5 Lessons from the Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

   I first remember hearing the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer at a WWII themed homeschool conference my family attended about six years ago. A bit later, we listened to the audiobook by Janet and Geoff Benge about him. And last winter I read the 600 page biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. Ask my family, and you’ll know that I’ve been talking a lot about Bonhoeffer lately. There are so many incredible lessons we can learn from the life of this man who died at the age of just 39. He was a German, a brilliant theologian, a pastor, a writer, a spy, a son, a brother, and a friend.
   Here are five of the lessons we can learn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
1.   Love your family.
Born February 4th, 1906, Dietrich was one of 8 children. Growing up, his mother read to him and his siblings from the Bible and sang hymns with them. He had a close relationship with his mother his whole life. And while his father, a famed psychologist, was not a Christian, Dietrich still loved and honored him. Dietrich’s twin sister, Sabine, and younger sister, Susanne, were his playmates through his childhood and dear friends all his days. And while some of his older brothers and sisters did not share his faith and he often disagreed with them, he loved them, too. Later on in his life, some of his older siblings were co-conspirators with him in the plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler. While in college, Dietrich’s fellow students sometimes made fun of him for how often he spoke to his family and spent time with them. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t let what other people thought stop him from doing something. Which brings us to the next lesson from his life.
2.      Don’t worry about what other people think.
While still a boy, Dietrich decided to become a theologian. His family was very surprised, and some mocked his decision. But Dietrich was undeterred. Again and again throughout his life, he made choices that others, even his close friends and fellow Christians, did not understand. Convinced he was following God’s leading, Bonhoeffer learned to let go of the desire to be understood and approved of by others. When he left the state-sanctioned church and helped start the Confessing Church, many did not understand. And when he appeared to join sides with the Nazis in order to really work undercover to overthrow them, many of his fellow Christians neither understood nor agreed. Some agreed with him that Hitler needed to be deposed, but disagreed with his methods. Many others in Germany thought their loyalty to the church and their loyalty to their country were one. They didn’t understand how a man of the church could work to overthrow the government, corrupt though it was. For them, the German church was the true church. They wondered why a German pastor and theologian would leave the mainline church, befriend Christians of other countries, and work to supplant the Third Reich.
3.      The true church is not confined to one country, but made up of people from all nations.
Growing up in Germany among people proud of their heritage and their country’s history involving Martin Luther and the Reformation, Dietrich’s view of the church did not extend beyond those he’d attended in his homeland. But when he was eighteen, he visited Rome and was awed as he witnessed Christians of many countries all worshipping together. Over the course of his life, he became friends with Christians of varying nationalities—an Englishman, a Swiss, a Frenchman, and an African-American, to name a few. He loved Germany, but he understood that God loved people of all nationalities, not just the Germans.
4.      Stand up for the oppressed.
Before World War II, Bonhoeffer spent a year studying in the United States. This was when there was still segregation in America. He travelled with his African-American friend and was shocked to find that they couldn’t ride in the same bus or sit together in restaurants. When he returned to Germany, he was horrified to see the changes that had taken place while he was away. It started gradually with laws made saying that Jews could no longer hold government jobs, print newspapers, and the like. When it was made law that Jewish Christians had to worship in their own separate churches, many Christian pastors saw it as a reasonable compromise.  But Dietrich boldly proclaimed to a gathering of pastors that it was the duty of the church to stand up for people being oppressed by the government. Many pastors walked out in protest, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer continued to speak out against the persecution of the Jews. It may not have seemed so bad at first, but before long, Jews (and others, too) were being rounded up and taken to extermination camps to be killed. And Dietrich worked to help them until his final day.
5.      Death is really the beginning of life.
Eventually, it was discovered that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had helped Jews escape the country and he was imprisoned. He was engaged to a young woman named Maria, and both held on to the hope that he would soon be released, the war would be over, and they could enjoy married life together. But then it was found out that he had also been part of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. All hope of release vanished. His last full day on earth was the Sunday after Easter. At the request of his fellow prisoners, he preached a simple sermon on the verses Isaiah 53:5 (“He was wounded for our transgressions,) and 1 Peter 1:3 (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”). He had barely finished when he was taken away to be executed. He was hanged and his body burned. An eyewitness said that he had hardly ever seen a man die so submissive to the will of God. Just a few weeks after his death, the war was over. When he was executed, many saw it as a tragic mistake. But it is quite certain that Bonhoeffer himself did not see it so. He believed that his life was in God’s hands, and while he had hoped he would live through the war and be able to marry his beloved Maria, he knew that if he were to die a martyr’s death, God had planned it and had a purpose in it. Shortly before his execution, he said, “This is the end… For me, the beginning of life.” He knew that for him, death was simply the doorway to Heaven. Bonhoeffer was a contemporary of C. S. Lewis, and his view of death reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ words at the end of The Last Battle, “But for them, it was only the beginning of the real story.” He echoed the attitude of the Apostle Paul who said “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,(Philippians 1:21).
   Though Dietrich Bonhoeffer died over 75 years ago, his story is still inspiring people to this day. May we live our lives with the same courage, faith, love, and obedience to God.
   And always remember, “He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it,” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
   All for Him,
Savannah Jane


The Bible

Photo credit: The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, Flossenburg concentration camp, the site of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's execution


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