Your Letters from Prison

I recently finished reading “Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius; a book I had been slowly enjoying these past few months.  It is one of those books I finally picked up after several things I read recommended or referenced it.  Boethius wrote this little book from prison, while struggling with depression, and  with the age old question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  In a culture filled with idols, debauchery, political corruption, and the notions of “chance” and “fortune,” in the end he stood firm in his Christian faith.   Officially, he was charged with no crime; yet was sentenced to death; many recognize him as a martyr.  He was well educated, loving both theology and philosophy and seeking to reconcile the two; it is said that if it were not for his translations of Aristotle, that knowledge would have been lost to humanity forever.  

The book includes many poems, and is written in the style of Plato’s dialogues, between lady Philosophy and the student.  In the end, lady Philosophy leads him to understand God’s Providence, helps him understand that “chance” and “fate” are ways the ignorant attempt to understand the world apart from Providence, and that because of God’s providence there is nothing for a believer to fear.  Very consoling for one about to face the death penalty in 524AD.

Bonhoeffer’s letters…  

One well loved book in my library is A Testament to Freedom, edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson.  This is a compilation of Bonhoeffer’s writings, organized by both type and date.  The editors essentially walk you through Bonhoeffer’s life.  In Part 7 they include a great many letters; many of these written from prison.  Bonhoeffer wrote poetry, and many of his were written from prison as well. This seemed like the perfect “next read.”  

Both of these writers are historically distanced from our current cultural struggles.  But reading them will remind readers that humanity has had the same struggles in each generation since the Fall.  Whether in the early middle ages, or in the Kirchenkampf under National Socialism, paganism is similar; there is much to be gleaned from the struggles of Christians standing firm in the midst of such paganism.  

Bonhoeffer’s struggle was similar to Boethius–imprisoned, unsure of the outcome, knowing it would most likely be unjust, fighting feelings of despair, but sure that the Eternal God is not going to bow down to the secular powers.  Faith may waver, but the hope is secure.

Listen to these lines from letters written from prison (he’d been in 16 months at this point) close to the end of Bonhoeffer’s life to his dear friend Eberhard Bethge; notice he too takes solace in God’s Providence:

It is certain that we may always live close to God and in the light of God’s presence, and that such living is an entirely new life for us; that nothing is then impossible for us, because all things are possible with God; that no earthly power can touch us without God’s will, and that danger and distress can only drive us close to God.  It is certain that we can claim nothing for ourselves, and may yet pray for everything; it is certain that our joy is hidden in suffering…

Please don’t ever get anxious or worried about me, but don’t forget to pray for me–I’m sure you don’t!  I am so sure of God’s guiding hand that I hope I shall always be kept in that certainty.  You must never doubt that I’m traveling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I’m being led.  My past life is brimfull of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom; Ed. Geffrey B. Kelly; HarperSanFrancisco, 1995; Page 512-513


Imagine yourself imprisoned like Boethius or Bonhoeffer (think Roman dungeon, or Nazi concentration camp).  What, if you had no Bible, would you think about, cling to?  How would you wrestle with doubts and questions and fears in the warfare that would no doubt take place in your mind?  What would be your “consolation”?  If allowed to write, what would it be?  Imagine you had a pastor’s heart, as Bonhoeffer did, or a teacher’s heart, as Boethius did… what would you write to your student or church member (whether book, poetry, or letter)?  Suppose yourself a member of a church–one marked by love, one that delights in Union with Christ–what would you “write home” to your church family?  What would console you during your captivity?  What would help you endure?  What would spur you on to take joy in your tribulations?  

Start small, make a list, write out some well loved passages of His Word.  Do not try to hypothetically answer the question of “why did God allow this” because His ways are higher than our ways; many of our “why” questions will remain unanswered in this world.  And to many of our questions, the answer is that we might see His glory.  While sometimes the answers have something to do with purifying His people, disciplining His sons and daughters, etc; many of the tribulations we experience are not, and we fill our own minds with despair as we imagine our own answers to the “why”. 

Would you have any of the Word implanted, able to save your soul?  

Make a plan, beloved, what of His Word would you want to keep with you?  Hide it in your heart, write it on the tablet of your heart, set your mind on it, meditate on it night and day.  Do not live in fear of an unknown, of a change in culture that would bring about the imprisoning of Christians (which, beloved, does occur in other parts of the world, and has occurred often throughout history); rather live in His Word, clinging to the Word of Life.  

The little exercise of wondering what my letters or papers from prison might contain is one that can help us take joy in His Truth, in His Providence, in what is true freedom, in our eternal hope, in the communion of saints, and in His great and precious promises that are ours in Christ Jesus.  

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