THE STRUGGLING DISCIPLE
Growth in discipleship is as a widening river that makes its way to the ocean of maturity. It feeds from small tributaries of substance as it meanders around curves and bends, over rocks and down waterfalls. But when it reaches the ocean, it can be, as the Amazon River of Brazil, over 250 kilometers across when it finally empties all its substance into the Atlantic Ocean. McGuffy’s Reader gave the story of an old clock that ticked away every day until it started counting all the ticks it had to make: 120 a minute, 7,200 an hour, 172,800 a day, and in exhaustion of thought, it figured that it had to make 63,072,000 ticks to complete the year. So the old clock in mental exhaustion just quit. But then it began to consider that it would make just one tick. After that another was made, then another, and another, until it finally found itself ticking again one tick at a time.
Alcoholics Anonymous teaches the concept, “Don’t try to stop drinking forever, merely say, ‘I will not drink today.’” If in looking back in our lives, we compound past problems with present turmoil, we will simply stop ticking. Jesus knew this when He said to His disciples, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62). Looking back is dangerous to discipleship. A Sunday school teacher once taught her class about Lot’s wife who turned to look back at the burning of her former home. The teacher told the class that she then turned into a pillar of salt. One young boy threw up his hand and said, “Teacher, my mother turned back last week and she turned into a telephone pole.” Someone once correctly said,
I have no yesterdays,
Time took them away;
Tomorrow may not be —
But, I have today!
When Jesus called people to discipleship, He knew He was calling them to struggle in the present over their baggage of the past. He thus did not paint a verbal picture of a comfortable journey as the world who hated Him would eventually pour out their hate on them. “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18). And we would ask, as the disciples of Jesus surely thought to ask Him, “If we are to live in the world, why must the world hate us as Your disciples?” The answer is simple:
If you were of the world, the world would love its own. But because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn15:19; see 17:14).
So Jesus reminded the disciples that the hate would not be directed to them personally, but in fact, it would be a hate directed against the Father. “He who hates Me hates My Father also” (Jn 15:23). Jesus comforted the disciples: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18).
Because true discipleship involves living contrary to the way of the world, the life of the disciple is a living sermon of rebuke of the ways of the world. As a disciple of Jesus, the persecution that would come our way, therefore, will find its innocent victims. Jesus quoted the prophetic psalmist, “They hated Me without a cause” (Jn 15:25).
The irony of all this hate that was unleashed upon Jesus and His disciples lies in the fact that almost all the hate of Jesus and His disciples then, and our’s now, originates from religious people, especially misguided religious leaders. When these leaders dragged Stephen outside the gates of Jerusalem, “They gnashed at him with their teeth” (At 7:54). They did stone Stephen, even as they tried to stone Jesus (Jn 8:59). They could not stone Jesus during His ministry, but He allowed them to crucify Him when His ministry was finished. When religious leaders seek to stone their opposition, then one knows that those who have stones in their hands are religiously misguided. Stones often reveal who is either teaching error, or behaving their erroneous teaching for the sake of pomp or purse.
When it is time to carry one’s cross, it is time to lay our hands to the plow and not look back. It is time to look only for flying stones. Jesus knew this when He turned and said to the multitudes who were following Him, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt 10:37). But discipleship would go far beyond loving Jesus more than one’s relatives. “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt 10:38). Discipleship would go even further. “He who finds his life will lose it. And he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt 10:39). Some will progress in their discipleship by leaving father and mother in order to follow Jesus into all the world. Some will even commit themselves to be Jesus’ disciples by enduring the hardships of this life. But when the first gun shots are heard, then how many will scurry home in fear for their lives? We know of one disciple who did not, and thus, his life reminds all of us of the commitment that is needed to be a disciple unto death. Paul said to the Caesarean brethren, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (At 21:13). And so he did, not in Jerusalem, but in Rome at the edge of an executioners sword, so we are told through tradition.
The fact of discipleship is that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tm 3:12). This is not news to those who truly understood this from the beginning of their walk with Jesus. They knew, as Peter instructed, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example [of suffering] that you should follow in His steps” (1 Pt 2:21). Before one commits himself to discipleship, he must look straight in the eyes of Jesus, as “He turned and said to them …” (Lk 14:25). Then listen: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother …. And whoever does not bear his own cross …. So likewise, whoever of you who does not forsake all that he has, cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26-33). Scary words! Emerson was right: “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.” So Jesus would say to us,
Do not fear those things that you will suffer. Behold, the devil will cast some of you into prison so that you may be tested. And you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life (Rv 2:10).
So “seeing we are also surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [faithful believers], let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hb 12:1). We run the race of the disciple in order to obtain the prize (1 Co 9:24). But in order to stay in this race, we are “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hb 12:2). We would remain faithful in the race, for we understand what Solomon meant in the words, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (Ec 7:8). And, “A desire accomplished is sweet to the soul …” (Pv 13:19). So it really comes down to one thing when determining whether we would become the type of disciple that Jesus expects of us. It is as someone said, “Many people have the right aim, but not enough courage to pull the trigger.”