Bonhoeffer on This-worldliness

Tuesday, April 9, 2013 — Week of 2 Easter

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologian and Martyr, 1945

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 958)

Psalms 5, 6 (morning) // 10, 11 (evening)

Daniel 2:1-16

1 John 2:1-11

John 17:12-19

from this evening’s Psalm 10:14-19

Surely, you behold trouble and misery; *

you see it and take it into your own hand.

The helpless commit themselves to you, *

for you are a helper of orphans.

Break the power of the wicked and evil; *

search out their wickedness until you find none.

God is sovereign for ever and ever; *

the ungodly shall perish from the land.

God will hear the desire of the humble; *

you will strengthen their heart and your ears shall hear,

To give justice to the orphan and oppressed, *

so that mere mortals may strike terror no more.

The Saint Helena Psalter

A Reading from a letter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his friend Eberhard Bethge, written from Tegel Prison, dated 21, July, 1944

During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a human being, as Jesus was human — in contrast, shall we say, to John the Baptist. I don’t mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection.

I remember a conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it’s quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn’t realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.

I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous person or an unrighteous one, a sick or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a human being and a Christian. How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?

I am glad to have been able to learn this, and I know I’ve been able to do so only along the road that I’ve travelled. So I’m grateful for the past and present, and content with them. You may be surprised at such a personal letter; but for once I want to say this kind of thing, to whom should I say it?

May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may he lead us to himself.

from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, 2nd ed., London, 1971, p. 369; quoted by Robert Atwell, Celebrating the Saints, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2010, p. 179

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