January 18, 2019

Sundays with Michael Spencer: February 1, 2015


Note from CM: 2015 will mark five years since the death of Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk. Today, we continue our “Sundays with Michael” series with an excerpt from post that was originally published in January 2009.

• • •

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been an influence on my life since high school. His Letters and Papers from Prison was the only theological book my parents ever bought for me: Christmas 1976. His provocative and elegant writing give a beautiful witness to a man who developed a wonderful theological mind, was not afraid to move forward to the unknown in his journey with God and taught all Christians of our time to be faithful to Jesus in the midst of the claims of the “powers” of this world, even unto death.

Toward the end of a lecture about Bonhoeffer that I recently heard by Earl Palmer, Palmer read a very brief paragraph about the sovereignty of God over evil.

I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose, he needs men who make the best use of everything.

I like that thought very much. It reminds me of the wonderful passage out of Jeremiah 29 where Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiled community of God’s people living in the midst of Babylon for 70 years:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

In other words, God can and will bring good out of evil, and for that purpose he needs people who make the best use of everything.

The encouragement of this passage can easily be overlooked. We may find ourselves in evil times and places, and our confidence is in a God who brings good out of evil. For Bonhoeffer, that was years of unfair incarceration in Nazi prisons preceding his execution a day before allied troops liberated the prison.

By all reports, Bonhoeffer made the best use of everything. He preached to the prisoners. He prayed with them. He composed poems and liturgy. He led music. He befriended the guards. He wrote theology. He wrote letters. He encouraged his parents, his friends and his fiancée.

He made the best use of everything.

The prosperity disease tells us to worship and seek to manipulate a God who will give us prosperity while others suffer. It promises protection and a way to have more.

Bonhoeffer and Jeremiah tell us to be useful to others. To live a normal, human life with God’s hope in the midst of it. To find reasons to do what we can wherever we are, rather than find reasons for all we cannot do because of those same circumstances.

I recall that in every prison camp, the Jewish people made orchestras, taught dance, held synagogue, created libraries. In Japanese prisons, allied prisoners organized universities. In tiny churches amidst Katrina rubble, Christians use their time to rebuild houses in the community, rather than concentrate all their efforts on themselves and their own worship centers.

God will bring good out of evil, and for that purpose he needs people who make the best use of everything.


  1. Thank you for featuring Michael’s writing on Sundays. This one in particular was just the reminder I needed today.

  2. And He needs people who don’t just “pray”, spout nice sounding platitudes, or talk about having “faith”, but who actually get their hands dirty doing something, ei working. It never ceases to amaze me how my evangelical world can take scriptures that clearly talk about hearing and/or knowing God’s call and acting on it; and turning that completely on its head and into a call to pray/read the Bible more and focus on an individualized, navel-gazing “relationship” with God…
    I’ve sat under preachers who did it in the space of a few minutes. The NT passage being read had absolutely nothing to do with pursuing an “individualized personal relationship with Jesus”, yet said preacher will take the scripture calling for simple faithful works/obedience and spend the next 10min pushing the passage in the “navel-gazing, personal relationship” direction and only that direction. It basically turns into an elaborate excuse for doing little to nothing, which sometimes I wonder if that’s the whole point – teaching people to do nothing, be uninvolved, not grounded but heads in the clouds… I don’t know. I suppose most of the time it’s unintentional but I cringe every time I hear it.

  3. Reading Chardin right now on evolution and it fits right in here. At all blocks and resistances the good, the beneficial emerging and the inexorable evolution toward Omega seep in. All it takes is a few to rise though and the story continues, the evolution proceeds. Bonhoeffer was certainly and very literally one of the few. We need the same today to avoid slipping into a dark regression. That’s not meant to be overly dramatic but every age is called to the task.

    • In Bruce Cockburn’s words, “You’ve got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.”

  4. OldProphet says:

    Just the Evangelical world? This is the whole church! Talk,talk, talk, blaw, blaw, blaw. We fiddle while Rome burns. Sorry, we are all to blame we live in a post Christian nation now. Just look at the culture. As I always say, when all is said and done, a lot got said and little got done.

    • -> “Sorry, we are all to blame we live in a post Christian nation now.”

      Not to be too argumentative, but I’m not placing all that on the church. The reason the USA is a post-Christian nation is because a lot of people don’t want to follow God and Jesus. We’re a nation of sinners, just as any nation. And as hypocritical as we Christians come across at times, the message of the need for repentance and of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice is out there, it’s just that a lot of people are choosing to ignore it.

    • It’s surely true that we are all sinners, Rick, yet I’ve tried to hold the Church and we Christians to a slightly higher standard in my mind than the rest of “the world. But I’m afraid the Prophet is right — we’re just the same, and somehow I doubt that’s what Our Lord had in mind.

      In two relatively recent wars, I’ve watched what we Christians do, and it turns out that we do exactly the same as everyone else. The war with Iraq 12 years ago was blatantly wrong, yet most Christians not only condoned it but actively supported it. A Christian nun in Baghdad, head of a maternity hospital, said to a group of us early in 2003: “It’s very hard to be a Christian now. People come to me and say ‘Bush is a Christian. He’s going to drop bombs on little children. How is that a Christian? How can *you* be a Christian?'”

      The Israeli slaughter in Gaza last year, “justified” by ridiculous “evidence,” and resulting the the deaths of four Israeli soldiers and 1400 Gazans, drew some “oh dears” from Christians in the west, but that’s about all. When the Israelis (whom America props up with more than $3 billion a year) did the same thing to Gaza some five or so years ago, I kept expecting and hoping the Church or individual Christians would do *something,* *anything* except make stupid speeches, but nobody did. That was when I gave up on expecting the Church in particular or Christians in general to be any different from the culture in which we/they are embedded.

      And that’s a very bitter conclusion. Because who else is there to turn to?

      But then, I suppose, it was no different for Bonhoeffer. We Christians rightly glory in his wisdom and his courage, but we push to one side the plain fact that over 90% of the German Christian population almost instantly bowed the knee to Hitler.

  5. Hmm…this re-post has me reconsidering my criticism of the typical “Christianese” use of Jeremiah 29:11 (aka “God’s got great plans for you, to become successful in the future!” when frankly some people’s future is bleak and terminal). It seems like Bonhoeffer was able to take a pretty dismal situation and “thrive” in it; thrive not by escaping or “prospering” in a Jeremiah 29:11 sense, but certainly in a sense of adding hope for those around him.

    Maybe “making the best use of everything” is an element of Jeremiah 29:11 then…?

  6. OldProphet says:

    Yes,true also

  7. I have always liked very much one of Bonhoeffer’s poems written in prison:

    Who am I?

    They often tell me
    I stepped from my cell’s confinement
    Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
    Like a squire from his country-house.
    Who am I? They often tell me
    I used to speak to my warders
    Freely and friendly and clearly,
    As though it were mine to command.
    Who am I? They also tell me
    I bore the days of misfortune
    Equally, smilingly, proudly,
    Like one accustomed to win.
    Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
    Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
    Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
    Struggling for breath, as though hands were
    compressing my throat,
    Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
    Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
    Tossing in expectation of great events,
    Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
    Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
    Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
    Who am I? This or the other?
    Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
    Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
    And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
    Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
    Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
    Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
    Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!

    • I think we should reopen the canon, and add this one to the Psalter.

      • I enjoyed that poem also!

        And this paragraph by ms

        Bonhoeffer and Jeremiah tell us to be useful to others. To live a normal, human life with God’s hope in the midst of it. To find reasons to do what we can wherever we are, rather than find reasons for all we cannot do because of those same circumstances.

      • I enjoyed that poem also!

  8. Bonhoeffer said he really did not want to get involved, be an activist, but Christ simply compelled him to speak out. I come from a German family. We prayed for Martin Niemoller, pastor of Berlin’s largest Lutheran church, because he was under constant threat. I was very young then, but I somehow felt pride that Lutheran pastors were standing fast.

  9. February 2, We know this as Ground Hogs day and I would like to compare the Article by Michale to the movie ground hogs day with Bill Murray.

    In the movie the weatherman was at best a shallow self involved and empty individual until he awoke to the same day every day which is a pretty apbt description of our lives or at least mine for longer than is good.
    Phil the weatherman found that life was full of possibilities at least after he decided that the best end of a useless life wasn’t just ending it but in changing it to mean something better.

    It was this process of change that we enjoyed watching it was the process of bettering himself of embracing his daily situation, and more importantly investing himself in the lives of those about him that had need, whether as a first responder or as a musician the positive interaction is what best describes civilization or family and this is exactly what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jeremiah, and Christ have challenged each of us to do daily.

    May it be so, Shalom

  10. Posting about a historic figure makes me ask about my place in history. In my youth during the 1970’s Bonhoeffer was a dark and mysterious figure. I noticed Mike very kindly dated himself as a teen in the 70’s. There was a reference to Bruce Cockburn, another figure largely from the 70’s although some of his best work came out in the early 80’s. He was one of my heroes too. I’ll bet we’re the trailing edge of the Baby Boom, the so-called GenX. Frankly I can’t believe how old I have already become. Nearly all of my friends are younger than I am. Question is: what have we got to show for it?

    Bonhoeffer, who was only 39 years old, clearly speaks to those of us who came of age in the late 1970’s. His epitaph is printed in the back of “The Cost of Discipleship” . On a simple plaque which hangs on the tree where he was hanged we read,. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a witness of Jesus Christ among his brethren…”. But many of us have labored among our brethren but we have not become witness. Our labor has kept us from it.

    I feel a little like that Rambler. I really believe the world needs its Ramblers. I had a ’63 and a ’64 Rambler. I’m a little old but still have some spunk… sure do. I can tell you about the engine and the maker and the fun I had keeping it running. It was only made to run for 5 or 10 years, but Mike’s given it permanence. Now the Rambler has become a constant, that which centers and grounds us outside of the increasingly busy materialistic world. I want to be that Rambler to someone. In the summer of 1976 we sponged up personal connection and acceptance and discovered salvation as a together experience. Like many of us here I’m tired of being dragged about by church programs. I’m tired of having my labor used to someone else’s vision. I have still have much to share and I’m not getting to share it while church keeps me busy. I long to draw to myself brothers and sisters for the purpose of witness. It’s a dark time in history now too. Join me and perhaps our generation will be one of histories great surprises.