Throughout the majority of my Christian walk, my approach to life has been trying to manage my own personal desires in tandem with what God desires for my life. To some extent, there’s been a temptation to simply pursue my own desires in this world and just use the Gospel as a guardrail for ensuring my desires aren’t in complete conflict with the teachings of Christianity. However, I’ve come to realize that our fellowship with God doesn’t end at our initial acceptance of Christ, but is rather the beginning of a lifelong relationship that molds and shapes us in the midst of anxieties, frustrations, and joys. The initial call to Christ is a somewhat straightforward message, but once we step down from that mountaintop and are forced back into real life, the not-so-straightforward question rises to the surface: "I'm a believer... now what?” The answer is discipleship.
The New Testament quickly reveals that our call to discipleship is not an easy one, and consists of dying to our earthly desires and pursuits. Consider the following two excerpts from Matthew in which Jesus describes the kind of lives followers of him can expect to have:
“24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
These are obviously extremely challenging verses to understand within the context of our lives in Charlotte during the 21st century. However, even though the practical challenges facing the 1st Century Church are exceedingly different than the trials we face today in the United States, we are called to the same kind of fellowship with our Father.
First and foremost, there is a tendency to look at the persecutions that occurred in the early Church or in other contexts and feel guilty that we haven’t encountered the same kinds of hardships. It’s important to keep in mind that the goal of discipleship isn’t actually the trial or suffering itself. Rather, it’s the level of adherence to a relationship with Christ despite the surrounding circumstances which define discipleship. See James 1:2-4 below which finds value in trials only to the extent it actually produces something good in us: steadfastness.
2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Secondly, I believe it’s helpful to try to understand the concept of discipleship from a very practical standpoint. Even though the term “discipleship” isn’t regularly used in our vernacular, the word “devoted” has a similar meaning. The term devoted portrays consistency. For instance, if somebody is devoted to training for a marathon, we don’t correlate that with somebody who runs infrequently or eats healthy on occasion. It inherently makes you think of somebody who consistently trains and makes running a priority in their lives.
Whether we like it or not, being a disciple requires consistency. Consistency in our pursuit of the Father, studying scripture, and serving the needs of those in our community. Devotion on a “Sundays-only basis” is simply an oxymoron.
Interestingly, I seem to continually undervalue the day-to-day relationship we have with the God of the Universe. We can forget that Jesus not only cleansed us of our sins, but also tore the veil that separated us from directly accessing God’s presence. There’s a tendency to think that the God who created all of our thoughts, passions, and desires couldn’t completely understand our challenges and how best to resolve them. I love James’ reminder about the kind of God we worship in James 1:16:
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
Discipleship involves regular fellowship with the Father. In the darkest of times, we can come before the Father of Light knowing He has the final say over any darkness which is present in our lives. In the best of times we can come graciously before his throne, thanking Him for all of the good gifts he has generously lavished upon us.
A very practical obstacle in our pursuit of discipleship is day-to-day decision-making. For instance, you wake up on a Saturday with no plans. In light of my discipleship to Christ how would this time be best used? Should I just enjoy time with family, should I be volunteering, should I go mountain biking, go to a sporting event with friends… how can we be sure that our day-to-day decisions are aligned with our call of discipleship? I believe the answer is revealed to each of us uniquely, but the underlying principle is the same. God wants us to pursue Him in all avenues of our life. In his infinite wisdom, he understands we don’t only need the answer to our routine decision-making questions. We need Him. That might look like doing nothing with your Saturday or it might look like a very busy Saturday. The key is seeking His presence and guidance in your life continually.
Lastly, discipleship is by definition a process. Within our results-oriented society it’s often challenging to wrap our minds around the concept of daily re-orienting ourselves to be Kingdom-focused and never actually attaining perfect obedience. However, 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 is an awesome reminder of what we are ultimately pursuing on a daily basis through discipleship:
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
I pray these words might be an encouragement to you regardless of your circumstances. Despite the trials we might encounter in our pursuits of Discipleship, it's important to remember how blessed we are even having the opportunity to participate in active Fellowship with the King of Kings. After all, this opportunity came at no small price.