Thursday, July 5, 2012

Discipling young Christians

One of my true passions as a Christian is in discipleship of young people. I did not really plan it this way, I just looked up one day and realized God had arranged my life in such a way: I coach youth basketball, volunteer at the local university to help set the engineering curriculum and provide resume coaching for students, and am part of the teaching team for the youth at our church.

A few months ago, during a church men’s retreat, we studied the book of 2 Peter. One passage (2 Peter 1:5-8) has stuck in my mind ever since as a good general outline for discipleship of a young Christian. In this passage, Peter has been talking about God’s promise that we get to partake in His divine nature and escape from the corruption of sinful desires. Peter then says:

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfasteness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Pet 1:5-8, ESV

Let’s break down this passage as a roadmap for discipleship.

Foundation: Discipleship isn’t about being better loved by God, it is about being more effective for Him.

First, let us set our foundation. As we see in verse 8, failure to grow in these principles does not cause God to cast you off or fail to love you, nor does it damage your relationship with Him. These are not things that you do to gain more acceptance from Him, or to secure your salvation. Rather, Peter says that growing in these principles (which make you a better disciple of Christ) helps you to become effective and fruitful as a servant of Christ.

It is reminiscent of 2 Timothy 3:15-17, in which we are told that the purpose of Scripture is first to help us toward salvation and love of Christ, and then second to help equip us to do good works on His behalf. Being saved and justified before God is a separate action, and from that point we are then equipped through Scripture and the Holy Spirit to do good works – the good works are secondary and an output from our justification, not an input which leads to our justification.

As I frequently point out on this blog, it is critical that you understand the foundational principle that doing good works is not what gains you God’s love or grace; His grace is freely given and unearned (and un-earnable) by you. But growing closer to Christ as a disciple and doing good works is what helps you to be effective as His servant. We sinners saved by grace are given the honor to bring glory to Christ’s name; discipleship is the process of teaching you how to do this effectively. Churches too often teach discipleship or living a “Christian” lifestyle not so that we will be effective, but as a method of defining whether you are pleasing to God; this is not at all a Biblical concept.

So make no mistake: the foundation of discipleship starts by accepting that your actions have absolutely nothing to do with your status before God. They will not make you more loved if you do them right, or less loved if you do them wrong. They will not affect your security in God’s salvation plan. You do good works not to help yourself, but to help others by being a vessel of God’s glory.

Discipleship is the process of becoming effective, efficient, and fruitful in our service to the Lord.

Prerequisite: Faith.

The pre-requisite of discipleship is that you must already be a believer in Christ. Again, the purpose is not to simply make you do good works; many unbelievers do good works, and the world is better off for their presence. That is not what this passage is about whatsoever. When Peter says “supplement your faith with…”, he is assuming that his readers already have faith in Christ and loyalty to His cause. This is the prerequisite which happens before any of this passage applies.

As a result, it makes little sense to talk about making someone a better disciple of Christ until after they have first are believers in Christ. It must begin with salvation, and then proceed into discipleship afterward.

Discipleship Step 1: Virtue

“supplement your faith with virtue…”

The word for “virtue”, arete, means “moral excellence” or purity. It means trying to root out the major sins in your life. Of course this will be an ongoing process for the rest of your life, but the first step as a Christian invariably is trying to clean up whatever sinful addictions you have. Again, remember our foundational point: you were saved in your sin and in spite of your sins (past, present, and future): this process of rooting out your sins and addictions is not required for your justification, but it is a necessary step in Christian growth toward effectiveness.

Romans 7 shows us what will happen if our attempts to clean up our lives are based upon our own effort (spoiler alert: you will end up doing things you wish you did not do). But if we can just get out of God’s way, He will work in us to bring about the changes that need to happen.

Understanding this principle frees you to actually work on improving your virtue without any concern that failure somehow affects your relationship to God. You cannot be swayed from His love, so you need not fear failure. Instead, you can focus on “trying softer”, as John Ortberg would say: praying to get better, and getting out of the way of what God is trying to do, thus allowing Him to come through and clean out your life. Because it is not based upon your effort or willpower, it will be a process which, if you let it, can happen quite organically.

This is not to say, though, that it will be painless. As CS Lewis once said, when God gets inside of you, He starts making you into the person He wants—which might not be what you had in mind. So He will start knocking out the walls in your house and rebuilding the house the way He desires. Such changes in lifestyle may be painful and difficult. But surrendering to the higher power of Christ is the only way to be sure that your addictions to sinful lifestyles will be cleared up.

So this is always our first step, to let Jesus have control with cleaning up the messes we have made with our lives, not through our willpower but through getting out of the way of His willpower. This may involve AA meetings or NA meetings or counseling. It may require a dramatic change of lifestyle in terms of who you hang out with or what kind of activities you partake in. It may require that you break up with a girlfriend/boyfriend or quit your job or move. Sometimes it can be that dramatic. Sometimes it is much less so: being more honest at work or stopping that slight fudging on your taxes or being a better father or husband.

Whatever the method, if you wish to be an effective servant of Christ, then after coming to faith this is your first key step—to take a sort of “sin inventory” and then pray that God will give you the wisdom of what needs to change. Then you have to get out of His way and let Him do the work in you.

Step 2: Knowledge

“and virtue with knowledge…”

Step 1, sadly, is where most Christian churches stop, particularly in the evangelical world today. We focus on getting someone saved and cleaning up their lives a bit (too often through self-help messages and “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” type preaching). But then we stop. Rarely do they take the next step: to teach the knowledge of God.
I have sat, stunned, in churches before as I have heard preachers say that church members don’t really need to understand any theology, just meditate on a verse or two a day (completely without context) and then live a good life. Really? How then do you explain, well, a good portion of the New Testament? All of Paul’s letters were theological in nature. So were Peter’s. So were John’s. In fact, everything in the Bible can be rightly divided into either “historical narratives” (such as the Gospels/Acts), “poetry/wisdom about God” (such as the psalms and proverbs), or theology (such as the epistles of the New Testament). If you wish to cut out theology, you must ignore a good portion of the Bible’s intent.

Is it any surprise that the Bible is, as some have said, our most cherished unread book? Is it surprising that most Christians cannot even tell you where to find the Sermon on the Mount, much less what it teaches?

Why has the American church been so ineffective at changing our culture? I believe that it is largely because we consider the process of discipleship complete if we have brought someone to faith in Christ and cleaned up their lives a bit. We never progress beyond Step 1, and then wonder why we fail to live out Jesus’ calling as a church body.

Step two is the teaching of knowledge, gnosis, an understanding of the hidden mysteries of our faith. This is about understanding the core doctrines of what we believe.

I am not saying that everyone needs to be a seminarian, far from it. Nor am I saying that youth discipleship has to be all serious and book-learning. But I do believe that we sell our youth very, very short in terms of what they can handle theologically. We take young men and women who are learning calculus and physics and chemistry, and then pretend as though they cannot handle any message deeper than, “God is love.” Ridiculous.

For the saved Christian, after cleaning up your life a bit and getting serious about Christianity, the next step is to start growing in the knowledge of Christ. What does our faith actually teach? I think of it basically as the 25 points on my “Essentials” page. The path to discipleship should lead any Christian to the ability to share these 25 beliefs and at least at some level, why they believe them.

This understanding, by the way, will help them to be able to retain their faith through challenges. One of the great tragedies of modern youth ministry is that we fail to teach any actual theological concepts or show any of the actual reason or logic behind our faith. We avoid this out of fear of alienating kids. But then these kids go to college and they will hear, in detail, every bit of the materialistic philosophies of our day. So given the choice between a faith which was never grounded in reason to them, and a new philosophy that is widely accepted and is grounded in reason, which will they choose?

If our youth do not understand the reasonability of their faith, many will not be able to withstand the attacks of the materialistic and atheistic philosophies with which they will be presented in college. The best case for such people is that they will be ineffective believers; the worst case is that they will not be believers at all.

Step 3: Self-Control

“and knowledge with self-control…”

So as we take our young people and we see them living basically a “good” lifestyle and growing in knowledge of Christ, what is our next step? Self-control.

Self-control is a hard one. I could argue that of all the fruits of a spiritual life, this is the one most rarely demonstrated by American Christians. Self-control is the ability to master your passions and desires, holding them within reasonable boundaries.

This means that your very good desire for sex will be held within its correct boundaries: within the context of a loving marriage. No sex before marriage. No sex outside of marriage. No pornography. No lust.

This means that your very good desire for food will be held within its correct boundaries: as a method of nourishing your body and enjoying the fruit of this world. No gluttony. No anorexia. No bulimia. No “sweet tooth” that cannot be resisted. No drunkenness.

This means that your very good desire to live righteously is held within its correct boundaries: as a method of growing closer to God. No judgmentalism of others. No self-righteous piety. No zealous condemnation.

This means that your very good desire to enjoy life is held within its correct boundaries: as a method of loving Christ and enjoying your relationship with Him. No self-centeredness. No foolish pursuit of short-term happiness at the expense of long-term joy.

This means that your very good desire to gain wealth is held within its correct boundaries: as a method of providing for your family and for those who could not obtain it. No hoarding of money. No lavish lifestyle. No ethical dilemmas to cheat others to improve your lot in life.

In any area of life, self-control applies. Are you able to take the things that you want to do and slow them down, running them through the filters of “is this wise” and “is this Godly”?

Step 4: Steadfastness

“and self-control with steadfastness…”

Steadfastness, or perseverance (hypomone), in the New Testament is when someone is not swerved from his purpose and loyalty to Christ even by great trials and sufferings. It is the ability to patiently bear the pain and suffering which is constant in this world.

I can think of no better example of this than my good friends, Josh and Julie. They are foster parents, and routinely give of their life and love to children, making them truly a part of their family for weeks or months or even a year in some cases. After all of that love and nurturing, though, they have to give these children back, often into situations which are not healthy for the child. The suffering that they go through when they give their children back is deep and moving and beautiful and painful. I cannot even imagine how they do it; and yet, they do. Indeed, they see it, as Christ said it was, as a blessing not in spite of the suffering but because of it.

I have known other couples who have remained faithful through years of miscarriages and failed adoptions. I have seen people who remained faithful through cancer and natural disaster and the loss of loved ones.

One of my personal heroes, the mathematician Leonhard Euler, once lost the use of his eyes (just the last in a series of tragedies, including having two houses burn down and burying several of his children due to infant mortality). When a skeptic questioned him on how he could believe in a God after losing his eyesight, Euler said, “Now I shall be able to concentrate better.”

Euler was steadfast in his faith, as are my friends Josh and Julie.

Steadfastness is the ability to remain pure and loyal and faithful even when the weight of being exiled into this fallen world becomes overwhelming, when our suffering is at its height. Steadfastness is difficult to demonstrate in any situation; but without faith, virtue, knowledge, and self-control, it becomes virtually impossible.

Step 5: Godliness

“and steadfastness with godliness…”

So we already talked about living with virtue earlier; how is godliness different? Godliness, eusebeia, indicates a reverence, respect, and piety toward God. 1 Ti 2:2 describes this as a “peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified”; in 1 Ti 6:6 it is compared to contentment in life.

Godliness is the point in the Christian life where a person exudes a quiet, peaceful dignity in their faith. They revere God and have a rich faith, one which is patient in difficult situations and filled with love and knowledge of Christ. It is living a life which is in awe of, and always respectful toward, God. It is a life which peacefully relaxes and trusts in God in every moment.

If you are lucky enough to have met Christians like this, consider yourself blessed and spend as much time with them as possible. These are men and women who speak with wisdom and patience, calm and loving and peaceful even when discussing controversial things or great suffering. They are peacemakers and humble and loving and giving. They are not only knowledgeable about God and pious, but able to exhibit self-control in all areas of life.

Step 6: Brotherly affection

“and godliness with brotherly affection…”

Brotherly love, or philadelphia, is the love and cherishing of other Christians. My favorite verse about this is Romans 12:10, where Paul says that brotherly love is a contest to see who can outdo each other in showing more honor to the other one.

Boy, this is a tough one. This means that you can look at the brother or sister in Christ sitting next to you and love them. Really love them. Go out of your way to honor them and tell them how great they are—even if they do not agree with you about your theology.

Let that sink in.

Even if you disagree with how God justifies us, show them honor.

Even if you think that their theology wrongly elevates Mary, show them honor.

Even if you disagree on how old the universe is, show them honor.

Even if you interpret the Bible differently, show them honor.

Even if they are not living a proper lifestyle, show them honor.

Even if they vote for the opposite people that you do, show them honor.

You want people to flood into your church? You want people to really think your church is different? Go out of your way to show each other honor. Make it your church’s goal: a never-ending contest to see who can show the most honor to everyone else.

Step 7: Love

“and brotherly affection with love…”

The word for love here is agape, self-sacrificial love. This is the kind of love that Christ had when He died for us. The kind of love that a mother has who gives up her ambitions to raise a family. The kind of love that a parent working 60 hour weeks has for his children. The kind of love a youth leader has, sacrificing their free time for others. The kind of love that gives of itself until there is nothing else to give. Radical, self-giving, sacrificial love.

The Good News

Some people will read the list above and see it is as a checklist, and it will seem to be an overwhelming task. They will be stressed out. They will be trying to figure out which “step” they are on, and how to go forward.

Those people need to re-read the “Foundations” part above.

It isn’t you doing the work here, it is God doing the work in you. Discipleship is the process of becoming the person God has already promised that one day you will become; it is simply getting out of His way so that you can become that person faster and thus be more effective with your life.

What do I mean when I keep saying “get out of the way”? I mean avoiding putting yourself in the situations that tempt you. I mean avoiding having a schedule which is so crammed that you cannot hear God’s voice. I mean starting to pray about and seek counsel about big decisions to learn what is the wise thing to do. (Good rule of thumb: any decision that you cannot “undo” easily, you should seek counseling and prayer about. For example: sex, children, marriage, buying a home or car, etc.) I mean understanding that it is not you but God who must lead you to a better place. I mean taking time to slow down every day, watch a sunset or listen to the birds or just sit quietly with a cup of coffee on the porch for 15 minutes. I mean getting up 30 minutes early each day and reading Christian blogs that help you reflect on peaceful, grace-filled lifestyles. I mean stopping three times a day for regular prayer time or doing Bible study at lunch or listening to devotions on the ride home: whatever it takes to make Scripture and prayer a central part of your daily routine.

Getting out of God’s way means not putting up barriers that quench the Spirit’s ability to move in your life. These are things like overly-busy lifestyles, debt, and lack of prayer and Bible study. It also means realizing that your spiritual growth is not something else on today’s “to-do list”. It is not a checklist that you can follow, but rather a process of growth that requires you to be able to sit and reflect and listen to God to move forward.

This will require sacrifice. It means that your kids can’t be in a thousand activities. They will want to, but they can’t. It means that you can’t buy everything you want. It means that you can’t say “yes” to every social engagement. It may mean that you find another job, even if it pays less.

But in the end, we will move from just being believers to being effective disciples of Jesus Christ. And that is a goal that all Christians cherish.

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