The Problem With Discipleship Nobody Talks About

Nobody accidentally grows in Christ.
Nobody accidentally grows in Christ. (Lightstock )

No one accidentally grows in Christ.

There won't ever be a day when you or I or anyone wakes up one morning and, much to our surprise, we exclaim, "Well how about that! Looks like I'm really mature as a follower of Jesus!"

Instead, discipleship is a series of intentional steps we take, day in and day out, toward following Jesus more and more. But those steps we take must be held in tension with the fact that we have no power to transform ourselves into the image of God's Son; that this transformation is the work of God. 

This, of course, leaves us with both a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of questioning. 

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The Tension of Discipleship Described in Scripture

We know we have some responsibility in our own discipleship, much less that of others, and yet we also know that we are dependent on the Lord to do what only He can do.

This is the tension that the apostle Paul articulated in Philippians 2:12-13:

"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but so much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the One working in you, both to will and to do His good pleasure." 

Paul felt it too. He made no apologies that we must work out our salvation; indeed, the verb tenses of the passage indicate the rigorous nature of this work, that it's ongoing and steady. And yet he also recognized that it's God alone who works in us. For Paul, and for us, we work out what God works in.

Maybe an illustration will help us resolve the tension. 

How to Resolve the Tension of Discipleship

Think about it in terms of different kinds of boats.

Think first about a rowboat. A rowboat is active in nature. The distance you travel in a rowboat is linked exclusively to your effort. If you can pull those oars enough times, you could travel all the way across a lake. If you get tired, the movement forward stops.

That's way different than a bass boat. A bass boat is built for speed. You turn the key, the motor tumbles to life, and away you go. There's no effort on your part; all you do is hold onto the steering wheel for dear life.

Christians tend to approach discipleship in one of these two ways. The rowboat Christian is the one who believes that his or her spiritual growth is exclusively about his or her effort. They try and try and try, and then they're exhausted. You can't fault them for their effort, but the downside of that is when they achieve victory, they really have to fight the sense of pride that comes along with it. It's their victory, because they're the ones holding the oars.

Then there are those Christians who want to just "let go and let God." They don't think there is any effort involved in the Christian experience at all, so they don't try hard at anything. Sure, we commend them for their level of faith, and yet their lives might be devoid of personal discipline and seem relatively low on the commitment scale.

The Truth Is Found in the Middle

We're not supposed to live like the rowboat where the result depends exclusively on our muscles. We're not to live like the bass boat, where we just turn the key and hang on for dear life. We are to be like the sailboat.

The forward motion of the sailboat is exclusively reliant on catching the wind. No wind, no motion. And you can't control the wind. You can, however, control the sail. Your job as the sailor is to tie the sail correctly. It's to point the boat in the right direction and raise it up the mast. It's to judge the conditions around you and make the effort necessary so that when the wind does blow, you're ready.

This is where the Christian lives—with the sweat of the brow and the wind blowing freely. We don't transform ourselves, but do make ourselves available for the work of the Spirit of God. We can choose obedience in the little areas of our lives. 

We can spend time meditating on the Word of God. We can practice the spiritual disciplinesWe can pray. We can fast. We can do all of these things and more, and when we do, we are raising the sail. God takes care of it from there.

And then we trust that the Holy Spirit (which incidentally, is literally in Greek "divine wind") to blow through and fill them up.

God only knows where we go from there.

Michael Kelley, M.Div., and his wife, Jana, have three children. He's the executive editor of HomeLife and the Director of Discipleship at LifeWay Christian Resources. His works include his latest release, Boring, Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal and Transformational Discipleship. Keep up with Michael on his blog or on Twitter.

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