Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Ultimate Honesty

Added about a year ago by Martin Lind

The first time Martin Lind read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison, he was deeply moved by the honesty he met in the texts. Here he explains what makes Bonhoeffer’s writings so radically powerful.

When I first read Bonhoeffer, he did not immediately seem to be the sort of Christian who wanted to explain the Christian faith to me. I did not find a missionary between the lines. No, here I found a human being who was struggling with his life. I knew the author was a highly educated theologian, known for his reading. But in prison he was just one of us, fighting to find what to believe, to think, to do. “The only way to be honest is to recognize that we have to live in the world etsi Deus non daretur [as if there were no God]” (16 July 1944).

God teaches us that we must live as human beings who can get along very well without God—so Bonhoeffer directly says. It is a question of honesty.

I remember one Christmas Eve afternoon, when there was a short service on Swedish television. A good fellow, a priest, was saying something about the meaning of the birth of Jesus. I knew the priest—he is a pious and straightforward person. But in the midst of his short sermon he said: “Do not be afraid. You are not alone. God is always with you.”

And all of a sudden, I became furiously angry. I was about to take the TV set and throw it out the window. I thought: “What he is saying is just not true. It is a religious lie. It is religious varnish. I can’t stand it.”

Every human being is alone. We were born alone and we will die alone. And all the most important decisions we make are made alone. We believe in a God who is with us in our loneliness, not in a God who takes our loneliness away from us. We believe in Emmanuel, that is: God is with us. Yes, God is really with us in our loneliness.

In Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together, written just before the Second World War, he had some tough words to say on loneliness. The Christian fellowship is not “a spiritual sanatorium”, he says. A person who escapes from themselves to fellowship will misuse it as a nonsense and pastime, however spiritual this nonsense and pastime may be. That person does not seek fellowship, but rather stimulus that will help them to forget the emptiness for a while.

“But the one who cannot be alone should watch out for the fellowship”—this is honest, instead of all the talk about a warm fellowship open to all. Fellowship can be dangerous if a person is misusing it.

I started to note down some thoughts by Bonhoeffer about how we all live “without” God. The language seems harsh, alien to our Christian life. But the more I reflect on his words, the more I agree with him. No human being can live outside God’s presence, according to the Bible. God is everywhere, out of human control. But we don’t believe in a God who decides our thoughts and deeds. The picture of God given to us in the biblical texts is a God that is greater than any human being. This is a God who allows human beings to decide things for themselves, to choose their own ways.

“Before God and with him we live without God” (16 July 1944). This is honest recognition, true for every human being. We all share life “without” God. But according to Bonhoeffer we all also share the life “before God and with God”, unconsciously or consciously. As human beings we make the many decisions which form our lives. Whatever decisions we make, we always make them “before God” and “with God” according to the Christian faith. 

Now he goes a step further in his reflections: “God is weak and powerless in the world”, he says, “and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.” What Bonhoeffer means is that here we come to the point where Christian faith is different from “all religions”. Religiosity among human beings tempts them to look to the power of God to influence the world. A powerful God in the world is supposed to be more worth to trust in human concern and distress.

But the Christian faith gives us quite a different perspective, according to Bonhoeffer. It is only the suffering God who may help.

When we try today to describe the process by which the world came of age, we see how necessary it is for human beings to abandon “false” conceptions of God, where God is effective like a machine. The God of the Bible will lead us to another concept of God, “who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness”. In the weakness we find real strength. I think that human beings can also recognize this process in themselves: it is not in strength that a human being is nearest to the essence of life, but rather in weakness that a human being will find their real identity.

For me “honesty” or “ultimate honesty” are terms I learned, thanks to Bonhoeffer, to apply when reflecting on my personal identity, my way of living, my thoughts of the meaning of life. And these words help me to reread the biblical texts again and again and all of a sudden to find new horizons, new perspectives, giving new light.

I dare to live in ultimate honesty. I dare to meet my own loneliness, my own weakness. It is in my low moments that I find more and more of my true identity.

Martin Lind is the former 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.

He is the author of our December #BookOfTheMonth, With God We Live Without God, a series of reflections and prayers inspired by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Get your copy here.

Photo credit: Pierre Eriksson

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

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