If you have any church culture background, you’ve probably smiled at some version of the old Sunday school joke about the safe answer to every question being “the Lord.”
I remember an era of bumper sticker wars when an outbreak of “Jesus is the answer” bumper stickers was followed by a wave of “If Jesus is the answer, what’s the question?” bumper stickers.
I submit that the problem with these cliches from yesteryear is not that they were simple, but that they were simplistic. There’s a world of difference between simple and easy.
Jesus made statements that were simple and straightforward, yet breathtakingly grandiose – unless he actually was who he claimed to be. Consider just a few:
“For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
“Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life.” John 5:24
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” John 11:25-26
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
This sounds like a simple, wonderful solution to our biggest problem – the problem of our mortality. On one level, the idea that Jesus died for our sins is so simple that children can grasp it, but for Jesus to accomplish our redemption was indescribably difficult.
But between now and death, we face a host of problems, some of our own making and some from outside us. Is there an equally simple solution for these problems? Yes, and again, the solution is found in Jesus. And again, working out that simple answer is difficult.
It’s appropriate here to remember G.K. Chesterton’s oft-cited statement that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Consider just a few of the sins plaguing today’s church and making it increasingly unattractive to spiritual seekers: racial bias, pride, self-promotion, greed, sexual sin, addiction, spiritual abuse, slander, factionalism, hypocrisy, politicization.
Compare these with qualities that Jesus-followers are commanded (and empowered) to cultivate: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, burden-bearing, compassion, humility, forgiveness, gratefulness, mutual submission, prayerfulness, righteousness, truthfulness, justice – to name a few.
Why are traits in the former list so much more prominent today than those in the latter list? Isn’t the basic answer a failure of discipleship? Isn’t it true that discipleship to Jesus has not been tried and found wanting – it’s been found difficult and left untried?
How many local churches offer – no, commend as normal – a sustained pathway of learning to obey everything Jesus commanded, including his command to make other disciples? Such a pathway would account for gifting, learning style, and life circumstances, but would surely include intensive Bible engagement with a view to growing knowledge, skill, character, and obedience.
To be honest, I have seen few churches that offer, even as an option, such an intentional, progressive pathway of discipleship aimed at bringing believers to full reproductive maturity. I’m not talking about a highly structured one-size-fits-all program. I believe that the most effective, most sustainable training is relational, done in micro groups, and adaptable to the specific circumstances of trainees.
Even so, don’t expect a stampede of interest. Recall some of Jesus’ potential recruits. “I will follow you wherever you go!” “I will follow you, but first let me…” “What must I do? Sell everything? Oh, never mind.” When Jesus called people to discipleship, his audience shrank. Are we prepared for that possibility, believing that in the long run it will produce the most fruit?
Yes, Jesus is the solution to everything, but working out the how of that is the project of a lifetime as we slip into the yoke beside him (Matthew 11:29-30).
As we work out our salvation in community with our sisters and brothers, we grow in our comprehension of the massive reality of our union with Jesus. United with Jesus, indwelled by his Spirit, we can be confident in the face of any problems that we face, whether internal or external.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come! 2 Corinthians 5:17
Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. 1 Corinthians 2:12
Don’t you yourselves know that you are God’s temple and that the Spirit of God lives in you? 1 Corinthians 3:16
God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Colossians 1:27
In Romans 12:2 the apostle Paul tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. A theological word for that transformation process is sanctification, and it happens as we steadily walk in obedience to Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. Only as we engage in this intentional, disciplined, sustained process will we be able to “discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2). We will be able to see specific ways that Jesus is the solution.
Does this mean we can dismiss racial and gender inequity, sex addiction, controlling leadership, and so on with a facile “just follow Jesus”? Of course not! But in all the means we use to overcome these things, our only true hope lies in staying tightly connected to Jesus and the power that flows from his Spirit. Discipleship, abiding in Jesus and his Word, is the reliable path to becoming what he desires us to be, as individuals and as the church.
And here’s a critically overlooked element in this walk: we are explicitly told that our daily connectedness to Jesus includes daily connectedness with other disciples for prayer, exhortation, and encouragement. We are told in Hebrews 3:12-13 to encourage one another daily, lest we become hardened, deceived, and drift away from God. What does this imply about the spiritual health of those in the church who aren’t heeding this admonition?
Can we truly say that we have “tried” discipleship and found it wanting, and therefore we must look elsewhere for solutions to racism, addiction, spiritual abuse, etc.? Or would it be more honest to say that we have looked at costly discipleship, found it too difficult, and left it untried?
|Peter Maurice O'Connor 07/28/2021 04:13 PM
I am enjoying reading your website. It is quite thought provoking. It is good to see the answers to my own internal thinking questions. Physically, in this time of Covit we must practice social distancing but spiritually we must embrace each other. Thank you for your fine work! God bless America! Peter O'Connor Gladstone, Qld Australia.