“When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. It transcends the difference between the law and the gospel. Christ calls, the disciple follows: that is grace and commandment in one. ‘I will walk at liberty, for I seek thy commandments’ (Ps. 119.45).”
I have started this second part of this blog with another quote from The Cost of Discipleship because I think Bonhoeffer has really nailed the foundational ideology underlying what I am trying develop into a way of approaching life in Christ. Following Jesus isn’t about obeying commands, as if the point were to keep a list of rules, but it is composed of obeying Jesus, making obedience the means to the goal of unity with Jesus. Fortunately for us, Jesus sums up his commands as “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). He put it another way in John: “34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
While these commands from Jesus are beautiful and wonderful, they are abstract enough not to be very helpful for people who want more specific guidelines on what were are supposed to do as disciples (followers) of Jesus. They are more of a broad approach to life rather than a structured instruction manual. This, I believe, is on purpose for two reasons. The first is that as soon as you set down a concrete command for life, someone will create a heartless law out of it. The second is that the details of a life characterized by love will play out different in every individual to one degree or another. Nevertheless, I think for the person hearing Christ’s call, a pragmatic outline of what answering the call is like will be welcomed and helpful, perhaps necessary for some to know how to move forward.
“Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”
This powerful and difficult quote from The Cost of Discipleship sets the framework for how to embark on a life of following Jesus. Using Bonhoeffer’s terms, following Jesus incorporates two parts: discipleship and the living Christ. I see it as two streams of thought or two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, we have obedience. On the other, we have immersion in Christ.
Having faith, we must set out to obey, to live the Christian life. But how? Another way to ask this is “What is God’s will for me?” This question has the power to move us on to great things or to paralyze us in doubt. The first step is not to wait for some manifestation of God in power and glory before we obey, but simply to obey what we can already see clearly. All of us have some aspects of our life we can quickly identify as not quite in line with God’s character or the command to love. Whatever it is, whether bitterness toward someone, an addiction, some continued act of selfishness or disregard for someone else, we can clearly see that we must move to correct it. We may not have a complete picture of what our life is to become, but we can take these steps (whether large or small) toward obedience.
At the same time, we will ultimately not get very far if we neglect the other side of the coin. The other side is where the living Christ plays into our lives. Fortunately for us, Jesus is not dead but alive, and able to interact with and transform us. Immersion in Christ is the key to making the whole thing work. This is where my thoughts on monasticism come to into play. What we call spiritual disciplines are the primary means to immersing ourselves in Christ, unifying us with the Spirit of God. Consistent prayer, reading and meditating on Scripture, solitude, self examination, being in and seeking God’s presence. These are all integral parts of connecting with God so that the Spirit can transform our hearts and minds into being like Jesus. These are the individual practices, but there are necessary community practices as well. We are commanded to “love one another,” which is logically impossible if we never come in contact with others. We need to serve each other, speak into each other’s life, and allow trusted fellow disciples in so they can help us along the way. The spiritual practices that shape this part include communion, worship, confession, encouragement, generosity, and honesty both when it’s pleasant and when it’s hard.
Once again, these practices are the tools we use for the goal of immersing ourselves in Jesus. Chris Leonardo once said this to me regarding these practices: “Making the effort to maintain spiritual practices carries little cost, for when we fail, we learn, and when we succeed, we find God.” We might struggle to keep these disciplines, and we don’t need to feel guilty. We just need to keep trying, and when we succeed, we encounter Jesus in a way that transforms us, empowering us to keep going.
By immersing ourselves in Christ through these practices, we are transformed, which gives us a heart and mind that are closer to Jesus’ heart and mind. The result of that change is that we will see more of what needs to change in our lives, adding to the list of clearly seen things to obey. In this way the two streams inform each other. Obeying clears away some of the hindrances to immersion in Christ, and immersing ourselves in Christ clarifies our sight with regard to ourselves and our lives. Of course, these processes are not alternating endeavors. I don’t obey so that I can then experience Christ, then experience Christ to help me obey. They have to happen simultaneously. If you wait to do one before you undertake the other, you will never get anywhere.
While I have attempted to give some practical principles, the details remain abstract because each person has different struggles and places for growth in which to obey. Each person will find God in slightly different ways and through different spiritual practices, though we all ought to participate in some of them, others may only be helpful for some people and maybe only for a time. I could also go further into what kinds of obedience and how the various disciplines connect with this whole process, and maybe I will later on, but these are the basic ideas of what I have been thinking about. I hope this discussion (which has turned out longer than I anticipated) makes sense and is helpful for taking the next steps for someone. I know that it has helped me make an important transition in my own approach to following Jesus, and though I have certainly not mastered the process, it is a beginning for me as I attempt to be a more complete disciple of Jesus.
Be sure to read up on Aaron’s perspective on our conversation here.