Category Archives: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Sin in Eden knocked all creation into chaos. Sin at Babel marked the collective pride of mankind. And while every sin is an act of God-rejection, humanity’s wickedness reaches new heights in the horrifying events of Good Friday.
Holy Week makes us uncomfortable. There is glorious life and victory to come on Easter Sunday, but to get there we must pass directly through the darkness of Good Friday. We must remember the day when human malice broke barriers and reached levels of previously unmatched atrocity. The Messiah, the King, come to save mankind, was nailed to an accursed tree and left to die.
There is no immunity for such cosmic treason.
On Good Friday we feel the finger of guilt and culpability rightly shoved into the ribs of humanity:
- “…this Jesus whom you crucified…” (Acts 2:36)
- “…you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life…” (Acts 3:14–15)
- “…whom you crucified…” (Acts 4:10)
- “…whom you killed by hanging him on a tree…” (Acts 5:30)
Humanity has never heaped upon itself more self-condemning guilt than on Good Friday. This simple phrase — you killed — pierces through all vain excuses. It was a conspiracy to kill the God-man, and success in the evil plot has stained our hands with God’s own blood, blood on the hands of both scheming Jews and acquiescing Gentiles.
This is why Good Friday was the most horrible sin the world ever witnessed (Sibbes). More terrible than Babel’s arrogant tower. If ever there was cause for God to rain down wrath upon the world, and re-flood the globe with justice, there was no more opportune moment than the brutal slaughter of his beloved Son.
In his Good Friday sermon of 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer drives this cosmic tragedy home like three cold steel stakes pounded through the nerves of humanity’s own wrists and feet.
Good Friday is not the darkness that must necessarily yield to light. It is not the winter sleep that contains and nourishes the seed of life within. It is the day on which human beings — human beings who wanted to be like gods — kill the God who became human, the love that became person; the day on which the Holy One of God, that is, God himself, dies, truly dies — voluntarily and yet because of human guilt — without any seed of life remaining in him in such a way that God’s death might resemble sleep.
Good Friday is not, like winter, a transitional stage — no, it is genuinely the end, the end of guilty humanity and the final judgment that humanity has pronounced upon itself. . . .
If God’s history among human beings had ended on Good Friday, then the final pronouncement over humankind would be guilt, rebellion, the unfettering of all titanic human forces, a storming of heaven by human beings, godlessness, godforsakenness, but then ultimately meaninglessness and despair. Then your faith is futile. Then you are still in your guilt. Then we are of all people most to be pitied. That is, the final word would be the human being.1
This is the awful memory Good Friday presses on us.
Humanity, aspiring in arrogance to become godlike, has slayed the God-man by both murderous intent and by woeful passivity. And in this crime, Bonhoeffer goes on to explain, everything else has been made futile. All our culture, all our art, all our learning, all our hopes, have come to a meaningless end once we have heaped on our own heads the murder of God’s only Son.
Thank God, the story doesn’t end here, but Good Friday presses us to imagine if it did. What if the story ended at the cross? What if the God-rejecting sin of humanity wrought despair to life now and nothing short of a godforsaken despair for eternity?
Divine words of accusation stab into the ribs of humanity:
You have swelled up around him like a wall of unfounded hate and vicious lies (Psalm 69:4).
You have circled him like ravenous dogs (Psalm 22:16).
You have ambushed the beloved son (Mark 12:1–9).
You have killed the Author of Life (Acts 3:15).
Let these hard words sting as we consider for a moment together how stupid and how foolish and how ignorant and how wicked is the human heart to have brought this end upon human history — the darkest day of mankind, the apex of human ignorance, a situation so hopeless that human history seems to have been brought to its very end. What now can we look forward to but only eternal despair and desolation forever?
But sinful mankind does not get the last word. How appropriate the prayer of the dying Christ — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
As a human race we can scarce understand what we’ve done, what we’ve unleashed in evil ignorance.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 10, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928–1931 (Fortress, 2008), 487–88.
From Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermon preached on July 20, 1930, and later translated and published in his Works (10:575):
Rejoice always (1 Thess. 5:16). Are we to rejoice in the manner of that crowd of people we see searching for “gaiety” each evening in the great streets of Berlin? Certainly not; they are like moths that dance and flutter around the light at night until it burns them up. Christian joyfulness has nothing to do with such gaiety. Nor does Christian joyfulness have anything to do with some pleasant diversion after a gray workday. Everything we generally call joyfulness, even joyfulness that is not entirely illegitimate, is prompted by things that are transitory like everything else in the world, things that in their very transience take our joyfulness away from us when they pass away, leaving behind only melancholy recollection.
Where is all that joyfulness that our personal or professional life has brought us in pleasant hours? Irrevocably gone. Forget the past; beautiful as it may have been, it can never return again the way it was.
Today’s text, however, speaks about a happiness that abides, one that lasts a lifetime, one that does not dissipate when those happy times are over, one that endures because it has its foundation where there is no more growth or decline, namely, in the fatherly heart of God. Here you find anything but wild boisterousness and desire, which, after all, are merely the anxious grasping for things in this transitory world. Here we stand as whole persons before God the Father; our hearts are filled with a happiness never known before, a happiness that seeks to seize and change our lives from within. This joyfulness has only one enemy, namely, the care and sorrow that subjugate people to this world and make them fearful. A person should be joyful, not fearful, since above all that happens there is a heaven, an eternity, a Father.
But with my tormented, heavy heart, where does my joyfulness come from, where do I find it?
Go outside and see how children play and rejoice and are happy; see how the birds of the field fly high up to heaven and are joyous in the sun. Watch them, and then watch them again and again, and then rejoice with them, become like them, like a child that is joyous in its father’s garden. Above all, however, turn to him who loved the children and birds and flowers and who himself was a joyous child of his Father and who has become your redeemer: to Jesus Christ. In him the Father himself encounters you; in him God comes close to you, and in him one thus finds the foundation and source of all joyfulness. Rejoicing means enjoying God’s nearness in Christ Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3 (Augsburg, 1997), 28:
Humankind no longer lives in the beginning; instead it has lost the beginning. Now it finds itself in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that it is in the middle. It knows therefore that it comes from the beginning and must move on towards the end. It sees its life as determined by these two factors, concerning which it knows only that it does not know them. The animals know nothing about the beginning and the end; they therefore know no hatred and no pride. Humankind knows itself to be totally deprived of its own self-determination, because it comes from the beginning and is moving toward the end without knowing what that means. This makes it hate the beginning and rise up in pride against it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived and died in Nazi Germany. You can imagine the delight of the Nazis when, in 1940, Bonhoeffer published a book – Das Gebetbuch der Bibel – calling Christians to recapture the importance of the Psalms. A Christian pastor publishing a German book highlighting the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures was about as welcomed by the Nazis as a swastika flag burning demonstration. They threatened Bonhoeffer with a fine and then retracted it. Three years later he was arrested for his anti-Nazi sentiments and hung in 1945. You know the story.
The English translation of this German book is known to us as The Prayerbook of the Bible. Although his arguments can sometimes be over-stated, this short work presses us to see the importance of the Psalms in the Christian community. Not surprising, it remains one of Bonhoeffer’s beloved classics.
But why, in light of the bubbling anti-Semitism, did Bonhoeffer risk his life to draw Christians to the Psalms?
The Psalms + the Lord’s Prayer
First, Bonhoeffer noticed a parallel between the themes of the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms. And there are striking parallels. He learned this from Martin Luther who wrote of the Psalms “it runs through the Lord’s Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer runs through it, so that it is possible to understand one on the basis of the other and to being them into joyful harmony.”
Here is what Jesus taught His disciples to pray (Matt. 6:9-13):
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”
Because these parallel themes run through the Psalms, Bonhoeffer concludes the Psalms too find their origin in Christ. If the Lord’s Prayer is from Christ, we can be certain these similar themes in the Psalms are from Christ, too. There is a deeply Christological understanding of the Psalms for Bonhoeffer. The Psalms are the voice of Christ modeling prayer and worship for His people in the presence of the Father.
The inspired prayers
Whether or not we fully embrace his Christological thesis, we are led to an important question about the composition of the Psalms.
“Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words. How then do they come to be in the Bible? Let us make no mistake: the Bible is God’s Word, even in the Psalms. Then are the prayers to God really God’s own Word? That seems difficult for us to understand. We grasp it only when we consider that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, the word of the Son of God, who lives with us human beings, to God the Father who lives in eternity. Jesus Christ has brought before God every need, every joy, every thanksgiving, and every hope of humankind. In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes again a human word” (5:156-157).
Track his argument here. Are prayers not the spontaneous expressions of a human heart towards God? If so, why are they here written and included in Scripture? If the prayers of David merely originated in the heart of David, why are they preserved in Scripture?
Bonhoeffer responds that the Psalms are preserved in Scripture because these prayer/songs are inspired by God. Or to put it another way, God wrote these prayer/songs to Himself! God – by the inspiration of the Spirit through the pen of the Psalmists – leaves us a pattern of prayer and song that brings us back to the model of Lord’s Prayer. See that? So the Psalms in prayer and praise model the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer.
This leads Bonhoeffer to a further conclusion: prayer is not merely waiting for spontaneous thoughts to emanate from our hearts.
“We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ. Thus it does not matter whether the Psalms express exactly what we feel in our hearts at the moment we pray. Perhaps it is precisely the case that we must pray against our own heart in order to pray rightly. It is not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray. If we were dependent on ourselves alone, we would probably often pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God’s Word, ought to determine our prayer” (5:157).
The Psalms are God’s prayers as inspired by God. As children learning to talk from the language of their parents, the Psalms are teaching saints the language of prayer (5:155). It does not first matter whether the Psalms seem to be what we would pray for any more than we would naturally pray “hallowed be your name” or “lead us not into temptation.” Our prayers do not rest upon the impulse of our hearts, but the richness of Scripture.
The point is we are not limited in prayer until we feel ready to pray. We can learn to pray.
“Teach us to pray”
This returns to the beginning of the book. Bonhoeffer begins with the disciple’s request, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
“’To learn to pray’ sounds contradictory to us. Either the heart is so overflowing that it begins to pray by itself, we say, or it will never learn to pray. But this is a dangerous error, which is certainly very widespread among Christians today, to imagine that it is natural for the heart to pray. We then confuse wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing – all of which the heart can certainly do on its own – with praying. But in doing so we confuse earth and heaven, human beings and God. Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ” (5:155).
We need to learn how to pray. The disciples request was answered by Jesus showing them how to pray and what to pray. He models for His disciples the very words to speak – a prayer that certainly would not have naturally emanated from our hearts. The Psalms therefore lay a pattern that touches our prayer and worship lives. These are the inspired prayer/songs of God. They are the words God has chosen to be worshipped with and pleaded by.
For Bonhoeffer, encouraging Christians to pray and sing the Psalms was a worthy exchange for his comforts in Nazi Germany. “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “With its recovery will come unexpected power” (5:162).
The above quotes were taken from volume five of the Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Fortress Press has packaged The Prayerbook of the Bible with Life Together – a thought-provoking book on the value of small groups and Christian community.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” – James 5:16
If he had the opportunity to revise his famous book (The Enemy Within), what would Kris Lundgaard add? At the final session of The Enemy Within conference in Omaha, he said he would add a chapter on sanctification within the community, specifically the importance of confessing sin to one another. (Listen to session 4 of the Lundgaard audio here).
He opened session four by reading large sections of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s parable, The Minister’s Black Veil, a story of a pastor who lives out the end of his life under a black veil seeking to hide his own personal sin from the rest of the church.
But I was especially interested in Lundgaard’s reference to a small book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer by the title, Life Together. I was not familiar with this book and so the following quotes hit me.
“Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation… This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted. But God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107:16)…”
“The root of all sin is pride… I want to be my own law, I have a right to my self, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death. The mind and flesh of man are set on fire by pride; for it is precisely in his wickedness that man wants to be as God … In the confession of concrete sins the old man dies a painful, shameful death before the eyes of a brother. Because this humiliation is so hard we continually scheme to evade confessing to a brother. Our eyes are so blinded that they no longer see the promise and the glory in such abasement.”
“Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother… Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
These quotes remind me of C.J. Mahaney’s presentation at the Together for the Gospel 2006 conference where he encouraged pastors to be (discreetly) willing to confess sin from the pulpit in a way that builds honesty and openness with our hearers.
Likewise, it reminds me of the Psalmist. Asaph in Psalm 73 openly declared and confessed sins (sin that would otherwise remained hidden from sight). In fact he says, I almost went public with my confession (v. 15). But he didn’t. He was willing to lay his heart sins open and compose one of the most cherished of all the Psalms.
Asaph, Mahaney, Lundgaard and now Bonhoeffer have taught me much about the dynamics of Christian community. By hiding our sins under a black veil, our Christian lives are un-authentic and sin grows unhindered. We must work to be more open, to lay bare the heart, to confess “concrete sins,” build communion with our brothers and sisters, to be freed from the sinful pride that veils our personal sin. By the graciousness of God, if we can die to self here we will build a “fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.”
O, that God, while seemingly blessing our age with great doctrine, will also open our hearts to bless our communities and pulpits with pride-killing honesty and humility.