Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dissecting "But I Am No Bonhoeffer!"

This article is an abridged version of the original published here.

Discipleship is not an easy feat. It is tough. It demands sacrifice and commitment. It requires courage. Our Lord Jesus has given us this mandate a long time ago.
Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:32)
This verse has often been quoted at discipleship conferences, teaching moments, and pulpit sessions. Hard hitting, direct and frank, it is targeted not only at Peter, who had just confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, but for all of us. Confession begets motivation. Motivation demands action. It is relatively easy for us to confess Jesus as Lord. It is more difficult to be motivated to practice what we believe. It is even more difficult to live as if we are going to die. Why?

We are creatures of excuse. We prefer the easy way out. That is because sin in us is such a serious condition. It numbs us toward inaction. It discourages us from becoming radical. It eats us from inside so that we are of no outside use. It deceives us by saying:
  • "Don't worry, you have time."
  • "Relax. Let others do the job. You have better things to do for yourself."
  • "Why bother about the Great Commission? You've been saved right? If God is so mighty and powerful, surely He can save other people without involving small little you, right?"
Wrong. The call of discipleship is a calling to pay the cost of discipleship. Willingly. Gradually. Totally.

There are three major impediments to any positive response to discipleship. We fear threats to our island of comfort. We prefer to fatten ourselves with self-importance and self-needs. We tend to forget that we are at war.

Come next year, I will be leading a small group through Dietrich Bonhoeffer's classic work on discipleship, "The Cost of Discipleship." It is a no-holds-barred book that does not mince words. Bonhoeffer tells the cost of following Jesus as bluntly as he can, with his own life. Written amid a worsening WWII situation concerning Germany's threat to the neighbouring nations and beyond, it is also a book to rally the people of God right thing. In a call to pursue truth and faithfulness in God, Bonhoeffer ventures out valiantly at a great personal risk at a huge cost. He paid the cost the way that he himself has called others to. Just like Jesus.

Those of us who can easily say, "But I am no Bonhoeffer" can also easily chime in that "But I am no Paul" or "But I am no Jesus" or "But I am no this saint or that saint."

In B.I.A.N.B, we cower ourselves under the blanket of non-action. In our unwillingness to pay the price of discipleship, we retreat back to our comfort zones of self-reliance and self-comfort. We forget the big picture of the gospel in favour of the small world of self-delusion and self-importance.

In B.I.A.N.B, we fatten our own calves of self-indulgence. We tell others to leave us alone. We avoid the risks of coming out of our comfort zones.

"I am no Bonhoeffer! So don't you Bonhoeffer me!"

An angry man is a man on the verge of sinning. It is easy to hit back at others who attempt to draw us out of our shell. It is plainly and simply uncomfortable, and we do not like it. So we blurt out a flare to try to distract others from holding on to us. We try to shake away the good intentions of others by claiming something that appears true on the outside but hides the truth of our inside.

"But I am no Bonhoeffer!"

Easily said, and those of us who say it, believe it. Have you ever seen a fat soldier? The truth is this. Soldiers who are obese will lack the agility to shift positions or to take quick action to fight the enemy. If we use the words "I am no Bonhoeffer" as an excuse to avoid the cost of discipleship, we are kidding ourselves and. In feeding ourselves with our self-needs, we fail to meet the wide spiritual hunger around us. In failing to pursue the call of discipleship, we end up just wearing the label of discipleship on the outside, and empty on the inside. When we fail to live our our calling, we become a nobody, a powerless and defenseless weakling, born a soldier, dying as spiritual wimps.

In B.I.A.N.B, we forget we are at war.

A popular maxim is this "Make peace, not war." This is the ideal state. After all, we are called to be peacemakers, especially when it comes to sharing love and goodwill. That said, that is something that we do toward fellow people. That is not something that the spiritual forces of darkness are going to let us do.

Did the devil leave Jesus alone in the wilderness? No. The devil tempts Jesus. Not once, not twice, but three times.

Did Paul had an easy time in the gospel? No. All evidence points to Paul having a tough time trying to reach the Gentiles. He even had a quarrel with fellow workers like Mark and Barnabas on how this is to be done.

In case you are not aware, we are at war. Spiritual warfare is real. Why are we called soldiers? Why are we to put on the armour of God in Ephesians 6? Why are we to fight the good fight in Paul's epistle to Timothy? It is simply this: We are at war. People who refuse to acknowledge that there is a war will never take up arms. The trick the devil does is to make us think that we are not in a war.

The words, "But I am no Bonhoeffer" is one example where we can easily shirk the responsibility of spiritual warfare, to hide our real motives behind some factual statement.

Those of us who are familiar with this modern day prophet will remember that Bonhoeffer died a martyr for the faith, a patriot of his country, and a prophet for God's call to commitment in discipleship. In a nutshell, the classic challenge that Bonhoeffer has issued to all is this:

"When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther's who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time - death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus's summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But if we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, New York, MacMillan, 1959, p79)

Pursuing this path of discipleship is not an easy feat. Already, I have heard individuals contributing their 'but' and their 'why.' I confess that I too am not keen on the book initially, simply because of the fear that the book may be deemed too challenging and may even turn away prospective attendees. That said, must truth be censored? Can we ever dilute the call to discipleship? Shall we even dare to diminish the uncomfortable call in favour of the comfortable topical studies about making us feeling nice inside but passive outside? Four words typify a response to any hard call to discipleship.

"I am no Bonhoeffer!"

Agree. There is only one Bonhoeffer.

Disagree. That does not absolve us from the call to follow Christ.

If we are aiming to imitate Bonhoeffer, we will have gotten it all wrong. We cannot miss the forest of following Christ for the tree of Bonhoeffer's life. It is not WWII now, but it sure is spiritual warfare that is ongoing and threatens our very growth as disciples of Jesus.

Perhaps, when we overcome these threats, we will not be saying "But I am no Bonhoeffer." Instead we will be saying, "Lord, help me to be the best disciple for You, and if it is your will, to live like Bonhoeffer lived, and to die like Bonhoeffer died."


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