The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


'We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on thee'

In his life and death, Bonhoeffer teaches us about discernment

Dietrich BonhoefferSixty years ago this month — April 9, 1945 — German Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at the Flossenburg concentration camp. Only 39, Bonhoeffer arrived at the gallows not because of non-Aryan ancestry or some other factor marking him for Nazi persecution. Rather, he had engaged in a series of decisions that resulted in his arrest, imprisonment and execution.

In 1939 Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin, leaving a church position in New York. Once back in Germany, he joined his brother, brothers-in-law and others in the underground resistance to Adolf Hitler. Their conspiracy was unsuccessful in unseating Hitler and stopping the war and the Holocaust. The Gestapo discovered the plot in 1943. Bonhoeffer's involvement sent him to prison and cost him his life.

What drew Bonhoeffer to this course?

We can trace the path his decisions opened. But he would frame the matter differently and at a deeper level — in terms of his discernment of God's call. In his wrestling with whether to remain safely in New York in 1939 or return to Germany, we can see Bonhoeffer probing deeply into God's word, his own feelings and reactions to the living Word and, over and over, his desire to live with Jesus Christ no matter the cost, wherever he may lead: "to be found only where he is ... the place where he is for me."

Bonhoeffer discerned that the place Jesus Christ was for him wasn't in safety in New York but back in Germany, taking part in resistance to the evil overwhelming his country and church. Questions of discernment were at the heart of spiritual faith and practice for Bonhoeffer all his life. By the time of his death, he would push questions of spiritual discernment perhaps further than any other contemporary saint.

What difference does it make to shift from thinking of decisions to thinking of discernment?

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