“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. Where are these responsible people?” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written from prison in 1944
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, coming of age between the two world wars, in a Germany riddled with bullet holes of evil and sick with turmoil. He was born to a very famous, talented, well-respected and powerful family – his father was chief of psychiatry in Germany and his brother helped Albert Einstein split the atom. Bonhoeffer, himself, bucking the trend of his family, chose to become a theologian and quickly achieved the status of a “boy wonder”, the “next big thing” to rock the theological scene of Germany (which, back then, was quite a prestigious field.)
Despite his intellectual prowess, though, the deepest foundations of his heart lay with God’s people and the thought of being holed up in academia without any direct connection with the “common man” led him to give up his formal theological work. Instead, he became a pastor.
It was around this time that the Nazis arrived on the scene – slowly and methodically seizing control and removing those who were obstacles to their thirst for power. As they did, the vast majority of Germans strode along with them, little by little sacrificing the truth and “what is right” for a restoration of Germany to former glory. One of the few who stood against this tide was Bonhoeffer. From the very beginning he sensed the Nazis’ depravity, remained rooted in the truth of God revealed through Jesus Christ in the Scripture and prepared for the coming storm.
This last bit is an important point. As Eric Metaxas (Bonhoeffer’s biographer) has opined, the rest of Germany went along with the Nazis, eventually sacrificing the most basic principles because “they weren’t Christian enough” (i.e. they were culturally and nominally Christian, but, when push came to shove, their faith in Christ was not their guiding light.) They didn’t really know (on a personal level) who the Truth is and, without such an anchor, were left vulnerable to the hideous currents of evil that swelled around them. In contrast, why do we honor and admire Bonhoeffer nowadays? Because he knew Jesus; and, anchoring his life in Him, he was free to step out in radical faith and do heroic deeds.
And heroic he was. When WWII started, because his safety was compromised, he was moved to New York to wait out the war. After only a month, walking into almost certain death, he came back to Germany. From within German intelligence, he led two assassination attempts of Hitler, but was eventually discovered, imprisoned for two years and – two weeks before VE day – was hanged at the personal request of Hitler himself. Though from the very beginning of his life he had enjoyed all the good things that life could offer (he was even engaged to be married before he was imprisoned), he sacrificed it all to follow Jesus. The medical doctor that oversaw his execution said, “In the almost fifty years I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.” Bonhoeffer himself said, “This is the end… For me, the beginning of life.”
This world will offer you comfort, but you were made for greatness
– Pope Benedict XVI
Bonhoeffer sought not success; he sought not comfort; he, in the end, sought not that his own will be done. Instead, he offered his life as a sacrifice to God. Because he knew the Lord, and let his life be totally revolutionized and transformed by He who is the Giver of Life, he was able to do great things. Because he was anchored in Jesus, he was able to stand fast though the currents of evil around him swept up many ‘nice’ people. He was a true disciple. He followed Jesus – no matter where it led him. Bonhoeffer’s most famous book is entitled The Cost of Discipleship. Surely he didn’t just write about it, but he lived it.
Will it be any different for us? Can we be great any other way? Will we, as the currents of our culture continue to grow in hostility, stand fast any other way then anchoring ourselves in Jesus? Let us surrender all and abandon ourselves to Him, who will never fail us and who will give us all that is good. May we let Him grab hold of our lives and transform us totally, so that we can resist evil and rise to greatness.