I usually begin my vacations with a massive list of books I intend to read, of which I actually read two or three. During winter break this year, the first book on my list was The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My edition of this book began with a memoir written by Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law.
Normally, I find biographical information about authors mildly interesting, but not particularly important to the topic that caused me to read the book in the first place. In this case, however, Bonhoeffer’s life story was deeply entwined with the content of the book.
Bonhoeffer was a pastor in Germany during World War II. He was an active leader in organizing Christians against the Nazis. When war broke out, his friends persuaded him to go to the United States, but he quickly returned to Germany, saying that if he did not stay and suffer with his people, he would have no right to participate in the reconstruction of German Christianity after the war. Ultimately, was arrested for participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler and sent to a concentration camp where he died.
The Cost of Discipleship discusses the Sermon on the Mount in great detail, emphasizing Jesus’ extreme demands on those whom He calls to follow Him. Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of some of the texts calls for sacrifices which I would be tempted to dismiss as hyperbole. But knowing that the author of these words was so willing to sacrifice for God and others demonstrates that he lived up to his beliefs and did not see them as exaggerations.
One part of the memoir that particularly struck me was the description of Bonhoeffer in prison, which says that “his own concern in prison was to get permission to minister to the sick and to his fellow prisoners.” He provided those around him with comfort and practical help, and appeared completely fearless, even when the prisons were being bombed. Reading the description, I was filled with admiration and began imagining what it might be like to have that level of confidence in God and love for others.
Then, I came to a depiction of what it was actually like, a poem written by Bonhoeffer in prison:
Who am I?
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
equably, smilingly, proudly
like one accustomed to win
Am I then really 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 to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible, 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, O God, I am thine!
This glimpse into Bonhoeffer’s soul prevented me from viewing him as a hero, a giant, or a spiritual icon far beyond what ordinary people could hope to become. His confidence and love did not come from some immunity to pain. He was not as content in prison as outside, but he loved Jesus enough to imitate Him even in the midst of suffering.
In fact, Bonhoeffer was not fearless, as I wrote earlier; he was courageous, which is far better. Rather than being without fear, he felt the fear and pain of his circumstances, faced them, and conquered them. I find the existence of people like him to be incredibly encouraging, because it means that it is possible to feel pain and fear and to continue to trust God and love both God and others.