Struggling with Bonhoeffer and Grief

Added about 5 years ago by Martin Lind

/images/blog/Bild 146-1987-074-16.jpgGUEST BLOG: Martin Lind, the Lutheran Bishop of Great Britain, discusses what draws him to Bonhoeffer’s texts and how they helped him cope with the loss of his wife.

When I arrived at university in Lund as a young student of theology in the 1960s, I saw the book Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the first time. It was newly translated into Swedish. I got the book and started to read it, but did not understand much. It was irritating that I couldn’t understand it immediately. When I was young, I thought I could understand most things, especially theology. The older I get, the more I see how little I really understand, especially in theology.

Now the letters from prison gave me a good lesson: I had to learn to become a bit more humble. I had to learn that our human existence is complex and woven with secrets.

I read the letters again and again and again. Finally I thought I had understood them. But each time I read them again I noticed new things and saw new connections, new perspectives. It is still the same now: my whole adult life I have read Bonhoeffer’s texts. Nowadays I read the letters from prison every year during Lent. I don’t read them from beginning to end, but rather a few lines every day. Strangely enough, these texts open new windows for me all the time.

One day some years ago I was asked if I wanted to write thirty meditations on thirty chosen quotations by Bonhoeffer. At that time my wife had got a very serious illness. We just had received the diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer, which she got even though she never smoked.

I thought: this is not the time for me to withdraw and write books.

But my wife heard about it, and she was very decisive: “Martin, you must write that book.” And so it was. She was often in bed when I was writing. I could hear her voice: “How many pages have you written now?”

I wrote my book on the thirty Bonhoeffer quotations and it was ready a few weeks before the death of my wife. Her death occupied me totally and I didn’t want to talk about my book, nor did I want to think of publishing it.

But the Swedish publishing house wanted to see the manuscript. After hesitating, I finally sent them the text, and the response was quite positive. They pointed out that my writings were similar to Bonhoeffer's in that both texts were written with death nearby, which may be true, particularly concerning Bonhoeffer’s texts after 20 July 1944.

Before that date Bonhoeffer mainly had the conviction that he would survive the war. He even spoke of contributing to a new Germany after the war, and certainly to a new German church, but after the attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944 had failed, he was not so sure of survival. He had himself been part of the preparations for that attempt. He might have thought that he could be found guilty, and even receive capital punishment.

My book, which has now been translated into English, is an attempt to accept my own reflections and thoughts on the chosen Bonhoeffer quotations. Some texts focus on the weakness of God and the weakness of human beings. These texts are close to my heart, especially chapter 28:

When Bonhoeffer in his prison cell reflects on the help given to humans by God through a Christian faith, he considers the powerlessness of God. We might have imagined he would rather have looked for Bible passages that emphasize God’s strength. Bonhoeffer himself is a victim of an inhumane political power that incessantly diminishes and denies human worth. The idea of a God that displays power by intervening in the world’s power structures and imposing justice must be tempting.

But Bonhoeffer seeks the absolute opposite image of God. When God is powerless, God is greatest. It is through suffering that Christ is closest to us. “[God] gains ground and power in the world by being powerless”, he writes in the letter cited in the title. The God we read about in our Bible is not one that solves problems, intervenes, and makes everything better. Instead it is only the powerless, suffering God that can help people. It is in weakness that God is closest to us.

But it is not an appeasing sort of weakness that makes people feel sorry for themselves. It is a closeness to life itself.

In our weakness we are closer to ourselves and to God. In our weakness we clearly see that human life is greater than everything we can dominate and control. We do not own our own life. Our life belongs to God who has given life to all of creation. In our weakness we see that the greatest things in life are the most fragile things, the things that could so easily break but endure everything. We might think of falling in love—so tender and fragile, yet so strong. We might think of friendship, faith, tenderness, relationships—everything that can so easily be turned into its opposite.

When we are truly close to life itself, human weakness is exposed, the same weakness that is our strength. When we are truly close to life, we are truly close to God.

From With God We Live Without God, pp. 64-65

I question whether I still believe in the Almighty. Some people say that it is not possible to accept a weak God who also is almighty.

I just don’t know.

But I do know that I have no ambition to question the Christian faith. My ambition is instead to contribute to deeper and further reflection.

The omnipotence of God is no easy thought. When reflecting on that I nowadays try to understand that omnipotence as a capacity to accept weakness.

From a human perspective it is hard to accept one’s own weaknesses. Most of us were brought up to deny our own weakness or to hide it. It is therefore liberating to start to reflect on an opposite position in our Christian faith. It is a relief for each one of us when we are encouraged to accept our own personal weakness. Especially if this weakness gives room for an inner strength—stronger than weapons or any other power in the world.

This is what I believe: in my weakness is my real strength embedded.

Martin Lind is the Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Great Britain. He is affiliated to the University of Lund, Sweden, as Assistant Professor in Systematic Theology, and has been a bishop in the Church of Sweden.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) is one of the most well-known theologians of the twentieth century. 70 years after his death, he is still referred to in public debates. His writings cover a variety of themes and have helped to unite friends of Christ from across the world. With God We Live Without God contains a series of 30 reflections and prayers that draw inspiration from the theological challenges, thought-provoking statements, and new intellectual constructs that defined Bonhoeffer’s own reflections—get your copy today.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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