Does my title seem odd? How can a follower of Jesus Christ be distracted by, of all things, discipleship? I am implying, of course, that discipleship distracts us from something that is more important. Please join me as I share a bit of my spiritual journey and see if my experience is like yours – and common among the Christians you know.
What comes to mind when you think of Christian discipleship? Being a learner, a student, a follower? The Lord Jesus made it plain that this entails denying self (Luke 9:23), preferring Jesus above others (Luke 14:26) and above material things (Luke 14:33). As a person grows in the life of discipleship, he or she learns about serving, giving, sharing, praying, reading, community and reproducing other disciples. All undeniably good stuff, but not the main thing.
Until a few weeks ago, I’d have said the main things are the Great Commandments (loving God with everything you have and are, and loving your neighbor as you love yourself, Mark 12:28-31), since Jesus said of all the commandments, these are foremost. I had been making a case at my church and among friends that we should be focusing on the Great Commandments, not the Great Commission, since, I argued, “One can so thoroughly focus on the Great Commission that you allow it to eclipse the thing that Jesus said matters most. But if you focus on the Great Commands you will fulfill the Great Commission, because, if you love God you’ll be concerned about things that matter to Him (like seeking and saving the lost, Luke 19:10) and if you love others, won’t you care about their souls?” Made sense to me, until….
A work colleague and ministry partner, Kendra Diehl, recently ambushed me with a penetrating question. With deep compassion in her eyes she asked me, “Do you have any kind of awareness that the Father delights in you?” My answer was the only answer I could honestly give. “No.” There was no sense of ambivalence.
While I give such an idea a theological nod – I’m aware of the “doctrine” of God’s love – I am far from believing that God actually delights in and finds joy in me. She said she’d be praying that this would be made real to me. I told Kendra I’d be praying about it and she said, “Don’t work at it. Just lie in front of your wood-burning stove and relax.” (She knows I often lie in front of that stove during the cold weather and rest before the Lord.)
My default reaction is to work at stuff. Work hard. Obsess. This is followed by failure; then frustration and anger at God. I knew she was on to something. “Don’t work at it,” kept reverberating. I interpreted her to mean, “Don’t obsess.”
I thought back to something I had heard author and mentor Graham Cooke say at a conference I attended years before. He said, “God is the happiest Person I know.” I’ve been a serious student of God’s Word for decades and I must say, that thought never crossed my mind. When I listen to Graham, I find myself thinking, “He knows God in a way I don’t.”
Then I also recalled hearing an audio a few months ago by the late Brennan Manning (author of the Ragamuffin Gospel) and realized, “These two guys seem to embody the conviction that God loves them and delights in them.” I then saw Manning’s book, Abba’s Child, on a shelf at work and took it home and devoured it. I decided that I needed some heavy doses of Brennan and have been watching him on YouTube several days a week. As I read Scripture, I find myself paying more attention to the idea that God “loves me as I am and not as I should be” as Manning so eloquently articulates. Working at this? Yes. Obsessing? I hope not!
I found myself being nudged into adjusting the way I’ve been approaching God in my daily time alone with Him. Instead of the usual rigorous regimen, I am meditating on and praying over particular texts that God seems to be using to speak to me. I am spending more time journaling my reflections and – oh yeah – I am making time to lie in front of the wood-burning stove, watch the fire and just simply be. Are you ready to yawn? This seems so basic. I know, that’s been my reaction too. When I hear a sermon on God’s love, I nod agreement and think, “When is he going to move on to the meat?” I now believe that is the meat. Not a doctrine of God’s love, but an experience of it.
Paul writes, “May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully” (emphasis added, Ephesians 3:19 NLT). Yes, we can join Paul in praying that we will experience this love. Is experiencing it and not merely giving mental assent to a theology of it important?
Let’s remember that the God of the Bible “is love” (1 John 4:8). Let’s understand that the heart of the Gospel is love (“God so loved….” John 3:16), not merely acknowledging in a theological and intellectual way that God loves us, but experiencing that love in a manner that draws us into deep union with Him. Isn’t that what it means to be saved?
Somehow it’s not terribly difficult for me to believe that God loves the world and that God loves His Bride, the Church and that Jesus Himself is the Father’s Beloved. But frankly, I doubt that I’m His beloved. Now I am noticing some texts that I’ve read many times over the years but have somehow missed what they said.
For example, Paul addresses the Colossian believers, all of them, as the “chosen ones” (note the plural) and calls all of them, each and every one, “holy and beloved” (3:12). He refers to the Thessalonians as “brothers and sisters” (note the plural – he is addressing the individuals who make up the church there) and adds that they are “beloved by the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 2:13). Jude, the brother of Jesus, writes to “those who are called” (note the plural) and adds, “who are beloved in God the Father” (Jude 1).
What other conclusion can I draw than that I too am the Father’s beloved? So are you!
Then I found myself drawn to Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer and discovered something I’ve unintentionally passed over for years. In John 17:23 we find a familiar text. This is an Upper Room prayer that Jesus’ followers got to sit in on. He prays, in John 17:20, not only for those who are currently His followers, but also for “those who will believe in me through their word….” That’s you and me.
By the time we get to verse 23 we see Jesus continuing His prayer for unity. He says to His Father, the Father, “I in them and You in Me, that they may become completely one, as We are One, so that the world may know that You have sent Me…” and this is where I typically stop paying attention. I’ve heard many sermons on this part of the text (establishing the connection between unity and the world believing that Jesus is sent by God Himself) but not the last part of the text. His prayer continues and in this verse He adds, “and have loved them even as You have loved Me.”
What? The Father loves Jesus’ “then” followers and His “now” followers the same way He loves Jesus! He uses the word “them” to describe them. “Them” is not singular. He’s not just referring to the Body of Christ corporately, but to each Christian individually. He loves you with the same intense, extravagant love with which He loved the perfect One, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul the Apostle was so experientially influenced by God’s love that he wrote to the Romans, “I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from His love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels can’t and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (emphasis added, Romans 8:38-39 NLT).
Yes, the foremost commandment is to love God the way Jesus described. But, I submit for your consideration that this is not what is foremost in life, because keeping any commandment places the focus on our performance, doesn’t it? That is not the essence of gospel living. It’s just as easy to get in a performance rut keeping that commandment as any.
What’s foremost in life is experiencing God’s love. When you experience it, you are embracing the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ! When you experience it, His love flows out of you, back to Him and to your neighbor. When you experience it, you walk in sonship.
When you try to walk in discipleship without the context of sonship you become a Pharisee. I inadvertently divorced discipleship from sonship. As a father with four grown children, I’ve been the beneficiary of my children’s service. There’s nothing quite like the quality of service from people who truly love you. I could hire people to do the things my adult kids have done (mowing, chopping wood, painting my house, vacuuming and cleaning, etc.), but a hired servant could never provide the level of care and thoughtfulness that comes from a child who loves his or her father.
As I look at the way I have typically treated myself – when I review the way I think about myself – I realize that I haven’t seen myself as someone the Father of the Lord Jesus delights in. My preoccupation is not with God’s goodness, with His love for which no adjective is sufficient; my preoccupation is on the many ways I blow it – impatience, lack of trust, and impure motivations. The list is endless. You have your list too, don’t you?
Is this the way the Father wants us to feel about ourselves? What does it say about the way we view God? We interpret God through the lens of these feelings, don’t we? Frankly, it is not a compelling witness. Instead of “casting our care upon the Lord” we seem to add to our cares. Our approach to discipleship seems to do this to us.
I’m inviting you to join me on this journey. I’m just a rookie when it comes to this. If you know you need to experience the Father’s love more fully, then ask the Father to remove the obstacles that keep you from experiencing it. Maybe healing or deliverance prayer will help. There’s no formula. Like Kendra cautioned, “Don’t work at it.” Don’t obsess. Just do your best to be aware. Watch what He does. As for me, it’s back to the floor in front of the wood-burning stove!