Westminster Seminary California
Bonhoeffer and the Idol of Success
Bonhoeffer and the Idol of Success

In the days prior to World War II, Hitler stunned his generals by suggesting that Germany would invade Poland and France. His generals thought he was crazy and that his plan would fail. In fact, when Hitler’s armies marched into France, many of his top generals secretly devised to arrest Hitler and remove him from power. The problem is, however, that Hitler did not fail. France folded like a cheap lawn chair and the German people were both stunned and elated. The German people believed they had been unduly punished by the terms of the Versailles Treaty and they were happy to see vengeance delivered to their enemy. Whatever reservations the people might have had about Hitler, his success changed their minds. And not only did it change their minds, but his generals believed they no longer had the circumstances to remove Hitler from power. Some of his generals even began to support Hitler in the wake of his victory over France.

Around this time Bonhoeffer happened to be working on what some have called his magnum opus, his work entitled Ethics. In his book Bonhoeffer recalled his days in Barcelona when he would observe the crowds at the bullfights. He noted how the crowd would sometimes cheer for the bullfighter but then turn around and cheer for the bull—their cheers all hinged upon whom they perceived was being successful. All of this caused Bonhoeffer to write:

In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done. . . . With a frankness and off-handedness which no other earthly power could permit itself, history appeals in its own cause to the dictum that the end justifies the means. . . . The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which take success for its standard (363).

We must remember that God never calls his people to be successful. Rather, he calls us to fidelity, to obedience. Whether we are “successful” or not is up to God. If we trade fidelity for success, we can easily turn it into an idol.