September 14, 2015 Aaron Ross

Bonhoeffer, Paul, and the Christian Struggle

“Civil courage . . . depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the [person] who becomes a sinner in that venture.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Recently, while reading Bonhoeffer and his Letters and Papers from Prison, I came across the aforementioned quote. It does not seem like quite a surprise that this quote would come from someone whose life was soon to be ended by being hanged for plotting against Hitler during WWII just days before the Allied Armies freed the concentration camp he was imprisoned at.

This quote from Bonhoeffer, who lived anything but a conventional life, needs to be unpacked. Bonhoeffer was not arguing for a life that allowed sin under the guise of following Christ, rather, he argued that in living a life so focused and dedicated to building the Kingdom of Heaven with Christ, the accidental and unknown committed sin will always be forgiven.

Yet, Bonhoeffer is a bit of an enigma. He can make statements like, “Christian love draws no distinction between our enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater our enemy’s need of love”, while also struggling to understand his place of being between the those who were suffering and being massacred under Hitler.

To claim that Christian living is simple is to misunderstand the life of one who claims to follow after Christ.

Following Christ can be messy, it can be ambiguous, it can cause us to struggle, and above all, it calls us to lay down our own lives, something Bonhoeffer unfortunately knew too well (John 15:13).

Of course, following Christ is full of joy, blessing, love, and ultimately, an infinite living with God in perfect relationality. However, to deny the reality that being a Christian can be messy, can be a struggle, can force us to reexamine our own lives, is tantamount to misunderstanding the story of Christ.

One of my favorite bands echoed slightly what Bonhoeffer noted in the first quote mentioned in this post. As Cities Burn, in a song that has stuck with me since first hearing it so many years ago, recorded this prose:

If I make it to heaven
I may be bloody
Would you still take me?

I’m afraid that you might say
Depart from me, for I never knew you

‘Cause I’m in the wrong body
I’m in the wrong body
I’m in the wrong body
I must have stumbled in

All the love I want to give
Gets caught between every rib
What does that make me?

I have good intentions but no exit
For them to come out right through

‘Cause I’m in the wrong body

I can’t help but to recall the words of Paul in Romans 7:  “I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.”

Paul and Bonhoeffer knew this fact well, following Christ can be hard.

However, there is beauty in the struggle and peace in having to rely on someone other than yourself. Often, when there is no struggle, when there is no suffering, we have a tendency to forget God and rely on our own strength. In relying on our own strength, we tend to, like the guys from As Cities Burn sang about, begin to be worried about God accepting us.

The struggle in doing what is right keeps us in prayer; the realization that we cannot make this way for ourselves keeps us focused on God. In moments of struggling, we are forced to rely on God and to accept our own weakness. The Bible is filled with encouragement about relying on God in our weakness and in our struggles when following after Him and building His Kingdom.

Proverbs 3:5 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.

Isaiah 41:10 – Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (The list could easily go on).

Thankfully, Paul, someone who also knew the struggle of an oppressive government and persecution well (a lot like Bonhoeffer), explained to the Christians in Rome who can save us in the midst of our struggle:

“The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.” (Romans 7)

One of the most beautiful facts about of following Christ is that even in our struggles, He is with us; even in our failures, He forgives us; even when in serving Him we make mistakes, grace abounds.

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About the Author

Aaron Ross Aaron Ross is Assistant Professor of Theology at Southeastern University and a PhD student at the University of Birmingham (UK). He is also the senior editor of ECCLESIAM. In his spare time, Aaron enjoys running and being an avid movie watcher.
  • Elizabeth Lawrence-Murdock

    I wonder what Mr. Bonhoeffer would say about the average Christain today,now in this country? He gave his all, much like so many before him,after him and even today. I hear so much about about what Christains are doing across the seas in other lands. Not to sound to bigoted,(Why not) Okay, so I don’t mind voicing my opinions, I will call a lemon tree, a lemon tree when I see one. It is not a boldly tart fruit that spings from a gentle evergreen. It is a lemon tree folks, they are sour, the tree has torns. Why are we as a body so weak? I recently was offended by someone eles rights. Their rights, thought, and opinions mattered, but mine did not; because I was a Christ follower? WHAT!!!!! Hold on a minute, Do you think that all those people who gave their lives would say, “pardon me” let me just lie here and you can do whatever you want to me. Rosey Parks wasn’t afraid to say, No, and I had enough of this! Is it that we are so afraid that the skeltons in our closets will jump out, if we start to make a noise for our own rights. Guess what. I got a whole graveyard full of skeletons in mine, let me walk you around some of the headstones. My Christ given,blood bought right to freedom is mine. I want it. We can do all though Christ who stenghen us.(paraphrazed).