May I offer some advice? Get better acquainted with Jeremiah. We know him superficially from the preaching we have heard and the reading we have done. But I am urging that we come to know as intimately as possible this great prophet. Why? From him we can learn how to steadfastly serve God in a time of crisis, in a time of decadence and corruption, in a time of greed and stupidity, in a time when violence and vice seem to undermine society everywhere.

A priest of acute sensitivity and probing insight, Jeremiah started his public ministry under King Josiah, who was killed in battle with Egypt at Meggido. Four weak rulers came after him. Jeremiah served God during the darkest period of his people’s history—a period of degradation and tumult. The policies pursued by the government were woefully shortsighted and absolutely contrary to God’s will. The people zealously practiced their religion, which was little more than empty ritual. Paganism flourished. Egypt and then Babylon threatened to, and finally did, destroy the peace and security of Israel. Like a frail canoe caught in rock-studded rapids, the nation plunged headlong into defeat, and exile. Jeremiah in the midst of the tumult faithfully delivered Jehovah’s repeated warnings and entreaties.

The Good Shepherd suffered. Why should we be lambs who are petted and protected?

But who listened as he pleaded and denounced and wept? Only a handful of people who feared God. Jeremiah was mocked, reviled, hated, and imprisoned. After the Babylonians smashed Jehoiakim, fellow Jews dragged him to Egypt. Undaunted, he stubbornly served God.

Chapter twelve describes the earlier days of the prophet’s ministry. Hated and hounded by angry neighbors in his own village, young Jeremiah became wary, discouraged, and bewildered. He turned to God for answers.

You have right on your side, Yahweh,

When I complain about you,

But I would like to debate a point of justice with you.

Why is it that the wicked live so prosperously?

Why do scroundrels enjoy peace?

You plant them; they take root.

You are always on other lips, yet so far from their hearts (Jer. 12:1–2, JB).

God did not answer the prophet’s questions. Instead God responded with his own questions: If you find it exhausting to race against men on foot, how will you compete against horses? If you are not secure in a peaceful country, how will you manage in the thickets of the Jordan?

The thrust here is sharp and plain. God is saying to Jeremiah, “Yes, your service so far has been tough and tiring, but service that lies before you will prove far tougher. So get ready to run as you have never run before. Get ready to fight with all your strength. The river is rising.”

Article continues below

That is God’s word to us today. Get ready. Unlike Jeremiah, most of us have not faced conflict, loneliness, heartache, and suffering. Rather, our families praise us, our friends applaud us, and our churches admire us. Occasionally, tough problems trouble us. Yet, what are these compared with the suffering of Jeremiah? We need to hear and heed God’s warning to young Jeremiah. A faithful witness for Jesus Christ may sooner or later plunge us into situations so tough and tiring that they will tax our resources to the breaking-point. Get ready. The river may rise.

What can we do? The anecdote about a young man who worked for Lord Joseph Duveen suggests an answer. Duveen, American head of the art firm that bore his name, planned in 1915 to send one of his experts to England to examine some ancient pottery. He booked passage on the Lusitania. Then the German Embassy issued a warning that the liner might be torpedoed. Duveen wanted to call off the trip: “I can’t take the risk of your being killed,” he said to his young expert.

“Don’t worry,” the man replied. “I’m a strong swimmer, and when I read what was happening in the Atlantic, I began hardening myself by spending time every day in a tub of ice water. At first I could stand it only a few minutes, but this morning I stayed in that tub nearly two hours.”

Naturally, Duveen laughed. It sounded preposterous. But his expert sailed; the Lusitania was torpedoed. The young man was rescued after nearly five hours in the chilly ocean, still in excellent condition. Just as he did, we need to condition ourselves. We must persistently practice devotional discipline and develop a biblical mindset.

On the wall of my office hangs a portrait of Deitrich Bonhoeffer. It challenges, rebukes, and inspires me. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant man who received his Ph.D. at 21. He could have spent his years in ease and distinction as a professor, but the river was rising. The Nazi regime under Adolph Hitler had been attempting to co-opt the church. Many German Christians, however, among them Karl Barth, refused to acknowledge any spiritual or ecclesiastical authority except that of Jesus Christ. So the battle was joined.

In 1935, Bonhoeffer accepted the task of creating and directing a seminar at Finkenwalde, far out in the country. He and his students followed a strict regimen of devotional discipline without any relaxation of scholarship. What was it like?

Article continues below

“The day began with half an hour of common prayer: antiphonal repetition of the psalms, lessons from the Old and New Testaments, two chorales, one Gregorian chant and finally an extempore prayer. Breakfast followed, and after breakfast the students found they were to meditate for half an hour in silence upon a passage of Scripture, which was set for the whole week. Then followed a morning of study: homiletics, exegesis and the groundwork of dogmatics. Then came lunch, recreation, further study and after supper an evening of relaxation, music, reading aloud or games. The day ended with a further half-hour of common prayer, after which complete silence was required until breakfast the next morning (The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Mary Bosenquet, Hodder and Stoughton, 1968, p. 152).

Why this stress on a Bible-centered meditation, which smacked of pietism and fanaticism? Even Karl Barth objected that such discipline suggested—as he put it—“the eros and pathos of the cloister.” Bonhoeffer’s student and friend Eberhard Bethge explains, in part paraphrasing his beloved mentor:

“Why do I meditate? Because I am a Christian, and therefore every day is a day lost for me in which I have not penetrated deeper into the understanding of the word of God in Scripture.… Because I need a firm discipline of prayer. We like to pray according to our mood, short, long or not at all. That is self-will. Prayer is not a free offering to God, but a service which it is our duty to render, and which he requires.… How do I meditate? There is free meditation, and meditation on the Scriptures. For the firm establishment of our prayer, we recommend meditation on Scripture. And also for the disciplines of our thoughts. In addition the knowledge of being united with others who are meditating on the same text, will endear to us the scriptural meditation” (pp. 153–158). Bethge continues by paraphrasing a letter written by Bonhoeffer that describes the devotional process:

“We begin our meditation with a prayer for the Holy Spirit, and with a prayer for recollection for ourselves and for all those whom we know to be also meditating. Then we turn to the text. By the end of our meditation we should like to be at the point at which we can give thanks out of a full heart. What text, and for how long the same text? It has proved fruitful to meditate for a week on a single text of from ten to fifteen verses. It is not a good plan to meditate on a new text every day, as we are not always equally receptive, and the texts are generally much too large.… The time for meditation is in the morning before the beginning of work. Half an hour will be the shortest time which a meditation requires. Complete outward quiet and resolution not to be distracted by anything, however important, are necessary foundations …” (p. 158).

Article continues below

Bonhoeffer inculcated that practice into the students at Finkenwalde. He personally and steadfastly maintained it himself. And all the while the river was rising.

Bonhoeffer left Finkenwalde. He abandoned pacifism and joined the unsuccessful conspiracy to kill Adolph Hitler. Arrested, he spent months and months in prison under threat of execution. Even in prison he maintained his devotional regimen. With dark waters rising around him, Bonhoeffer kept his spiritual footing. Payne Best, an English officer captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in the same jail as Bonhoeffer, had opportunity to observe him during the last days of his life. Best writes this tribute: “Bonhoeffer was different—just calm and normal, seemingly perfectly at his ease … his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison.… He was one of the very few men I’ve ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him.”

Sunday night, April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer at the request of his fellow-prisoners conducted a service at which he expounded two texts: Isaiah 53:5, “through His stripes we are healed” and First Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again to a living hope by the resurrection from the dead.” Best comments that “he reached the hearts of all,” finding just the right spirit. As the service ended, a door was flung open; two men stood in the entrance who commanded “Pastor Bonhoeffer, take your things and come with us.” The next morning Bonhoeffer died.

The prison doctor gives this account: “Sometime between five and six o’clock, the prisoners … were let out of their cells and the verdicts read to them. Through the half-open door of a room in one of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, still in his prison clothes, kneeling in fervent prayer to the Lord his God. The devotion and evident conviction of being heard that I saw in the prayer of this intensely captivating man moved me to the depths” (p. 278).

Article continues below

The prisoners were ordered to undress. They were led down a short flight of steps to a secluded place in a clump of trees. They were granted a few minutes of time. Naked, under the scaffold in the spring woods with the flowers blooming, Bonhoeffer knelt to offer his last prayer. Five minutes later he was dead. Three weeks later Adolph Hitler committed suicide. The flood of Nazism had swept away a great and tough soul strengthened by spiritual discipline. We should follow his example and practice devotional discipline.

At the same time we must develop a biblical mindset. If we keep immersing ourselves in the Bible we will not be lighthearted Pollyannas who blithely sing: “God’s in His heaven, All’s right with the world.” On the contrary, we will look at the world realistically and somewhat pessimistically. But above that will be an overarching optimism. We know that, despite all the tragedy in the world, God will triumph. Although man’s best efforts will invariably backfire, as biblicists we will thank God for the joys and victories he gives us. But we will never lose sight of the suffering of life on this planet. We will not ignore Luke, who said that “through much tribulation [we will] enter the kingdom of God.” Or Paul, who wrote that “Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example that ye should follow in his steps.” Or Jesus: “In the world ye shall have tribulation.”

The Good Shepherd suffered. Why should we be lambs who are petted and protected? The practice of positive thinking—now better known as possibility thinking—or even by nights of fervent prayer, cannot permanently prevent the river from rising. Neither should we expect that, when the river rises, God will whisk us out of the flood with his heavenly helicopter. Biblicists ought to anticipate trouble, but not be shaken by it.

As the service ended, a door was flung open, and two men stood in the entrance and commanded, “Pastor Bonhoeffer, take your things and come with us.” The next morning Bonhoeffer was shot.

Studying Scripture and persistently praying will develop in us a biblical mindset that confidently anticipates God’s eventual triumph but only after trouble. By developing a biblical mindset we will become spiritually tough.

Article continues below

The experience of Ralph Covell, the professor of missions at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, illustrates what I mean by a biblical mindset. He and his wife Ruth had served four years in China, when the river began to rise. Mao Tse-tung and his Communist forces pushed Chiang Kai-shek back until the free Chinese retreated to Taiwan. The Red Star dominated Peking. The Covells were detained for three months before they could leave the country. Ralph told me that during the span of enforced activity he read and pondered the Book of Revelation. And out of all those much-debated symbols with their complex interpretive problems, one message emerged: Our Lord Jesus is going to be the victor.

A friend told me of an incident that happened while he was in seminary. Since the school had no gymnasium, he and his friends played basketball in a nearby public school. The elderly janitor waited patiently until the seminarians finished playing. Invariably he sat there reading his Bible. One day my friend asked him what he was reading. The man answered, “The Book of Revelation.” Surprised, my friend asked if he understood it.

“Oh, yes,” the man assured him. “I understand it.”

“What does it mean?”

Very quietly the janitor answered, “It means that Jesus is gonna win.”

That is the best commentary I have ever heard on that book. Jesus is going to win. That is the biblical mindset. That is the confidence we need as we face the future when—God alone knows when—the river may begin to rise again.

Vernon C. Grounds is president of Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, Denver, Colorado.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.