The Slow Trod of Christian Discipleship
“The Christian life is a long obedience in the same direction.” -Eugene Peterson
I can recall many people that have come in and out of my life; and in them I have seen traits that I have admired. I can recall public figures that seem to have a complete dominance of their craft, or seem to be professionally skilled in one area or another. And I have admired them.
I can remember sitting in countless sermons, listening to the Preacher, and thinking, “I want to preach like that one day.”
But, I can also remember that alongside my admiration of those various individuals, was a jealousy for what they had; and I was frustrated that I did not have it.
I didn’t just want to preach like those men “one day.” I wanted to preach like them now!
I didn’t just want to be strong, healthy, well-spoken, admired, calm under pressure, reassuring, etc. “one day.” I wanted to be all those things “now.”
“If they could do it, so could I. If they can be strong and mature, so could I. And I can obviously do it right now.” … or so I thought.
One of the fundamental aspects of strength and maturity—and yet one of the most overlooked— is time. We’ve all heard the old saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” but do we really take such truths to heart? Do we truly reflect on the fact that things take time. Maturity, strength, sturdiness, health…these things all develop over time. They just don’t happen at once.
If I went to the gym for a solid week, lifted weights and ran on the treadmill everyday, and at the end of the week asked the gym manager why I wasn’t seeing results, he or she would say, “You haven’t given it enough time.”
There are other factors to consider: Diet, sleep, personal habits, etc. But, time is a big piece. Change happens over time.
Discipleship is a Slow Trod.
While it was right that I noticed and admired strong character traits in others, my ignorance kept me from seeing how they had achieved those traits.
I could see the fruits of maturity in their lives, but I failed to consider the biblical reality that God works in our lives over time to make us into different people.
What I saw was a man who could rightly handle the Word of Truth, was powerful in the pulpit, and was esteemed by his peers. What I failed to consider were the countless hours of study and preparation over a lifetime of ministry; the long hours of reading books and writing papers; the many hundreds or thousands of sermons delivered already; and the numerous failures and flops that, no doubt, litter the road of his past.
In my ignorance, I just assumed this is who the man had always been.
This is where we get ourselves into trouble, especially in our Christian walks. We can just assume everybody is who they are. And here’s what I mean: We can easily assume people are [presently] who they have always been. And we can also assume that who they are now is who they always will be. We often fail to take the process of time and change into account.
I’ve heard it said that most people overestimate what they can do in a year, and under-estimate what they can do in 5 years.
We want things fast, we want them now, and we don’t like waiting.
But discipleship is a long-game. God is in it for the long-haul. At the moment of salvation, we are justified in His sight forever because of Jesus, and then He sets about changing us…and it's usually a long, slow journey.
On the whole, we need a better understanding of sanctification. While there are numerous ways to define this word, the most simplistic is just to say, “the process through which God changes us to be more and more like Jesus.”
To be sanctified means that God the Holy Spirit has breathed faith into our hearts, He has given us a desire to repent of our sins and trust in Jesus, and now we are learning how to follow Him. The Holy Spirit is at work within our hearts and minds making us holy.
Key word: Making; as in, process/time/ not all at once.
David Powlison gives a really helpful explanation saying,
“Becoming more holy does not mean that you become [super-spiritual], ghostly, and detached from the storms of life. It means you are becoming a wiser human being. You are learning how to deal well with your money, your sexuality, your job. You are becoming a better friend and family member. When you talk, your words communicate good sense, more gravitas, more joy, more reality. You are learning to pray honestly, bringing Who God is to the reality of human need.” (14).
Sanctification is a beautiful process where God is at work teaching us His Word; but not just in our minds. He is teaching His Word in our hearts, our emotions, our words, our feelings, our anxieties, our failures, our fears, our hopes, and our dreams.
God intends that every single part of our lives be shaped by His good and perfect Word.
Sanctification looks like a husband that intentionally steers clear of an unnecessary argument with his wife because he's been down that road before. He knows that no good thing comes from unnecessary battles. He knows that "his anger doesn't produce God's righteousness" (James 1:19). He knows "a harsh word stirs up envy, but a kind word turns away wrath" (Prov. 15:1)
That’s what sanctification is. And that’s why it takes time. We have a lot of parts to our lives. We are complex beings. But God is patient. He gives grace for the task. He partners with us and leads the way.
An Illuminating Story
In the Gospel of Mark, we find a helpful story from Jesus’ life that makes this point for us in an incredibly vivid way. And Jesus does it for the very purpose we are talking about.
In Mark 8:22-25 we read,
“And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
One thing to note from this story. Jesus opened the man’s eyes progressively. He didn’t fail the first time. He was acting with purpose.
And just outside of our view in this story stand Jesus’ twelve disciples, watching. Jesus has been teaching them all sorts of things about the Kingdom of God, the mission of the Messiah, and more. And while they are excited about all of it, they don’t yet fully comprehend all of it.
So in this story, while Jesus is actually meeting the physical need of a blind man, He is also teaching the twelve—and you and I—about how our spiritual eyes come to see Him clearly.
In our sin, we are blind to God and the things of God. It is only through the work of God that our eyes are opened; but we will never see things clearly until God works it all out in our lives.
This would take another couple of years for the disciples to comprehend and understand. And even then, they would spend the rest of their lives growing in their understanding of it.
Spiritual maturity doesn’t just happen all at once, no matter how hard we try. It happens over time as the Lord Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, opens the eyes of our hearts and minds to His Truth.
Most people overestimate how quickly they will mature as a Christian, and most under-estimate how radically and fully God will change them over a lifetime.
One of the things we see in the disciples' lives is that the more they grew in holiness, the stronger and sturdier they became in their faith, the smaller they became in their own eyes. And that’s how it works.
One of the marks of my own sanctification is the ability to reflect on my younger years, and the ignorance and arrogance that accompanied my thoughts about others. And, not that ignorance and arrogance are totally gone from my life, but I have come to see not only how those brothers and sisters became who they are, I can now recognize my need for Jesus to do the same work in me.
Day by day, Christians are changing, becoming more like Jesus. Some days, the changes are visible, and some days they aren’t. But He‘s at work.
And He’s doing it slowly, and patiently…and that’s a good thing.