“When Christ calls a man to follow, he beckons him to come and die.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In a paradox so raw that it sears the heart, Bonhoeffer, while in a Nazi prison, came to delineate what Richard Foster calls “four great dimensions of a spiritual life that lead to freedom in all its facets.” With Richard Foster, we, too, encourage you today to consider these ideas anew.
On the day Dietrich Bonhoeffer heard that the 20 July 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler had failed—the day he knew that his own fate and the fate of his friends was sealed—he wrote an account of his life in a poem entitled “Stations on the Road to Freedom.” Brooding in his Tegel prison cell, he set forth the four great dimensions of a spiritual life that lead to freedom in all its facets—freedom from ingrained habits of sin, freedom from cowering inaction and irresponsibility, freedom from fear of a monstrously demonic and immensely powerful nation-state. Listen carefully and prayerfully to his words, for they speak of the holiness of life:
Discipline If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all discipline of soul and senses, so that your passions and your limbs might not lead you confusedly hither and yon. Chaste be your spirit and body, subject to your own will, and obedient to seek out the goal that they have been given. No one discovers the secret of freedom but through self-control.
Action Dare to do what is just, not what fancy may call for; Lose no time with what may be, but boldly grasp what is real. The world of thought is escape; freedom comes only through action. Step out beyond anxious waiting and into the storm of events, carried only by God’s command and by your own faith; then will freedom exultantly cry out to welcome your spirit.
Suffering Wondrous transformation! Your strong and active hands are tied now. Powerless, alone, you see the end of your action. Still, you take a deep breath and lay your struggle for justice, quietly and in faith, into a mightier hand. Just for one blissful moment, you tasted the sweetness of freedom, then you handed it over to God, that he might make it whole.
Death Come now, highest moment on the road to freedom eternal, Death, put down the ponderous chains and demolish the walls of our mortal bodies, the walls of our blinded souls, that we might finally see what mortals have kept us from seeing. Freedom, how long we have sought you through discipline, action, and suffering. Dying, now we behold your face in the countenance of God.1
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1.Translated from Widerstand und Ergebung, pp. 403-4, as cited in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), pp. 542-43.