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Reflecting on Christian Martyrdom #4: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As a response to the growing persecution globally of the Christian faith and followers of Christ, I have felt led to write a short series on Christian Martyrdom. Remember, I am not a theologian and this is not meant to be a piece of academic prose. I am merely a curious child of the Living God, eager to learn more about those that have gone before me and were led to death for being followers of Jesus Christ. To see my introduction to this series – visit ‘Reflecting on Christian Martyrdom #1′.

Who Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who actively resisted National Socialism. He spoke openly against Nazism and anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer could see that Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was dangerous to Christianity and Nazism was counter to religion and a form of idolatry. He joined the German resistance movement, but was arrested by the Gestapo in April 1943. Whilst in prison, he ministered to fellow inmates as a pastor and counselor. He was executed at the age of 39 years by hanging, days before the POW concentration camp was liberated by Americans towards the end of the Second World War. His last words were: “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life”.

Bonhoeffer’s ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ 

I have recently purchased a second-hand copy of Bonhoeffer’s ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ which I am thoroughly enjoying. It is challenging to my faith and it is one of his most celebrated published works. In this book, he has some wonderful insight which encourages my heart as I see the atrocities happening across the world today. Bonhoeffer really details beautifully what it means to be a true disciple of Christ and a Christian martyr. His words are spoken so clearly and honestly, powerfully and deeply, that it moves me into greater longing to know Jesus more.

“Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. In fact it is a joy and a token of his grace.  The acts of the early Christian martyrs are full of evidence which shows how Christ transfigures for his own the hour of their mortal agony by granting them the unspeakable assurance of his presence. In the hour of the cruelest torture they bear for his sake, they are made the partakers in the perfect joy and bliss of fellowship with him. To bear the cross proves to be the only way of triumphing over suffering. This is true for all who follow Christ, because it was true for him.” (p.101)

These words are difficult to grasp, perhaps even more so if you do not follow Christ. Everything about our mortal selves shies away from the very thought of death, let alone unimaginable suffering to get to the point of death. Bonhoeffer uses words that one would be reluctant to put in the same sentence as suffering, let alone attribute such words to its very essence. Suffering is a ‘joy’, a ‘token of his [Christ’s] grace’, the way to partake in his ‘perfect joy and bliss of fellowship.’ The man that penned the above words would be a partaker of this perfect joy and blissful fellowship. He would join the early Christian martyrs that went before him – but would he have known this as he wrote these words? Possibly. He risked his life daily against the Nazi’s for the sake of Christ.

In his moment of mortal agony, Bonhoeffer would have had that ‘unspeakable assurance of [God’s] presence’ like those who had gone before him. As I reflect on the above words, I am encouraged that the very cross which demanded that Christ suffer for my sins, is the same cross that proves triumphant over my own suffering. The cross is triumphant – Jesus was triumphant. As the days creep closer to Good Friday this April, we remember the crucifixion of Christ. The death of Jesus triumphed over suffering and death itself. We stand forgiven and triumphant because of the cross that Christ endured for us. It should come as no surprise that we too should partake in this suffering as we walk the earth.  We suffer for Christ with full assurance knowing that he has conquered death and made a way for us into eternal life. For Bonhoeffer, death was the beginning of life.

What if we refuse to suffer?

We have a choice, and we can choose to ‘forfeit our fellowship’ and ‘cease to follow him’. But what does this look like? Bonhoeffer writes the following:

“If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him. But if we lose our lives in his service and carry our cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ. The opposite of discipleship is to be ashamed of Christ and his cross and all the offence which the cross brings in its train.” (p.101)

I would not want to forfeit the truth, love, grace and hope of the Lord at the hands of men. I pray that I would not deny Christ my Saviour who is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, in order to save my mortal life. For what is my life but a breath? To deny what Jesus did on the cross and his victorious resurrection is to deny God the Father who sent Him. He sent Him so that we could have a relationship completely restored with Him through the atonement of our sins through Jesus Christ. But don’t take Bonhoeffer’s word for it if you don’t want to. Take Christ’s word for it instead:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25

It is amazing that we have been offered grace upon grace and that we can fellowship with him. He is with us. He is alongside us as we suffer. Part of a poem/hymn/prayer attributed to St.Patrick reminds us that Christ is with us everywhere and in everything. What comfort!

 Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Read more:

Concluding Thoughts on Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death demonstrate a faithful servant of Christ. He stood up for righteousness and stood against the evil ideology enforced under Adolf Hitler. As he stood to be executed, he knew that the beginning was in sight as he looked to a glorious eternity with His Lord. Although Bonhoeffer’s words may seem alien to us at this time, it is clear that being a Christian martyr is something to behold and to live out if the time comes to do so; it is not something to be frightened of or to run away from. That does not mean that Christian martyrs to not feel fear when they face death; like Jesus hanging on a cross in agony, the pain and fear that we feel are part of our experience. Nonetheless, the martyrs knew by the Spirit of Christ in them, that there was something greater to attain – the crown of life.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. James 1:12

Although our earthly lives will come to an end, through Jesus we have the promise and hope of an eternal life with Him. The martyrs that have gone before us held fast to the truth. As we face trials, persecution and suffering of many kinds, I challenge you to continue on the road that leads to everlasting life, just like Bonhoeffer and the martyrs that have gone before us.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23

Linking up with Kelly Balarie and friends for the #RaRalinkup at Purposeful Faith 🙂

5 thoughts on “Reflecting on Christian Martyrdom #4: Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

  1. Powerful reflection. I’ve often had similar thoughts. It is comforting to know that God equips his children to endure the suffering when called upon. We worry that we couldn’t do it, and in our own strength we surely couldn’t. But He is faithful!

  2. This is such an important series you are doing, Ruth. How crazy he was killed just days before the camp was liberated, but there was definitely a reason. His life and story live on as an example to us all. His book looks like a must read. Thanks for sharing!

  3. “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. …” What challenging words by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and with your words, Ruth, as we hold onto the faith we profess and stand strong as we speak for those who have no voice because by not speaking we speak all the louder.

    Cheering you on, Ruth, from the #RaRaLinkup

  4. I have been intrigued by Bonnhoffer quite some time already. And his book is actually on my to read list. I just have too many books in my Kindle waiting to be read… But I need to get to it. You made me want it even more!

  5. This is awesome, Ruth. Not many people writing about Christian martyrdom. I love that you are. I have so many favorite lines from this post, but one that stood out to me is that his words move you into greater longing to know Jesus more. Sign me up! I think my husband owns that book, so I need to get on it. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this, teaching us, and encouraging us today through #RaRaLinkup. Keep on writing!!!

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