Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who was part of what was called the Confessing Church during the Nazi years in Germany. While most churches in Germany went along with Nazification and made the changes dictated by Hitler, a small percentage chose to resist the anti-Semitism and glorification of the state and its rulers.
Bonhoeffer, although an avowed pacifist, eventually came to advocate Hitler’s assassination and knew about various 1943 plots against Hitler. In the face of Nazi atrocities, Bonhoeffer concluded that “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” He did not justify his action against Hitler. Instead, he accepted that he was taking guilt upon himself. He wrote “when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it...Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.” Arrested in 1943, he was convicted April 8, 1945 and hanged the next day, barely a month before Germany’s unconditional surrender.
One of his favorite passages in the Bible was the second half of 2 Chronicles 20:12: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” That sentence occurs at the end of a prayer that the king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, offered to God in the face of a vast army coming against Judah from Edom and Moab. He admits to God that “...we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us”—the first sentence of 2 Chronicles 20:12.
It is a common occurrence in life to face vast armies: our problems. It is also common to have no clue what to do about them. Sometimes, as in Jehoshaphat’s case, God gives a solution that we like. The armies that attacked Judah fought among themselves and never attacked, leaving behind enormous spoils for Judah to plunder. In contrast, Bonhoeffer faced his own death—the ultimate crisis that every last one of us must face—and there was no escaping from it. Some of the vast armies facing us are like that.
In both cases, however, we can still look to God and know that he will be with us as we experience whatever outcome he has chosen for us, knowing that he will see us through, and knowing that even if we don’t like what happens, God is still with us and still dependable.
Jesus told his disciples, not long before he was arrested, convicted, and executed, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) Sometimes people give us encouragement in the middle of our bad times and we think “easy for you to say.” But given Jesus’ context, knowing what he was about to face, his words carry added force. They were not easy, they were not cliché, and they were not flippant. He believed them even though he faced the ultimate crisis.
Earlier in his life, Jesus told an audience, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25)
It is hard to believe words like that if we’re facing the loss of our jobs, income, or house, because we wonder how we can live at all without those things. It seems impossible, facing a vast army, to feel that peace that Jesus talked about.
But look back at Jehoshaphat again. In 2 Chronicles 20 he is informed about the crisis in verse two. His reaction, according to the very next verse, is “alarm.” Hardly seems like he felt any peace. But wait, what did he do in his alarm? He “resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah.” He immediately thought to turn to God. And he didn’t face the problem by himself. Verse four goes on to say that “The people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him.”
When two men in our church learned that they were going to be laid off from their jobs of twenty years, they immediately let everyone else in the church know about it. We had a special prayer meeting to focus on the issue. They reached out to family and friends and let them know what was going on. Did this make them suddenly employed again? No, but there is some comfort that comes in dark times from simply being with other people. And sometimes, other people may come up with solutions we, in the middle of the crisis, can’t see.
The vast army facing us may fade away. Or it may not. In either case, it is easier to endure it with our eyes on God, than not.