As a real worrier I often sympathise with the Cowardly Lion; bags under my eyes and an aversion to risk are symptomatic of the long list of ‘what if’s’ and the catastrophising of situations running through my mind. Hence I have a huge admiration for people who are clearly courageous. One such person is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
If you’re not familiar with him, you can read more about Bonhoeffer here but, in short, Bonhoeffer was an important force in the German resistance: saving a number of Jews, negotiating future peace terms with the allies and helping with a plot to kill Hitler. He was executed by the Nazis 70 years ago Finkenwalde two weeks before the Americans liberated the camp. His motivation was his love for God and for his neighbour, which for Bonhoeffer meant he had a responsibility to help those oppressed in Germany and to stop the Nazi’s.
In my admiration of the courageous I often wrongly assume that courage means lack of anxiety or fear. I was therefore reassured when reflecting on Bonhoeffer recently that I remembered an event in his life before the Second World War began.
Bonhoeffer was a staunch pacifist. Due to the way he’d already spoken out about the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was a likely target for Nazi persecution anyway, but to refuse to fight for Germany would certainly have meant capital punishment for Bonhoeffer. So in 1938, fearing for his life, he fled to the USA.
Who can blame him? It’s what most reasonable people do when their lives are in danger. Yet by doing so Bonhoeffer left others to deal with the many problems he had been so critical of.
How often do we do this in our day-to-day lives, be it on a much less dangerous level? We hold back on giving money because we fear we won’t be able to pay bills or even simply support the lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to. We look the other way from altercations on the tube where someone is clearly being verbally abused for fear of the direction of abuse turning to us.
I’ve long suspected that when I’m anxious or fearful it means I don’t have enough faith in God, but actually God on earth was scared. Look at Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays: “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me (Matthew 26:39). But anxiety and fear is only a problem when it affects our behaviour, when it stops us doing what we should be doing. Courage is not to lack anxiety or fear, but to face it.
Bonhoeffer knew this and never got off the boat from America, instead he went straight home to Germany. Where did he find this courage to go back, knowing he was likely to lose his life? I think he explains it several years later in one of his letters from prison:
“Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God.”
Bonhoeffer isn’t saying to dismiss our reason, conscience, freedom or virtue, in fact, he would say we must use them as guiding principles. But if those are our ultimate standards, our fear of maintaining them will hold us back in life from serving God. For instance, as a Christian, Bonhoeffer’s conscience would have dictated to him both that he should not kill – read your Ten Commandments! – and you should obey those in authority (Romans 13.1). Yet he ended up being part of a plot to kill Hitler. He freed himself from his conscience – and if you’ve ever had a guilty conscience you know how horrible that can feel – by literally throwing himself on God’s grace as he was doing something ‘wrong’, and looking only to what it meant to love God and his neighbour in that particular situation.
Thankfully, many of us today don’t have quite such huge moral dilemma as Bonhoeffer, and I’m certainly not saying we have to look for ways to break various commandments from the Bible or actively seek danger. We do however need to examine ourselves carefully as to where fear and anxiety has crept into our lives, perhaps masquerading as protecting us from bad things we should steer clear of.
We serve a God so much bigger than our fears, so be courageous and face them. Who knows what God may do through you.
You can read more about Bonhoeffer and other Christians who went to prison in idea magazine, the Evangelical Alliance’s bimonthly publication.