The Invincible, Irrefutable Joy

When the Nazis padlocked the doors of the Confessing Church seminaries in Germany in the Autumn of 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer took theological training underground and opened his own seminary in Finkenwalde. Before the Gestapo shut it down in 1939, Bonhoeffer managed to train 67 seminary students.1 These 67 seminarians and Bonhoeffer formed a band of brothers that could not be torn apart, although some of them were arrested, some were dispersed by the Nazi oppression, and several were conscripted into army service and spread across the globe by World War II.2

Bonhoeffer was on the Nazi watch list. He was tracked closely and he was eventually forbidden to publish or preach or lecture. So to stay in touch with his former students and pastor friends, and to continue their pastoral training, Bonhoeffer resorted to a form of circular letter. First, he typed and carbon-copied each post, then he added a handwritten greeting and signature. These “personal letters” were more like theological articles published under the nose of the Nazis and distributed to his Finkenwalde brotherhood and to other closely connected pastor-friends. At its height these “personal letters” were distributed to 150 readers.3

In the fury of the Führer, pastors in the Confessing Church had been stripped of any official identity, and many were pressed into the military and forced to fight for the very Nazis they hated. Seeing no way around it, many volunteered for military service. The “illegal pastors” that didn’t join willingly were branded by the Gestapo as “unemployed,” a label that rushed a conscripted soldier to the very front lines of the escalating war.4 Needless to say, the lifespan of pastors connected to Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church was not long under Hitler.

Yet in spite of the scattering of the Finkenwalde seminarians, Bonhoeffer worked tirelessly to track the activities of his friends, to keep the circle informed of the latest news of their brotherhood, and to provide encouragement to them. And so Bonhoeffer turned to these circular letters, often opening them with the latest news of whom among them had been killed in the war.

During the Advent of 1942, just a few months before he was finally arrested and sent off to a Nazi prison — where he would be tried and then eventually killed — Bonhoeffer drafted and distributed one final circular letter to his Finkenwalde seminarians.

What do you say to dispersed and lonely pastors, who are serving illegally in secrecy? What do you say to friends forced into Nazi military service? How do you comfort the brotherhood when they learn friends have died in the forsaken war? How do you address the daily anxiety, the persecutions, the threats, and the loneliness felt by the scattered fellowship?

Bonhoeffer was aware that the real danger of the horrific daily anxiety, the constant threat of death, and the unceasing war, was how these forces conspire to callous and deaden the soul’s affections. Shepherds with such disheartened souls were of little use in leading God’s thirsty people to springs of joy.

This was one of the many battles Bonhoeffer fought in the final years of his life. One theater was a battle against Hitler. Another theater was a battle for his friends. The battle was against acedia in their hearts, against the temptation to spiritual apathy and sloth, and against the temptation to simply surrender to all of the pressures. Bonhoeffer had his own plan for taking down Hitler, but to battle the lethargy in his friends, Bonhoeffer pointed their thoughts towards Advent and to the believer’s joy in Christ.

Such a joy is fitting for suffering. “The joy of God,” he wrote to them, “has gone through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable.”

What follows is Bonhoeffer’s final circular letter to his friends, written on November 29, 1942.

Dear Brother …,

At the beginning of a letter that in this solemn hour is meant to call you all to true joy, there necessarily stand the names of those brothers who have died since I last wrote to you: P. Wälde, W. Brandenburg, Hermann Schröder, R. Lynker, Erwin Schutz, K. Rhode, Alfred Viol, Kurt Onnasch, Fritz’s second brother; in addition to them, and presumably known to many of you, Major von Wedemeyer and his oldest son, Max.

“Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” [Isaiah 35:10]. We are glad for them; indeed, should we say that we sometimes secretly envy them? From early times the Christian church has considered acedia — the melancholy of the heart, or “resignation” — to be one of the mortal sins. “Serve the Lord with joy” [Psalm 100:2] — thus do the scriptures call out to us. For this our life has been given to us, and for this it has been preserved for us unto the present hour.

This joy, which no one shall take from us, belongs not only to those who have been called home but also to us who are alive. We are one with them in this joy, but never in melancholy. How are we going to be able to help those who have become joyless and discouraged if we ourselves are not borne along by courage and joy? Nothing contrived or forced is intended here, but something bestowed and free.

Joy abides with God, and it comes down from God and embraces spirit, soul, and body; and where this joy has seized a person, there it spreads, there it carries one away, there it bursts open closed doors.

A sort of joy exists that knows nothing at all of the heart’s pain, anguish, and dread; it does not last; it can only numb a person for the moment. The joy of God has gone through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.

What matters is this joy that has overcome. It alone is credible; it alone helps and heals. The joy of our companions who have been called home is also the joy of those who have overcome — the Risen One bears the marks of the cross on his body. We still stand in daily overcoming; they have overcome for all time. God alone knows how far away or near at hand we stand to the final overcoming in which our own death may be made joy for us.

Some among us suffer greatly because they are internally deadening themselves against so much suffering, such as these war years bring in their wake. One person said to me recently, “I pray every day that I may not become numb.” That is by all means a good prayer.

And yet we must guard ourselves against confusing ourselves with Christ. Christ endured all suffering and all human guilt himself in full measure — indeed, this was what made him Christ, that he and he alone bore it all. But Christ was able to suffer along with others because he was simultaneously able to redeem from suffering. Out of his love and power to redeem people came his power to suffer with them.

We are not called to take upon ourselves the suffering of all the world; by ourselves we are fundamentally not able to suffer with others at all, because we are not able to redeem. But the wish to suffer with them by one’s own power will inevitably be crushed into resignation. We are called only to gaze full of joy at the One who in reality suffered with us and became the Redeemer.

Full of joy, we are enabled to believe that there was and is One to whom no human suffering or sin is foreign and who in deepest love accomplished our redemption. Only in such joy in Christ the Redeemer shall we be preserved from hardening ourselves where human suffering encounters us.5

We can imagine it was this joy Bonhoeffer clung to after his arrest and during his 18 months in Tegel, a lonely Nazi interrogation prison. The living conditions there were putrid. It was often rocked by bombing raids, day and night. Bonhoeffer suffered from the loneliness of separation from his fiancée and his family. He was weakened by physical ills in his body and haunted by occasional suicidal thoughts from his tortured mind.6 Surely it was this invincible joy from God, in Christ, that preserved his life in the Tegel prison and provided him hope for the worst, which for him was still yet to come.

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 15, Theological Education Underground, 1937–1940 (Fortress Press, 2012), 5.  

  2. Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together to explain how closely and intentionally these 68 men pursued fellowship together.  

  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940–1945 (Fortress, 2006), 105.  

  4. Ibid., 6.  

  5. Ibid., 377–378.  

  6. Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Fortress, 2000), 799, 831–833.