Christmas Joy From Cell 92 at Tegel Prison

nazibarbedwireThe Christmas season is a time when even the Scroogiest curmudgeon can strain out a smile. All of the trees, lights, carols, gifts, and family gatherings birth smiles and laughs that get lost in the hustle and bustle of life. Still yet, for some Christmas is just another reminder of absent joy in the midst of a joyful season. When others are smiling, you are sitting in the ashes of suffering and sorrow. Maybe you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Maybe you or a loved one is suffering with cancer. Maybe you are single and the holidays are a vibrant picture of the depths of your loneliness. The point is, the expectations of a joyful heart at Christmas are often lacking when satisfaction is sought in the pleasantries of the Christmas season. When joy is sought in the things of Christmas, there is sure to be disappointment, especially when tragedy strikes.

The ultimate question for many this Christmas is not how many gifts to buy or how much food to make, but how genuine joy can be found when all you feel is sorrow.

An answer to this difficult question can be found in the joy that Dietrich Bonhoeffer found in his only Christmas at Tegel Military Prison in Nazi Germany in 1943. Bonhoeffer had been arrested just five days after celebrating his father’s 75th birthday basically because the Gestapo did not like anyone in the Confessing Church or in the Abwehr (Nazi intelligence agency). Bonhoeffer belonged to both. Little did they know, Bonhoeffer was conspiring with others in the Abwehr and Nazi Army to kill Hitler.

On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested at a neighbor’s home and taken to Tegel Military Prison in Berlin. Here is a short excerpt from his early experience in prison:

For the first night I was locked up in an admission cell. The blankets on the camp bed had such a foul smell that in spite of the cold it was impossible to use them. Next morning a piece of bread was thrown into my cell, I had to pick it up from the floor…The sound of the prison staff’s vile abuse of the prisoners who were held for investigation penetrated into my cell for the first time, since then I have heard it every day from morning till night (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 437).

The agony of being unjustly imprisoned and enduring the hardships that comes with being a prisoner of war was enough to make anyone, even the joyful theologian Bonhoeffer dreadfully sorrowful. However, as time went on, Bonhoeffer began to influence everyone at Tegel with the gospel of Christ. Bonhoeffer became known as an incredibly generous, charitable, and cordial prisoner. His natural inclination to pastor never left him and he became a pastor to prisoners during his time at Tegel. He seemed to have an unnatural capacity to rejoice despite not only being imprisoned, but also despite the fact that Hitler was denigrating and destroying the Germany he once loved so dearly. All in the world for a German pastor like Bonhoeffer was bleak, but there was a glimmer of hope shining within him that prisoners and Nazi guards alike noticed.

What was it that caused Bonhoeffer to find joy in the midst of such suffering? A Christmas prayer that he wrote for the entire prison gives us some insight:

O God,
Early in the morning do I cry unto thee.
Help me to pray,
And to think only of thee.
I cannot pray alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with thee there is light.
I am lonely, but thou leavest me not.
I am feeble in heart, but thou leavest me not.
I am restless, but with thee there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with thee there is patience;
Thy ways are past understanding, but
Thou knowest the way for me.

For Bonhoeffer, and you and me, true joy is not found in circumstances or celebratory traditions. True joy is found in God, even in the difficult circumstances that he brings. Bonhoeffer found joy at Christmas in prison because he cried to God for help to think only of him! Darkness, loneliness, and weakness filled his heart, so he craved and sought God’s presence. How appropriate was this Christmas prayer. Christmas is the celebration of the coming of Christ. Christmas is the celebration of a King who became a peasant; God who took on flesh to suffer and die in the place of his people.

So, if you are weak and feeble this Christmas, debilitated by disease, separation, loneliness, or despair, seek and find joy in Jesus, the one who perfectly identifies with your suffering and weakness. Christmas joy, like the kind seen in cell 92 at Tegel Prison, Christmas 1943, is found in the fact that God came into a world where Nazi’s rule, cancer kills, and sin destroys to touch us and later die for us to redeem all that is broken. Whatever you are going through this Christmas, know that joy can be found in a King who would lay in a cradle and later hang on a cross.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.

Review: Jesus Continued…

711z+kWA95LJ.D. Greear. Jesus, Continued: Why the Spirit Inside You is Better than Jesus Beside You. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. 240 pp. $15.99

Reformed and Missing Something

One of the most common criticisms of Reformed theology, both old and new versions, is that it focuses too much on doctrine and too little on relationship with God. Critics say we Calvinists spend a little too much time in our checkered shirts smoking cigars and reading Calvin and Edwards, and not nearly enough time honing a relationship with God in reliance on the Spirit. And to be honest, much of the criticisms of the young, restless, and Reformed and our almost anti-charismatic thinking is warranted. Many Christians, particularly in Reformed and Baptist circles, strive for vibrant theological knowledge while secretly wondering whether or not a genuine and deep relationship with God is possible—you know, the kind of relationship that we see on the pages of Scripture. Deep down many Reformed Christians know better, but honestly, there is something missing.

Pastor and author J.D. Greear sympathizes with young Christian guys like myself who have a desire to know God in his Word, but may even at times doubt if he can be experienced the way Jesus seemed to indicate his followers would. Greear makes a startling and scandalous claim, namely, that it is better that the Spirit of God be inside us than Jesus himself be beside us. Greear takes this biblically true claim of Jesus himself and shows that when Christians walk with confidence in this promise, it changes everything about their lives.

Preferred Presence

Jesus Continued is not a developed theology of the Holy Spirit, but is instead a practical guide to experiencing the Holy Spirit. Books on the Holy Spirit are few and far between, but those that exist either focus on a theological exposition of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit or on experiences and manifestations of the Holy Spirit that would seem wacky in a Dr. Seuss book. Jesus Continued bridges this gap by providing a biblically and theologically sound exposition of how we can truly experience the Holy Spirit. The book is divided into three sections that address various aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of believers.

In part one, Greear defends Jesus’ claim from Scripture that it is better to have the Spirit in us than Jesus beside us now. Because Jesus believed sending the Spirit was superior to his presence with his disciples, Greear argues that it is crucial for believers today to strive to walk with the Spirit. In this section, Greear is sure to emphasize emphatically the truth that understanding and experiencing the Spirit of God goes hand in hand with the Word of God. Experiences of the Spirit that do not coincide with the Word of God are sure to be false. He writes, “While pursuing one without the other leads to spiritual ruin, pursuing one in the other leads to power and life” (29).

From here, Greear shows the way the Spirit of God and the Word of God work together. He draws the biblical conclusion that, “If you want to be led by the Spirit of God, then devote yourself to the Word of God” (44). The Word of God and the Spirit of God are inseparable. With this premise, Greear shows that we desperately need the Spirit of God in order to carry out the mission of God in the world. The mandate to make disciples of all nations is daunting, yet sobering because as Greear reminds us, God does not need us to get it done.

Ways to Experience the Spirit

Part two is the most practical section of the book as Greear furthers the discussion to show what it means to experience the Holy Spirit. Greear sees six characteristics that define how we can biblically and genuinely experience the Holy Spirit. Knowing and experiencing the Spirit:

  1. Begins with the gospel.
  2. Continues in the Word of God.
  3. Continues in our giftings
  4. Continues in the church
  5. Continues in our spirit
  6. Continues in our circumstances

Greear shows how we relate to the Holy Spirit in each of these areas. Readers will leave this section much more confident in how they can tangibly experience the Holy Spirit.

When God is Silent

Finally, part three answers questions that readers may be asking all along the way. All of the principles outlined in the book to this point are well and good, but what if we can’t feel God’s presence? What if when we seek the Holy Spirit in the gospel, Bible, our giftings, etc., we can’t find him? It is here that Greear is superb at emphasizing the folly of depending on our feelings. He encourages readers to remember that the Spirit of God is inseparably tied to the Word of God. He points readers to the suffering of Joseph and ultimately the suffering of Christ as examples of God appearing to be silent, while being totally present. God is often silent when he is working in our lives. He concludes, “The gospel declares to us that God has made himself close to us in Christ, holding us tighter than a mother holds a newborn child. When our feelings tell us that is not true, we must defy those feelings with faith in God’s promise” (190).

Seeking God when he seems silent is a discipline that leads to genuine revival, something Greear believes is not a ministry strategy, but an act of the Holy Spirit that depends on the proclamation of the gospel, devoted prayer, and repentance.

Knowing and Experiencing

In the end, Greear presents a gospel-centered picture of the Holy Spirit and how we can genuinely relate with him to rely on his power to carry out the mission of God in the world. Jesus Continued is filled with sound biblical reflections, challenging and engaging stories, and thought provoking insights that impact readers in their relationship with the forgotten member of the Trinity.

So, if you are like me, a young, restless, and Reformed guy clinging to theology and doctrine, but at times lacking genuine experiences with the Holy Spirit, prepare to have some of your anti-charismatic nerves pricked. But also prepare to rejoice as you discover many ways that you can experience the Holy Spirit in a way that is better than having Jesus beside you.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.