I was lost. Running a dog team in the middle of Alaska and stuck on the Big Susitna River. With myriad options of little trails that led nowhere, I tried one after another, looking for the trail with a solid base that would take my team and me forward. After several hours of attempt after attempt, I finally found the right path – we rolled toward home.
Discipleship is like this. We have tried trails that lead nowhere. But here's hope. With every failed attempt, we eliminate the dead ends. The following five ways we've failed to make disciples can light the path to a discipleship revolution.
1. We wanted to make it easy for everyone.
I don't know if it was cultural complacency, common idolatry, or a drive to fill the seats on Sunday, but lowering the bar of discipleship has given us a weak version of Christianity at best. And at worst, the version of Christianity we have settled for today looks eerily similar to the world system from which Jesus came to liberate us. Jesus paid the gift of salvation in full, but it wasn't cheap. There is nothing cheap about salvation – spiritual transformation is amazing.
Jesus raised the bar. He wanted each of his kids to know what they were getting into. There is a cost attached for discipleship, and not everyone should take the trip. Let Jesus' words from Luke 14:27-30 speak. "Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.'"
Being a disciple of Jesus is not easy at all. After leaning into utter dependence on God, we must remain diligent. Diligent in cutting away the sin that holds us back. Diligent in separating ourselves from fools. Diligent in studying the word, so we are not that fool. Diligent in saying no to cheap thrills. Diligent to not use grace as a hall pass for compromise. Diligent in keeping in step with God who gives us all the truth we need, all the spiritual wisdom required, and all the strength to walk into his promises.
Discipleship isn't easy, but it's worth dying to ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus into radically abundant life.
2. We devalued the prize for fear of looking crazy.
You don't have to look hard to find a brand of Christianity that appears crazy. When the Apostle Paul said we are "fools for Christ," he was describing how differently we could live, not how foolish we would appear. The "prosperity gospel" has turned many off from the grace of God that can help our hurts and habits. Being consumed with financial riches has caused many to look poorly. Charging after emotional experience and supernatural manifestations has created confusion for onlookers who desire to see lives well lived.
But the prize for God's kids is no small thing. Words like success, prosperity, fullness, and abundance flood the pages of scripture. The promises of God are simply staggering, and we can no longer cede the high ground or devalue the prize. We can't forget the promises of God to Joshua. "This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success." (Joshua 1:8). Just as Joshua was promised a prize, we have many more promises held out to those who walk forward with the word irrigating our soul.
We must hold high the promises of God. With unflinching resolve, we must run the race of faith, aiming for the ultimate prize of eternity in paradise and taking hold of all the promises offered to the faithful each day. Hold high the prospect of winning souls, experiencing intimacy in our marriages, seeing our finances leveraged into changed lives, leaving a legacy for our children, and running bold into eternity.
Never let anyone steal away the hope of life in Christ – it's the ultimate prize.
3. We attempted to disciple many unsaved people.
It's impossible to make a disciple of anyone who hasn't been transformed by the power of Christ. We can't construct a small group, build a bible curriculum, or get someone to serve enough to encounter the freedom that only salvation can bring. The emotional futility of discipling lost people is only exceeded by the resources we've expended and the hours we've invested by trying to turn hearts toward God that are far from him.
The goal should never be to attempt to fully ensure that every person we invest in is truly born again – that's an impossible standard and one that Jesus warned us against. There are two things we know from Jesus' teaching about people in the church. Jesus warned, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." (Matthew 7:21-23). Jesus also told a parable about weeds (the unsaved) and wheat (the saved) living together and being difficult to distinguish between the two. "Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, "Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn." (Matthew 13:30).
So to invest the bulk of our resources, time, and energy into the lives of the truly transformed, we must do two critical things: Preach the gospel often and challenge people to "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith…" (II Corinthians 13:5). We must hold up the power of God to change forever what we cannot even slightly adjust. It is the truly saved who must truly be discipled.
Assumptions can be deadly. And assuming people know Christ when they don't has an impact on eternity.
4. We put God in a box and told him to stay there.
Something is disconcerting about God. He is both the creator of this magnificently well-ordered universe and intimately familiar with the details of our imperfect lives. The one who is without fault wants to help us who are hopelessly flawed. Maybe we cannot grasp the magnitude of God that has caused us to put him into a 7-week study, 4 part series, or a 3-minute worship song. Without even knowing it, we've built a theological and practical box for God in our mind and told him to stay there.
This is not to say that good theology is bad. Being anchored in truth will prevent us from being led away into any number of manmade systems. In the Apostle Paul's farewell, he had a strong warning. "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them." (Acts 20:28-30). The threat of twisted truth, which is a lie, is something to be guarded against. But putting God in the same box with our doctrinal statements is not the answer.
We must leave room for God to work in the broad boundaries of his word. Giving people principles of discipleship rather than a program will allow for God to touch the individual heart. The hurts we have and even our dreams that we dare to dream are as unique as each snowflake that falls. The Spirit of God can not be put in a box, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes…" (John 3:8). This same Spirit that saves us will guide us.
God wants to direct our smallest steps. Who we bump into can change the course of our life. God is in the business of redeeming our messes in mysterious ways. We just need to let God out of the box and stay alert to his moves.
5. We underestimated the fallout of spiritual war.
There are many casualties of the spiritual war that God never wanted to lose. Some have left this earth early because they were not aware of the schemes of Satan. Others have become casualties of war by simply settling for a pitiful life that was the direct result of a lie. The Apostle Paul paints a vivid picture of this war. "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (Ephesians 6:10-12).
Many things are blamed on Satan that are squarely in our court of personal responsibility. The devil doesn't make us do anything. But the legion of demons comes loaded — 10x legion of lies, deceptions, diversions, and accusations. Without the truth of God's word coursing through our mind and prompting us to raise our spiritual armor, we are doomed to be taken down. And even if evil can't kill us, it'll settle for rendering us powerless to get a win in any vital area of our life.
Discipleship must include training for spiritual war. We all need a vision of what it means to overcome the world just as our Savior has led the way into a sure victory. Discerning between lies and truth is not an optional skill set. Knowing how to fend off the barrage in a season of constant attack isn't a "nice to have." Understanding what to do when hit by friendly fire is mandatory equipment for everyone who dares to call Jesus their Savior.
Every disciple of Christ needs to know the reality of spiritual war.
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