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 spiritual formation process, the antidote to the bad news (the lie) is, of course, good news (the 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 child of God.

This authority and significance was something that was already his (and thus not dependent on how his kids responded to him), and he had power to bring this grace 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 just stop it through the sheer force of his will.

I’m reminded of a Bob Newhart sketch, where he plays a mental health therapist whose only advice for patients is to just “STOP IT!”

Cognition, correction, or cooperation

George’s responses embody the two main ways most of us think about how to “do” discipleship. It’s either:

  1. Primarily cognitive (I’m going to “think about it” some more), or
  2. 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 correct our bad behavior. 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?

Leave a comment below to join the conversation!

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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  1. Michele Arndt on February 19, 2018 at 12:35 pm

    Great article. This definitely resonates not only in how I have approached my own discipleship in the past but also in how I have watched those I am seeking to disciple “respond” to bad news. It either lives in our heads or is manifested in some sort of shame-induced increase in effort. Neither works. The word “cooperate” is simple and helpful!

  2. Ben Sternke on February 19, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    Glad it was helpful, Michelle!

  3. Werner on February 20, 2018 at 3:28 am

    Great post Ben.I think the most of us are thinkers or doers.I have always told my colleages, that it’s easy to talk about things,but to do things are not always so easy.
    If I was in George’s shoes,I would have asked for more patience.(no 4 fruit of the Spirit,Gal 5:22).Cooperative and surrender to the Good News are the two key words here and if you can comply to that,believe,trust and obedience will fall outomatic in place.

  4. Wesley Tillett on February 20, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    This “cooperative” discipleship is really insightful! It resonates deeply with me, reminding me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30 – “take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus’ words here are great news. But, honestly, I often feel heavier rather than lighter when trying to follow Jesus. Usually it’s my shame talking – me not living up to my idealized self. I need constant reminding of the good news. Your words here, Sternke, are a helpful corrective to my cognitive and corrective self-help techniques.

  5. Ben Sternke on February 20, 2018 at 4:09 pm

    Glad it was helpful, Wesley! That’s a good insight that when it feels “heavy” it’s typically the shame talking. So many of us have confused our shame with God’s voice, unfortunately!

  6. Nathan on February 21, 2018 at 11:00 am

    definitely helpful, thanks guys! My MO is mainly corrective approach, so now I will now purpose to be more cooperative.

  7. Ben Sternke on February 21, 2018 at 11:04 am

    More power to you, Nathan! Glad this was helpful.

  8. Sandy Richter on October 5, 2018 at 11:10 am

    I love the way you framed this, Ben. I think you have pinpointed a really key insight into the way we think about discipleship.

    I especially appreciate the word surrender, which reminds me of David Benner’s book, Surrender to Love, which has helped me greatly in this way.

    One thing I have found helpful as I have tried to live into this, is breath prayers that remind me of God’s love and grace in the midst of my ‘trigger’ situations. Or simple songs that I can receive as my anxiety and shame start to rise. So maybe “Lord, have mercy.” Or “Your grace is sufficient.” Or singing, “Be Still and Know that I am God.” For me, replacing some of the anxiety with a word from outside has been powerful.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and insights–these are greatly helpful.

  9. Ben Sternke on October 5, 2018 at 11:13 am

    Yes, Sandy! Our response is surrender, not “achievement.” I love your example of breath prayers, too – a great concrete example of how this works in real life.

  10. Kat Shea on February 11, 2019 at 9:59 am

    I think there is another word: Coercive. George will change because it is required of him, because George is accountable to his wife, who might be berating him for his irritability, seeing his kids get rebellious and distant from him, or his reverting to the guilt of the law: “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Eph 6:4)
    I have been camping out in Romans 6 and7, trying to discover how we REALLY change our hearts, not just do behavior modification. And to use your alliteration it is when the Spirit of Council (Word of Knowledge) and Might(What to Do about it–Word of Wisdom) gives us that supernatural grace to actually be transformed permanently. (Isaiah 11:2) I am sick of temporary ‘transformation’ of just using mind, not heart, soul, mind and strength (Might and Do). I love this concept, and I am chewing on it!

  11. Ben Sternke on February 11, 2019 at 10:41 am

    Love that, Kat! Great contribution to the conversation.

  12. Jim on February 11, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    This past Sunday I started my series on the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 and I made certain to point out that this was not some self improvement program of the apostle Paul. He was not suggesting in any way that we can make ourselves more loving, peaceful, joyful, etc. These are the fruit of Christ’s Spirit worked out in our lives as we allow him to work through the many varied experiences of our lives. We cannot bear these fruit of ourselves no matter how hard we try. It takes time and a growing awareness of our personal spiritual bankruptcy. The more we try to demonstrate qualities of Christ-like character through some effort of our own, the less loving, peaceful, joyful, etc. we will become. I would say that the process of discipleship is the same. Becoming like Jesus is something HE does in us as we submit to his hand at work in our lives and humbly acknowledge our constant need of his forgiveness and grace daily. What does the flesh have to do with the Spirit? It is either or; not both and. By grace we are saved and by grace we grow into our salvation in Jesus, becoming more like him! It is HIS work in us and can never be OUR work on ourselves. Does this sound too radical?

  13. Ben Sternke on February 11, 2019 at 3:30 pm

    Yes, Jim! Growing in Christ isn’t the same thing as “self-improvement.” That’s a very important message. On the flipside, though, I’ve seen people get discouraged after they discover this because they don’t know how to submit to, surrender to, participate in the work God is doing. How do we offer our bodies as a living sacrifice? How do we learn to allow the Spirit to bear fruit in our lives? I’ve found people need practical handlebars in order to gain an imagination for what it looks like to cooperate with God’s work in our lives.

  14. Craig on February 12, 2019 at 4:25 am

    Great timing on this for me. I’ve struggled with language to address the doing of discipleship. I want to aim myself and others toward ‘abiding’ or being more God conscious, and Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God.
    Cooperation is a very helpful way to think about doing. It reminds me of teaching I’ve heard or read in the past but haven’t necessarily connected to discipleship instruction. Before we imagine what the cooperation looks like (such as in your examples/options for George) what if we train ourselves and others to think Paul’s language in Romans about living in/by the Spirit (Romans 8:4-14)? What if we think of God showing up in us to love people through us in ways we aren’t always able or willing to do on our own steam? I know this recalls the “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet days, but I’m also not sure that was all bad — if we think cooperation instead of correction. What if we imagine ourselves handing the situation or interaction over to Jesus for him to do through us what we can’t do ourselves?

  15. Ben Sternke on February 12, 2019 at 10:07 am

    Good stuff, Craig! I like the emphasis on imagination before action… just exploring what it might look like to trust Jesus in this specific situation, and then try an “experiment” of trust and pay attention to what happens.

  16. Phillip Corbell on February 17, 2019 at 8:56 am

    Hi Ben!

    Great article—I read this as I was still processing through a conversation I had about the Grace and Truth “matrix” at my church yesterday (during some Discipleship training). I’m also dealing with the “what to do” problem in some of the folks I disciple, including my kids..

    It strikes me that the most challenging TRUTH for many of us to embrace is the reality of God’s GRACE.

    I’m also reminded of your article about not balancing grace and truth, which I also resonate with, because they are certainly not independent … we should talk about the challenge/invitation “matrix” some other time.

    But what I hear from my kids, from the people I’m discipling, and from your friend “George” above is actually quite similar: I don’t “feel” whole, content, fulfilled, complete, or at peace in my soul apart from my “doing,” or without the acceptance and/or approval of others (specifically others BESIDES God). In other words, they either lack the belief that God truly loves and accepts them completely, or that God’s love and acceptance of them is enough to bring them peace and fulfillment. This is of course very much related to their identity, and how they see themselves in their context—but it appears universal to me that they have internally measured and found themselves lacking the worth, respect, love, or value that they yearn for. This “mental wound” influences their “doing,” and we usually focus on fixing their actions.

    I tell my kids all the time that “hurting people hurt people.” When they can’t figure out why someone is mean, I teach them that most of the time what they are seeing is an outward indication of a unhealed wound that they don’t see. I think what you’re correctly observing in our culture is our tendency to try and address the behaivor (what to DO different) instead of understand/fix/heal the motivation/problem. In the case of your friend George, until He FEELS fully respected, and thus at peace with himself and his identity, I think he will struggle to control his actions to be in harmony with the Love and peace that God created him to exemplify. It’s the same way with my kids—most of the challenges they face and feelings they struggle with relate back to a false sense of where their identity comes from … I constantly have to remind them that God’s GRACE is enough, and the TRUTH that they are important, valued, loved, and treasured apart from their “doings” by the one that created them and brought them to life .. and that everyone else’s opinion of them, including mine, should be of lesser importance that God’s opinion of them.

    I’m also reminded that Jesus’s challenges to his disciples were less often physical (go and do)—it seems like most of the time he challenges their thinking—He spends the most energy teaching them how to perceive themselves, the world around them, and the very nature of God himself.

    So my conclusion (held in an open hand) is this: “fixing” the actions of Jesus’s disciples comes more from fixing their perceptions of themselves, their God, and their world around them to line up with a reality defined by God. As we help others step into an identity defined by God first, we enable God to sort out their “doing” stuff … in the community and context that God had placed them in, but ultimately doing the right things becomes less of a struggle because their wounds heal and their deepest desires to be loved and respected are filled by God—not a boss, not their grades, not their friends, their spouse, their coworkers, their job, their ministry, their congregation, their “likes,” etc.

    Still, the challenge is in how to help them get “there” … but that’s what I think I’m called to do. Interested in your feedback.

  17. Ben Sternke on February 18, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    This is great, Philip! Your approach is *very* similar to what we train leaders to do in Gravity Leadership Academy. It’s typically a big paradigm shift for people!

  18. Phil Corbell on February 21, 2019 at 7:45 pm


    Yes, I should have mentioned that I have been through the Academy. I guess I picked up a few things. My leadership session this past Saturday was with Stew at BCC :).

    I’m currently using the Gravity articles to disciple my home group, and I tune into the podcast every week. Love your material, leadership, and perspective. Keep up the good work!



  19. Jonathan on August 20, 2021 at 3:18 pm

    Another really good reflection here, Ben. You are spot on – I catch myself in this scenario on a daily basis! Too often I try to MacGyver myself out of it (Stop it! Change! Don’t be that way! Fix it!). When we think about discipleship, Ben, I wonder if you’d agree there is also a fuller picture at work. What does George’s community look like? His practice of the presence of God? His habits? His physical well-being? I think you do a beautiful job of moving us away from a simplistic, fleshly view of living a life worthy of the gospel; you are clearly moving us toward a more robust, holistic gospel foundation that will remain where the scaffolding of the flesh will fail. Does George have others in his community he is imitating who *are* presencing Christ in this type of “discipleship” scenario? Has George, with the aid of the Spirit, the Word and the community, understood these particular triggers – any trauma or unhealthy relational history that are contributing to his particular cognitive or corrective approach? Just some reflexive thoughts here. Nothing you need to respond to. Thanks, Ben.

  20. Ben Sternke on August 21, 2021 at 7:43 am

    These are great questions, Jonathan.

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