Bonhoeffer and the Holier Angel

Dietrich Bonhoeffer made mistakes, but he understood the value of grace and repentance.

When Hitler began to demand allegiance from pastors in Germany, Bonhoeffer fled to the United States. Not long after his arrival, he realized his wrong decision and returned to Germany to participate in efforts to overthrow the evils of Nazism.

Six years later, Bonhoeffer was dead; tortured and hanged by the Nazis in a concentration camp for conspiracy to assassinate the Führer. Bonhoeffer was only 39.

Bonhoeffer’s life was short and seemingly unfulfilled, as is his list of published books. At the time of his execution, he had only published two books: The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. His participation in the attempts to assassinate Hitler was a failure. Which begs the question: what more could Bonhoeffer have achieved as a Christian leader had he not left the safety of the United States for Nazi Germany in 1939?


It is not a religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia [repentance]: not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ… ’Pain is a holy angel who shows us treasures that would otherwise remain forever hidden; through him men have become greater than through all the joys of the world.’ It must be so and I tell this to myself in my present position over and over again. The pain of longing, which often can be felt physically, must be there, and we shall not and need not talk it away. But it needs to be overcome every time, and thus there is an even holier angel than the one of pain, that is the one of joy in God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (21 November 1943)