Discipleship


I’ve begun taking some of the guys in the fellowship through R. Kent Hughe’s book, Disciplines of a Godly Man.  The introduction has a section giving examples from the world of man regarding the indispensible role of discipline in reaching one’s human potential in merely temporal things – and connects the dots regarding the absolute necessity of it in spiritual things.

Those who have watched Mike Singletary (perennial All-Pro, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and member of the Super Bowl XXV Dream Team) “play” — and have observed his wide-eyed intensity and his churning, crunching samurai hits — are usually surprised when they meet him. He is not an imposing hulk. He is barely six feet tall and weighs, maybe, 220. Whence the greatness? Discipline. Mike Singletary is as disciplined a student of the game as any who have ever played it. In his biography, Calling the Shots, he says that in watching game films he will often run a single play fifty to sixty times, and that it takes him three hours to watch half a football game, which is only twenty to thirty plays! Because he watches every player, because he mentally knows the opposition’s tendency — given the down, distance, hashmark, and time remaining, because he reads the opposition’s mind through their stances, he is often moving toward the ball’s preplanned destination before the play develops. Mike Singletary’s legendary success is testimony to his remarkably disciplined life.

We are accustomed to thinking of Ernest Hemingway as a boozy, undisciplined genius who got through a quart of whiskey a day for the last twenty years of his life but nevertheless had the muse upon him. He was indeed an alcoholic driven by complex passions. But when it came to writing, he was the quintessence of discipline! His early writing was characterized by obsessive literary perfectionism as he labored to develop his economy of style, spending hours polishing a sentence, or searching for the mot juste—the right word. It is  a well-known fact that he rewrote the conclusion to his novel A Farewell to Arms seventeen times in an effort to get it right. This is characteristic of great writers. Dylan Thomas made over two hundred handwritten(!) manuscript versions of his poem “Fern Hill.” Even toward the end, when Hemingway was reaping the ravages of his lifestyle, while writing at his Finca Vigia in Cuba he daily stood before an improvised desk in oversized loafers on yellow tiles from 6:30 a.m. until noon every day, carefully marking his production for the day on a chart. His average was only two pages — five hundred words. It was discipline, Ernest Hemingway’s massive literary discipline, which transformed the way his fellow Americans, and people throughout the English-speaking world, expressed themselves.

Michelangelo’s, da Vinci’s, and Tintoretto’s multitudes of sketches, the quantitative discipline of their work, prepared the way for the cosmic quality of their work. We wonder at the anatomical perfection of a da Vinci painting. But we forget that Leonardo da Vinci on one occasion drew a thousand hands. In the last century Matisse explained his own mastery, remarking that the difficulty with many who wanted to be artists is that they spend their time chasing models rather than painting them.6 Again the discipline factor!

In our own time Winston Churchill has been rightly proclaimed the speaker of the century, and few who have heard his eloquent speeches would disagree. Still fewer would suspect he was anything but a “natural.” But the truth is, Churchill had a distracting lisp which made him the butt of many jokes and resulted in his inability to be spontaneous in public speaking. Yet he became famous for his speeches and his seemingly impromptu remarks.

Actually, Churchill wrote everything out and practiced it! He even choreographed the pauses and pretended fumblings for the right phrase. The margins of his manuscripts carried notes anticipating the “cheers,” “hear, hears,” “prolonged cheering,” and even “standing ovation.” This done, he practiced endlessly in front of mirrors, fashioning his retorts and facial expressions. F. E. Smith said, “Winston has spent the best years of his life writing impromptu speeches.” A natural? Perhaps. A naturally disciplined hard-working man!

And so it goes, whatever the area of life.

Thomas Edison came up with the incandescent light after a thousand failures.

Jascha Heifitz, the greatest violinist of this century, began playing the violin at the age of three and early began to practice four hours a day until his death at age seventy-five — when he had long been the greatest in the world — some 102,000 hours of practice. He no doubt gave his own “Hear, hear!” to Paderewski’s response to a woman’s fawning remarks about his genius: “Madame, before I was a genius, I was a drudge.”

We will never get anywhere in life without discipline, be it in the arts, business, athletics, or academics. This is doubly so in spiritual matters. In other areas we may be able to claim some innate advantage. An athlete may be born with a strong body, a musician with perfect pitch, or an artist with an eye for perspective. But none of us can claim an innate spiritual advantage. In reality, we are all equally disadvantaged. None of us naturally seeks after God, none is inherently righteous, none instinctively does good (cf. Romans 3:9–18). Therefore, as children of grace, our spiritual discipline is everything — everything!

I repeat … discipline is everything!

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There seems to be a creeping, pervading problem in American Christianity which infects many if not most sectors of the church, and which proves, in my opinion, to be very problematic.

On the one hand, you have an attitude of defeatism, where believers are fixated on their present struggles, despairing of their frailties, and overall hamstrung in their spiritual lives by an over realization of their persistent sinfulness.  These poor saints really do love the Lord, really do want to live lives pleasing to Him, really do want to see Him lifted high…but feel very deeply and very powerfully that they are completely disqualified from ever seeing Him glorified in their lives, convinced that He’s only tolerating them because He promised to take “whomsoever will,” and that if He would have thought that one through a bit more before saying it, He would have added the proviso, “except for that guy.  I mean, come on…just look at him.  Can you believe he calls himself a Christian?  Hey, Mike, Gabe…I’m a bit busy over here in the galactic core taking care of Sagittarius A* – can you just reach down and zap him for Me real quick in retaliation for his even trying to ask Me into his life, eh?  Thanks, guys.”

The Christian life for these poor saints is not a joy, it is a misery.  True, it’s less a misery than knowing for sure that they’re lost, still dead in their sins back in the world; but it’s a drudgery nonetheless because they are never sure that God has really forgiven them, that He’s really accepted them, and that He really delights in them.  They get it that the way of the transgressor is hard, but that’s the entire problem for them – because they are painfully aware of their own persistent sinfulness, they never really draw into God, never really experience the peace of God, and so when hard things inevitably come into their lives, they become increasingly convinced that this is simply further proof that they may just in fact still be reprobate, may in fact not truly be saved – that they may in fact still be transgressors in the essential sense.  All of which leads to spiritual melancholy – and outright depression.

These poor saints are trapped by defeatism, caused by an over-focus on their practice rather than their position.  Their hearts and eyes are firmly fixed on the fact that they are still mired in their own flesh, that they continue to live less than God’s best, that they continue to sin.  And though most wouldn’t say that their salvation is in any way dependent upon their performance, though most readily admit that the Bible clearly teaches that salvation is based entirely on Jesus’ FINISHED work for them on the cross, in practice they really aren’t sure of it at some deep, perhaps even subliminal level.  They want to draw near to God, they want to experience His grace and His peace…but they are so very painfully aware that they very much do not deserve it that they are hindered from ever really resting in His finished work for them.

Their symptoms point to a single diagnosis:  Their focus is on their practice, to the downplaying or outright ignoring of their position.  The indicated treatment: meditating on what the Bible says of who they are and where they are in Christ, meditating on the fact that Jesus is infinitely mightier than their own fallenness.  Jesus has conquered their sin at the Cross, and when He took the cup of the Father’s wrath for their sin, He drained it to the dregs, so that there is nothing left for them to atone for once they have called on Him for mercy.

And that yes, it “took” the first time they asked Jesus to forgive them.  No, they’re not on probation.  Yes, I’m really, really sure.  Here’s Ephesians; let’s study that deeply for a while, eh?

triumphOn the other side of the problem, however, you find the equal-but-opposite problem – and it can be even more of a doozy than the first.  On that side of the equation, you have a pervasive (and, quite honestly, very odiously arrogant) attitude of triumphalism.  The problem here is an over-focus on position, to the downplaying or outright ignoring or denying of practice.

Here on the Glorious West Coast of Michgan, I deal with a lot of saints who struggle powerfully with spiritual defeatism.   I have had to continually remind these precious saints that the issue was decided at the Cross, and that they need to take their eyes off their own selves and turn them to Jesus and His finished work for them.I have recently, however, been seeing an uptick in the instance of Christians who are walking in an obnoxious species of triumphalism.  Whereas the defeatist Christian never fully experiences the awesome peace and grace of God because of their awareness of and over-focus on their own frailty, the triumphalist insists that no, he is not acting in the flesh, because He is hidden in Christ, so back off, bub…while he is, in fact, very much operating in the flesh.

For these saints, the very deep and abiding problem is that they never come to terms with the fact that they are still prone to sin.  Sure, they admit that they struggle, that they make mistakes, that they still sin in a very general sense…but it’s not as bad as all that, you see, because they are saints, after all.  What this leads to is a tendency to be very quick to dispense correction to others…but to be invincibly closed to receiving correction themselves.

The defeatist saint is crippled with stunted spiritual growth due to an inability to enter into the rest of the Lord; the triumphalist saint is crippled with stunted spiritual growth due to an inability to see their own very real fallibility, and therefore an inability ex post facto to deal with their flesh – since what they deny has any real, pervasive force they likewise deny really needs to be dealt with.

Here’s how that manifests:  A triumphalist saint walks in pride, is critical of others, is lax with regard to personal holiness, but claims to be mature, has a vaunted view of his own spirituality, and feels unduly entitled to the deference which is due them their position, absent any real substantive reason for said deference (and, in fact, in the presence of real, substantive reasons for withholding such).

A defeatist wearily toils under the impossible burden of self-condemnation, and any critique of his walk with the Lord tends simply to confirm that self-condemnation and increase his burden.  A triumphalist will critique you on your walk with the Lord, but will react very badly when you return the favor.

We came face-to-face with this phenomenon recently; an individual that my lovely and gracious wife and I are peripherally familiar with acted in a very inappropriate manner and needed to be rebuked, which set off the proverbial fireworks.  When confronted with the inconsistency of his claim to be a godly, mature spiritual leader, he immediately responded that he was highly offended that his godly, mature spirituality would ever be called into question – he was, after all, filled with the Spirit, called holy and a saint, and had been given victory in Jesus.

He could not see – could not see – the gross inconsistency between his position and his practice…and therefore could not see that that very dissonance is something that needs to be addressed.

As Martin Luther’s famous restating of James’ great maxim puts it:

We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.

The triumphalist would likely never consciously contradict Luther…but his actions and attitudes stand in as sufficient contradiction nonetheless.

The defeatist cannot bring himself to claim any of the blessings of God for his life, so wracked with guilt as he is.  The triumphalist claims those blessings and more, demands them even due to his position, and does so while subtly or flagrantly living contrary to the God who desires in all cases to bestow such blessings.  He feels no particular need to live according to the responsibilities of his position, while seeking to enjoy the rights and privileges of it.

In both cases, true spiritual growth is greatly hindered, true spiritual maturity is denied, true fellowship with God and man remains unrealized.

The answer to both extremes is a remarkably simple one:  To realize both my position and my practice matter, to acknowledge that my standing before the Lord is wholly dependent upon my position, and the Spirit’s great work in my life this side of the veil isn’t so much to bestow upon me His spectacular gifts of prophecy, healing, and tongues (though He obviously does that), but rather more so to incrementally bring my practice into harmony with my position, and that the two sides to the same issue are utterly inseparable.

To the defeatist, the Bible’s encouragement is to fully trust in Christ and His finished work for you.  Your standing before God, and His favor towards you, is not in the least measure based on your performance, but on your simply trusting in that finished work.  You are secure in Jesus, because He carried your sin on His Person to the hill of Calvary, all of it, suffered the full and unmediated wrath of the Father for that sin, and forever secured your salvation and right standing with God.  He did all of this alone, and He did it infallibly.  You cannot ever improve on His finished work by your penitence, your self-improvement, or your anything; He did it all, He paid it all, and now in return for your simple faith He gives you all.  Enter into the rest and joy of your Lord, for this is His great desire, and this is what pleases Him, not your doomed efforts at reformation.  Your simple, child-like faith in His mercy and grace won for you at the Cross, and nothing else.  As the hymn of the faith says:

Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Therefore, you can rebuke the whisper of the enemy in your heart which says that the Father is displeased with you, that you do not measure up, that you are utterly unworthy of the least of His mercies.  With the exception of the first part, the rest is all true!  And so what?  Even so, God is forever pleased with you, because of Jesus, and since you are hidden in Him, and He does measure up, and He is worthy, so are you.

Don’t rest on how you feel, rest on what He says!

Don’t wait until you “get”  it or “understand” it – you never will!  Instead, rejoice in it by faith – which is the very principle by which we are called to live in the first place, not by merit or performance.  Simply faith!

To the triumphalist, the Bible’s admonition is to remember that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble – and that the essence of humility is to have a right and sober view of oneself.

Which includes the concept of not thinking of oneself more highly than he ought to think, in fact, of thinking of others as as being better than oneself.

Paul puts it like this:

Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.

Understand also, dear trumphalist, that although it is indeed true that your standing before God isn’t based on your performance, your life still matters to God, and He expects you to live it for Him – which includes the idea of daily crucifying your flesh…which in turn directly implies that your flesh requires daily crucifying!  Keep in mind that Romans 7 appears before Romans 8 – by design, not simply by logical necessity.  The same Apostle who speaks in the present tense and includes himself in the triumphs and glories of the eight chapter, speaks in the present tense and includes himself in the struggles and setbacks of the seventh chapter.  John, agreeing with Paul, in the same epistle in which he declares that the true believer cannot {continue in} sin, also is very painfully clear that the believer can never be completely free of sin this side of the veil, and must determine to struggle against sin.

Therefore, you must be open to the same correction you are quick to apply to others.

You must recognize that though what you do does not save you, your salvation necessarily changes what you do.  Yes, you are blessed beyond the curse because of Jesus, but you are supposed to, therefore, live in real blessing, not simply demand it.  Yes, you are eternally righteous in Jesus; therefore, live like it.  Yes, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise; therefore, give evidence of that sealing by a life lived in humble joy before God and man.

As Martin Luther has said:

The true, living faith, which the Holy Spirit instills into the heart, simply cannot be idle.

…which is really another way to restate James:

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

Both Christian defeatism and Christian triumphalism are extremes of Christian thinking and attitude which are combatted by a proper perspective:  My position is eternally secure in Christ, my standing with God is based on His finished work, and so my practice, which does not determine my standing, is however daily to be brought more and more in line with that exalted position, by the grace and working of the Spirit.

The Chalcedon Foundation (a Reconstructionist concern) publishes a bimonthly magazine dealing with various issues of the Christian faith.  In the most recent issue, author Martin Selbrede writes a very interesting article, The Cost Of Discipleship, in which he makes the very intriguing argument that the modern discipleship movement – indeed, the very concept of “discipleship” as much of the modern church takes it – is actually antithetical to that Christian liberty which Christ died to procure, and in reality short-circuits the sanctifying work which the Holy Spirit Himself desires to bring about in the believer’s life.

The gist of the evangelical push for accountability is horizontal accountability. This push is a major factor in many ministries in which believers are advised to hold one another accountable for various aspects of their Christian walk. An implicit distrust of the Holy Spirit’s office of sanctifying the believer lies behind this push. The Spirit may be sent to convict the world of sin and of righteousness, but evangelicals feel He needs a little help—He’s just not quite omnipotent enough, you see, and so men need to fill in what’s missing. Just as we have many new precepts of men rushing in to fill the vacuum that results when God’s commandments are tossed out, even so we have many new sanctifying agents rushing in to fill the gap when God’s Holy Spirit is judged inadequate to perfect the saints in holiness.

The pattern is all too clear: just as many evangelicals are dead-set on being lawmakers on God’s behalf, many more are committed to becoming little holy ghosts for their brothers and sisters. One’s “accountability partner” becomes a surrogate for the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit’s work is usurped. This is a way “that seemeth right to a man.”

The dominant focus in Scripture is that men and women are accountable to God. Accountability is fundamentally vertical. As David put it so directly after being implicated in the death of Uriah the Hittite, “against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). This idea grates on human pride and pomposity, but it is God’s law, not man’s law, that is being broken. We are to inculcate the fear of God, the vertical relationship, in others. But we undercut this because accountability partners subconsciously act out of fear of man. Our motivation in these relationships takes an unconscious turn: “I’m doing this because I don’t want to look bad to my accountability partner.” God holds us all accountable. Nothing ought ever to pull our eyes down from heaven, from Him with Whom we have to do, to worry about our fellow man’s opinion of us. We ought to worry about what God thinks of us. “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12; see also 1 Pet. 4:5).

Accountability partnering puts man back in front of a human audience, inviting us to operate in terms of that new relational dynamic instead of in terms of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power and quickening of His law-word to our minds and hearts.

I can excuse the author’s compulsive jab at non-Calvinists (“We would expect this kind of thinking among Arminian believers who repose much weight in the actions of man as opposed to the operations of God, but the idea is rampant among Calvinists who have temporarily lost sight of the fact that God controls sanctification as much as any other aspect of our lives.”) given that he is a Calvinist, and as such is characteristically incapable of viewing other theologies in anything less than hubristic contempt.  Don’t let that rob you of the meat of what he has to say.

Overall, I find myself very intrigued with his arguments…not sure if I buy them completely, but fascinating nonetheless.

One of the things that characterizes a shepherd is that he smells like the sheep.

That is, he spends his life with them. He knows them, lives among them, shares their joys, sorrows, even grief. When one is hurting, he’s there to help and heal. When one is sick, he tends to it. When the flock is hungry, he searches diligently and leads them to good pastures.

It’s no surpise that the Biblical image the Holy Spirit chooses for pastors is that of shepherds.

And it’s particularly the joy of the small church pastor that he really has no choice but to “smell like the sheep.” The bigger-church dudes can add layers of interference betwixt themselves and them smelly sheep them thar… but the small church pastor doesn’t have that luxury option. He is in the thick of it with them.

But that’s not always a joy. Sometimes, especially when the sheep are deeply wounded, he gets bled on, then bitten, by the bewildered sheep.

In our tiny yet small fellowship here on the lakeshore, 2007 has been a particularly painful year for a number of our families. For one family in particular, it has turned out to be the worst year of their lives. And it all came to a head the week before Christmas, when the husband discovered that his wife had been unfaithful to him. Through much counseling, and praying, and venting, and tears, the marriage has since disintegrated. But the sheep still hurts, and hurts deeply.

So much so, that he’s at the point of walking away from the Lord.

It’s heartrending, to watch a sheep, in spite of multiplied myriads of warnings, walk right over to and begin to leap off of the cliff on the edge of oblivion.

Some thoughts, though, that have arisen through this all:

  • If my walk with the Lord is based on whether or not I get anything out of it, I’m not really serving Him – I’m really serving my own interests.
  • If my walk with the Lord is based on the faithfulness of others, I’m not really serving Him.
  • If my service to the Lord is based on any outward perk, reward, “attaboy,” or external criterion (like, oh say, numbers), I’m not really serving Him, but my own interests
  • If I serve Jesus for any motive less than absolute devotion to Him no matter the cost, no matter what He calls me to go through, no matter the consequence or result, I’m not only not really serving Him – I also won’t stay the course.

If there’s anything that can cause me to give up and throw in the towel, that is what I will inevitably face.

Tonight, I’ve felt more like throwing in the towel than I have for a long, long time.

But I can’t.

I don’t have that option.

And realizing that, I find His peace…


UPDATE:
The brother I mention above is doing better, and has asked for the men of the fellowship to lay hands on him and pray over him (which will happen this coming Sunday). I have no desire to go into any detail as to what he’s been called to endure this last year, but just suffice it to say, it’s been a particularly bad time for him and his family.

He’d sent me an e-mail today, with the following:

It has been a tough year and I am not out of the woods yet but I am in the word and learning to trust more in the Lord every day. In you blog just have people pray for our family.

So I’d like to ask both my readers to pray for the wounded brother – and especially for his children. Always when things like this happen, it’s the kids who get the most deeply hurt.

Great food for thought here.

This is great. Much as I wax narcoleptic at the repetitively redundant phrase, “Gospel-Driven Church,” which is just as redundant as “Born-Again Christian” (is there any other kind…?), this post of new theses for the modern church is utterly, utterly priceless. I’m printing them out and putting them in our church bulletin over the next few Sundays (which is rather apropos, given that we’re going through the Seven Letters to the Seven Churches)…

BTW… kudos to y’all who got the oblique reference to the seminal Depeche Mode single, in this blogpost’s title, there.

Also, kudos to Mike Newnham, who I borrowed/stole this from – he posted on it first.

I say “kudos” because I haven’t a clue what “HT” is supposed to mean. I’ve been trying to figure that out after seeing it on blog after blog after blog…

  • Here There…?
  • Hot Tuesday…?
  • High Tower…?
  • Hyper Thread…?
  • Hren and Thtimpy…?
  • Hoopie Thloopie…?

…hence, “kudos”, which definition I know.

My personal favorites from the list:

10. If the entirety of your churchy desires consists of filling a seat to experience a good service, you are not a congregant in a church but a consumer at a concert.

11. What you win people with is what you win them to.
Win people with flash, spectacle, presentation, etc., and that’s what you win them to. Don’t be surprised if, like all consumers and what attracts them, they eventually get tired and move on to the next attraction. Don’t be surprised if, provided they remain, they continually request more, better, higher . . . (Mike: Boy, ain’t that the truth…

17. A church’s success should be neither entirely nor primarily measured by its attendance. Also, a church’s growth should not be entirely or primarily measured numerically. (Mike: The author qualifies this in the next thesis so that you “Church Fruitfulness Is Nickels And Noses” types who are begining to infec–er, enter the Calvary Movement don’t get too bent out-of-shape…)

Good stuff. Read the post.


UPDATE: BrianD, of From The Ashes, has clued me in that “HT” means “Hat Tip.”

Sweet. My knowledge groweth. Soon, I can take over the wor—-er, what’s that, Pinky…? Snarf…

Read this blogpost by an ECM church planter regarding the increasingly pretentious overuse in ECM circles (and Evangelicalism in general) of the wildly popular, hep-cat-yo-dog-g*money Dilbertism, “missional.”

He’s dead right.

The term has long since lost its meaning – much like the term “evangelical” – or even “Gospel”.

True discipleship – which is not an option for men & women who name the Name of the King – demands living out what you say you believe in the highways and byways of life – which is really what the original thrust of the term “missional” was supposed to recapture (as far as I, as an ECM outsider, can tell).

Anyway, good post.

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