Self-Development from Prison

I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.

  • 2 Timothy 1:3

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.

  • 1 Timothy 1:13

Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
    or birds are taken in a snare,
so people are trapped by evil times
    that fall unexpectedly upon them.

  • Ecclesiastes 9:12

“22 April 1944
… When you say that my time here will be very important for my practical work, and that you are very much looking forward to what I shall have to tell you later, and to what I have written, you must not indulge in any illusions about me. I certainly learnt a great deal, but I don’t think I have changed very much. There are people who change, and others who can hardly change at all. I don’t think I have ever changed very much, except perhaps at the time of my first impressions abroad and under the first conscious influence of Father’s personality. It was then that I turned from phraseology to reality. I don’t think, in fact, that you yourself have changed much. Self-development is, of course, a different matter. Neither of us has really had a break in our lives. Of course, we have deliberately broken with a good deal, but that again is something quite different. Even our present experiences probably do not represent a break in the passive sense. I sometimes used to long for something of the kind, but today I think differently about it. Continuity with one’s own past is a great gift, too. Paul wrote II Tim. 1.3 as well as I Tim. 1.13. I am often surprised how little (in contrast to nearly all the others here) I grub among my past mistakes and think how different one thing or another would be today if I had acted differently in the past; it does not worry me at all. Everything seems to have taken its natural course, and to be determined necessarily and straightforwardly by a higher providence. Do you feel the same?
“I have often wondered lately why we grow insensitive to hardships in the course of time. When I think how l felt for weeks a year ago, it strikes me very much. I now see the same things quite differently. To put it down to nature’s self-protection does not seem to me adequate; I am more inclined to think that it may come from a clearer and more sober estimate of our own limitations and possibilities, which makes it possible for us genuinely to love our neighbour; as long as we let our imagination run riot, love of one’s neighbour remains something vague and abstract. Today l can take a calmer view of other people, their predicaments and needs, and so I am better able to help them. I would speak of clarification rather than of insensitiveness; but of course, we are always having to try to change one into the other. l do not think we need reproach ourselves just because our feelings grow cooler and calmer in the course of time, though, of course, we must always be alive to the danger of not seeing the wood for the trees and keep a warm heart as well as a cool head. Will these thoughts be of any use to you?
l wonder why it is that we find some days so much more oppressive than others, for no apparent reason. ls it growing pains–or spiritual trial? Once they are over, the world looks quite a different place again.”

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

The first two Scriptures are mentioned in Bonhoeffer’s letter.  Paul laments being a chief among sinners, but he prays for his helpers in the churches with a clear conscience.  Why not?  God has separated us from our sin, why would we feel the guilt?  The last Scripture however seems to describe the last two years of Bonhoeffer’s life.

I finished the series on Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer last Sunday.  I took very poor mental notes while going through Letters and Papers from Prison, so this may not develop into a series as much as I will continue the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Sunday evenings for a while longer.

First to give some background.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an opponent of Adolf Hitler’s regime in Germany.  In Eric Metaxas’ biography, Bonhoeffer suddenly makes what seems to be a 180-degree turn.  From openly opposing the Nazi government’s policies, he starts to praise them.  His plan was that the best way to defeat Nazism was from the inside.  He joined a group of officers who wanted to kill Hitler.  This is odd that a pastor would think something of that nature to be the proper method, but while many were dying, the death of one person might solve the problem.  As far as anyone could tell, other than passing along information, he never actively participated in the intrigue, but in April 1943 he was arrested.  He would eventually be hanged just days before the Allies liberated the camp where he was killed.  But up until the last few months, it was thought that he might be released.

Thus, when he says that he had a dark period about a year prior to writing this letter, that would be around the time of his arrest and imprisonment.

Note also that the translator must be English or using the British English with use of “neighbour” and the expression of “not seeing the wood for the trees” instead of “not seeing the forest for the trees.”  I will continue to quote exactly as in the book that I reference.

But Bonhoeffer makes a wonderful realization here.  Our epiphany may result in an “Ahhh” instead of a “EUREKA!!”  But that does not diminish the impact as we grow in faith.  I have known so many lifelong Christians, or at least people who have been Christians for decades, who lament that the fire is gone.

Beth Moore wrote something about if we no longer feel the fire, it is because we stepped away from the flame, not that the fire died down.  Jesus is still there, but we have drifted from the intensity of the fire.

Yet, maybe not.  As Bonhoeffer writes, could it be that we do not need that emotional burst within us to sustain us?  If we are not growing while we feel colder, we need to move closer to the fire.  But if we are growing, we might, as Bonhoeffer suggests, be even better prepared to help those who need our help.  And in 1944 Germany, many people needed help.

My wife called fire flies, fire flügels.  She often called people who were on fire for a moment and then cool soon after a fire flügel.  If we are to shine our light, really God’s light within us, a steady flame is much better than a weak blinking light that fades over time.

In my writing, and inspiration for writing, I feel the guidance of the Holy Spirit daily.  I feel His power.  I feel His presence, but I do not feel the need to speak in tongues, dance around, or do anything that heightens the emotions that I feel.

On the contrary, to write cogently, I need my mind in laser focus.  I need to be focused on the task at hand.  And I still suffer from typos.

And sometimes, even when I am in a highly focused mental state, I can review what I had just written, and tears start to fall.  You may not have the same reaction to reading the same thing, but you may not have walked in my shoes either.

Little did Bonhoeffer know that he had less than a year to live and he would never leave imprisonment.  He, and a bus load of other political prisoners, were moved from place to place as the Allies squeezed in from both sides.  Finally, at Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, the Nazis felt they had enough time to execute the prisoners, a spiteful move when they knew they had already lost the war.

But even with this “futility” of Bonhoeffer’s last two years of his life, we have his letters, and we can learn a great deal from this letter.  We do not know if we will be around one year from today.  That should not matter to us other than to live our lives as if today were the last.

Growth in our faith in Christ is something that Bonhoeffer continued to the end, and with us, not imprisoned, but free to go as we please, we need the same commitment of self-development, a little closer to living like Jesus each day.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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