Saturday, January 05, 2013

Warning to Christians: You Cannot Read Bonhoeffer Without It Changing Your Life

Isabel Best has edited and introduced another book that in my opinion needs to be read once, put on a shelf only briefly, and then picked up again over and over whenever a child of God is feeling perplexed.  Yes, it is a book of sermons by Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached at various times from 1928 to 1939.  But I could not help but feel he was preaching to me – there I was sitting in one of his confirmation classes or in his church and everything he referred to that was going on in the world was happening to me, here and now.  It is a book that has fundamentally changed my thinking on much that I believed or thought before and I will, hopefully, never be the same again.  If I am, it is inexcusable. The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Translated from the German by Douglas W. Stott, Anne Schmidt-Lange, Isabel Best, Scott A. Moore, and Claudia D. Bergman, and edited by Isabel Best, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2012, hardcover, 214 pages, is that book.

I wondered how I would review such a book as I finished it at 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning.  In the middle of the night, the thought came to me that I could not do it justice no matter how clever I became.  In fact, to think that this was even feasible went against just one of the very things Bonhoeffer was teaching me.  Instead, it occurred to me that my review would best serve potential readers if it were composed of some of my favorite quotations from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s messages found in this volume.  For those that are not familiar with Bonhoeffer, I start with this simple description of the man from the friendly website

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian, martyr, a spiritual writer, a musician, a pastor, and an author of poetry and fiction. The integrity of his Christian faith and life, and the international appeal of his writings, have received broad recognition and admiration, all of which has led to a consensus that he is one of the theologians of his time whose theological reflections might lead future generations of Christians into creating a new more spiritual and responsible millennium. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian famous for his stand against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. His beliefs and convictions ultimately cost him his life in a Nazi concentration camp. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most famous theologians and martyrs of the 20th century.

Bonhoeffer’s sermons in this volume focus on some very familiar and yet easy to misunderstand passages.  The topics in this book include, but are not limited to: God Is with Us (Matthew 28:20); Waiting at the Door (Revelation 3:20); The Promised Land; God Is Love (I John 4:16b); Lazarus and the Rich Man; Risen With Christ (Colossians 3:1-4); Overcoming Fear; Who Do You Say That I Am?; What Love Wants; Must I Be Perfect?; My Strength Is Made Perfect in Weakness; Lord, Help My Unbelief; Forgiveness; and The Betrayer (this one is sure to surprise you).

Here are just some of my favorite quotes from the book.  Let me be honest; I offer you only enough of each quote to entice you to read more of it in its context.  May God so motivate you.

1.     “The church does not leave anyone alone.  None of you who have come here today in mourning, no one who is really looking for consolation and not just a ceremonial memorial service should remain alone today . . . . Every other person who is interested in something else besides Christian knowledge of God and God’s will is in the wrong place here.

2.     “The church is like the seer of ancient times who, when all are gathered to commemorate a great deed of the nation, is wholeheartedly present but suffers because he sees something that the others do not see and must speak of what he sees, although no one wants to hear it.”

3.     “We must end this audacious, sanctimonious spiritualization of the gospel.  Take it as it is, or hate it honestly!”

4.     “Up until now we have spoken of these two as if they actually had nothing to do with each other.  That is obviously not the case.  Lazarus lies in front of the rich man’s doorstep, and it is the poverty of Lazarus that makes the rich man rich, just as the wealth of the other man makes Lazarus poor.”  [Brilliant with great implications.]

5.     “Today, immensely important things will be decided by whether we Christians have strength enough to show the world that we are not dreamers and are not those who walk with their heads in the clouds, that we don’t just let things come and go as they are, that our faith is really not the opium that lets us stay content in the midst of an unjust world, but that we, especially because we set our minds on things that are above, only protest all the more tenaciously and resolutely on this earth.”

6.     “We should not be surprised if for our church, too, times will come again when the blood of martyrs will be required.  But this blood, if we really still have the courage and honor and faithfulness to shed it, will not be as innocent and untarnished as that of the first witnesses.  On our blood would lie great guilt of our own . . . . ”

7.     “Our life is hidden with Christ in God.  We ourselves are already at home in the midst of our homelessness.”

8.     “Many a pastor has failed because he or she wanted to carry the congregation, but the congregation did not carry the pastor.  A congregation that does not pray for the ministry of its pastor is no longer a congregation.  A pastor who does not pray daily for the congregation is no longer a pastor.”

9.     “There are even people who think themselves particularly devout if they do not see the dark side of life, if they close themselves off from the catastrophes of this world and just lead their own tranquil, pious lives in peaceful optimism.”

10.  Imagine that someone whom we do not find likable has done something to us that surprises us, and then (imagine) that someone whom we love very much has done something that we simply cannot understand.  In the first case (the action of the person we do not find likable) we will immediately have all sorts of explanations for the bad motives that led that person to such an action; while, on the other hand, we will endlessly search and ask, and indeed invent excuses (for the action of the person whom we love very much), in an effort to understand why the person we loved acted the way he or she did.  We will certainly finish by knowing this second person better than we know the first.”

11.  “The human creature sinks down to the ground and stretches out his or her hands, and is no longer his or her self, but is in God.  That is perfection.”

12.  “A church may have great faith – the most orthodox beliefs, the firmest loyalty to its confession – but if it is not even more a church of pure and all-embracing love, it is good for nothing.”

13.  “Faith that has no hope is sick.  It is like a hungry child who will not eat or a tired person who will not go to sleep.  As surely as a person believes, surely he or she will also hope.”

14.  “Faith and hope enter into eternity transformed into the shape of love.”

15.  “Christianity should take a much more definite stand for the weak than for the potential moral right of the strong.”

16.  “What does it mean, to believe in God, if not to make room for God’s will, what God wills for us, for the world?”

17.  “Lord, I believe – I believe what you say, I believe that your word and your promise are true.  I believe, when I am looking at you, when I hear the words, when I see.  But when I am looking at myself, then, dear Lord, help my unbelief.  When I am besieged, when everything in me resists such a promise – reason, history, the world, my experience – help my unbelief.”

18.  “You do not have your faith once and for all.  The faith that you will confess today with all your hearts needs to be regained tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, indeed, every day anew.”

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book.  The official website of “The International Bonhoeffer Society” is .

--  Ken B. Godevenos, President, , Toronto, ON.
[Are you looking for a speaker at your church, your club, school, or organization? Ken is available to preach, teach, challenge, and/or motivate. Please contact us.]

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  1. Anonymous9/1/13 20:42

    Ken - thank you for your quote based review, I will read this as well. I have been deeply moved by Bonhoeffer, so much so that I have suffered because Bonhoeffer's writings so influenced me as a pastor.

    I want to agree with you whole heartedly "You cannot read Bonhoeffer without it changing your life" but I can't. I can't agree because I know many pastors and Bishops who can quote Bonhoeffer eloquently, recommend his writings and even teach Bonhoeffer who are not changed at all. Instead they not only speech with disdain about their congregations but fellow pastors. They turn their back on pastors who go through difficult times. I know pastors who have been removed from the Lutheran Church for such minor insignificant and administrative matters. There is no forgiveness. No love.

    It breaks my heart.

  2. Dear Anonymous: I hear you loud and clear. What you describe is human nature -- it happens with no matter what 'hero' one is fond of, not just with Bonhoeffer's work. But I hear you -- it should happen less with someone how has studied him. But then again, many have studied Bonhoeffer's hero, Jesus Christ, and fail to follow his commands as well.

    Sounds like you have some valued experience. And some days you'd rather forget but still struggling with perhaps. I could be wrong. If you'd like to share privately you can connect with me through my contact information at my website . Blessings brother. Ken.


Thanks for your comment.