I sometimes feel that I am living just as long as I have something great to work for.
My mother-in-law, Joni, lives with my wife and me. She’s in relatively good health for being 100 years old. She laughs. She cries. She jokes a bit. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren love to visit. They’re intrigued by her stories from her youth.
Last week, she casually told me she had just completed a monthlong study of the book of Daniel. “Daniel!” I burst out in surprise. I’m not sure if, at 100, tackling that prophetic and apocalyptic book would be on my bucket list. But now, I see, perhaps it should be.
Yet Joni struggles with one particular question. It haunts her, especially on days when her outlook is low or her blood pressure is high. Why am I still here?
What Are You Living For?
Joni’s husband is gone. Her firstborn has passed. Her sister lived to 108 but left us last December. Her joints ache. She grieves over the dramatic moral collapse of our society. She’s ready to go home. So the question returns: “Why am I still here?”
Perhaps quiet sympathy under a sovereign God who always has his hidden reasons would be the best response. Yet in my mind, we have at least a partial answer.
In 1975, as a 20-year-old college student, I found one precious part of the answer. I read Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a biography of his life by his friend Eberhard Bethge. After a year in prison, and about a year before his execution by the Nazis, he confided to Eberhard, “I sometimes feel that I am living just as long as I have something great to work for” (136).
This I believe is as true for Joni today as it was for Bonhoeffer. I believe it for myself. I was so awestruck by this statement of faith that, 47 years after first reading it, the words still inspire and push me. “What are you living for, John? You only have so much time to contribute to the unfolding, ever-advancing Great Work of the gospel. Make the most of the opportunity!”
Best Use of Evil Days
Bonhoeffer was not arrested for plotting to kill Hitler. The plot and his role in it were unknown at the time. When the plot failed, the key instigator, Claus von Stauffenberg, was executed the next day. Others committed suicide so as not to reveal more names under torture.
Up to this time, Bonhoeffer’s work in the resistance effort was concealed by his pretense of being a rather naive pastor who loved his country and supported the government. He feigned ignorance of political matters and argued that he was improperly arrested. His calculation was that with the end of Hitler, he would be released — his role in the plot never investigated, let alone discovered. But the moment he heard that Hitler survived, he knew his ruse was played out and his life forfeited. His name was discovered in a diary of one of the chief plotters. As Russians stormed into Berlin, Bonhoeffer was hanged beside his brother and five other co-conspirators.
When Bonhoeffer spoke of living “just as long as I have something great to work for,” the context shows he was reflecting on Ephesians 5:15–16: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” That the times were evil was self-evident to him. The opportunity he saw was to use his time in prison to finish his book Ethics.
Works Reserved for You
Why has Bonhoeffer’s statement of faith made such an impact on me? For at least two great reasons. First, Bonhoeffer’s declaration captures what it looks like to believe and live out Ephesians 2:10, that we were all “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
We each have some good works that God has reserved for us, that allow us to contribute to and advance his Great Work. His plan unfolds from creation to consummation. Bonhoeffer, Joni, you, and me — we all get to contribute our part to his global, unassailable work.
Bonhoeffer saw his book on ethics as something that, through many experiences and years of biblical meditation, God had prepared for him to write. With evil and death all around him, and restrained to a cell block, writing the book was the one thing he felt he had been spared to accomplish. And given the evil of the times, he felt — as we all should feel — an urgency to make the most of his opportunities while he could.
To Live Is Christ
Bonhoeffer was executed before he could finish what he thought God wanted him to accomplish. In Joni’s case, she’s outlived the time when active practical good works of service are possible. This leads me to my second reason for loving this particular line. To live for Christ himself — openly, daily, enduringly — is something great to work and live for. As the Bible says, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Bonhoeffer did live long enough to do this. Joni also has something great to work for, even at 100: to show us what it is to live for Christ even as we grow so weak in body and very tired of this world.
Honestly, I am no great fan of Bonhoeffer’s books. I struggled through his unfinished Ethics. I also read The Cost of Discipleship, and while I appreciate it, I wonder if it would be in print today without one remarkably quality: Bonhoeffer himself really lived for Christ — openly, daily, enduringly — and showed us, by his life and death, “the cost of discipleship.”
It’s the man behind the book that makes a book like his worth reading. Living for Christ in such evil times and circumstances, and dying even as Nazism was being put to death — this was something great to live and work for.
Running with a Walker
Joni is still here because living for Christ at 100 is itself a great thing that glorifies God and advances his kingdom. She’s mostly blind to how merely living day to day for Christ up in her room, praying and reading her Bible, means anything to anyone else. She will accuse me of making much ado about nothing.
But I say that finishing a study on the book of Daniel at 100 years old is an attractive picture of what it means to seek the kingdom of God and long for the day of Christ’s appearing.
While she cannot travel these days, her testimony can. I’ve told her stories in China, Uganda, Cuba, and elsewhere. She needs a walker. But her story can still run. I sometimes feel she is living just so long as she is needed to woo the next generation to live for Christ. That is something great to work for.