One day I listened to a sermon that altered the direction of my life in several distinct ways. It wasn’t in church, a small group, a conference, or a meeting. This sermon was delivered in the confines of a medical examination room. Our family doctor preached it. After a routine physical he told me I was obese, diagnosed my type 2 diabetes, referenced my high blood pressure, and called me a couch potato. Ouch! Then, he took pen and paper and wrote two words, in this fashion—
He explained their similarities and said, “You’re supposed to be making disciples, which means you should first be one. And a disciple is one who pursues the disciplines modeled by Jesus Christ”. Double ouch. Triple ouch. Cut to the heart.
He was a very bold and unashamed Christian and I knew he was speaking truth. As a busy pastor, father, and community leader I was living a totally undisciplined life. Our church was growing and healthy. But, my leadership and witness was compromised by the discrepancies in what I preached and how I lived. It took forceful words from our family physician to register that message to this audience of one. In another moment of clarity he reminded me that any physician could diagnose such a condition, but only the Great Physician could cure it. Ouch, again.
That was nineteen years ago and retirement has introduced me to new phases of undisciplined living. A few months ago I rummaged through some old boxes to unearth the discipleship plan that helped me lose eighty pounds, get control of this diabetic condition, reduce my blood pressure, and restore my physical, mental, and spiritual health. I also Googled “the disciplined life” and was astounded by 2.7 million results in only .76 seconds. Surfing over the material for a couple of hours I realized that the original 1998 plan was simple, biblically attested, and straight from the mouth of Jesus, who clearly said—
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23, NIV)
The 1998 material was MasterLife authored by Dr. Avery Willis and Claude King (B & H Books, revised 1998). Harriet and I had led MasterLife groups in our home for years and had previously shared the MasterLife devotional guides in our own personal devotions. Scrolling through the books was a power walk down memory lane. Each participant has signed the inside covers of the leaders guides. More than 150 names brought fresh remembrance of the people who had been in our groups.
Our complex times have made Christian discipline a competitive sport. With so many variations and new wrinkles we tend to gravitate to the more trendy programmatic approaches to living the disciplined Christian life. My recent exploration of what had been effective for me so many years ago reminded me that the basics of living in right relationship with Jesus Christ is effectively simple. Three bullet points marked the approach of the MasterLife material. In some ways it seems old hat today, a throwback to times when making disciples of all nations was first being acknowledged as the single focus of mission in Christ’s church. Those three concepts were, (1) self denial; (2) cross bearing; and, (3) following Jesus.
(1) Self-denial: as presented by Jesus self-denial is the first step of personal discipleship. Scripture portrays the lowering of self as a troublesome obstacle for egocentric humans. We are beset with a need for personal gratification as we pursue the pleasures of the world, the approval of other humans, traditions of a comfortable faith, and other distractions. Jesus clearly stated that the greatest commandments involve the lowering of self through loving God first, and loving others as we love ourselves (see Matthew 22:37 and Luke 10:27). Philippians 2 summarizes self-denial by emphasizing the servant spirit of Christ, personal humility, and obedience. The MasterLife study produced a vivid image of The Disciples Personality as a means of submitting our mind, will, and emotions to produce a self-lowering position in our Christian walk. Self-denial is the starting point of a disciplined Christian life.
(2) Cross bearing: Avery Willis and Claude King provided a graphic illustration of cross bearing titled The Disciples Cross. This image portrayed cross bearing as five Christian disciplines: Bible study, prayer, fellowship, witness, and Christian service. These disciplines have been defined and re-defined by many authors and Bible scholars and teachers over the years. The language of these five disciplines have been modified and updated to resonate with changing times in our culture. But, these five old words are basic in understanding the cross-bearing discipline of the Christian life. Those years ago I placed as asterisk beside one word in the Luke 9:23 statement by Jesus. It is beside the word “daily”. These disciplines produce a fruitful and effective discipline in the lives of those who practice them “daily”. Jesus also said, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 19:27, ESV). Daily cross-bearing is essential in living the disciplined life.
(3) Following Jesus: As our family doctor reminded me years ago, being a disciple of Jesus involves following him through obedience to his commands and clearly seeking to bring the disciplines he exemplified into our lives. Cross-bearing will produce the character of Christ in us, at least to the point flawed humans can imitate him. Scripture distinctly identifies following Jesus as a mark of the disciplined life. Dozens of texts record Jesus’ expectation that his disciples would follow him. John wrote, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:15, ESV). Later, Peter wrote, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21, ESV). Following Jesus is the continuum of living the disciplined life.
In many respects the spiritual landscape of the nation is a reflection of undisciplined Christian living so visible in our demographics. And, there’s another dimension underneath this appraisal. Undisciplined Christians produce undisciplined churches. And our nation today desperately needs the influence of Christians and churches living the disciplined life.