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.

About Tim Suttle

Find out more about Tim at TimSuttle.com

Tim Suttle is the senior pastor of RedemptionChurchkc.com. He is the author of several books including his most recent - Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), & An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals.

Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. The band's most recent album is "Straight Back to Kansas." He helped to plant three thriving churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.