Stand and Suffer like Bonhoeffer

Last week I finished Eric Metaxas’ highly acclaimed biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It has been a long time since I’ve committed to reading a biography, and perhaps I wasn’t ready for the book to shape my thinking as powerfully as this one has.

In light of that, I wanted to share a paragraph from the book that I found worth some reflection. The passage comes from one of the chapters on his imprisonment near the end of the book (pg. 463). The excerpt is from a letter to his best friend Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison; here is what Bonhoeffer says:

When all possibility of cooperating in anything is suddenly cut off, then behind any anxiety about him there is the consciousness that his life has now been placed wholly in better and stronger hands. For you, and for us, the greatest task during the coming weeks and perhaps months, may be to entrust each other to those hands…Whatever weaknesses, miscalculations, and guilt there is in what precedes the facts, God is in the facts themselves. If we survive during these coming weeks and months, we shall be able to see quite clearly that all has turned out for the best. The idea that we could have avoided many of life’s difficulties if we had taken things more cautiously is too foolish to be entertained for a moment. As I look back on your past I am so convinced that what has happened hitherto has been right, that I feel that what is happening now is right too. To renounce a full life and its real joys in order to avoid pain is neither Christian nor human.

Two things really stood out to me. First, there is a difference between godly repentance for real sin, and wallowing in self-pity over possible “mistakes” that led to uncomfortable circumstances. In God’s grace we are able to live courageously and know that when we do run astray of the narrow path He is there to gently usher us back into His forgiving arms. But there is a distinct difference between mourning over a real sin harbored in the heart, and mourning over present circumstances brought on by a difficult decision to stand up (perhaps forcefully) for what is right (especially the Gospel).

What happens in the latter circumstance is that Satan whispers lies to our weary hearts saying, “See, you never would be in this wretched situation if you had just not said that. You should have left well enough alone. Just look at your circumstances! Surely God is punishing you for your actions!”

While the truth is that sometimes doing the right thing can be painful, and that leads me to the second point I see from the letter above: As Christians we are called to some amount of suffering in this life. Indeed Bonhoeffer says that its not even human not to suffer! Not suffering would be either living in a false reality (mentally), or not being human at all. Humans are frail; we are weak. In our comfortable American lives we often forget that we are mortal. Oh sure, we see death all around us, but it doesn’t phase us until it hits close to home…then we become unglued from our iPad or television and the raw and fallen nature of life strikes at our souls with devastating effect. We are tossed in the wind of our stormy circumstances (James 1).

Conclusion…

Bonhoeffer is calling us not to be uncertain of our calling, or the decisions we make to stand up for what is right. You can see him encourage his friend Eberhard not to question the past, and dwell on mistakes made. He is sure that at the end of the day God will resolve all things at His judgment seat. He says “God is in the facts.” The reason he can be so confident about this is because he knows that even if he was not perfect in his stand for right, he knows that God is the great and just judge of all things. He knows that he did what he did out of obedience and love for Christ – not because he expected the consequences to be a wonderful rosy blessing to him during his time here on earth.

This was tremendously encouraging to me. I can rest and work knowing that ultimately Christ’s righteousness is going to be mine, and that if I mess up I’m still covered. Furthermore, I’m not going to sit idly by and allow evil to run rampant all around me without standing up for the truth. Even though I will surely make mistakes, I will not listen to Satan’s lies, but will prayerfully and humbly do my best to speak the truth with the love of Christ. This is my calling as a Christian. And it takes courage, not only to speak in the moment, but to not look back with sinful remorse at what was said because it brought painful life circumstances. My suffering only reminds me that I am His (Heb. 12), and I am happy for the discipline, and for the honor of identifying with the Suffering Servant in this way.

If you have been obedient and spoken up for the gospel, and for Christ and all that is right and good, then do not look with regret at the consequences of your actions. Rather rejoice knowing that you are receiving a small dose of what Christ received during His life on earth, and know that you’ll receive all of what He has in store for you (namely Himself) when you and He meet on that happy day.

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