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“The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who bases his life on the Bible, it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.”

~ Dietrich BonhoefferLetters and Papers from Prison

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“It is not in our life that God’s help and presence must still be proved, but rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ. It is far more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to His Son Jesus Christ, than to seek what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus died is more important that the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too shall be raised on the Last Day.”

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together54.

By Matthew D. Hamilton

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spiritual disciplines

Dietrich Bonhoeffer largely derives his fame from his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazi regime. Under immense stress, Bonhoeffer’s religious convictions prompted him to fight for the true good of the German people against genocidal tyranny. Understandably so, less attention has been paid to his theology and his understanding of private Christian faith. However, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings demonstrate a vital nuance to personal, spiritual practices that ought to inform our private faith today.

Before his involvement in the assassination plot, Dietrich Bonhoeffer retreated to relative obscurity and operated an underground seminary in the German town of Finkenwalde. Here, removed from the political activities of his day, Bonhoeffer gives us the best glimpse of his expectations for personal spirituality.

Practicing spiritual disciplines

To prepare his seminarians for ministry, Bonhoeffer mandated disciplines very familiar to us.

Bonhoeffer required his students to read Scripture privately, writing, “We are not permitted to neglect this daily encounter with Scripture.” Bonhoeffer intentionally uses the word “encounter” here as he disallowed that this time would be an academic or pastoral pursuit: The ministers-to-be were not allowed to search for sermon material or use a Greek New Testament; rather, Scripture study was meditative, or prayerful, and enabled the Finkenwalde seminarians “to encounter Christ in his own word.” Thus, the “goal [of Scriptural meditation] is Christ’s community, Christ’s help and Christ’s guidance.”

Bonhoeffer also insisted that his seminarians fasted. Arguing that it reminded them of their “estrangement” from the world, he regarded this practice as nonnegotiable. Just as prayerful Scripture reading ultimately looks to encounter God, Bonhoeffer does not see fasting as an end in itself but rather a response to faith in Christ, a means of orienting one’s life to God.

However, Bonhoeffer appears to speak out of both sides of his mouth, paradoxically railing against retreat from the world. In Ethics, he writes firmly, “For the Christian there is nowhere to retreat from the world, neither externally nor into the inner life.” In After Ten Years, he develops this criticism a little further:

In flight from public discussion and examination, this or that person may well attain the sanctuary of private virtuousness. But he must close his eyes and mouth to the injustice around him. He can remain undefiled by the consequences of responsible action only by deceiving himself… He will either perish from that restlessness or turn into a hypocritical, self-righteous, small-minded human being.

Developing a moral backbone

How then are we to make sense of Bonhoeffer’s actions and commands?

While condemning withdrawal from the world, Bonhoeffer appears to do the very thing he hates, retreating to Finkenwalde and exhorting his students toward inward-focused, privatistic practices

In her essay “Bonhoeffer’s Understanding of Church, State and Civil Society,” Victoria J. Barnett, director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Programs on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust, notes Bonhoeffer’s awareness of this exact contradiction: “The Finkenwalde experiment opened up the risk inherent in any kind of internal exile, which is that it becomes a flight into a privatized kind of discipleship.” Barnett thus indicates that while the Finkenwalde period may appear apolitical, Bonhoeffer understood this apparent contradiction.

However, his other writings—as well as more insight from Barnett—provide a fascinating dimension to Bonhoeffer’s personal spirituality which resolves this tension. Rather than seeing spiritual disciplines as a retreat from the world, Bonhoeffer understands spirituality as the necessary foundation for Christian political action.

Retreating to Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer was not neglecting or refusing the world. Rather, Barnett’s essay highlights how he here sought “the creation of moral backbone and the establishment of the discipline his students would need if they were to stay on the right path” under the attractive Nazi regime.

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Joy in Christ Kept Him in China

Hudson Taylor (1832–1905)

Article by John Piper

“Depend upon it, God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supplies” (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 121). When Hudson Taylor wrote that sentence, he meant every kind of need that we have — money and health and faith and peace and strength. And that is my prayer for this article: that you will see and experience new possibilities for your life — more faith, more joy, more peace, more love, and all the money you need to do his will (which may be none).

And all of that is because of your union with Christ, as is put so well in one of Taylor’s favorite texts: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). And then, because of all that, I pray you will launch into some venture, some dream of ministry, beyond all your real or perceived inadequacies, for the glory of Christ.

Conversion and Call to China

Hudson Taylor was born May 21, 1832, at Barnsley, England, into a devout Methodist home. At the age of seventeen, he was dramatically converted through the prayers of his mother. Four years later, on September 19, 1853, Taylor sailed for China with the Chinese Evangelisation Society. He had no formal training in theology or missions. He landed in Shanghai five and a half months later.

He learned the language quickly and, in his first two years in China, engaged in ten extended evangelistic journeys to the interior. Then, on January 20, 1858, when he had been in China almost five years, Taylor married another missionary, Maria Dyer. They were married for twelve years. Before Maria died at age thirty-three, she had given birth to eight children. Three died at birth and two in childhood, and the ones who lived to adulthood all became missionaries with the mission their father founded, the China Inland Mission.

Decisive Moment

Five years later, after Taylor had begun his own mission agency — the China Inland Mission — and in the midst of prolonged frustration with his own temptations and failures in holiness, the epoch-making experience happened. Notice what he was experiencing leading up to the great change. He wrote to his mother,

[The need for your prayer] has never been greater than at present. Envied by some, despised by many, hated by others, often blamed for things I never heard of or had nothing to do with, an innovator on what have become established rules of missionary practice, an opponent of mighty systems of heathen error and superstition, working without precedent in many respects and with few experienced helpers, often sick in body as well as perplexed in mind and embarrassed by circumstances — had not the Lord been specially gracious to me, had not my mind been sustained by the conviction that the work is His and that He is with me . . . I must have fainted or broken down. But the battle is the Lord’s, and He will conquer. (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 140–41)

The stage was set for the crisis that happened on September 4, 1869, in Zhenjiang. What happened that day was not ephemeral. He looked back almost thirty years later, giving thanks for the abiding experience of it:

We shall never forget the blessing we received through the words, in John iv. 14, “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him SHALL NEVER THIRST,” nearly thirty years ago. As we realized that Christ literally meant what He said — that “shall” meant shall, and “never” meant never, and “thirst” meant thirst — our heart overflowed with joy as we accepted the gift. Oh, the thirst with which we had sat down, but oh, the joy with which we sprang from our seat, praising the Lord that the thirsting days were all past, and past for ever! (Separation and Service, 46)

We should beware of being cynical here. Taylor was not naïve. He was speaking of a thirty-year-long experience in which he battled with some very low times. “The thirsting days were all past” does not mean he never had desires for Jesus again. We will turn to what it does mean shortly. But for now, we should simply be aware that, as his most thorough biographer wrote, his whole life “came to be revolutionized” by this experience (The Shaping of Modern China, Vol. 2, 109).

Kept by Union with Christ.

And just in time, too. The next year, 1870, was the most difficult of his life. His son Samuel died in January. Then in July, Maria gave birth to a son, Noel, who died two weeks later. And to crown Hudson’s sorrows, on July 23, Maria died of cholera. She was thirty-three years old, and left the thirty-eight-year-old Hudson with four living children.

It was as though God had given Taylor his extraordinary experience of the all-satisfying Christ not as a kind of icing on the cake of conversion, but rather as a way of surviving and thriving in the worst of sorrows, which came to him almost immediately.

A year later, Taylor sailed for England. While he was there, on November 28, 1871, he married the woman with whom he would spend nearly the rest of his life, Jennie Faulding. They were married for thirty-three years before she died in 1904, the year before he did.

In February 1905, Taylor sailed for China for the last time. After a tour of some of the mission stations, he died on June 3 at Changsha, Hunan, at the age of seventy-three. The year 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the mission that Taylor founded. In 1900, there were one hundred thousand Christians in China, and today there are probably around 150 million. This growth is God’s work: one plants, another waters, but God gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Nevertheless, it is the fruit of faithful labor. And Taylor labored longer and harder than most. That labor was sustained by union with Christ. So we turn to look at what this union meant for Taylor.

Scales Fall

September 4, 1869, when he was thirty-seven years old, Taylor found a letter waiting for him at Zhenjiang from John McCarthy. God used the letter to revolutionize Taylor’s life. “When my agony of soul was at its height, a sentence in a letter from dear McCarthy was used to remove the scales from my eyes, and the Spirit of God revealed to me the truth of our oneness with Jesus as I had never known it before” (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 149).

The prayer of Ephesians 1:18 was answered as never before: “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know . . .” Taylor said, “As I read, I saw it all! . . . I looked to Jesus and saw (and when I saw, oh, how joy flowed!) that He had said, ‘I will never leave thee.’”

I saw not only that Jesus will never leave me, but that I am a member of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. The vine is not the root merely, but all — root, stem, branches, twigs, leaves, flowers, fruit. And Jesus is not that alone — He is soil and sunshine, air and showers, and ten thousand times more than we have ever dreamed, wished for, or needed. Oh, the joy of seeing this truth! (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 149–50)

Taylor experienced such a powerful revelation of the inexpressible reality of union with Christ, as an absolute and glorious fact of security and sweetness and power, that it carried in it its own effectiveness. “How to get faith strengthened? Not by striving after faith, but by resting on the Faithful One” (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 149).

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With remarkable frequency the Scriptures remind us that the men of God rose early to seek God and carry out His commands, as did Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua (cf. Gen.19.27, 22.3; Ex.9.13, 24.4; Josh.3.1, 6.12, etc.). The Gospel, which never speaks a superfluous word, says of Jesus himself: “And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed” (Mark 1.35). Some rise early because of restlessness and worry; the Scriptures call this unprofitable: “It is vain for you to rise early… to eat the bread of sorrows” (Ps. 127.2). But there is such a thing as rising early for the love of God. This was the practice of the men of the Bible. 

~ Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together43-44.

The Cost of His Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45)

On July 20, 1944, the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler failed. The very next day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to Eberhard Bethge, his former student and future biographer. Bonhoeffer had been in prison since April 5, 1943. In the wake of the failure of the Valkyrie plot, Hitler led a crackdown on the resistance movement. Hundreds were immediately arrested; many in the movement already held in prison were moved to higher security prisons. Many were put on expedited paths to their execution. Bonhoeffer was one of them.

But on July 21, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote about a conversation he had in America in 1930. He was in the United States to learn of theological developments. He was to spend the year at the patently theological liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He found it wanting. “No theology here,” he reported back to Germany. But he did find dear friends, and he found adventure on a road trip from New York to Mexico City.

Somewhere along the way, as they camped in pup tents and sat around a fire, they asked each other what they wanted to do with their lives. One of them, a Frenchman named Lasserre, said he wanted to be a saint. Bonhoeffer picks up the story from there in his letter to Bethge the day after the failed plot:

At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. . . . I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous or an unrighteous man, a sick man or a healthy man. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.

As we reflect on that list in that last sentence, there’s only one word we really like, “successes.” We tend to avoid the other things mentioned by Bonhoeffer, but those things are part of life, of “this-worldliness.” Bonhoeffer then adds that by living life in this way, “We throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of the God-man in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith.”

Bonhoeffer learned this in a very short time in a very short life. He died in his thirty-ninth year. While most people are only beginning to make their mark and offer their mature thought as they turn forty, Bonhoeffer never made it to that milestone.

Young Professor in Berlin

He was born into an academic family. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a renowned psychiatrist at the University of Berlin. One of his brothers, a chemist, would go on to discover the spin isomers of hydrogen. The family home had a large library, a conservatory, and walls lined with very impressive looking oil portraits of his predecessors. Dietrich excelled as a student. He took his first doctorate as he turned twenty-one and a second doctorate three years later. He served in the academy, initially. But he loved the church.

As a young professor at the University of Berlin, he noticed an appeal for a teacher of a confirmation class at a Lutheran church in Berlin, on the other side of the tracks from where the Bonhoeffer family home stood. These were rough kids, who had already chewed through a few prospective teachers. The pastor was hoping to get an idealistic seminary student who didn’t have the better sense to not do this. Instead, the pastor and this band of prepubescent ruffians got a theology professor in wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suits.

Within minutes, Bonhoeffer had won them over. When the day came for their confirmation — a day the pastor was almost sure would never come — Bonhoeffer took them all to his tailor and got them all suits. He was the kind of professor who would just as soon pull out a “football” and hit the soccer pitch with his students as he lectured to them. During the time he spent in America, he got an armload of 78s of blues and negro spirituals. After the soccer games, he would spin records with his students and talk theology. For Bonhoeffer, education was discipleship.

Life Together

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazi party and became the Reich Kirche, Bonhoeffer quickly became a leader among the Confessing Church, despite his very young age. He lost his license to teach at the University of Berlin, and his books were placed on the banned book list. He was appointed the director of one of the five seminaries for the Confessing Church. At this seminary in Finkenwalde, he taught his students the Bible and theology, and he also taught them how to pray. Bonhoeffer saw these three things — biblical studies, theology, and prayer — as the essential elements of the pastoral office.

Eberhard Bethge, one of his students at Finkenwalde, exemplifies what he was taught by Bonhoeffer. Bethge wrote, “Because I am a preacher of the word, I cannot expound Scripture unless I let it speak to me every day. I will misuse the word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer.”

The Gestapo found out about the seminary at Finkenwalde and shut it down. Bonheffer spent the next year in his parents’ home. He wrote Life Together, memorializing what he practiced and what he had learned at Finkenwaldeab, and he visited his students and kept them on task with their studies and ministry.

Letters from Prison

The next years of Bonhoeffer’s life, 1940–1943, are debated. He joined the Abwehr at the urging of his brother-in-law. But it does not appear that he is actually much of a spy at all. He used his position to travel freely around the country — a way to keep up with his students and keep up with the churches they were pastoring. Then comes the contested episode of his life as he became part of a group seeking to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s role was not one of providing strategy — that was supplied by the other highly placed military and intelligence agency officials.

Bonhoeffer appears to be the pastor in the room, the one who gives the blessing on the undertaking they were about to embark on. Bonhoeffer wrestled with it, wondering if what they were doing was right and not at all presuming it was right and righteous. It was war, and these Germans were convinced that Hitler was an enemy to the German state and the German people, as well as to the other nations plunged into war. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s contribution was to this group, he did not make it presumptively or rashly.

The plots, like the Valkyrie plot, all failed. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to Tegel Prison. For the next two years, he would live in a 6’ x 9’ prison cell. He spoke of missing listening to birds. He missed seeing colors. Early in his time at Tegel, he despaired for his life. It was also in Tegel that Bonhoeffer wrote about living a “this-worldly” life. It was at Tegel that he spoke of learning to have faith in life’s failures, difficulties, and perplexities. At Tegel, he wrote poetry. He wrote a novel. He wrote sermons for weddings and baptisms — they were smuggled out and read by others at these occasions. Bonhoeffer’s time at Tegel yielded his classic text Letters and Papers from Prison.

In one of those letters, on June 27, 1944, he wrote, “This world must not be prematurely written off.” He was in a Nazi prison cell while Hitler was unleashing madness upon the world, and Bonhoeffer wrote about being a Christian in the world, in the time and place in which God had put him.

Cost of Discipleship

In 1936, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge. It would be later published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it he declares, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

In Christ, we are dead. The old self and the old way is dead. And, in Christ, we are alive. After the Valkyrie plot, Bonhoeffer could write simply, “Jesus is alive. I have hope.”

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“’Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’–this is the Scripture’s praise of life together under the Word. But now we can rightly interpret the words ‘in unity’ and say, ‘for brethren together through Christ.’ For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. ‘He is our peace.’ Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together39.

“The marvel of heaven and earth, of time and eternity, is the atoning death of Jesus Christ. This is the mystery that brings more glory to God than all creation.”

C. H. Spurgeon

Charles Haddon Spurgeon by Alexander Melville.jpg

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenceless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray.” 

Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship

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