Over the past three decades, I have failed in countless ways in being a disciple of Jesus, in obeying and honoring him as my Redeemer and Lord. I have wandered the wasteland of religion in an attempt to earn the un-earnable favor of God. I have chased the pleasures of the world, in an attempt to satisfy my infinite longings with finite things. Neither the legalistic rules of religion nor license from rules in worldly living have satisfied. These twists and turns on my discipleship path have not honored Christ. Yet, despite my failures, year after year, the desire to honor and obey Christ has not withered. In fact, it has grown even amidst failure.
“Sharing Your Faith”
Along the way, I’ve come to understand that following Jesus alone is not really what it means to be a disciple. Both the church and the parachurch taught me that being a disciple means making disciples. I was told that this meant two primary things. First, I should be active in “sharing my faith.” Second, I should find Christians who are younger in the faith to tell and show what it means to be older in the faith. It took me quite a while to realize that this practice of making disciples was incomplete. Making disciples requires not only “sharing our faith”, but also sharing our lives— failures and successes, disobedience and obedience. Making disciples is not code for evangelism, nor is it a spiritual system whereby professional Christians pass on best practices to novice Christians.
Professional Disciples vs. Novice Disciples
But I preferred only to disclose my successes, to pass on my accumulated wisdom and knowledge, while hiding my foolishness and ignorance. It’s not that I wasn’t making disciples; people gobbled up my platitudes and piety. The problem was the kind of disciples I was making, disciples who could share their faith but not their failures. Why did I embrace this kind of discipleship? Should blame be laid at the feet of the church or parachurch? Not really. It was my fault. My motivation for obeying Jesus (in this case, making disciples), had shifted from attempting to earn God’s favor, to earning the favor of my disciples. “Disciple” had become a way to leverage my identity and worth in relationship with others. As the dispenser of wisdom and truth, I was comfortably placed on a pedestal. The more disciples I made, the better I felt about myself. My motivation for discipleship was to receive praise, worth, significance. I was a disciple lacking authenticity and community, motivated by a mixture of genuine love and lust for praise. Now, don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of good intentions and a lot of good fruit from these relationships, but in a sense, I was still following Jesus alone. The professional/novice relationship created a comfortable distance, not only from admitting my failures but also from genuine community. I stood at the top of the stairs of discipleship, instead of sitting in the living room with fellow disciples. I put the best foot forward and hid the ugly one behind me. Disciple had become more of a verb than a noun. Less about a community centered on Christ and more about an activity centered on what I know.
The Gospel is for Disciples Not Just Sinners
Fortunately, Jesus is big enough for my misunderstanding of what it means to follow him. As I continued to “disciple” and read the Bible, I was struck by the fact that the disciples of Jesus were always attached to other disciples, that they lived in community. This community was authentic. They confessed their sins and struggles alongside their successes. But they also seemed to continually come back to Jesus, not merely as their example, but also as their identity, their entire sense of self. The New Testament is filled with exhortations to keep Christ at the center of our discipleship, not only for instruction but also for transformation. I began to realize that Jesus is not merely the start and standard for salvation, but that he is the beginning, middle, and end of my salvation. He is my salvation, not just when I was six, but every second of every day.
Contrary to the unforgiving demands of religion, Jesus forgives us when we fail. He doesn’t kick us when we are down, but dies to lift us up. Unlike the deception of worldly pleasure, Jesus offers true satisfaction and joy. Instead of wooing me into death, he leads me into life, his resurrection life. It slowly became apparent to me that the gospel of Christ was where I was meant to find my identity, not in impressing God or others. Refusing to share my life with others, especially my failures, was a refusal to allow the gospel of Christ to accomplish its full breadth of redemption in my life. Very simply, God was leading me into a kind of discipleship with the gospel at the center, a constant, gracious repetition of repentance and faith in Jesus, who is sufficient for my failures and strong for my successes. Jesus frees me from trying to impress God or others because he has impressed God on my behalf. I can tell people my sins because my identity doesn’t hang on what they think of me. I can be an imperfect Christian because I cling to a perfect Christ. As it turns out, the gospel is not just for sinners; it’s also for disciples, disciples who sin.
Discipleship with Jesus in the Center
This kind of discipleship is, in the end, not about what I do but who I am—an imperfect person, clinging to a perfect Christ, being perfected by grace. And in this I am not alone. I am one disciple among many. I no longer stand at the top of the stairs but sit in the living room, where we share our faith and our un-faith, our obedience and disobedience, our success and our failure. With Jesus at the center, we can encourage one another to persevere in faith, to endure in suffering, to increase in love, to multiply in mission, bypassing the professional/novice distinctions. With Jesus at the center, we can obey from our acceptance not for our acceptance. With Jesus at the center, we can be the church to one another and to the world, without bearing the burden of perfection, a burden reserved for the Spirit, who through through grace, makes us more and more like Christ. With Jesus at the center of discipleship, I immediately enter into grace and into community, where making disciples flows from being a disciple.