I am currently co-teaching a class titled, “Following Christ Today.” Some may consider the “Today” in the title unnecessary for surely following Christ was not much different yesterday than it is today. They would be right in thinking that the essentials of following Christ remain the same. Nevertheless, each generation must learn how to live out those essentials in its own context.
There are some Christians who would approve the “Today” in the title but object to the words, “following Christ.” They find it unhelpful and misleading. People, they say, do not follow Christ today; they believe in him. The idea of following Jesus as a disciple belonged to the first century, not the twenty-first, to Middle Eastern culture, not ours.
Such a view is devastating to biblical Christianity. It effectively reduces belief in Jesus to an intellectual assent to certain doctrines about him. Such an approach would have confounded the apostles for whom faith in Jesus meant following him and following Jesus demonstrated faith in him. To divide the two was to “put asunder what God has joined together.”
The philosopher Dallas Willard was right: “We don’t believe something by merely saying we believe it, or even when we believe that we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true.” Acting as if it were true that Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God” means following him by obeying his teaching.
The fallacy that a person can believe in Jesus Christ and not follow him is based both on a misunderstanding of the nature of belief, as mentioned above, and a misunderstanding of the nature of Christ. Lurking behind this fallacy, half-hidden and unrecognized, is the idea that Jesus knows how to get people into heaven when they die but does not really understand how life on earth works now.
People simply won’t do what Jesus says – things like, “Love your enemy” and “Do not worry” – unless they believe he knows what he is talking about. They may be able to love Jesus while thinking that he is naïve; they will not be able to trust him.
As Willard, in his classic book The Divine Conspiracy, put it: “Saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ can mean little in practice for anyone who has to hesitate before saying, ‘Jesus is smart.’” But Jesus is smart. When he says, “Do not worry,” it is because he knows things that we don’t know. He sees the world in a way we don’t see it, a way that is more consistent with reality than our own.
Coming to see the world differently, seeing it as Jesus saw it, is what discipleship to Jesus is all about. This does not happen quickly. It is hard won but immensely rewarding. To the degree that it has happened, a person is able to do what Jesus instructs: forgive offenders, love enemies, stop worrying, bless those who curse, and much more.
In his 2011 bestseller, The Social Animal, David Brooks tells how chess grandmasters and ordinary players compared when shown a series of chessboards with pieces already in play. Both were shown a series of five boards and were given 5 to 10 seconds to look at each board. They were then asked to state the positions of each piece on every board.
The ordinary players remembered the locations of four or five pieces per board. Each grandmaster remembered the position of every piece on every board. Brooks explains that this was not because they were smarter or had better memories, but because they had come to see the boards in a different way.
“When average players saw the boards,” Brooks writes, “they saw a group of individual pieces. When the masters saw the boards, they saw formations. Instead of seeing a bunch of letters on a page, they saw words, paragraphs, and stories ….”
Something similar happens to Jesus’s disciples. Through study, prayer, and practice, they come to see the world in a different way, the Jesus way. This revolutionizes their lives, opens new possibilities, and instills them with confidence. Jesus understood all this would happen when he said, “Come, follow me!”
He still says it.