My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …
In a couple of weeks I’m leading a seminar for engageworship.org at our ‘Slow Down’ day in Luton on ‘Spiritual Disciplines for Beginners’. Being pretty undisciplined myself, I started rereading Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, which I probably haven’t opened in over 25 years. As is so often the case I started reading as a different person, sadder and hopefully wiser, because of all that has been going on in those 25 years. And of course something completely new struck me, something which must have still been printed on the pages all those years ago, but which I somehow missed entirely. In a nutshell it is this: spiritual disciplines, and indeed discipleship as a whole, are about freedom. Foster explains how each of the twelve classical spiritual disciplines he deals with, stuff like meditation, fasting, submission and solitude, are actually about breaking free from some of the things which capture us, cripple us and enslave us. For example, we’re all desperately lonely deep inside, he suggests, so deliberately to cultivate periods of solitude can set us free from the fear of being alone, as we choose it and learn to feel safe there.
Many people regard discipleship as hard work, which of course it is, but it is the kind of hard work which brings its rewards and joys, like that of running for gold, to use one biblical picture. Personally I’ve never won anything at all in the world of sporting prowess, and that has saved me a lot of hard work and discipline. When Jessica Ennis-Hill sends me pictures on Facebook of herself in training, I feel quite pleased to be a couch potato. But then I’ll never know the thrill and joy of standing on an Olympic podium and being cheered by the world. I guess it’s swings and roundabouts.
So as a follower of Jesus am I content to watch from the sidelines, or curled up on the sofa with a takeaway, or am I committed to the effort of going for gold? The former may seem an easier option, but while I choose it I’m still not free from all the things which spiritual discipline is designed to deal with. St Paul provides us with a great example, using the athletics metaphor, when in 1 Corinthians 9 he writes:
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
There’s the paradox: breaking free isn’t easy, but until we do we’ll only ever be half-hearted leisure-time spectators in the great adventure of following Jesus.