September 19, 2020

Bonhoeffer and Making the Best Use of Everything

I generally enjoy the Kindlings Muse podcast from Dick Staub, but the episode I listened to today was especially good. It was a full introduction to the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr. This presentation was done by the outstanding Presbyterian preacher and author, Earl Palmer. (What a great blessing Earl Palmer has been to my life. Get all his books that you can still find.)

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 the lecture, 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.

Jeremiah 29:4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 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. 7 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 men 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 fiance.

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.

In a little more than a day, the ministry where I serve will have a meeting to learn about how we will be coping with the financial situation. Like all ministries, we have been severely effected. Unlike other ministries, we all live here together in community. Whatever happens, we will experience it together. There will be cutbacks, reductions and sacrifices. Though our ministry is modest and careful in the use of money and resources, we still are used to having enough. Now “enough” is surely going to be less than it was before.

My prayer is that I will be among those who will make the best use of everything, even if there is going to be considerably less resources to work with. There are always people in ministry who tell God what the minimums must be. I am praying I will be able to say “God, I will be here to minister, no matter how the situation changes or how long the situation persists.

Have a joyful and useful 2009.


  1. That I might in 2009 shun cheap grace, and that we as a church might fight for costly grace, as Bonhoeffer did.

  2. “Now “enough” is surely going to be less than it was before.”
    Thank you for your willingness to serve with whatever is given you. Thank you for your testimony to this as well. As an IMB M I will also be dealing with much less than we had a year ago. May I live with as much grace as you have shown- much less what Bonhoeffer demonstrated! This is a good message for all of us.

  3. I don’t see you being asked to be on TBN anytime soon with posts such as this and other recent ones. 🙂

    Wonder what Bonhoeffer would make of things today? What I have read of his works keeps me praying, “Lord, have mercy” and “Lord, help us.”

  4. What would Bonhoeffer make of this?

    The evangelical emphasis on church attendance does seem to have turned the Gospel message on its head, at least in this case.

  5. I don’t see anything about evangelicalism in the article. The girl could have been Catholic or Orthodox. And she was irresponsible. In what evangelical church would she be commended for doing what she did? None.

  6. I’m sure it’s known what church she attended, and a with a little more Googling we can find that out.

    But I didn’t say it was an “E”vangelical Church. Whatever denomination it was, the woman was affected by a compulsion to be on time for a religious service over concerns for one who was not only her neighbor in need, but a helpless individual she was employed at being responsible for. This is both an actual example and a metaphor for much of what you have posted in the short time I have been reading your postings.

  7. I appreciate the point, but I want to be careful in the area of implying that it is evangelicalism or anything else that causes people to be jerks or whatever. The new atheists say that religion makes people violent and millions buy that line. The truth is that people are violent and will demonstrate that in whatever context you put them in, from religion to board games. So this woman could have been compulsively going to a second job, or to mass, or to an affair or to an evangelical church service. I don’t want to relieve her of the fault here and place any of it at the door of a church, because no matter how compulsive a church is about attendance, they probably understand the parable of the Good Samaritan.

  8. There’s a story about Mother Theresa on her way with the media and dignitaries to address the UN. As this entourage was walking to the venue of “earth-shaking” importance, they suddenly noticed that the honored speaker was not among them. Looking back they saw her on her knees attending to a homeless person that the rest had walked right by without a second look.

    Sounds like a right interpretation of the evangelical question, “What would Jesus do?” but I haven’t heard of such things from prominent Evangelical leaders of the day. Had there been more such examples, this woman may not have made such a blunder. But I could be wrong.

  9. I named my son Dietrich in honor of the man and his faith, for the reasons you point out and so many others as well.

    I think his “After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Years, 1943” forms an excellent, open template for engaging the real world in and through faith.

    “Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call.”

  10. Surfnetter:

    I suppose I’ve read too much of Gospel of Mark.

    Good leader. Jerky followers.

  11. OK — yeah. This woman made up the importance of punctual, regular church attendance out of thin air.

    Exactly where in the Gospel of Mark did Jesus teach the importance of that anyway …?

  12. I know — I’m single-handedly pulling the thread off-topic. Sorry ….

    I’m taking my 88 year-old mother shopping now anyway.

    Mother Theresa is smiling at me ….

  13. You said…

    >…I haven’t heard of such things from prominent Evangelical leaders of the day. Had there been more such examples, this woman may not have made such a blunder. But I could be wrong.

    I said that good leadership of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark still produced jerky disciples. It’s a major point of the book. Jesus never taught them any of the stupid things they said and did, but they used ther status as his followers to be jerks.

    Look….I’m just saying that leaving a guy in a bus is one of the rotten things people do. I’m totally prepared to admit she may have used church as a way to sooth her depraved conscience, but I think it’s giving way too much blame to evangelicals to say they produce people so compulsive about church attendance they leave handicapped people to freeze.

    That’s what a screwed up person does with their religion. It’s not what religion does to a normal person. I don’t see a blunder. I see an evil act by an depraved, selfish person.

  14. Wow — quite a judgment from thousands of miles away with so little info. Definitely out of the jury pool, even if you were a NYC resident ….

  15. That’s the result of spending 33 years in ministry and 17 years with at risk teenagers and their families.

  16. One of the churches I used to go to used to say *real* Christians had an obligation to be there any time the church doors were open. They based that on Hebrews 10:25.

    Michael – you know it’s been one of my New Year resolutions to not read so much theology this year too. Earlier in the week, when ordering books from Amazon, I had to restrain myself from ordering a couple of books by Bonhoeffer. I want to read Life Together and his Letters From Prison. But, I restrained myself, and ordered some brain candy instead (Rococco by Adriana Trigiani and The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell)So, you have now completely messed me up by posting about Bonhoeffer!!!

    What I need to do is get a good biography on him because I keep reading he was arrested an ultimately executed for being involved with some group that was planning to kill Hitler. But, I keep wondering if he knew others in the group were planning that because I can’t remember if it was Ethics or The Cost of Discipleship (read them back to back), but something I read made me think he wouldn’t have knowingly been involved in such a thing.

    *grumbles and stalks off to Amazon*

  17. Alliasmoi,

    You could also check out the excellent 2003 biography Bonhoeffer on DVD. Stalk off to your local public library. It’s a great intro.

  18. My local library is a joke. 🙁 But, I might check out the university library when school opens again next week. I bet they have it.

  19. Aliasmoi,

    While your local library may be challenging, do they have good interlibrary loan? That is what I tend to do. (Granted I am spoiled, since I was able to reserve a book while reading Michael’s review.)

  20. In the great BBC documentary series World At War Bonhoeffer’s wife is interviewed extensively. She intimates that he was in on it.

  21. Don’t know – never used it. But, one of our local universities is a Christian school and has a huge theology section. Plus, I know they do have inter-library loan – having went to that school.

  22. Fiance. Was never married.

  23. Maybe it was his sister then — her name was Bonhoeffer.

  24. It was Emmi Bonhoeffer, his sister-in-law, in “World At War”. In the documentary I do believe she mentions some things her husband said to her, so perhaps it was Bonhoeffer’s brother that had some involvement.

  25. Bonhoeffer & his life and his writings have always fascinated me. He also has some interesting things to say about a Christian, and his responsibilities towards government. Bonhoeffer’s teachings on the role of government and Christians’ responsibility to submit to it or rebel against tyranny are reminiscent of what some of the Colonial preachers argued during the American Revolution.

    A night and day difference from what you hear guys like John MacArthur teaching about resisting “God’s ordained authority.” Even John Piper has questioned the rightness of Bonhoeffer’s commitment in the Hitler assassination plot. But I’m tired of hearing Christians criticizing Bonhoeffer for violating Romans 13. Is every government ordained into existence by God? Sounds like it from Romans 13. Is every dictator like Hitler, a “government” referred to in Romans 13? Not necessarily.

    Bonhoeffer said – “Adolf Hitler demands nothing less than total commitment. He’s the elected chancellor, yes. But more than that, he considers himself de Fuhrer, and as ‘the leader,’ he craves to be the conscience of every living German. But his claim upon us is a claim that a Christian can only accept from Christ Himself.” Pretty gutsy to say things like that at the time. It’s what eventually (along with the assassination plot) got him killed.

  26. Almost all the male Bonhoeffer siblings will killed.

    Bonhoeffer’s actual involvement is generally misunderstood. Listen to the linked lecture above.

  27. If and when the antichrist shows his marked and ugly head, look at what little it will take to be martyred then. And the only encouragement the prophet of Revelation gives is “either you’ll end up in prison, or be killed by the sword.” That’s how you’ll know your in the center of God’s will in those days.

  28. I suppose the modern translation should read ” … or you will be shot.”

  29. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I suppose the modern translation should read ” … or you will be shot.” — Surfnetter

    I’ve seen the results of taking “killed by the sword” or “beheaded” too literally in too many Apocalyptic tracts/books/movies, when it appears to have been an idiom for “killed” or “executed”.

  30. “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.”

    The earlier post on Frank Schaefer lead me back to his interview with John Whitehead, where he said:

    “…their idea was that without fundamentalist Christian beliefs being absolutely imperative for everybody in the country, the country would go to hell in a handcart and that would be the end of everything. So negative things were always accentuated…By the time they tell you over and over about all the bad things happening, such as statistics on crime, teen pregnancy and so on, I begin to get the feeling that they don’t want things to get better. This is their shtick. This is the way they raise their money. This is how they maintain their central power base.”

    Bonhoeffer was holding the Christian high-ground by stating that God can bring good out of the greatest darkness. It is strange how the reconstructionist, power-of-positive thinking, left-behind message of evangelicalism is at its heart ultimately hopeless and fatalistic – ultimately negative about the prospects of any good coming out of the world…except for what it creates. Bonhoeffer was pointiing in hope to God; evangelicalism arrogantly (and therefore hopelessly) points to itself.