Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 10 things I love about him

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This week I finished Eric Metaxas’ amazing biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I had the privilege of meeting Metaxas once at my friend Caroline’s home in Manhattan when I ventured there for the Book Expo a few years ago. I didn’t know then that he was in the research phase for the book.

I devoured the book. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has fascinated me a long, long time. In college I read nearly everything he wrote, striving to live like he did as a disciple who freely obeyed. His theological mind, his ability to see the evil in the Nazi regime before others discerned it, his passion for the global body of Christ, and his verve for life all intrigued me. Oddly, as I read the new biography, I stumbled across a paper I wrote in college about Bonhoeffer’s theology of suffering. What struck me then was Bonhoeffer’s ability to suffer well; what strikes me now is his dedication to what he believed God asked him to do. In light of that and many other things I learned about Bonhoeffer during the book, here are ten things I love about the man, gleaned from the paper I wrote in 1988.

  1. Bonhoeffer had a biblical view of suffering, calling it “the badge of true discipleship.” He didn’t run away from suffering, insulating himself from its inevitability. He didn’t seek suffering, but when it inevitably came as a result of his stand against the Third Reich, he bore it. In The Cost of Discipleship, he writes that disciples “do not go out of their way to look for suffering, or try to contract out of it by adopting an attitude of contempt and disdain. They simply bear the suffering that comes their way as they try to follow Jesus Christ.” (100).
  2. Bonhoeffer loved his brothers and sisters in Christ. His love for them transcended affinity. He wrote in Life Together, “The Christian, however, must bear the burden of the brother. He must suffer and endure the brother. It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.” (100)
  3. Bonhoeffer felt a deep connection to God as he suffered alongside Him. In Letters and Papers from Prison, he wrote, “Christians stand by God in His hour of grieving.” (349). He added, “Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.” (361).
  4. Bonhoeffer didn’t like legalism. He called this sort of stale religious practice, “religionless Christianity.” When he spent time in New York city for a year of study, he communed with Jesus at black churches where he saw a vibrant, alive faith, free legalistic regulations and hierarchies. He embraced Jesus personally there.
  5. Bonhoeffer left a life of ease for the sake of the gospel and his countrymen. On his second trip to the United States while Hitler strengthened his grip on Europe, Bonhoeffer felt deeply unsettled. He knew he must return, leaving the safety of America for the uncertainty that awaited him back home. His friend Otto Dudzus recounted that Bonhoeffer “had to learn that one does not seek out the place of the presence of Christ where one would like it to be, that with the best will in the world it is possible to lose the way . .  . He had no illusions about the danger and suffering he would meet on the way.” (Letters and Papers, 93-94).
  6. Bonhoeffer didn’t pay back evil for evil. In prison he delighted to share his food with others. He befriended guards. He ministered to the sick. He bloomed where he was planted. In doing so, he exposed evil for what it was. “By refusing to pay back the enemy in his own coin, and by preferring to suffer without resistance, the Christian exhibits the sinfulness of contumely and insult. (Cost, 158).
  7. Bonhoeffer found joy in the midst of suffering. He wrote in Letters and Papers from Prison, “It is certain that our joy is hidden in suffering.” (391) A poem he coined also expresses his joy. “Joy is rich in fears;/ sorrow has its sweetness./ Indistinguishable from each other/ They approach us from eternity/ Equally potent in their power and terror.” (334)
  8. Bonhoeffer viewed his prison term as a way to understand Christ better. He wrote, “Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for Him in the Inn–these are things prisoners can understand better than other people.” (Letters, 166).
  9. Though his suffering was acute, Bonhoeffer has peace about what he would endure. In a letter to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, he wrote, “I am so sure of God’s guiding hand that I hope I shall always be kept in that certainty. You must never doubt that I’m traveling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I am being led.” (Letters, 393).
  10. Bonhoeffer practiced gratefulness. An English officer wrote this of him in regard to his imprisonment. “Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive. He was one of the few persons I have ever met for whom God was real and always near.” (Life Together, 13).

Bonhoeffer’s last words before he faced the gallows were these: “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” (Life Together, 13).

When I closed Eric Metaxas‘ brilliantly researched book, I suddenly missed my friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I missed his mind, his passionate adoration for his fiance, his willingness to bear suffering for the sake of Jesus. I missed his quirks. I could almost hear him play concertos as Metaxas deftly described the Bonhoeffer’s family home gatherings, centered around intelligent discussion and music. Knowing Bonhoeffer first as a wide-eyed college student and now as a mother of three makes me long for the day I’ll get to have a conversation with him. I want my children to know him here, then someday embrace him there.

Q4U:

If you’re familiar with Bonhoeffer, what do you love about him? And if you’re not, what in this list of ten traits do you want to emulate in your own life? Why?

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