As fallen human beings, we have “turned in on ourselves” (a phrase used by St Augustine to describe the human heart). We are unable to fully and consistently love God because the affection of our heart is relentlessly drawn toward the wounded self. In a complicated blend of willful arrogance and instinctive (subconscious?) self-preservation, much of our spiritual energy is directed inward rather than outward. The result is a human being tragically out of touch with its Creator and often hopelessly self-absorbed.

Christian discipleship calls us out of this condition and back into an open, intentional, disciplined, self-denying relationship with our Father. In the beauty of this relationship, and by the graceful power of God’s Holy Spirit, our hearts are healed and our minds are restored. It is here that we learn to think theologically.

To think theologically is to go beyond the popular question, “What would Jesus do?” Thinking theologically requires us to ask, “What is God asking me to do in this situation?” The challenge is that the disciple is not looking for spiritual principles that might apply to modern circumstance; she is looking for a specific revelation from God that directs her actions in her present situation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with this distinction. “[Bonhoeffer believed] that Christians cannot be governed by mere principles. Principles could carry one only so far. At some point every person must hear from God, must know what God was calling him to do, apart from others.” (Metaxas, 323). Of course, Bonhoeffer did hear from God—through prayer, meditation, Scripture, and fasting. His obedience to the word he heard from God led him to leave the safety of America (after only 26 days), return to Nazi Germany, and to his ultimate death.

Metaxas summarizes this astounding ability of Bonhoeffer with this:

All his life, Bonhoeffer had applied the same logic to theological issues that his father applied to scientific issues. There was only one reality, and Christ was Lord over all of it or none. A major theme for Bonhoeffer was that every Christian must be “fully human” by bringing God into his whole life, not merely into some “spiritual” realm. To be an ethereal figure who merely talked about God, but somehow refused to get his hands dirty in the real world in which God had placed him, was bad theology. Through Christ, God had shown that he meant us to be in this world and to obey him with our actions in this world. So Bonhoeffer would get his hands dirty … because God was speaking to him about further steps of obedience (361).

By the end of his life, Bonhoeffer had very few friends, family, or colleagues who did not think he was taking his discipleship too far. Most of them had found subtle ways to compromise and survive. He refused to do so—and paid the ultimate price.