After 50 years of trying to follow Jesus, I feel that I am nowhere near becoming the person I thought I’d be by now. When I was younger, I assumed my failures and inconsistencies were due to my youth. I believed that when I was older, I would have learned what I needed to know and would master the art of Christian living.
Now I am older—a lot older—and the secrets are still secret to me.
Thankfully, Jesus responds to desire rather than performance. He answered people who interrupted Him, shouted at Him, touched Him, screamed obscenities at Him, barged in on Him, and crashed through ceilings to get a friend to Him. Jesus cares deeply about our longings. Just look at the gentleness and concern He demonstrates over and over in the Gospels, as He welcomes people who want something more. That is not to say the Lord is some sort of cosmic vending machine. However, He responds to desperate people, allowing their desire to draw Him into their sense of neediness. Pleas to the Savior for help of any kind engage Him at a soul level. Whether they are misguided, self-serving, and destructive or sincere anxieties and yearnings, Jesus sees them as opened doors to relational connection.
Who is a disciple?
A disciple is someone who loves a specific Someone—the Someone who wants more than a close personal relationship with us. The wild, raging, consuming love of God deliberately draws us into a symbiotic fusion, a oneness so substantive that once we wake up to it, we realize, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Despite the undeniable difficulty or complexity involved, our heart’s desire for the life God intended will never be satisfied until it transcends all of our questions, insecurities, and dizzying concerns that accompany the decision to be a disciple.
When my wife and I got married, truthfully, I had a lot of fundamental, unanswered questions: Can we afford to be married? Are we mature enough? Will we regret the decision? Yet my longing to experience a lifetime of oneness with her trumped all of my concerns. Following Jesus into a lifetime of oneness is like that but on a much grander, eternal scale. Our destination, safety, survival, or future condition are not the primary issue. The focus, goal, and reward lie not just in following but in following Jesus. Thus, the essence of what it means to be a disciple is the same as the starting point—which is simply living in the reality of our oneness with God.
Our heart’s desire for the life God intended will never be satisfied until it transcends all of our questions, insecurities, and dizzying concerns that accompany the decision to be a disciple.
After three years of doing life together, Jesus’ apprentices must have found His departure a huge adjustment: It forced them to learn new ways of keeping company with Him and letting Him live in every dimension of their lives. Their aim was the ongoing transformation of their spiritual core—the place of thought and feeling, of will and character. For Christians ever since, there has been a vital link between the desire for real life, keeping company with Jesus who lives within, and devotion to spiritual disciplines.
What is a spiritual discipline?
The day that you and I accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow Him, our heart became His home. Because this is true, being a disciple is less about “trying” and more about “training” as we settle into the reality of God living within us. Therefore, the point of practicing spiritual disciplines is not to strive for something we don’t yet have but rather to enjoy what we’ve already been given.
If this is true, then instead of striving to get closer to God or earn His approval and affection, we’re free to enjoy them. This helps us to understand that our spiritual practices—the habits and routines involving prayer, Bible study, service, and community that we incorporate into our lives—are like points on a map, leading to a priceless treasure. Yet it is essential to realize they are not the treasure itself. Spiritual practices exist to create space in our life and open us to God. They are never the be-all and end-all of discipleship. Ultimately, following Christ is about cultivating a loving trust of—and obedience to—the God who is both within us and beyond our very best efforts.
Being a disciple is less about “trying” and more about “training” as we settle into the reality of God living in us.
Thus, practicing various spiritual disciplines is like “working on your tan.” There is “work” for us to do, but that “work” is mostly about positioning ourselves so that God can do what He does naturally—transforming us into the image of His Son. This is why some speak of the disciplines as “the path of disciplined grace.” Prayer, Scripture reading, solitude, silence—these are graces because they are freely given to us. Yet they are disciplines because there is something we must do. And that something has more to do with positioning than striving; more to do with conformity to Jesus’ way of living than our huffing and puffing to become like Him.
The life God uniquely designed for us to live and for which our hearts yearn cannot be achieved by our own efforts, no matter how disciplined we may be. Instead, it comes only by way of a few prepositions: with, in, and for—what Eugene Peterson calls “prepositional participation.” We can trust that God is with us always (Matt. 1:23); Jesus dwells in us (Gal. 2:20); God is for us (Rom. 8:31). With, in and for. These are the authoritative connecting, enabling, union-forging words that set us on the course God designed us to follow. They are essentially the ways and means of participating in what God is doing.
Although I spent years tipping my hat to the idea that God “is at work in you” (Phil. 2:13), my life was utterly consumed with overcoming my weaknesses, getting rid of my hang-ups, and achieving intimacy with God by sheer grit. I was oblivious to the reality that my desperate scrambling to win His favor and thrashing about to fix myself were, in fact, an enormous insult to Him.
One of the greatest discoveries of my life is the mysterious and liberating reality of my oneness with God, who unconditionally loves me as I am. Far from perfect, I’m nonetheless dazzled by the diminishment of my restless striving to earn God’s approval and grow closer to Him. Instead, my life is being radically renovated, from the inside out, by the One who lives within.