Life Is Our Classroom
When some men think of discipleship they think of church buildings, lecture halls, leadership training programs, seminaries, and prayer closets. Discipleship, in their minds, is something that occurs detached from normal life. They imagine that discipleship is for Christians what school is for children. Discipleship is formal, routine, part-time, and set apart from the rest of life. This mindset is unhelpful. In truth, discipleship is not for Christians what school is for children; discipleship is for Christians what being educated is for children. The education of a child never stops. All of the time, at home, in school, among friends, and in between, a child is being educated (for better or worse). He is always learning what it means to participate in the world around him and shaping his character accordingly. Something similar is true for Christians. When is God not teaching us? Never. Every situation, every activity, every responsibility is an opportunity for growth. Normal life in the everyday world – this is the most important classroom in which Christians are trained.
This widening of the circle of discipleship is important for understanding the road to maturity. If we think of discipleship as a limited activity, then the road to maturity will be confined to a narrow set of disciplines like Bible study, prayer, and fellowship. However, if the circle of discipleship is expanded, our perspective is changed. Discipleship contains no less than it did before, but it does contain more.
The Long Road to Maturity
This backdrop is necessary in order to clarify for men the nature of the path that leads to spiritual maturity. The path is neither a method, nor a technique, nor a curriculum, nor a program. The path, rather, is best described by the following experiences: hard work, unanticipated trials, unavoidable suffering, uncomfortable assignments, difficult relationships, and simple routines. This is the stuff that more than anything else produces long-term growth among Christians.
Why is this? Consider the example of hard work. I have yet to meet a man who reached spiritual maturity by reading the verse of the day on his phone. Maturity is a product of memorizing the word, meditating on the word, studying the word, hearing the word, and singing the word. Mature men of God are men whose blood is Bibline, to use Bunyan’s choice phrase. Cut them open and the Word of God comes out. Men need to appreciate that there are no elevators to eliminate the spiritual equivalent of climbing stairs. A man must harden his knees in prayer if he wants to have an intimate knowledge of God. He must read lots of books if he wants to have a Christian perspective on culture. He must take a spade to his heart if he wants to dig up the roots of sin. Hard work cannot be avoided. Spiritual fruit, like natural fruit, requires the sweat of the brow.
Men deserve to hear the same level of candidness when thinking about trials, suffering, assignments, and relationships. Regardless of what is said in some churches, men need to re-read the New Testament, looking at the experiences of Jesus’ earliest followers as an example of what Christians ought to expect today. The reason for this is that God’s methods then were not accidental. There are lessons learned through suffering that cannot be taught through prosperity. The anvil of a severe trial forges a toughness of virtue that cannot be wrought through times of ease. Faith will never achieve the totality of trust until Christians are pressed into the space of daring obedience. Much of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control – grows best, not in the delicious climate of mutual affection, but under the harsh rays of awkward, even painful, relationships. Men need to understand that following Jesus is not a small thing, like adopting a set of spiritual routines. Discipleship is far more like enlisting in the military than taking up a hobby. Someone else is now in charge of my life, and He is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that the finished product is of the highest order.
The Sword and the Trowel
Why am I putting the difficulties of discipleship in the foreground instead of its joys? Is my goal to be a wet blanket? No, I do so for one reason: men deserve to hear the truth. The basic understanding of all Christians up until the 19th century was that the only way to persevere into the kingdom was by a kind of ‘holy violence’. This sobriety, this realism, has been lost today, like the law of God before the reign of Josiah. Do men need to hear about the glories, and privileges, and honors of following Jesus? Of course they do. Yet, from most pulpits these jewels are brought out and put on public display every Sunday. What is left hidden in the back closet is the sword and the trowel, the reminders that only by fighting and toil is maturity won.
Questions for Small Groups/Self-Reflection
What difference does it make to view discipleship as something that is happening all of the time rather than something that happens only at specified times in a classroom?
Why are unanticipated trials and difficult suffering such important ingredients of discipleship? (For help see Romans 5:3, Hebrews 12:5-11, James 1::3-4, I Peter 1:6-7.)
Hard work is not something mentioned often in sermons today. However, Paul tells us that we ought to show the same diligence training for godliness that athletes demonstrate training for sports competitions (I Cor. 9:24-27). Why is it important for men to know that maturity will require focused effort?
What do you think it would look like for a group of Christian men to train hard together to grow in faith, hope, love, wisdom, courage, and self-control?