by the Night Writer
ELINOR: Surely you don’t compare your conduct with his?
MARIANNE: No. I compare it with what it ought to have been. I compare it with yours.
— from “Sense and Sensibility”
In Part 1 I outlined the reasons and the need to pursue self-development, but also the risks of emulating someone who’s life may turn out to be not that exemplary or even all that helpful. If your role model swerves into behaviors or beliefs that make you uncomfortable it can be very liberating — or very disillusioning. What standard do you use in determining if you’re being led into exciting new revelation or into an old deception merely packaged in a new way?
Well, the Apostle Paul knew the “one simple secret” long before all those acai berry ads started popping up on websites. Since I didn’t come up with it myself, I’ll let you have it for free: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) Well, maybe that isn’t so simple, but at least it’s short. Do you see, however, the three-way relationship implied in just those few words?
The premise is that a healthy Christian life is one where we try to be more like Christ and that process involves a 3-way relationship: one, follow Christ; two, follow someone more experienced as they “imitate Christ”; and three, help someone less experienced along the same road. Ideally this means that all three people in the process — the person who’s disciple I am, myself, and the person(s) I’m discipling — are all looking to Christ as our ultimate example while being guided by another. The external standard is critical because without one — or without a relationship with someone to hold us accountable to that standard — we can easily lie to ourselves about how we’re doing, or cut ourselves some slack, thinking no one’s going to know. We can also lose the critical awareness of considering the impact our actions will have on someone else.
That’s not to say that this process hasn’t been abused, especially within a Christian setting. We all can think of cases where religious leaders, in large groups or small, have disastrously led their disciples astray. In the instances that come to my mind, however, the leader lost sight of imitating Christ; not surprisingly, the followers soon forgot that part of it as well. The focus needs to be on the leader and the follower living up to an ideal beyond themselves. Then, if you truly imitate Paul, you should in turn be trying to set an example for someone else to follow as well. That means people should see something worth emulating in your life; you should see something worth emulating in someone else’s.
A discipleship relationship is an accountable one where each party essentially says, “examine my life.” There has to be accountability in the relationship for it to be true discipleship. You have to be in regular contact. I don’t think you can have this kind of relationship with someone you only see on TV or hear on the radio — or read on-line. You may be inspired by what you see, hear or read, but there isn’t a relationship or any personal exchange between you unless there’s regular two-way contact of some kind. If you’re a disciple, you have to say that you are and you show that you are by doing what the other does.
For the “leader” it is an awesome responsibility to live consistently to your standard and being willing to have your actions watched and judged. That alone is enough to make many shy away from the responsibility. Conversely, or perversely, there are some who don’t mind receiving the attention or being in the spotlight. To be a true leader, however, you can’t be focused on what you can get out of it, you have to be concerned about helping other people benefit.
Being a leader, however, is not an agreement to live “perfectly” or to never miss it. It is, however, the willingness to say, unabashedly, that this is what I am pursuing, this is how I’ve benefited by doing so, learn from the victories I’ve achieved and the mistakes I’ve made, and will continue to make.” Probably the purest and most natural discipleship responsibility and opportunity we have is in raising our children, and yet a number of people will not step up to this mantle and standard and be that kind of example in front of their kids — it’s easier to leave it to the schools, the teachers, the youth pastors, the television, the peers — and so much easier to lay the blame on these when the time comes.
For the disciple the hurdle is being willing to acknowledge the lack in your life, recognizing that there is a difference between you and the person you would emulate (as the first step in seeing how different your life is from Christ) and in humility saying, “I’m not what I should be, please help me.” It’s difficult to make that admission out loud or even to ourselves, even when we see the need. Again, it’s far easier to say to ourselves, “I’m not really so bad or that far off; I’m certainly not missing it as much as some people.”
I’ve seen it time after time in people who find themselves in desperate enough straits where their fear overcomes their pride and they cry out for help, receive relief and support in the present crisis, but draw back from the opportunity to make the kind of long-term commitment in their lives that can give them the wherewithal to survive or even avoid the future storms, let alone help someone else get out of the same type of situation. Part of the reluctance is due to the perception of giving up one’s will or admitting a weakness (really it’s just admitting it to yourself; God — and likely everyone else — already sees it). The rest of the reluctance comes from exposing yourself so that your life can be examined — both by the person you would emulate and by the ones in the future that you should, in turn, be discipling.
In a superficial, self-centered world personal development becomes a self-directed way of trying to fill a void that makes us feel bad about ourselves. It can be the spiritual equivalent of being like those who undergo serial surgeries and injections in the hope or belief that if their noses or waists were smaller, or their lips or busts larger, or their tummy more tucked or their thighs more adducted they will at last be happy. And then, if they’re not happy, there must be some other procedure that’s required. Well, except for that one little extra procedure (and the next, and the next) that’s required to be truly happy.
The soulish equivalent is saying this year I’ll become a vegetarian, next year go vegan, and the following year become a raw vegan and then I’ll be a Better Person. All of it seems to be aimed at exalting the self, while a Christian, discipleship approach is about the denial of self. No, not the false humility of outward spirituality or the use of literal or metaphorical hair-shirts to mortify the flesh while taking pride in the process, but seeking a greater revelation of how small one is in the scheme of God, but still how precious.
If our objective is to become like Christ, what does that really mean? What will it look like? Ultimately, can it be achieved by our reaching up, or by God reaching back? Consider this excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Ethics:
Christ remains the only one who forms. Christian people do not form the world with their ideas. Rather, Christ forms human beings to a form the same as Christ’s own. However, just as the form of Christ is misperceived where he is understood essentially as the teacher of a pious and good life, so formation of human beings is also wrongly understood where one sees it only as guidance for a pious and good life.
Yes, we all want to be “good” people, but our perception is that if we can just focus on getting all the “bad” things out of our lives then all that will be left will be “good”. Or we think that if we can just do everything the “right” way we will be transformed. Either way — in reference to Romans 8:12 — we are trying to conform ourselves to the world as we see it, using our standard to set and measure goals, rather than being transformed by the revelation of Christ in us.
Christ is the one who has become human, who was crucified, and who is risen, as confessed by the Christian faith…To be conformed to the one who has become human – that is what being really human means…All superhumanity, all efforts to outgrow one’s nature as human, all struggle to be heroic or a demigod, all fall away from a person here, because they are untrue.
It’s not that seeking to improve ourselves is wrong or unnatural; it’s just that thinking we can do it ourselves leads us into one ditch or another. In the one ditch we can become obsessed with obtaining a perfection beyond ourselves through perfect man-made doctrines or by our pursuits. The other ditch, however, is to think that we’re irredeemably base and corrupt. What’s missing is the revelation that our elevation isn’t about us reaching for God, but about God reaching for us; it’s God sending Christ to make a way for us and in us.
The real human being is the object neither of contempt nor of deification, but the object of the love of God…To be conformed with the one who became human means that we may be the human beings that we really are. Pretension, hypocrisy, compulsion, forcing oneself to be something different, better, more ideal than one is – all are abolished. God loves the real human being. God became a real human being.
While it is God that does the drawing and shaping, it is clear from scripture that he puts others in our life to facilitate this — both to help us to learn and to help us teach others. It’s not something we do on our own, and church is an important part of the process. Again, however, we have to realize that we tend to put the focus in the wrong place. Just as when we think self-development is the be-all and end-all of our improvement, we can think that just getting to church is the objective.
Don’t let your time spent in church define your religious life or level of commitment. Jesus actually spent very little time in synagogues but was out and about with people, eating, teaching, healing, sometimes to large groups but often to individuals. That does not mean we don’t have to go to church, however. Church is an important place to go to be taught, to receive ministry ourselves and to encourage other believers but ultimately it should prepare us to act in a Christ-like way when we leave the building. From that perspective, church should be the starting point, not the culmination of our spiritual week. Modern discipleship appears to be focused on getting people into church; our objective ought to be getting the Church out to people.
When Jesus spoke the Great Commission in Matthew 28 he said “go and make disciples of all nations”. He didn’t say, “get them into your church so you can disciple them.” But that’s a subject for another essay.