My calling is quite clear to me. What God will make of it I do not know…I must follow the path. Perhaps it will not be such a long one. [Phil 1:23] But it is a fine thing to have realized my calling….I believe its nobility will become plain to us only in coming times and events. If only we can hold out. -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? Luke 9:23-26
The metal of a hero is not made from genetic material. It is mined from a vision of something great; something so exciting that it becomes a life dominating passion. Heroes and martyrs do the radical and unthinkable because they have found something so precious and so satisfying that it lifts them above the rest who prefer the safe and the normal.
My wife and I recently attended the funeral of one of my Marine son’s platoon members. He was killed while on patrol in the dangerous territory of Sangin, Afghanistan. The ceremony was filled with both tears and pride. Cpl. Christopher Singer died doing what he lived for. From the time he was ten years old he knew what he wanted to be: A Marine. So, when it came time to leave wife and daughter and family, with tears, he went to battle. In his heart, he knew that was why he was created. Before he left for Afghanistan he told a friend, ‘I want to come home. If for any reason I don’t make it back, tell everyone I did my best and I did what I loved.'” We were thankful that Christopher was also a follower of Jesus.
Dietrich Bonheoffer was also a hero. He didn’t catch a vision as a boy. His destiny was set when his heart was captured by the glory of Jesus Christ. He didn’t know where this new passion would lead him, but he knew two things: it would cost him and it would be worth it. To join the army of Jesus Christ was a call so great that it demanded his all. So, he wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
His call to follow Christ meant that he was bound to live like his Master. That meant that he would have to know Jesus and spend time with Jesus and grow in his trust in Jesus. That happened as he learned to hear Jesus speak to him in the Word. He received the words of the Bible not as lines once written but as the voice of Christ speaking. After he learned to approach Scripture in this way, he wrote to a friend,
And, I would like to tell you now quite personally: since I have learnt to read the Bible in this way- and this has not been so very long- it becomes every day more wonderful to me. I read it in the morning and the evening, often during the day as well, and every day I consider a text which I have chosen for the whole week, and try to sink deeply into it, so as to really hear what it is saying. I know that without this I could not live properly any longer.
The words of Christ devoured and meditated upon, changed the way he lived. He felt a call to follow Jesus and knew that it was the highest privilege to do so, but he did not know where that call would lead him. From studying the life of Christ, he knew that it would lead to a life of service and others would be blessed because of his sacrifice. In time, the details of the call would become clearer as the evil and hatred of the Third Reich was gradually exposed. His theological education and degrees would give him a voice in Germany. His devotion to the Lord compelled him to speak and act on behalf of those who had no voice.
The path to his ultimate destiny was determined by a series of choices. First, he resolved to order his life by the Word of God rather than the strong winds of the culture. Hitler was successful, not just because he was ruthless and devious. He was successful because the German masses were dissatisfied and looking for some person who would restore Germany to its lofty position in history. Because he promised them so much they didn’t challenge his character. But, Bonhoeffer looked at the man and his ways, not his promises. He discerned a very dangerous person and very early became an opponent of Hitler.
Second, he not only broke with the culture, he broke with the German Church. The Church of Luther, which was birthed with unwavering commitment to the authority of Scripture, had been weakened by an onslaught of attacks by liberal German theologians. Bible truth simply no longer held sway in the minds and hearts of German Christians. This church went along with the masses, even becoming defenders of Hitler and his anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer would have none of that. He spoke out against the church and then when her leaders refused to listen, he separated and became one of the leaders of the Confessional Synod. That decision cut him off from his former church and put him in danger from the Nazis. But, his calling demanded that he make a clear and bold protest against all forms of evil, even when it was located within his church. When asked if it would have been better for him to stay in the German Church where he could work from the inside to bring about change, he replied, “If you board the wrong train it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”
Third, his love for Germany and his identification with her future salvation compelled him to return to Germany even though he was safe in America. His friends urged him to stay rather than face the wrath of the Fuhrer, but he could not stay safe when the soul of his nation was at stake. He wrote,
I have had the time to think and pray about my situation and that of my nation and to have God’s will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake by coming to America. I must live through the difficult period of my nation’s history with the Christian people of Germany. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. My brothers in the Confessing Synod wanted me to go. They may have been right in urging me to do so, but I was wrong in going. Such a decision each man must make for himself. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make that choice in security.”
Bonhoeffer did go back to Germany and he did not play it safe. When a whole race is being systematically annihilated, when prisoners of war are being slaughtered at the command of the Fuhrer, when millions are being persecuted in the most horrible ways without a voice, then words of protest are not enough. It is time to take bold, risky and radical actions. Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s best friend explained it this way: “We now realized that mere confession, no matter how courageous, inescapably meant complicity with the murderers.” Bonhoeffer joined a conspiracy of civilian and military conspirators that sought to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
The terrible consequences of such actions did not escape the conspirators. Colonel Clause von Stauffenberg, the leader of the conspiracy, put it like this: “Its time for something to be done. He who has the courage to act must know that he will probably go down in German history as a traitor. But if he fails to act, he will be a traitor before his own conscience.”
The nobility of the call lead Bonhoeffer to a final and radical decision, one that many Christians have criticized in retrospect. They have asked, “How can a believer participate in an assassination attempt?” For Bonhoeffer, the answer to that question was not an easy one but it was clear for him. In one of his letters from prison he wrote, “We must shake off our fear of this world- the cause of Christ is at stake, and are we to be found sleeping? …Christ is looking at us and asking whether there is anyone left who confesses faith in him.” The horrors of the Third Reich and cry of countless victims was a sin against his Savior’s love and his will.
On July 20th, 1944, the plot to kill Hitler failed. The conspirators were quickly identified and rounded up due to torture and ruthless retaliation carried out by Hitler’s Gestapo. Bonhoeffer was arrested and became a personal prisoner of Hitler. Two weeks before Germany surrendered to the Allies, by direct order of Hitler, he was taken from his cell at Flossenberg and executed. He had completed his mission. He had no regrets nor was he without hope. As he was taken from his cell, he said to his friends, “This is the end…for me the beginning of life.” The doctor whose task it was to officiate at the execution wrote later about Dietrich’s final moments. “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to God…so certain that God heard his prayer… In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
The questions we must ask ourselves are these: Have we sensed the call of God on our lives? Are we following Him without reservation? Are we willing to separate from the world and even our friends when the battle against evil demands it? Are we alert and sensitive to the victims of evil who have no one to fight for their cause? Are we willing to suffer the wounds that always accompany a battle with our Enemy? Are we willing to die for the name of Jesus and the cause of righteousness? Finally, is the joy of our eternal hope the fuel that fires our passion to see the kingdom of God rule here, even if it means our own death? Those who can say yes to those questions know the cost of following Jesus and the incomparable joy of serving him even to the point of death. “He is a prisoner and he has to follow. His path is prescribed. It is the path of the man whom God will not let go, who will never be rid of God.”