Over this past summer I read Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy, Eric Metaxas’ excellent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For those unaware or (as I was prior to reading this work) unfamiliar, Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian. The brilliant son of smart, well-respected parents, Bonhoeffer fought the Nazification and theological decay of the official German church at every turn, earning the ire of the Nazi regime for his efforts. His friends made strenuous efforts to get him out of Germany in the months leading up to the second World War. They succeeded, but Bonhoeffer spent barely a month in America before following God’s call back to Germany. He spent the war working with the German resistance to undermine the Nazi regime and was privy to plots to kill Hitler. He was ultimately arrested, and the Nazis executed him in 1945, mere months before the end of the war. Metaxas does an excellent job chronicling Bonhoeffer’s life, tracing not only his movements and the major events in his life, but also the development of Bonhoeffer’s theology, beliefs, and relationship with God as revealed through his letters and books.
I would highly recommend the book, especially to those who enjoy studying the lives of great men. Of especial note is Bonhoeffer’s courage. Throughout his life, Bonhoeffer rarely showed fear, and it is difficult to point to a time where fear seemed to influence his actions. His focus on serving God seems to have left no room for fear in his decision-making, which is as it should have been. I do not mean to say that he did not feel fear; it is an emotion that everybody feels at one time or another in some form or another. Rather, he did not let it guide his actions. Whether defying the Nazis by running illegal seminaries during the years leading up to World War II, returning to his homeland just before war made the trip impossible, or carrying on extensive coded correspondence with other members of the German resistance movement from his cell during the last months of his life, Bonhoeffer’s actions were almost universally those of a courageous man who recognized that he was called to great and difficult things and did not shirk the work.
This sort of courage is one we all would do well to cultivate in ourselves. We must not, however, fall prey to the delusion that our daily decisions are of no consequence and that we will rise to the occasion should some decision requiring great courage arise. Rather, we must exercise courage in every decision that calls for it in any amount, no matter how small, for this is the way to ensure that we will have a strong reserve to call upon when a momentous occasion presents itself. To paraphrase what others have said, we do not rise to the occasion; we merely sink to the level of our training. Nor should we think that this admonition applies only to courage. It is true of all virtue, and Bonhoeffer is a shining example of what the lifelong study of the Scriptures and cultivation of virtue can produce.