Belief is Not Enough: The Awful Power and Weakness of God

why this useless murmuring?

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belief is not enough
belief is not enough

Belief is not enough: the awful power and weakness of God.

Years ago Author Eric Metaxes hooked me Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his magificent biography of the Lutheran pastor who joined the group attempting to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis just prior to the end of the war. Of course, the biography was just the beginning of the treasures found in Bonhoeffer’s legacy. Like the Cost of Discipleship:

“This commandment, that we should love our enemies and forgo revenge will grow even more urgent in the holy struggle which lies before us and in which we partly have already been engaged for years. In it love and hate engage in mortal combat. It is the urgent duty of every Christian soul to prepare itself for it. The time is coming when the confession of the living God will incur not only the hatred and the fury of the world, for on the whole it has come to that already, but complete ostracism from ‘human society,’ as they call it. The Christians will be hounded from place to place, subjected to physical assault, maltreatment and death of every kind. We are approaching an age of widespread persecution. Therein lies the true significance of all the movements and conflicts of our age. Our adversaries seek to root out the Christian Church and the Christian faith because they cannot live side by side with us, because they see in every word we utter and every deed we do, even when they are not specifically directed against them, a condemnation of their own words and deeds. They are not far wrong.

Dietrich Bohhoeffer

The Cost of Discipleship

Recently, I wrote an article on Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship stating that it had taken me three reads to understand the power of his message. But after this last, careful study, I realize that I never did read it, I scanned it. Skimming is a habit I’ve applied to the stack of books needed for each of my novels. I learned the hard way that my hard-won explanations of some obscure character background invariably gets cut when my editor gets the manuscript. {The reasons why Agouti mice are used in bench science by medical researchers comes to mind.} But for works like Bonhoeffer’s book, its essence can be wholly missed if one is merely skipping through.

Questions that I did not know I had have been answered by this now careful study. And principles learned during my conversion to Christian Catholicism are reaffirmed… perfect for this weekend which preludes what the Byzantine Catholics call the ‘Great Fast’ of Lent. Paragraphs like this one in Bonhoeffer’s characteristically simply written prose feel as if he is whispering into my ear:

discipleship never consists in this or that specific action: it is always a decision, either for or against Jesus Christ. Hence our situation is not a whit less clear than that of the disciple or the publican in the gospel. When Jesus called his first disciples, they obeyed and followed him because they recognized him as the Christ. But his Messiahship was as hidden to them as it is to us. By itself the call of Jesus could be taken in many different ways. How we take it depends on what we think of him, and he can be recognized only by faith. That was as true for the first disciples as it is for us.

Bonhoeffer’s clarity of thinking and understanding of the Gospel are so penetrating that his words dive deep inside my heart and soul to stir and shake.

The German martyr was born into a family of mostly faithless intellectuals around the turn of the twentieth century. Bonhoeffer would be dead before his thirty-ninth birthday. Although his book was written to his fellow Lutherans, the theology fits each of us who call ourselves Christian. Page after page, Bonhoeffer uses the words of Jesus himself as well as the Apostles to explain that Power belongs only to God the Father, and the Father never abrogates the free will of man.

But the Word of God in its weakness takes the risk of meeting the scorn of men and being rejected. There are hearts which are hardened and doors which are closed to the Word. The Word recognizes opposition when it meets it, and is prepared to suffer it. It is a hard lesson, but a true one, that the gospel, unlike an ideology, reckons with impossibilities. The Word is weaker than any ideology, and this means that with only the gospel at their command the witnesses are weaker than the propagandists of an opinion. But although they are weak, they are ready to suffer with the Word and so are free from that morbid restlessness which is so characteristic of fanaticism.
They are simply the servants and instruments of the Word; they have no wish to be strong where the Word chooses to be weak. To try and force the Word on the world by hook or by crook is to make the living Word of God into a mere idea, and the world would be perfectly justified in refusing to listen to an idea for which it had no use.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Belief is not enough

We Christians must understand our impossible task: Accept that ours is one of doing daily battle in this place and time. This specific culture in which almost everything feels not just secular but hostile to Jesus and to his pathetically weak followers like me. Possible only with the sacraments- baptism, frequent confession and receipt of His Body and Blood. Even so armed, Bonhoeffer emphatically reminds us that the battle is always against ourselves.

Not the state.

Or the government:

“The starting-point of St Paul’s thinking is always the Church, and his sole concern is its well-being and manner of life. So much so, he feels obliged to warn the Christians to refrain from any unjust or evil conduct themselves, but does not utter a single word of reproach to the State. “But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid: for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, and avenger of wrath to him that doeth evil” (verse 4). On no account must evil occur within the Church. Once again, St Paul is talking to the Christians, not to the State. His concern is that the Christians should persevere in repentance and obedience wherever they may be and whatever conflict should threaten them. He is not concerned to excuse or condemn any secular power.”

Over and over Bonhoeffer makes the point that we are here to do God’s will, not our own. That the mission is His. Keeping in the forefront of our minds that even Judas was commissioned to do the work of God, a fact which Bonhoeffer terms “a dark riddle and an awful reminder.”

I had hoped to write an extensive analysis of this brilliant work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in this third or maybe fourth article I have written about this book. But I realize that I cannot do it. It must be read and experienced on its own merits while keeping in mind that this lover of Christ and his Gospel of love and forgiveness was executed by the Germans for his participation in the plot to kill Hitler. Unimaginable is the anguish experienced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he came to the decision to participate in the plot to murder the German leader.

….in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, In the world’s eyes and in their own their sanctification may look like sin, their faith like unbelief, their love like hardness of heart, their discipline like weakness. Their true sanctification is always hidden. But Christ himself is preparing his Church so that it may abide before his judgement “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish” If any man therefore chooses to persist in sin, let him not presume upon the grace of God. Only the sanctified community will be delivered from wrath…

The Cost of Discipleship

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