On Temptation (Versuchung) in Bonhoeffer (II)

This post is the second of two examining Bonhoeffer’s theology of temptation as reflected in his essay, “Bible Study on Temptation, June 20–25, 1938,” found in the English edition of Bonhoeffer’s Works (vol. 15, pp. 386-415). Click here to view part one, which covers the first part of the essay—a more conceptual treatment of the concept of temptation based on scripture.

Bonhoeffer begins section IV.6 (p. 402ff) by writing

The concrete temptation of the Christian always requires making the distinction between the hand of the devil and the hand of God. In other words, it is a matter of resistance and of submission at the right moment; resistance to the devil is possible precisely in complete submission under God’s hand.

He continues by citing 1 Cor. 10:12-13, which he argues “[every] temptation must be seen in light of.”

This is how the passage is translated in the CEB:

12 So those who think they are standing need to watch out or else they may fall. 13 No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities. Instead, with the temptation, God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.

In the NRSV:

12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

The Greek word translated as “temptation” in the CEB and as “testing” in the NRSV is πειρασμὸς. In the context of Bonhoeffer’s gloss for πειρασμὸς, Versuchung, our “temptation,” it is helpful to see other places in which the New Testament uses the word in this way. The Lexham Research Lexicon of the Greek New Testament defines this use of “temptation,” interestingly enough, as “an examination with the express purpose of producing (or proving) a fault in the examinee.” Other similar uses can be found in Matt. 6:13, Mk. 14:38, Lk. 22:40, 1 Cor. 10:13, and 2 Pt. 2:9.

Bonhoeffer’s reflection on the teaching of 1 Cor. 10:12-13 is that it “counteracts every false sense of security,” but also “false despondency” when we face temptation. Practically, in the face of concrete temptations, “[the] attitude of a Christian…is to be wakeful in view of the cunning enemy and to pray to God that he may hold us firm in his word and grace.” Indeed, “we may face these particular temptations in great calmness and tranquility, for they can be overcome and are overcome by virtue of God’s faithfulness. Temptation should find us in humility and the certainty of victory.”

Bonhoeffer’s schematic presentation of concrete temptation of the Christian is as follows: the temptation in the flesh, demonstrated through lust and then through suffering; spiritual temptations; and the last temptation. The first two are rather straightforward, but the final one contains one of Bonhoeffer’s more obscure passages. In this post, I will discuss only the first part of the temptation in the flesh: lust. I hope to revisit this essay in the future, and if so, I will discuss the more complex dimensions of concrete temptation, especially in light of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Minos, Judge of Hell (c 1857), engraving. Image by Moïra Elliott, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Temptation in the Flesh: Lust

Lust overpowers us.

With irresistible force, lust seizes power over the flesh. A hidden smoldering fire is suddenly set ablaze. The flesh is burning and aflame. There is no difference here whether [it] is the sexual desire for lust, whether it is ambition, vanity, whether it is lust for revenge, the thirst for fame and power, whether it is greed, or whether it is, finally, even the indescribable lust for the beauty of the world, for nature as such. The joy in God is quenched in us, and now we seek all joy in created being. In this hour, God appears totally unreal to us; he loses all reality, and the only reality is lust offered by the created being; the only reality is the devil. Satan fills us here not with hatred against God but with forgetfulness of God. Satan adds to this demonstration of power also a lie. Desire that has been set aflame enshrouds human thinking and willing in deep darkness. We are robbed of our clarity in distinction and decision. Should it really be sin that the flesh here desires? Should it not be fully allowed, even demanded, right now, right here, right in my situation, to still my lust? The tempter places me under a special law, just as he wanted to place the hungry Son of God under a special law. I insist on my special rights against God.

As we saw in part one, temptation means being forsaken—being abandoned. It means a forsakenness that extends to my inner being to other people, and most controversially of all, to God himself. “The self is nothing. The enemy is everything.” Who can help us when we are lusting? Bonhoeffer writes in response that “None other than the crucified Jesus Christ himself, for the sake of whom all this happens to me; because he is with me and in me, temptation has come over me just as it came over him.” As we face the concrete reality of lust and the devil, we can only find one “stronger reality” that can help us—“the image and presence of the Crucified One.” Bonhoeffer theology of “image and presence” extends to his discussion of “the image of Christ” in Discipleship. I include below an extract from Discipleship, i.e., volume 4 of DBWE (p. 281-288).

“Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). To those who have heard the call to be disciples of Jesus Christ is given the incomprehensibly great promise that they are to become like Christ. They are to bear his image as the brothers and sisters of the firstborn Son of God. To become “like Christ”—that is what disciples are ultimately destined to become. The image of Jesus Christ, which is always before the disciples’ eyes, and before which all other images fade away, enters, permeates, and transforms them so that the disciples resemble, indeed become like, their master. The image of Jesus Christ shapes the image of the disciples in daily community. For disciples, it is not possible to look at the image of the Son of God in aloof, detached contemplation; this image exerts a transforming power. All those who submit themselves completely to Jesus Christ will, indeed must, bear his image. They become sons and daughters of God; they stand next to Christ, their invisible brother, who bears the same form as they do, the image of God.

God once created Adam in God’s own image. In Adam, God sought to observe this image with joy, as the culmination of God’s creation, “and indeed, it was very good.” In Adam, God recognized the divine self. Thus, from the beginning, it is our unfathomable mystery as human beings that we are creatures and yet are called to be like the Creator. As created human beings, we are called to bear the image of the uncreated God. Adam is “like God.” In gratitude and obedience, Adam now ought to bear his secret of being creature and yet God-like. The lie of the serpent was to suggest to Adam that he would still have to become like God, and to do so by his own deed and decision. That was when Adam rejected grace and instead chose his own deed. The mystery of his nature, of being creature and yet God-like, was what Adam wanted to solve by himself. He wanted to become what, from God’s perspective, he already was. That was the fall. Adam became “like God”—sicut deus—in his own way. Having made himself into a god, he now no longer had a God. He now ruled alone as creator-god in a world bereft of God and subdued.

But the puzzle of human existence remains unresolved. Human beings have lost their own, God-like essence, which they had from God. They live now without their essential purpose, that of being the image of God. Human beings live without being truly human. They must live without being able to live. That is the paradox of our existence and the source of all our woes. Since then, the proud children of Adam have sought to restore this lost image of God in themselves by means of their own efforts. But the more seriously and devotedly they strive to regain what was lost, and however convinced and proud they are of their apparent victory in achieving this, the deeper the contradiction to God grows. Their distorted form, which they modeled after the image of the god of their own imaginative projections, resembles more and more the image of Satan, even though they may be unaware of this. The image of God, as the Creator’s gracious gift, has been lost on this earth.

But God keeps on looking at God’s lost creature. For the second time, God seeks to create the divine image in us. God wants to be pleased with the creature once again. God seeks the divine image in us, in order to love it. But God cannot find it except by assuming, out of sheer mercy, the image and form of the lost human being. God must conform to the human image, since we are no longer able to conform to the image of God.

The image of God should be restored in us once again. This task encompasses our whole existence. The aim and objective is not to renew human thoughts about God so that they are correct, or that we would subject our individual deeds to the word of God again, but that we, with our whole existence and as living creatures, are the image of God. Body, soul, and spirit, that is, the form of being human in its totality, is to bear the image of God on earth. God is well pleased with nothing less than God’s own perfect image.

The image springs from real life, the living primordial form. Form is thus being shaped by form. The prototype from which the human form takes its shape is either the imaginative form of God based on human projection, or it is the true and living form of God which molds the human form into the image of God. A reshaping, a ‘metamorphosis’ (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18), a transformation has to take place if, as fallen human beings, we are to become again the image of God. The question is how it can become possible that human beings could be transformed into the image of God.

Since fallen human beings cannot recover and assume the form of God, there is only one way to find help. It is none other than God, who assumes human form and comes to us. The Son of God who, in the form of God, lived with the Father, empties himself of this divine form and comes to human beings in the form of a servant (Phil. 2:5ff.). Changing one’s form, something which was not possible for human beings, now takes place within God. God’s own image, which had remained with God through eternity, now assumes the image of the fallen, sinful human being. God sends the divine Son in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:2f.).

God sends God’s Son—that is the only way to find help. Neither a new idea nor a better religion would suffice to accomplish this goal. A human being comes to us human beings. Every human being bears an image. Our bodies and lives manifest themselves visibly. As a human being we are not merely word, thought, or will. Rather, before and in all of these, we are a human being, a form, an image, a brother or sister. A human being thus develops not only a new way of thinking, willing, and doing things, but a new image, a new form. In Jesus Christ, God’s own image has come into our midst in the form of our lost human life, in the likeness of sinful flesh. God’s own image becomes revealed in Jesus’ teaching and in his deeds, in his life and in his death. In him God has created anew the divine image on earth. The incarnation, Jesus’ word and deed, and his death on the cross are integral elements of this image. It is an image different from the image of Adam in the original glory of paradise. It is the image of one who places himself in the very midst of the world of sin and death, who takes on the needs of human flesh, who humbly submits to God’s wrath and judgment over sinners, who remains obedient to God’s will in suffering and death; the one born in poverty, who befriended and sat at table to eat with tax collectors and sinners, and who, on the cross, was rejected and abandoned by God and human beings—this is God in human form, this is the human being who is the new image of God!

We know, however, that the marks of suffering, the wounds of the cross, have now become the signs of grace on the body of the risen and transfigured Christ; and we are aware that the image of the crucified will forever live in the glory of the eternal high priest, who in heaven intercedes for us before God. On Easter morning Jesus’ form of a servant was changed into a new body of heavenly form and radiance. But whoever, according to God’s promise, seeks to participate in the radiance and glory of Jesus must first be conformed to the image of the obedient, suffering servant of God on the cross. Whoever seeks to bear the transfigured image of Jesus must first have borne the image of the crucified one, defiled in the world. No one is able to recover the lost image of God unless they come to participate in the image of the incarnate and crucified Jesus Christ. It is with this image alone that God is well-pleased. Only those who allow themselves to be found before God in the likeness of this image live as those with whom God is well pleased.

To be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ is not an ideal of realizing some kind of similarity with Christ which we are asked to attain. It is not we who change ourselves into the image of God. Rather, it is the very image of God, the form of Christ, which seeks to take shape within us (Gal. 4:19). It is Christ’s own form which seeks to manifest itself in us. Christ does not cease working in us until he has changed us into Christ’s own image. Our goal is to be shaped into the entire form of the incarnate, the crucified, and the risen one.

Christ has taken on this human form. He became a human being like us. In his humanity and lowliness we recognize our own form. He became like human beings, so that we would be like him. In Christ’s incarnation all of humanity regains the dignity of bearing the image of God. Whoever from now on attacks the least of the people attacks Christ, who took on human form and who in himself has restored the image of God for all who bear a human countenance. In community with the incarnate one, we are once again given our true humanity. With it, we are delivered from the isolation caused by sin, and at the same time restored to the whole of humanity. Inasmuch as we participate in Christ, the incarnate one, we also have a part in all of humanity, which is borne by him. Since we know ourselves to be accepted and borne within the humanity of Jesus, our new humanity now also consists in bearing the troubles and the sins of all others. The incarnate one transforms his disciples into brothers and sisters of all human beings. The “philanthropy” (Titus 3:4) of God that became evident in the incarnation of Christ is the reason for Christians to love every human being on earth as a brother or sister. The form of the incarnate one transforms the church-community into the body of Christ upon which all of humanity’s sin and trouble fall, and by which alone these troubles and sins are borne.

The form of Christ on earth is the form of the death [Todesgestalt] of the crucified one. The image of God is the image of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is into this image that the disciple’s life must be transformed. It is a life in the image and likeness of Christ’s death (Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:4f.). It is a crucified life (Gal. 2:19). In baptism Christ engraves the form of death on his own. Having died to the flesh and to sin, Christians are now dead to this world, and the world is dead for them (Gal. 6:14). Those who live out of their baptism live out of their death. Christ marks the life of his own with their daily dying in the struggle of the spirit against the flesh, and with their daily suffering the pains of death which the devil inflicts on Christians. It is the suffering of none other than Jesus Christ that all of his disciples on earth have to endure. Christ honors only a few of his followers with being in the most intimate community with his suffering, that is, with martyrdom. It is here that the life of the disciple is most profoundly identical with the likeness of Jesus Christ’s form of death.

It is by Christians’ being publicly disgraced, having to suffer and being put to death for the sake of Christ, that Christ himself attains visible form within his community. However, from baptism all the way to martyrdom, it is the same suffering and the same death. It is the new creation of the image of God through the crucified one.

All those who remain in community with the incarnate and crucified one and in whom he gained his form will also become like the glorified and risen one. “We will bear the image of the heavenly human being” (1 Cor. 15:49). “We will be like him, for we will behold him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The image of the risen one will transform those who look at it in the same way as the image of the crucified one. Those who behold Christ are being drawn into Christ’s image, changed into the likeness of Christ’s form. Indeed, they become mirrors of the divine image. Already on this earth we will reflect the glory of Jesus Christ. The brilliant light and the life of the risen one will already shine forth from the form of death of the crucified one in which we live, in the form of sorrow and cross. The transformation into the divine image will become ever more profound, and the image of Christ in us will continue to increase in clarity. This is a progression in us from one level of understanding to another and from one degree of clarity to another, toward an ever-increasing perfection in the form of likeness to the image of the Son of God. “And all of us, who with unveiled faces let the glory of the Lord be reflected in us, are thereby transformed into his image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).

This is the indwelling of Jesus Christ in our hearts. The life of Jesus Christ here on earth has not yet concluded. Christ continues to live it in the lives of his followers. To describe this reality we must not speak about our Christian life but about the true life of Jesus Christ in us. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The incarnate, crucified, and transfigured one has entered into me and lives my life. “Christ is my life” (Phil. 1:21). But together with Christ, the Father also dwells in me; and both Father and Son dwell in me through the Holy Spirit. It is indeed the holy Trinity who dwells within Christians, who permeates them and changes them into the very image of the triune God. The incarnate, the crucified, and the transfigured Christ takes on form in individuals because they are members of his body, the church. The church bears the incarnate, crucified, and risen form of Jesus Christ. The church is, first of all, Christ’s image (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), and through the church so too are all its members the image of Christ. Within the body of Christ we have become “like Christ.”

It now becomes understandable that the New Testament calls us again and again to be “like Christ” (καθὼς Χριστός). We are to be like Christ because we have already been shaped into the image of Christ. Only because we bear Christ’s image already can Christ be the “example” whom we follow. Only because he himself already lives his true life in us can we “walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:6), “act as he acted” (John 13:15), “love as he loved” (Eph. 5:2; John 13:34; 15:12), “forgive as he forgave” (Col. 3:13), “have the same mind that was in Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:5), follow the example he left for us (1 Peter 2:21), and lose our lives for the sake of our brothers and sisters, just as he lost his life for our sake (1 John 3:16). Only because he was as we are can we be as he was. Only because we already are made like him can we be “like Christ.” Since we have been formed in the image of Christ, we can live following his example. On this basis, we are now actually able to do those deeds, and in the simplicity of discipleship, to live life in the likeness of Christ. Here simple obedience to the word takes place. I no longer cast even a single glance on my own life, on the new image I bear. For in the same moment that I would desire to see it, I would lose it. For it is, of course, merely the mirror reflection of the image of Jesus Christ upon which I look without ceasing. The followers look only to the one whom they follow. But now the final word about those who as disciples bear the image of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Jesus Christ, and who have been transformed into the image of God, is that they are called to be “imitators of God.” The follower [Nachfolger] of Jesus is the imitator [Nachahmer] of God. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1).

We now have a clearer idea of what the “image and presence of the Crucified One” means in the context of discipleship. The reality of this image is a power. It “shatters the power of lust into nothingness, for here that power is overcome.” We see clearly now what the desire of the flesh really is: “the flesh’s fear of dying.” Bonhoeffer continues,

Because Christ is the death of the flesh and because this Christ is in me, therefore the dying flesh revolts against Christ. Now I know that the dying of the flesh is evident in the temptation of the flesh. The flesh is dying and thereby inflames desire and lust. Thus in the temptation of the flesh I share in Jesus’s dying in the flesh. The temptation of the flesh, which tried to draw me into the death of the flesh, thus draws me into the death of Christ, who dies according to the flesh, but is resurrected according to the spirit. Only the death of Christ saves me from the temptation of the flesh.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Knowing all this about the theological ramifications of suffering as participation in the very suffering of Jesus Christ, what are we to do when we face lust (broadly defined by Bonhoeffer)? Bonhoeffer reminds us that Scripture’s admonitions are clear: we are to flee in the hour of “carnal temptation.”

Here Satan can no longer be resisted other than by fleeing. Every attempt to fight the desires with our own strength is doomed to fail. Flee—that can only mean flee to the place where you can experience protection and help, flee to the Crucified One. Alone his image and his presence help. Here we see the martyred body and recognize therein the end of every lust; here we see through the deception of Satan to the last detail; here our spirit becomes sober again and identifies the enemy. Here I recognize the full extent of my carnal nature’s being forlorn and forsaken, the righteous judgment of God’s wrath over all flesh. Here I know that, in my forlorn state, I could never have helped myself against Satan, but that it is the victory of Jesus Christ that comes to me. Here I find also the basis for the stance from which I can alone overcome all temptation, for patience (James 1:2ff.[–4]). I should not even rebel against the temptations of the flesh in impermissible arrogance, as if I were too good. Especially here I must and can only submit myself under the hand of God and patiently endure the humiliation of such temptations. Thus, in the middle of Satan’s deathly work, I recognize God’s judging and gracious discipline. In the death of Jesus, I find refuge from Satan and the communion of both, dying according to the flesh and of living in the spirit through his victory.

Flight from temptation, an active running away from the dreadful abyss of Satan’s grasp in forsakenness, is the only solution to lust. No resolve on our part can defeat this temptation. We are held by God’s word in the existential trauma of our forsakenness in temptation. We gaze upon the “martyred body” of the Crucified One, and only in his gracious protection will we find the courage to return to sobriety, asking for grace to return to the time of steadfastness.

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