A Fascinating Study of Suffering

Well, it’s back to school for second semester this week. One of my textbooks this semester is called Letters and Papers from Prison. The Greatly Expanded Edition (!!) It’s too bad I didn’t take this class before the textbook became ‘greatly expanded’. This text is a collection of writings made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer that were smuggled out of prison while he was held by the Nazis during WWII. It is a fascinating and gut wrenching account of injustice that I could hardly put down. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, seminary professor and brilliant writer who was born in 1906 to a wealthy and influential family in Germany. He vigorously opposed the Nazi practices of the 1930s and was arrested when it was discovered that money used to help smuggle Jews out of the country was traced back to him.

The outrageous insanity of Nazi Germany can be seen in this: Bonhoeffer, a blond haired, blue eyed, German born ministry candidate refused to confess the ‘Aryan clause’ which was written by an Foreign born, brown haired, brown-eyed atheist (Hitler) for people hoping to become ministers which required that only blond haired, blond eyed non-Jewish men could be ministers. ???

Bonhoeffer was instrumental in the formation of the ‘Confessing Church’, an illegal protest movement amongst churches in Germany that stood up to Hitler and the Reich. In the West he most widely known for fifty pages of theological writing that he did while in prison for treason. I am learning and trying to understand Bonhoeffer and I still find it alarming that he was willingly part of a failed plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20th 1944. All this while writing his dissertation on ‘Ethics’ ??? His group was captured, interrogated and imprisoned. He was executed just days before the Soviets captured Berlin. One of his partners (the guy that gathered the documents for my textbook) had his execution delayed until May 1st. The Soviets captured the prison on April 30th.

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Bonhoeffer with street youth from Berlin 1933

Bonhoeffer’s famous contribution seems simple today, but that is only because his views have been so widely adopted, and celebrated. In 1943 it was very avant garde to ask the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” No one was asking questions like that. “What was Jesus Christ?” would have been more natural question to ask. The notion that the person of Jesus Christ could be considered and known was a vast departure from the theological thinking of the day.  His other great contribution to the theological world was a book called “The Cost of Discipleship”. I will have to read that. On the topic of suffering he writes to his fellow conspirators while in prison:

It is so valuable that we have been able to see these events from the perspective of those who suffered for our perception of humanity, justice, and mercy have become clearer. Personal suffering has become a far more useful tool for viewing and understanding the world than personal happiness.

Life finds meaning when joy and contentment are contrasted with disappointment and suffering. God loves us too much to let us get what we want all the time. In the same way I love my kids too much to let them eat Captain Crunch every morning (even if it’s on sale). Ravi Zacharias said on his weekly broadcast “Let My People Think” last week, “A meaningless life is not one with an excess of suffering but one with an excess of pleasure.” That is so true. An endless series of sunny days would cease to be sunny. It would just exist; it would just be, just as it is without any joy.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1: 2-4


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