We Need a New Imagination For How to DO Discipleship
One way to talk about discipleship to Jesus is to boil it down to “hearing and doing.” At its core, it’s paying attention to what Jesus is saying to you, and then putting that into practice in your actual life (as he makes clear in the Sermon on the Mount).
But as I’ve practiced this and discipled others, it seems to me that our imagination for “doing” is significantly impoverished. It seems that, even when we want to put Jesus’ teaching into practice, our “doing” ends up bringing more bondage than freedom. What is going on here?
Hearing the good news
In a discipleship conversation recently, George (not his real name) was talking to me about his relationship with his young kids, who were 4 and 2. He consistently found himself agitated and frustrated with them, especially when they didn’t clean up their toys or promptly follow his instructions.
We discerned some “bad news” at work in the situation (“bad news” refers to the lie under the surface, something we believe about God or ourselves that runs our life without our knowing about it). In this case, George’s bad news had to do with controlling his kids to get the respect he craved (and wasn’t getting at work from his colleagues or boss).
In our discipleship process, the antidote to the bad news (the lie) is, of course, good news (the gospel truth of who God is, and who you are, and how reality is because of who God is). For George this good news had to do with the significance and authority he already carried as an adopted son of God.
This authority and significance was something that was already his, and he had power to bring it into his relationship with his kids for their blessing and growth in Christ! He had the privilege of representing the love of Christ to his children for their good in the midst of their immaturity.
George was hearing good news! But how does George put that into practice? How does he “DO” that word from God?
But what to DO about it?
So I asked him, “George, if that’s true, what would be different for you? How could you trust that word this week? How would your trust show up in your relationship with your kids?”
George’s first stab at answering that question was to say he wanted to meditate on the good news. Think about it some more. His other idea was to just stop getting frustrated at his kids so much. George wanted to notice when he’s agitated and angry and STOP IT through the sheer force of his will!
I think most of us have a little Bob Newhart in our minds, telling us to just “STOP IT!” (At least George and I do…)
Cognition, correction, or cooperation
George’s responses embody the two main ways almost all of us think about how to “do” discipleship. It seems to me that most of us think about “doing” our discipleship as either:
- Primarily cognitive (I’m going to “think about it” some more), or
- Primarily corrective (Here’s how I’m going to fix my brokenness).
We either try to inwardly think about things until we’re “better,” or we try to outwardly correct our bad behavior so we stop sinning. But neither of those ways of “doing” our discipleship results in transformation, because neither is actually a response of trust to the good news.
- The cognitive approach keeps our response in the realm of our thoughts only, ignoring the power and opportunity of bodily habits.
- The corrective approach keeps me firmly in control of the discipleship process, solving problems and fixing myself. God actually becomes unnecessary, except to give me instruction about what to “work on.”
So if we want to see real, steady transformation in our discipleship, our “doing” can’t be primarily cognitive or corrective. Instead, we need to learn how to practice “doing” that is primarily cooperative.
This means we are co-operating with God in our discipleship, learning to surrender to the good news that God is proclaiming to us in the specific contexts of our lives, and then participate more fully in his love in our everyday lives.
Cooperation: how to DO discipleship
So for George, a cooperative response to the good news of his authority and significance needed to be something more than just cognitively thinking about something and correcting his behavior toward his kids.
A cooperative “doing” in this case would be a response of surrender to the good news of his authority and significance (because of his adoption as a child of God through Christ) that he doesn’t need to strive for, because he carries it already.
I can’t remember exactly where George landed in how to DO his discipleship in this case. But that’s okay, because there’s no one “right” answer here. A cooperative response could look lots of different ways. Here are a few examples:
- George apologizes to his kids that evening for his anger and frustration at them, and commits to apologize every time his anger flares up at them. (Too many times we just try to “do better” without actually creating space for reconciliation.)
- The next time his kids fail to clean up their toys (remember this was one of the specific situations he talked about), George quietly reminds himself he has everything he needs, and stops what he’s doing to sit down with his kids and connect with them so he can train them to transition into “clean up mode.” (Notice here he’s trusting his authority to be there to train his kids.)
- George proclaims good news to his kids about their relationship with him each night, i.e. “I’m your daddy, and you’re my sons. God gave us to each other so we can learn to love and serve each other. I love you by caring for you, training you, and guiding you to follow Jesus. You love me by sharing your heart with me, listening to me, and obeying me.”
- George commits to become more non-judgmentally aware of his agitation and frustration with his kids so he can interrupt the pattern of reacting in anger, take a few deep breaths and receive good news in that moment.
Each of these responses, if done in the right spirit, is a concrete, embodied display of cooperative trust in the gospel, rather than trying to cognitively think or correctively behave our way into new life.
Questions for reflection
- Does your imagination for “doing” discipleship run more toward the cognitive or the corrective?
- Can you imagine any other responses of cooperative trust for George?
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