in the course of my seventy years. What testimony to its real existence!” (page 295). God was winning. Even though his people were losing everything they had, they were overcoming their enemies. We too live in strange times; oh that God would renew and revive his church in this day to demonstrate its true vitality to a sceptical world.
(For part 1 of my review click here.)