Set Your Hearts

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

THE SPIRITUAL LIFE IS to be lived no matter the cost, as it is the means through which Christians participate in the Kingdom of God while still in the flesh. Redemption and sanctification rescued us from the bondage of sin and set us apart for divine service. Paul said, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:13-14, ESV). Jesus provided an exemplar for Christian living, telling the disciples, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:26-28). In fact, life is supposed to be shared. We are called to step out in faith and put others first.

The power to live a successful Christian life is found only in Christ, but it requires effort on our part. We need to stand firm against the forces that pull us back to a carnal, fleshly, worldly life. Jesus related how difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:23). It is not easy to live as Christ lived. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul” (Matt. 16:26). Accordingly, a spiritual life must be a disciplined life. In the eyes of the LORD, it is better to obey than to present sacrifices (see 1 Sam. 15:22). The word “obedient” comes from the Latin word audire, which means “listening.” Spiritual discipline involves a concentrated effort to firmly establish an effective boundary between spirit and life. It is only through patiently waiting on God that we are able to hear His voice and understand His will for our lives.

D.A. Carson said, “People think of themselves as ‘spiritual’ because they have certain aesthetic sensibilities, or because they feel some kind of mystical connection with nature, or because they espouse some highly privatized version of one of any number of religions” (1). Religion tends to be a word with negative connotations while spirituality has positive overtones. Typically, we wonder how much of ourselves we must give up to live a spiritual life. We ask ourselves if “being good” is an effective sign that we are living as Christ would have us live. We attend church services, participate in church groups, visit the sick, and volunteer to make burgers at the annual church picnic. Maybe we participate in neighborhood outreach efforts or support missions. Yet, we wonder how much of our natural self can remain without impacting our spiritual life. C.S. Lewis said, “Make no mistake: if you are really going to try to meet all the demands made on the natural self, it will not have enough left over to live on. The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier and angrier” (2). The flesh battles the spirit, demanding satisfaction no matter the cost.

We come to Christ as new believers dragging our “self” with us to the cross. Lewis said, “Some of the things the ordinary self wanted to do turn out to be what we call wrong” (3). He pulled no punches regarding battling sexual impropriety. He writes, “…a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute” (4). The Christian life is both hard and easy. Jesus asks us to “give all.” He says to take up our cross and follow him. Lewis said, “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ” (4). As Christians, many of us neglect the mind and heart while we’re striving for a spiritual life. This is precisely what Christ advises us not to do. The average churchgoer objects to giving all, saying not everyone is called to pastor, or teach, or lead. Lewis was known to ask Christians, “How would you feel if Jesus came to you and spoke the words, Give me your all?I have stood at that crossroad many times, wondering how much all I have to give without giving all.

The grace of God, while free, is not cheap. Consider what Jesus endured during the last twelve hours of His life on earth in order that we might be justified before the Father. Our discipleship to Jesus costs nothing less than everything. Unfortunately, you would be hard pressed to find a sermon or teaching series on discipleship in the church today. To side step discipleship is to miss out on spiritual maturity. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt.28:18-20). Unfortunately, the Body of Christ has been drifting away from this commission. If the church fails to disciple new believers, it is impossible for them to learn how to live as Christ lived. Willard said, “Though costly, discipleship once had a very clear, straightforward meaning… there is a decision to be made: the decision to devote oneself to becoming like Christ” (5).

A Matter of the Heart

Paul writes, “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” (Col. 3:1-2). Proverbs says, “My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:21,23). Not surprisingly, the best way we can defend our heart and set it on God is to guard our thoughts. Paul said, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-5). Solomon admonished, “Above all else, guard your heart.

Someone once said, “Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.”

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jer. 17:9). We cannot hope to share the gospel, or to teach others about the ways of Christ, without first setting our hearts on Jesus. The kind of spiritual existence God asks of us cannot be weak, dull, rudderless, lifeless. It should cause an engagement of the heart. Paul notes, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). Fervent means “having or displaying a passionate intensity.” If we are not fervent in our spiritual life, and if our will and inclination are not strongly and consistently applied to our affairs on a daily basis, we will wither and die on the branch. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2). The Father does two things to ensure a maximum yield: (1) He removes unfruitful branches, and (2) He prunes the remaining branches. Unfruitful branches are gathered and burned in the fire. Fruit is an illustration for good results coming from the life of a believer.

As believers, our fruitfulness requires having our hearts engaged in Christ. Every true disciple of Christ must love the LORD above his or her father or mother, sister or brother, spouse or children; yes, even above his own life. Merely having knowledge of doctrine and theology without religious affection for God will avail us nothing but the acquisition of data. Augustine of Hippo said, “My inner self was a house divided against itself. Why does this strange phenomenon occur? The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted” (6). Ours must always be a living theology. The believer is to be considered fidelis quaerens intellectum: a believer seeking understanding. Hart said, “Theology is the attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world” (7). Theology involves far more than the mind; it is more than collecting data. Hart said, “Faith—when it is truly faith rather than a mere intellectual assent to some proposition or other—will always seek to enter into a fuller and deeper knowledge and understanding of that which matters most to it” (8).

Set your sights on His kingdom first.

Nouwen believes the spiritual life is not that which comes after or beyond our everyday existence. We must not pigeonhole spirituality. He said, “The spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now” (9). Martin Luther wrote, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading or speculation” (10). Of course, such an orientation clears the path for setting our hearts on Jesus. Vanhoozer says Christians learn doctrine in order to participate more deeply and passionately in the drama of redemption, adding, “Intellectual apprehension alone, without the appropriation of the heart and hand, leads only to hypocrisy” (11). Our spiritual life must begin with something firm to place our feet on (see Matt. 7:24-27). Without being grounded in Christ, we risk faltering at times of challenge or crisis. Moreover, we are ill-equipped for making a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope we have in the gospel.

God willingly created man and all that exists in the physical realm. Under the warmth of His creative action and care, our first parents were invited to walk in complete fellowship with God; to get to know Him and to love Him. This is worship at its most pure. But through an act of rebellion, which was fueled by a desire to know as God knows, exist as God exists, sin entered in and tore a hole in the soul. Man became broken. Kapic writes, “It would be a dangerous misunderstanding to assert that we can only worship God once we have understood all the important doctrines” (12). Further, we do not need to be like God, or be on even footing with Him, to have a relationship with Him. Despite rebellion in the past, we must mend fences with God and allow Him to fill the God-shaped hole in our soul. Growing in our knowledge of God changes our view of every aspect of our lives. Kapic said it’s not as though we lose sight of all except God; rather, we see everything in the light of God. This degree of humility and submission is required for living a truly spiritual life.

All of life’s preoccupations and “what ifs” tend to enslave us; distract us from the metaphysical and spiritual realms of life. Our minds become filled with anxious thoughts as we struggle to do it all, be it all, and plan for it all. Nouwen writes, “Much, if not most, of our suffering is connected with these preoccupations” (13). It is as though we are always preparing for “eventualities,” such as career changes, serious illness, failed economy, domestic unrest, possible family conflicts, natural disasters, and the like. Anxiety can cause us to be fearful, suspicious, greedy, angry, defeated. In this sad state, we pay more attention to our physical surroundings, our aches and pains, our daily challenges, which prevents us from feeling real inner peace and freedom—the very shalom our LORD promised. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). When we are in a predisposed state of “what’s next” we fail to live in the moment. It is impossible to enjoy today if we spend the day regretting our past and worrying about our future. Existence certainly features periods of transition, but it is not productive to live our lives “in the corridor” on the way to somewhere else.

First Things First

Interestingly, Jesus does not address our worry-filled way of living by saying we should cut back on engaging with life’s affairs. Nor does He say we need to take a monastic sabbatical. Early Christian fundamentalism taught “coming out from among them” and safely existing within the walls of our churches. I believe the command “be ye separate” is not suggesting off-the-grid spiritual communal living. Nor does it mean stay away from all non-believers. We simply cannot reach those we despise and run from. Rather, Jesus wants us to change our center of gravity so that we seek Him first. This requires a change in focus. As noted in Scripture, we need a change of heart. Certainly, change in activities are often necessary as we grow in spiritual maturity and reach toward the goal of emulating Christ. Simply, this is a matter of setting our hearts on His kingdom first. Nouwen believes a heart set on the Father’s kingdom is also a heart set on living the spiritual life.

To set our hearts on the kingdom therefore means to make the life of the Spirit within and among us the center of all we think, say, or do.

Consider this. Jesus led a very busy life during the three years of His ministry—teaching, preaching, healing, expounding. He was so busy He had to “steal away” for alone time. Moreover, He did not lead the life of a zealot marching toward a self-imposed goal. He was concerned with one thing: putting the Father’s will and kingdom first. Remarkably, despite being God Himself in the flesh, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). The works Jesus did are the works the Father sent Him to do; the words Jesus spoke are the words the Father sent Him to speak. His was a ministry of obedience, sacrifice, and humble submission. Paul tells us, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom.5:18-19).

Concluding Remarks

Nouwen writes, “His Kingdom first. I hope that these words have received some new meaning. They call us to follow Jesus on his obedient way, to enter with him into the community established by the demanding love of the Father, and to live all of life from there” (14). The kingdom of the Father is now; not something to be achieved at a later date. It is the place where the Holy Spirit guides us, empowers us, instructs us, equips us, and renews us as we move through this world serving Him. As I mentioned above, a spiritual life without discipline is impossible. The practice of spiritual discipline allows us to exercise “silent prayer,” where we are content to sit quietly and wait on God. It is only through listening that we develop a life of obedience. It is critical that we establish a routine of solitude every day. The amount of time we spend pursuing “spiritual fitness” is less important than having the routine. Start with 10 minutes, 20 minutes; whatever you can set aside at this point. Remember, we are pursuing “spiritual fitness” much like an athlete seeks physical fitness. Increase the duration of each prayer session. Learn to exercise “silent prayer” where you wait quietly for God to speak to you. Simplicity and regularity are the best building blocks in finding your way to the Father. Create space for God in your life.

References

(1) D.A. Carson, “Spiritual Disciplines,” Knowing and Doing (Springfield, VA: C.S. Lewis Institute, Winter 2017). URL: https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/6134
(2) C.S. Lewis, “Giving All to Christ,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups, Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith, ed. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993), 8.
(3) Ibid., 7.
(4) C.S. Lewis, “Sexual Morality” in Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1952), 95.
(5) Ibid., 9.
(6) Dallas Willard, “The Cost of Nondiscipleship,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, Ibid., 15.
(7) Augustine of Hippo, “Complete Surrender,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, Ibid., 55.
(8) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995), 1.
(9) Hart, Ibid., 3.
(10) Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 7.
(11) Martin Luther, in “The Inseparability of Life and Theology, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 41.
(12) Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).
(13) Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians, Ibid., 24.
(14) Nouwen, Ibid., 9.
(15) Ibid., 21.

Who We Believe We Are Directly Affects How We Act

We live in a country glutted with biblical material, Christian books, radio and television, but many Christians are not moving on to spiritual maturity. Additionally, there is a degree of biblical illiteracy in America today. Although surveys indicate that a majority of households report having a Bible, not even 50 percent of those who own Bibles read them regularly. Only 1 percent of young Christians read Scriptures on a daily basis.

biblical illiteracy.jpg

Sadly, we have separated the ministries of discipleship and counseling in our churches. Christian discipleship too often has become an impersonal program, although good theological material is being used. Christian counseling has been intensely personal, but often lacks good theology. We’re told that Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor. It is important to note that brokenness is the key to effective ministry.

I’ve come to understand that if we really knew God, our behavior would change radically and instantly. I believe that the greatest determinant of mental and spiritual health, as well as spiritual freedom, is a true understanding of God and a right relationship with Him. A good theology is an indispensable prerequisite to a good psychology. Knowing God is key to maturity and freedom. The mind must be transformed in order that we can live by faith and grow spiritually.

WHO ARE YOU?

When we Christians are asked to identify ourselves in relation to our faith, we usually talk about our doctrinal position (Protestant, evangelical, Calvinist, charismatic), our denominational preference (Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Independent) or our role in the church (Sunday school teacher, choir member, deacon, elder). Is who you are determined by what you do, or is what you do determined by who you are? If a meaningful life is the result of appearance, admiration, performance, accomplishments, status, or recognition, then spirituality would hold no inherent value. Rather, worth would be defined solely by the “stuff” we accumulate; the reputation we earn; the nature of our lifestyle; the circles we run in.

being-one-in-christ.jpg

The Book of Ecclesiastes describes the futility of humankind pursuing a meaningful life in a fallen world without God. Millions of people climb their individual ladder of success, only to discover when they reach the top that their ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Thankfully,  wholeness and meaning in life are not the products of what you have or don’t have; what you’ve done or haven’t done. You are already a whole person and possess a life of infinite meaning and purpose because of who you are—a child of God. The only identity equation that works in God’s kingdom is you plus Christ equals wholeness of meaning.

If our relationship with God is the key to wholeness, why do so many believers struggle with their identity, security, significance, sense of worth, and spiritual maturity? Ignorance is the primary reason. The prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:6). For others, it is carnality, the lack of repentance, and little or no faith in God. Others are being deceived by the Father of Lies.

THE ONLY IDENTITY EQUATION THAT WORKS

Sadly, a great number of Christians are trapped in the same downward spiral. We fail, so we see ourselves as failures. This was my self-concept for well over forty years. Constant poor decisions, two failed marriages, and four decades of active addiction seemed to inject a false sense of meaning and identity into my life. We sin, so we see ourselves as sinners, which only leads to more sin. To understand the Gospel and who we are in Christ, we need to look at the creation account and the subsequent fall of humankind.

THE EFFECTS OF THE FALL

Unfortunately, the idyllic setting in the Garden of Eden was shattered. Genesis 3 tells the sad story of Adam and Eve’s lost relationship with God through sin. The effects of their fall were dramatic, immediate, and far reaching, infecting every subsequent member of the human race.  What happened to Adam and Eve spiritually because of the Fall? They died. Their union with God was severed, and they were separated from Him. Was this a physical death? Not immediately, although physical death would be a consequence of the Fall as well. They died spiritually; they were separated from God’s presence. They were physically cast out of the Garden of Eden and a cherubim waving a flaming sword was stationed at the entrance “to guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Genesis 3:24).

Lost Knowledge of God

What effect did the Fall produce in Adam’s mind? He lost his true perception of reality, and the idea of knowing God was no longer relational. Instead, it was about accumulating data about God. Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after their disobedience. Certainly, this reveals a faulty understanding of who God is. How can you hide from an omnipresent God? Their distorted perception of reality reflects Paul’s description of the futile thinking of those who don’t understand who God is. “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Ephesians 4:18, NIV). For me, I had become so lost that I didn’t even realize how lost I was.

ALL SINFUL BEHAVIOR IS A WRONG ATTEMPT AT MEETING BASIC NEEDS. THE ESSENCE OF SIN IS A MAN LIVING INDEPENDENTLY OF GOD, WHO HAS SAID THAT HE WILL MEET ALL OF OUR NEEDS AS WE LIVE OUT LIFE IN CHRIST.

When they sinned and were banished from the Garden, Adam and Eve lost their relationship with and intimate knowledge of God, which was intrinsic to that relationship. In our unregenerate state, we may have known something about God, but we didn’t know God because we had no relationship with Him. “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

THE EXAMPLE OF CHRIST

Many Christians are not living free and productive lives because they don’t understand who they are and why they are here. Who they are is rooted in their identity and position in Christ. If they don’t see themselves the way God sees them, to that degree they suffer from a false identity and poor sense of worth. In other words, they don’t fully understand the Gospel and the dramatic change that occurred in them the moment they trusted in Christ. The redemptive plan of God began to unfold when Christ, the last Adam, appeared. The first thing we notice about the life of Christ is His complete dependence on God the Father. He said, “I can do nothing on My own initiative” (John 5:30). “I live because of the Father” (6:57).

Jesus Came to Give Us Life

Like the first Adam, Jesus was born both physically and spiritually alive. This was made evident by the fact that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God and was born of a virgin. Unlike the first Adam, Jesus was tempted in every way, but He never sinned. He never lost His spiritual life because of any sin He committed. He kept His spiritual life all the way to the cross. What Adam and Eve lost in the Fall was spiritual life, and Jesus came to give us life. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

THE WHOLE GOSPEL

Many Christians are living under half a Gospel. They may have heard that Jesus is the Messiah who came to die for their sins, and if they pray to receive Christ, they will go to heaven when they die. They know their sins will be forgiven, but they don’t see the benefit of a personal relationship with Christ. Perhaps you’ve been plagued by this unfortunate short-sightedness, as I have. What’s wrong with thinking this is all there is to salvation? It is only half the Gospel. If you came across a dead man and you had the power to save him, what would you do? Give him life? If that is all you did, then he would die again. To save the dead person, you would have to cure the disease that caused him to die.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE CHRIST’S DIFFERENCE MAKES

Believers are alive in Christ. Being spiritually alive in Him is the overwhelming theme of the New Testament. In the Book of Ephesians alone we find 40 references to being “in Christ” and having Christ in us. For every biblical passage that teaches that Christ is in you, 10 teach that you are “in Christ.” This is the primary basis for Paul’s theology. “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17, emphasis mine).

dead to sin alive to christ.jpg

Here’s the thing: We weren’t born in Christ at the time of our natural birth. We were born dead in our trespasses and sins (see Ephesians 2:1). Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Physical birth gains only physical life for us. Spiritual life, the eternal life Christ promises to those who come to Him, is gained only through spiritual birth (see 3:36). The moment you were born again your soul came into union with God in the same way Adam was in union with God before the Fall. You became spiritually alive, and your name was written in the Lamb’s book of life (see Revelation 21:27). Eternal life is not something you get when you die.

New Life Brings New Identity

Salvation is not a future benefit; rather, it is a present transformation. This is what a large number of born-again Christians do not seem to grasp. Transformation occurs at spiritual birth, not physical death. Being a Christian is not just a matter of getting something; it is a matter of becoming someone new. Salvation is not just forgiveness of sins and a ticket to paradise. A Christian, in terms of his or her deepest identity, is a saint, a spiritually-born child of God, a divine masterpiece, a child of light. What you receive as a Christian isn’t the point; it is who you are in Him. It is that identity that now makes you who you are. Moreover, it is not what you do as a Christian that determines who you are; it is who you are that determines what you do.

Understanding your identity in Christ is essential for living the Christian life. People cannot consistently behave in ways that are inconsistent with the way they perceive themselves. You don’t change yourself by your perception. You change your perception of yourself by believing the truth. If you perceive yourself wrongly, you will live wrongly because what you are believing is not true. If you think you are a no-good bum, you will probably live like a no-good bum. If, however, you see yourself as a child of God who is spiritually alive in Christ, you will begin to live accordingly. Of course, the major strategy of Satan is to distort the character of God and the truth of who we are. He can’t change God, and he can’t do anything to change our identity and position in Christ. If, however, he can get you to believe a lie, you will live as though your identity in Christ isn’t true.

CONCLUSION

One of the greatest ways to help yourself grow into maturity in Christ is to continually remind yourself who you are in Him. The more you reaffirm who you are in Christ, the more your behavior will begin to reflect your true identity. In practice, we should constantly be reminding ourselves who we are. We need to learn to talk to ourselves, and ask ourselves whether we truly understand the scope and meaning of our conversion and baptism. We have been united with Christ in His death and resurrection. We no longer have to be a slave to sin. We have a new Master.

How important is it to know who you are in Christ? Countless numbers of Christians struggle with their day-to-day behavior because they labor under a false perception of who they are. They consider themselves sinners who hope to make it into heaven by God’s grace, but they can’t seem to live above their sinful tendencies. What is the believer’s hope? That you are a child of God now, who is being conformed to the image of God. The person who has this hope “purifies himself” and begins to live according to who he or she really is. You must believe you are a child of God to live like a child of God. “God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27)

 

The Cost of (Non) Discipleship

JESUS SAID, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) But He also said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) So, which is it? Is a life of discipleship a comfort or a crucifixion? C.S. Lewis points out the seeming paradox. On the one hand, Jesus proclaims the delights of discipleship; on the other, the seemingly crushing cost. Faced with the high cost of discipleship, many Christians compromise by attempting to ensure their self-interests while still trying to be good. But a halfway approach to discipleship is impossible:

Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work; I want YOU. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and there. I want to have the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself.” (Lewis, 1952)

Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24) There will ultimately be a conflict of interest between self-will and God’s will. A choice will have to be made between surrender and self-rule. With this tension in mind, it is vital to re-examine the emphasis of the Great Commission. Jesus tells us to make disciples who learn to do all that He commanded. (See Matthew 28:19-20) However, what it means to be a Christian has taken on a different definition in many Western church traditions. It has unfortunately come to mean someone who has agreed to a set of beliefs about Jesus, or has become a member of a church. What is omitted is the necessity of actually following Jesus. We are to become His apprentice.

The result is that churches are full of members who have affirmed the tenets of faith in order to get to heaven, but have no intention of obeying Jesus on earth. Ironically, these converts feel prepared to die, but they are not equipped to live. Many church members would be shocked if confronted with the necessity of a life of continual obedience to Jesus, since that is what Jesus meant when He described masses of self-professed Christians coming to the end of their lives only to stand before God and be told, “I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:23) I don’t know how you feel, but I don’t want that to happen to me when I stand before God.

The heart of true discipleship is a settled intent to become like Jesus. A disciple is like the man who in his joy went and sold all he had in order to buy the field with the great treasure. (See Matthew 13:44) Disciples gladly rearrange everything in their lives around Jesus because of a firm persuasion that He is everything they want.

So, is it hard to follow Jesus? That is, to be more than just a fan or an admirer? Yes, because He demands total allegiance. Only those who give all to Christ find all. This is the paradox of Christianity. I am personally aware of a parallel in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Recovering alcoholics are told that half measures avail nothing. In fact, the beginning of “How It Works” – which is read at the start of virtually every meeting in the world – says, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.”

Disciples of Jesus obey Him because they believe He is the way to eternal life. Their confidence in Jesus and the joy of life with Him greatly outweigh the price. Consider for a moment the alternative – the life of non-discipleship. If Jesus is right, then failing to follow Him will cost the very things that He alone can bring: peace, love, hope, power to do good, health, and life with God, now and forever. It turns out that the life of non-discipleship is the costliest life of all.

References

Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics anonymous, 4th edition. New York, NY: AA World Services

Lewis, C. S. (1952). Mere Christianity. New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Co.