Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s advice for Graduates who are Trying to Discern the Will of God

DB.001“This must be God’s will” is a phrase often used to cover all manner of sins. Misuse of the will-of-God-card notwithstanding, seeking divine guidance has always been an essential aspect of discipleship. My paradigm for how to discern God’s will isn’t comprised of three easy steps or a scripted process. I have no principles or guidelines to offer in this discussion. What I do have to offer is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was 27 years old and a leading youth worker in the German Church when Adolf Hitler came to power. He was part of the leadership circles, so he had a front row seat as he watched nearly all of the prominent leaders of the German church capitulate to Nazi control. Bonhoeffer spoke out against them and helped lead the opposition, a cause which proved to be lost. He came to believe that the entire church had become severed from the will of God. He left to train pastors in an underground seminary for what came to be known as the confessing church–the church in Germany that was not under Nazi control.

Even though he was committed to Christian non-violence, Bonhoeffer eventually joined the Abwer and the secret plot to kill Hitler. He did so knowing that what he was doing was wrong in purely ethical terms. He also believed that following the will of God usurped even his personal sense of ethics. He carried forth with the plan, even though he knew it was morally wrong. He thought it was God’s will, so he did it.

The key to Bonhoeffer’s approach was that he thought discerning the will of God was a moment to moment process. It involved constant dialogue with God. This can obviously lead to dangerous territory–David Koresh kind of territory. The difference is that Bonhoeffer knew that following God’s will would generally require self-sacrifice, not self-serving (which is how he departs from people like Koresh).

Bonhoeffer seemed to think that the will of God wasn’t found in dogma or even doctrines of the church. God’s will is to be found in a deep and abiding relationship to God in which the will of God is tested, moment to moment, every single day. He once wrote:

“The will of God can lie hidden very deep under many available possibilities. And because it is not a predetermined system of rules, but new and different in different life situations, the will of God must be tested agains and again. Heart, mind, observation, and experience must work together in this testing. Precisely because it is no longer a question of one’s own knowledge of good and evil, but of the living will of God, precisely because it is not at our own human disposal but solely by the grace of God that we know his will, and precisely because this grace is and want to be new every morning, this testing of the will of God must be taken very seriously. Neither the voice of the heart nor some kind of inspiration nor some kind of generally valid principle can be confused with the will of God, which is revealed anew on to the one testing it … The knowledge of Jesus Christ–the metamorphosis, the renewal, the love, or however one might express it–is something that is alive and not something given once for all, something fixed and possessed. For this reason each new day brings the question how–today and here and in this situation–I will remain with God, with Jesus Christ, and be preserved in this new life. This very question, however, is the meaning of the testing of what the will of God is.”

Discerning God’s will for those important decisions like career, relationships, and calling is tricky territory. I think nothing could be more instructive and helpful than reading about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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  • Daniel G. Johnson

    The problem with Bonhoeffer and the whole Confessing movement is that they were late and gradual to their opposition to the Nazis. This is front and center in Martin Niemoller’s famous poem. In the beginning, Bonhoeffer and the others were mainly concerned with churchly sovereignty in regard to the state. The plight of Jews was not a central concern save for those Christians among them who had Jewish heritage. Bonhoeffer was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a systematic theologian. It is but speculation as to where he would have ended up theologically had he lived longer. The central theological problem with Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran tradition and influence, and the wider Protestant versions of all that is the utter refusal to consider that their so called “freedom” in the Gospel, morally, consistently amounts to constant ad hoc reinvention of ethical/moral positions and choices as to action. If all the above had a PROPER sense of Law (torah), they would not have to reinvent their moral wheel which would in turn give them the capacity to act morally sooner than later.

    • jekylldoc

      Criticism is easier than actually making the moral choices. Was it the will of God for the Europeans to come and turn hunting grounds of the Native Americans into farmland for themselves? Is it right to use too much of the world’s resources when there are so many with so little? Is it right to accept your party’s control of things when it requires accepting a corrupt and incompetent leader? Should we militarily overthrow governments resting their power on nuclear threats, when it might trigger a nuclear exchange?

      I think a more cogent criticism would come with examples. Surely Bonhoeffer was guilty of improvising morally, but he at least accepted the difficulty of the choice.

      • Daniel G. Johnson

        This Jew disagrees.

    • Obscurely

      He may have been late, but let’s give due credit to Bonhoeffer and any resister who laid down their life for the Jews …

      • Daniel G. Johnson

        I can agree with that. It might be more accurate to say “Bohoeffer’s problem” rather than “the problem with Bonhoeffer”. Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer and his colleagues inherited archaic anti-Judaism that slowed their realization of what it had all come to.

  • Brandon Roberts

    boenhoffer was a brave man who knew hitlers will was pure evil and refused to go along with it

  • Obscurely

    Why hasn’t Redboyds’s abusive comment below been deleted?????

    • Obscurely

      OK, thanks for deleting it!!

  • Obscurely

    Pastor Tim, you wrote: “…even though [Bonhoeffer] knew it was morally wrong. He thought it was God’s will, so he did it.” — with respect, if God’s will is the ground of morality, how does that sentence make sense? thanks