By Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.
I WANT TO HAVE A CONVERSATION about what it means to truly follow the way of Jesus. There are, unfortunately, nearly as many explanations of this critical theology as there are people who believe in it. Certainly, this is not what Jesus intended to happen in the Body of Christ. We see this in the numerous denominations, dogmas, philosophies, and factions present in the church today. Admittedly, most believers are making an honest attempt at presenting Jesus in a manner that attracts non-believers to Him. There is, however, a percentage of ministers and laypersons whose focus is on culture rather than Jesus.
Some in the ministry believe the best way to attract others to Jesus is to downplay the ugly side of His ministry: the wrath of God, the wages of sin, the nature of a fallen world, the dark side of the human heart. They think that zeroing in on these vitally important doctrines will cause new believers to lose heart, and block non-believers from coming in from the cold to hear the truth. Instead of shouting the truth of the Gospel from the mountaintop, they create “warm and fuzzy” messages, start coffee clatches at church, and ply the common man with “lights and music.” They create an atmosphere of pageantry, of pomp and circumstance, rather than proclaiming critical points of doctrine.
Truly, this is a matter of spirituality—how we go about following Jesus in word and in deed. The way of Jesus is about loving and saving the world. It is personal, not disembodied, abstract, convoluted, fleshly. Many churches in the United States today are glaringly impersonal: programs, organizations, discussion panels, techniques, general guidelines—about information rather than knowledge. For me, accumulation of information is not synonymous with the acquiring of knowledge. Facts don’t lead to change. Knowledge does.
Many who consider themselves “followers” of Jesus today seem to embrace the ways of their surrounding culture as they go about their daily living “in the Name of Jesus.” This is quite dangerous. It is as if they are going along with the world at work, at school, in the marketplace, while espousing the way of Jesus only while at church or in the company of other believers. It is as if they see Christianity as a religion and not a relationship. In other words, many are Christians in name only. They are “fans” of Christ, but not “followers.” Personally, this is a fairly recent change for me that came about through humility and complete honesty. It is a critical prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Christ.
Jesus presents us with a different way; one that is separate from the world, not a supplement to it. It is grounded in a personal relationship that can only grow through true repentance. Ah, but what does the word repentance really mean? If you want to discover an interesting but troubling truth about most mainstream Christians today, ask them to explain what it means to repent. Some will tell you it means reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. They believe it simply means saying to God, I am sorry. Please forgive me! But a literal translation of the Greek μετάνοια (“metanoia”) indicates a transformational change of the heart. It involves turning away from a life of sin and not going back. It’s “doing a 180.”
Jeremiah 35:15 says, “I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your doings, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to you and your fathers.’ But you did not incline your ear or listen to me” (RSV) [Italics mine]. Personally, I did not take this step for decades. Typically, I made a profession of faith, but acted in a manner that was not consistent with my profession. In the vernacular, I “talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.” And isn’t the way of Jesus in reality a walk?
In essence, failing to walk out our profession of faith is wrong thinking and wrong living. One of the most stinging rebukes I’ve experienced was when my younger brother said, “I can’t stand you and I don’t trust you. You are nothing but a hypocrite!” Ouch! At the time, my reaction was one of anger. But my brother was right. I understood the what of following Jesus, but I had yet to practice the how. I was living a fleshly life like the rest of the world. My behavior was chock full of justification—ruled by anxiety, depression, selfishness, and chronic pain. My defense mechanisms, despite holding an undergraduate degree in psychology, included denial, rationalization, and projection. I justified my behavior because of how others had behaved toward me.
These excuses are ways of the flesh, involving coping strategies common to culture but not a proper part of the way of Jesus. Much of these mechanisms are terribly destructive. They are highly ineffective in promoting lasting interpersonal relationships. I know this because of the impact they’ve had on my life—divorce, loss of numerous jobs, no true close friends, estrangement from my family. Such behaviors are often useful in getting ahead in a secular world (albeit with considerable negative consequences relative to human connection), but not in the community of Jesus. They frustrate any attempt to become part of the Kingdom of God.
The Jesus Way
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Take a second look at what you just read. He said He is the way, sure, but He didn’t stop there. He also said He is the truth and the life. This statement is made up of three distinct parts. To ascribe to one of these three concepts is to invite failure in our Christian walk. The Jesus way is predicated upon to the truth He gave us about the life we can have through Him. Follow me for a minute here. Merely having information about Christianity (the way) will not produce truth in our everyday activities. Consequently, we will never achieve the life we can have in Him. Reading about the life we can have in Jesus is useful only in a “quiz bowl” competition on the Bible. We’ll get the question right, but we will miss the means by which we can come to know the truth about the information, and, therefore, live in a manner that is victorious.
In other words, the Gospel gets only partial attention in our churches today. The concept of Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among Christians today. This is because we don’t always hear the entire truth. Jesus, in His statement we read in John 14:6, sets out in plain language that the way comes first. We cannot know the truth, and then appreciate and live the life, without first entering into the way. This crucial step can’t be skipped if we are to become disciples of Christ. The way of Jesus is the only means by which we can obtain the ability to practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus Christ. This involves living Jesus seven days a week—in our homes and workplaces, at school and in the marketplace—not just on Sunday!
This is how the “local” church (our part in the Body of Christ) demonstrates the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus. We are told to leave everything behind, take up our cross (personal sacrifices needed for complete service), and follow Him. But what does it mean to follow Him? What do we need to give up in order to make this commitment real for us? I believe Jesus was stating an imperative: in order to follow Him we must live an authentic, committed life for Him and through Him. The beautiful life Jesus lived—marked by a passionate love for and unwavering obedience to God and a compassion for people—must be learned and practiced. It must not be theoretical (head knowledge); instead, it must be demonstrated through action (heart knowledge). We cannot live like Jesus without following Jesus.
More Than Mere Consumers
It seems the American way is the way of consumerism. I am not casting aspersions on our wonderful system of democracy, nor am I putting down the idea of open markets, free enterprise, and equal opportunity for success. Our country needs to return to the concept of providing equal access for obtaining an education and earning a fair living. These are, without a doubt, opportunities that are unique to the United States. Further, this is completely different from wealth. Equal opportunity leads to a level playing field for the accumulation of wealth. Opportunity begets wealth. It is not proper to take wealth from those who have obtained it and give it (without merit) to those who have not worked for it.
Perhaps this is why many of our churches today seem to be churches of consumerism. It is not appropriate, however, to market our churches in the same way we market and promote goods and services. When we approach “church” in this manner, we risk getting off message. This is typically not an intentional diversion. Rather, it is a symptom of using the wrong message (indeed, the wrong mechanism) for growing our congregations. It puts emphasis on “congregation” (the size of a church’s membership) rather than on the Body of Christ. Congregation is not the same thing as church.
Today’s churches, especially the so-called mega-churches, increase membership through marketing. Leaders of these types of congregations believe the quickest and most effective way to get people to come to services is to identify what they want and give it to them—satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the Gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, warm feelings, and the like. I see this specifically as a problem with the ministry of Joel Osteen. He promotes “the best life now,” saying, “everyday is Friday” (whatever that means), and tells his followers they need only stop seeing themselves as sinners, losers, damaged goods, hopeless and helpless. It’s not the concept that’s wrong; it’s the approach. This method leaves sin and repentance out of the message. Whenever we water down the Gospel, making it less harsh (in other words, more “palatable”), we step out of the way of Jesus.
The End of Me
“Follow me” is one of the greatest commands spoken by Jesus during his earthly ministry (see Mark 1:17). This statement, however, is preceded by the commands repent and believe (see verse 15). The Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, He is the Kingdom. It is what Jesus revealed in His ministry. Our access to the Kingdom can only be obtained through repentance—a decision to leave one way of life (one reality) and enter another. It requires a complete change of mind and heart. In my own experience, I was unable to appreciate any victory over sin (especially over active addiction) until I came to believe, completely and entirely, that there is only one way to achieve it: the way of Jesus. My hope is you are able to grasp this sooner rather than later. It will revolutionize your life.
This requires what Kyle Idleman (2015) calls coming to “the end of me.” But what does this mean? In a nutshell, it means “death is life.” The Bible says life’s real prize is hidden. We have to know where to look for it. Paul wrote, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3, RSV). It indicates that to live the life that is hidden in Christ we must first die to ourselves. Jesus made this clear when He said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14, RSV).
Idleman writes, “Death is nobody’s favorite word. We tiptoe around it with nicer names. Someone passed on. They’ve gone ahead. They crossed the river” (p. 194). He says we tend to do whatever we can to live in denial of our eventual death. Perhaps you’ve heard the lyrics from Joe Diffie: “Well I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead… prop me up beside the jukebox if I die, Lord I want to go to heaven, but I don’t want to go tonight.”
Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matthew 16:25-26, RSV). Jesus was not speaking of our physical (literal) death, but was speaking of a spiritual reorientation of our focus. To die to self is to set aside what we want and focus instead on loving God with everything we’ve got and valuing others as highly as we value ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-39). This moves us away from self-centeredness and closer to becoming openhearted followers of Christ who care deeply for others. We cannot serve God or others while enamored with ourselves.
Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, RSV). Focusing on ourselves is easy. It’s what we all do in the flesh. It’s part of our fallen nature. The moment Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit, they put self-knowledge ahead of fellowship with God. As a result, their walk with the Father was forever changed. It is only through adhering to the command of Jesus to follow Him that we can ever hope to put God and our fellow man ahead of ourselves. This concept is, as I stated at the beginning of this article, found only through repenting (turning away from self and our sinful ways), believing that Jesus is the way to the Kingdom of God, and following Him.
True (spiritual) life is found only through the laying down of our physical (carnal) life. We are not wired to turn from our physical world and embrace the metaphysical. Indeed, we cannot grasp spiritual concepts merely by thinking about them. We can begin by taking steps each day to surrender. We cannot hope to comprehend the way of Jesus without denying ourselves. Jesus said, plainly and simply, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, RSV).
Jesus is our way to God. Moreover, Jesus is God’s way to us. God comes to us in Jesus, speaking the words of salvation. Those words necessarily begin with one simple but crucial step: repentance.
Idleman, K. (2015). The End of Me: Where Real Life in the Upside-Down Ways of Jesus Begins. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publications.
Perdew, Baylock, R., and Phillips, K. (1993). Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die) [Joe Diffie]. On Honky Tonk Attitude [CD recording]. New York, NY: Epic Records