Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

One of the inescapable lessons Bonhoeffer and his friends had learned since the beginning of the Nazi reign was that they were in far less control of their own lives than they had thought in their younger years. What once seemed a basic right, that of planning one’s own life, was now seen as a pipedream.  They could do little to determine what each day would bring or what they might be doing tomorrow.

Such loss of freedom could be accepted as mere fate or, as Bonhoeffer is encouraging, it can be freely chosen and affirmed as an expression of faith. The former leaves one inclined to ignore personal responsibility — a fundamental sin in Bonhoeffer’s view — while the latter means one continues to respond to (be responsible to) God.

When we live by faith, we live as if each day were our last and simultaneously as if our tomorrow is gloriously beautiful. Bonhoeffer remembers that Jeremiah spoke of great destruction for Jerusalem, even while telling the exiled Israelites in Babylon to settle down and make good lives for themselves.

It may be, of course, that it is not we who will get to enjoy the wonderful tomorrow, at least not on this earth, but the next generation. Bonhoeffer might well have had Abraham in mind at this point. He was promised the land, though his clan did not in fact  possess it for more than four centuries. Nonetheless, god the the surety of tomorrow, whenever it may come.

Realizing that, we do not lose heart at the troubles the present day may bring. We wait patiently and responsibly through them, knowing that Jesus Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. Thank you, Lord!.


Read Full Post »

Writing in 1942, when the full horrors of Hitler and his henchmen were fully apparent for all to see, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of “mini-essays,” reflecting on what he and his friend had learned during their ten years of resistance to the Nazis.

One of those essays was entitled “Sympathy” but, interestingly, his first sentence is about wisdom. I miss hearing the word “wisdom” in our public discourse these days. It seems we may have despaired of becoming a people of wisdom, probably because we have lost hope that such as thing as wisdom even exists. It is my prayer that the Church will rise to the occasion and begin to fill that great gap in our Western — or is it only the American? — culture.

Wisdom, Bonhoeffer notes, is usually only learned through experience, through what we in the US have often called “the college of hard knocks.” One implication of that fact is that few people can see the right course of action in advance, only in the middle or even after the situation that so needed wise intervention. A second implication, says Bonhoeffer, is that few people have a genuine capacity for sympathy.

Lacking wisdom, we tend to underestimate the suffering that various situations bring to the human spirit until those situations begin to impinge on our own lives. Bonhoeffer lists several rationalizations by which people tend to keep the sense of threat at a distance as long as possible, and thus keep sympathy from developing very fully.

He writes:

From a Christian perspective, none of these justifications can blind us to the fact that what is decisively lacking here is a greatness of heart. Christ withdrew from suffering until his hour had come; then he walked toward it in freedom, took hold, and overcame it. Christ, so the Scripture tells us, experienced in his own body the whole suffering of all humanity as his own – an incomprehensibly lofty thought! – taking it upon himself in freedom.

Greatness of heart, he is suggesting, means walking toward suffering, not fleeing from it. We do not believe, of course, that our own suffering will have the universal implications which marked Jesus Christ’s suffering. Yet there is an essential dimension to the suffering of the Christian which does in fact have meaning beyond itself.

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that “if we want to be Christians it means that we are to take part in Christ’s greatness of heart. . .” That is the key, that is the factor which transforms Christian suffering into something more than merely personal pain. This is a familiar theme in Bonhoeffer: our participation in Christ’s reality. When we choose to walk toward suffering, our own or someone else’s, we do so as followers of the Christ who goes before us. We walk his path with him into the sacrifice that unites us with those in pain.

I’ve not written much in this blog in the last month because my attention has been captivated by our presidential elections here in the US. I am horrified at the results and believe trump will do serious harm to our nation and to other nations which have some connection to us. One of the many ways in which I find him to be antithetical to the Christian way is that he wants to protect Americans from the suffering that might come from welcoming refugees into our country. he does not care much that their suffering is widespread and intense. All he cares about is that we Americans ought to be sheltered from suffering on their behalf.

How very, very deeply our president-elect is unlike Jesus Christ. . .



, in the responsible action that in freedom lays hold of the hour and faces the danger, and in the true sympathy that springs forth not from fear but from Christ’s freeing and redeeming love for all who suffer. Inactive waiting and dully looking on are not Christian responses. Christians are called to action and sympathy not through their own firsthand experiences but by the immediate experiences of their brothers, for whose sake Christ suffered.

Read Full Post »

Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to the suffering of Christ’s people again and again. Suffering, in fact, is one of the mark’s of a true disciple. He gives multiple reasons for this in various part of his writing. I’ll mention just two and then add another of my own which I believe complements Bonhoeffer’s ideas.

First, “The community of disciples does not shake off suffering, as if they had nothing to do with it. Instead, they bear it. In doing so they give witness to their connection with the people around them” (Discipleship, DBWE 4:104). Followers of Jesus Christ are not excluded and sheltered from the world around them. The “prosperity preachers” are simply liars. While the Lord does indeed grant us more blessings than we can count, he also sends us into the suffering world. We are connected to the world around us, especially at the point of their suffering. Christlike compassion would never allow us to protect ourselves from the pain of others.

Second, followers of Jesus suffer because we find our very identity in our communion with the suffering Lord of the Universe. God grieves with humans; God feels every insult to himself or to one of his people; God bleeds because of our sin; God allows himself to be vulnerable to human hatred. To believe otherwise is to ignore the Cross of Jesus Christ, where God accepted into himself all our sins and sinfulness.

And this leads us to a third way of expressing the suffering of God’s people: As the Cross demonstrates, forgiveness means absorbing the sin of the other into ourselves. It means paying a price for the sin of the other. If I forgive you for betraying me, it means I am simply accepting the pain without retaliation or any form of self-protection. We cannot be a forgiving people if we are not willing to be a suffering people.

Read Full Post »

At the end of a week when we got to watch on national television a Black congregation celebrating God’s grace even while mourning the murders of nine of their members, a week in which our Black President led the congregation — led all of America! — in singing “Amazing Grace,” I have just noticed these words of Bonhoeffer. They were written while he was in prison and were part of a homily intended for the baptism of the newborn son of Eberhard and Renate Bethge. The baby was named Dietrich. (He grew up to be a professional cellist with an outstanding musical career in England.)

Bonhoeffer expressed his hope that God’s people would emerge from the awful War with a renewed trust in the Lord. “Then, not in embittered and barren pride, but consciously yielding to divine judgment, we shall prove ourselves worthy to survive by identifying ourselves generously and selflessly with the whole community and the suffering of our fellow human beings.”

These words echo what he had written just a few years earlier in which he said that we have “learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering.”

Some watched the funeral service in a spirit of judgment and a sense of superiority. After all, those people were “just Blacks.” But most (I hope) watched the maturity of faith and graciousness of those whose not-so-distant ancestors were held as slaves in a brutal and heartless “economic system” bolstered by the White churches. Those who were not grateful for America’s progress — our Black President blessed the congregation! — and who sat in judgment against those “other” people know nothing of God’s grace. And that means they know nothing of God.

Bonhoeffer was right: We must identify with the suffering of others. To whatever extent we are able, we all need to carry within ourselves some sense of the weight borne by those whose families were enslaved and who are reminded daily of how much they are resented by hard-hearted, immature folk in America.

It was a privilege to share (if only by television) in that worship service. It was America at its finest.

Read Full Post »