As I write this blog, we’re not quite sure who will win the presidential election. By the time you read it, you may know. One thing is for certain, though. The many events of the year, whether the election, COVID, the racial unrest this summer, or the host of other unprecedented happenings, have held a mirror to the American Church. What it’s reflected has not always been flattering, but like all opportunities to contemplate, it is good and healthy and, ultimately, healing. As I’ve pondered, it has left me intensely grateful for this school and its potential to be a guiding light to the world around it.
I have been thinking about the difference between being a believer in Jesus, and being His disciple. It seems to me that a believer accedes to a set of truths about Jesus as set forth in God’s Word, but with very little visible change of heart. It’s entirely possible to believe in Jesus, but for that belief to lead to no real life change, whatsoever. It’s what James talks about in Chapter 1 of his letter, the person who looks at his face in the mirror, goes away and forgets what he looks like. People can stare intently into God’s Word, actually believe what it says, but not be changed by it whatsoever. This is what James calls a hearer, rather than a doer, of the Word.
To be a disciple is vastly different from simple belief. Jesus’ disciples left everything behind and walked alongside him. They not only listened to Him, but did what He did. They spoke His words, aligned their thinking to think His thoughts, felt as He felt, and patterned their behaviors and their lives after His. In 1 Corinthians, Paul would urge his followers, “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” To be a disciple is to imitate, not only to believe, but to be so sold out, so in love that the relationship transforms one’s whole life, and way of thinking about life, as an act of faith and love and obedience.
One of the things I love about the Church is its ability to be honest with itself, to take a hard look and pull the thread, no matter what it unravels. And, I think the honest truth is that for years the American Church has been far better at making believers than forming disciples. We’ve inadvertently communicated that faith is about simply praying a prayer rather than changing one’s life as a response to a deep, loving pursuit of our God.
Dallas Willard has called this “the Great Omission,” changing Christ’s original words, “Go and make disciples” to “go and make converts to a particular faith and practice.” The problem with this omission is that, even though discipleship is a costly endeavor, the cost of non-discipleship is far costlier. As Willard says, non-discipleship takes from us “abiding peace, a life penetrated with love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hope that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, the power to stand against evil…in short, the abundance of life Jesus …came to bring.” Belief gives us the transaction without the transformation.
It seems that because so many in the American Church are, on the whole, believers rather than disciples, the abundant life Jesus has promised eludes them. One of the promises of abundant life is abiding peace, peace that doesn’t rest in material wealth, or health, or political solutions, or earthly security, or man-made notions of justice or conceptions of power. Abiding peace rests in the gospel, the Good News that Jesus has come and made all things new, and will return and make all things right, and is now the source of our security, our strength, our hope, our peace, our provision, and our well-being. When that abiding peace is not there, we’re way too susceptible to false truths: the belief that our hope is in material wealth or physical health, or in some political solution, or in some earthly notion of justice or power redistribution. Not that any of those things are bad or evil in and of themselves; on the contrary, in a biblical context and perspective, they’re good. But, they’re never meant to be ultimate, the source of our ultimate needs. They were never created to be.
And, it’s not only on a grand scale of nations and economies where we seek misplaced contentment. Our marriages, our jobs, our churches and schools, and our relationships don’t bring us happiness, either, because we’re looking for them to bring us something that none of them were created to give: security, safety, worth, value- abiding peace that only our Creator can give, and that’s only available to His disciples.
Finally, only disciples can love as Jesus loves. We can only love lavishly when we love from a place of abiding peace, a place where all our deepest needs are met in Christ, freeing us up to truly love, not asserting our rights against each other, but laying down our lives for each other.
One of the reasons I’m so grateful for our faith in Christ is that conviction and repentance are a good thing, a thing that leads to life and hope and joy and love. In Scripture, it’s only those who hear the hard truths and walk away who are truly sorrowful. I’m also so grateful for our school and our community, that our mission is to make disciples. That’s what “teaching Jesus” is. As important as a strong, quality education is, as disciples of Jesus, our mission first and foremost as parents is to replicate ourselves, to make disciples among our children, that they would be imitators of us, and we are imitators of Him. And, this place is uniquely set up and established to help kids think Jesus’ thoughts, see how He lived, follow others who are following Him, these things serving as the standard of everything we do as a community. Even when there’s a deviation from the standard, there can be healing, and forgiveness, and reconciliation, because Christ is the standard.
The world, and even the Church, is in desperate need of disciples of Jesus, and this year has shown us how desperate that need truly is. No one would say 2020 has gone how we had planned or (unless you’re Amazon or Zoom) how we’d hoped; yet, how we respond to what God has shown us, being and making disciples, pressing into Him and responding with abiding peace and lavish love, can still make 2020 a truly great year.
Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org