Have you ever taken an inventory of your most deeply held convictions? I am talking about those beliefs and passions for which you would instantly die. Do you know what they are? The reason I ask is because I am a Protestant Pastor who comes from German-Lutheran ancestry. Consequently, due to these factors (and many others) I have always been fascinated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous Lutheran pastor who resisted the Nazi regime predating and during World War II. Currently I have almost finished reading the book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. This tome presents a detailed portrait of Bonhoeffer’s brief yet stunningly impactful life. Here was a man who came from a highly accomplished family tree full of doctors, judges, professors and lawyers. His grandfather was one of the highest ranking judicial officials in Germany while his father was esteemed as one of the top professors of psychiatry and neurology.
All this to say Bonhoeffer had a secure, comfortable and prosperous existence. Therefore from a career and social point of view, Bonhoeffer had nothing to gain by publicly denouncing and actively undermining the Nazis’ rule. Yet he felt compelled to live and die by his convictions. What were those convictions? When the Third Reich took over the Lutheran church and forced pastors to take a loyalty oath to Hitler, Dietrich wrote a letter to his brother Karl-Friedrich in which he explained why he was choosing to lead an illegal seminary: “The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together to do this…Things do exist that are worth standing up for without compromise. To me it seems that peace and social justice are such things, as is Christ himself” (Metaxas, 260).
Amazingly, Bonhoeffer steadfastly lived out these convictions through the very end of his life. Eventually, the Gestapo arrested him as a spy and he was imprisoned for two years. On April 9, 1945 (two weeks before the Allies arrived at his death camp) his time was up. He was only 39 years old and had a fiancé desperately praying for his release. Yet at the Flossenburg Concentration Camp Bonhoeffer was executed: he was naked and strangled to death by thin wire. The camp doctor described with awe how Dietrich “…climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (Metaxas, 532).
It is all too easy for us to hear this remarkable tale of bravery and to sentimentalize it or even idolize Bonhoeffer, as if he were some different creature from the rest of the human race. Yet we must be reminded that Jesus Christ once declared “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23—24).
It has been often stated that faith is more than simple intellectual assent to a set of propositions. In the final analysis, faith comprises those convictions that form your inner core: those beliefs for which you would rather die than renounce. The truth is you don’t have to be a German theologian resisting the Nazis to discover them. But you must be willing to search your soul and ask some tough questions. I promise you, it is worth the effort because a life without convictions is not much of a life after all.