Pain Was a Stranger to Us

In May 1944, Eberhard and Renate Bethge celebrated the baptism of their new son Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge. For the occasion, the child’s godfather and great-uncle Dietrich Bonhoeffer composed some “Thoughts on the Day of Baptism of D.W.R. May 1944.” The document takes up about eight pages in the Reader’s Edition of the Letters and Papers from Prison—of course, Bonhoeffer himself did not attend the baptism because, as he explains, speaking of himself in the third person, “he is currently sharing the fate of many other good Germans and Protestant Christians, and so he has only been able to look on from afar as your parents married and you were born and baptized” (p. 388). The document has several provocative passages, particularly at the end where addresses his idea of “religionless Christianity,” on which more some other time. For now, I want to highlight this passage that comes in the middle of the document. You will have to decide whether our age has more similarities with the way Bonhoeffer describes his own youth and adulthood, and what he predicts for his infant godson.

We have lived too much in our thoughts; we believed that by considering all the options in advance we could ensure it, so that it would proceed of its own accord. We learned too late that it is not the thought but readiness to take responsibility that is the mainspring of action. Your generation will relate thought and action in a new way. You will only think about what you have to answer for in action. For us thought was in many ways a luxury afforded to onlookers; for you it will be entirely subordinated to action. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).

For the greater part of our lives, pain was a stranger to us. Avoiding pain, as far as possible, was one of our subconscious guiding principles. Subtlety of feeling, intense awareness of one’s own pain and that of others, are both the strength and the weakness of our way of life. Your generation will begin early having to bear privations and pain and having your patience severely tested, so you will be tougher and more realistic. “It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth” (Lam. 3:27).

Letters and Papers from Prison (DBWE-RE, pp. 391–92)

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