For many years, I have trusted this maxim to be true:
Who you are in five years, will depend greatly on the books that you read and the people that you gather around you.
If you surround yourself with good ideas to swill around in your head, and good people to encourage you to reach further then you will inevitably become like the ideas that you dwell on and the people you dwell with. I’m starting to question the extent of this maxims truthfulness.
In 1647, Rene Descartes came up with his famous proposition, ‘I think, therefore I am’, in his philosophical treatise, Discourse of the Method. This statement has influenced modern thought in ways Descartes may have never thought possible, to the point where in many ways, we are thought of as primarily ‘thinking things’.
I think, therefore I am, has become, ‘You are what you think’.
We have psychological treatments based around the idea that if we change our thoughts, we change our behaviour, and our entire educational system is based around the systematic gathering of knowledge and information that can be then relayed onto tests and exams.
Critical Education Theorist Paulo Friere, calls this a banking model of education. Learning is primarily a matter of depositing ideas and beliefs into our minds. Our brains become safe-deposit boxes for knowledge and ideas. Any actions we then take, are some kind of ‘withdrawal’ from the brain bank we now possess 1. Most of our approaches to discipleship have ended up parroting this idea. Serious discipleship, then, starts with the mind – and acquiring the right kind of information.
There is some real truth here. Scripture charges us to take every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). A follower of Jesus will be a student of the word, one ‘whose delight is in the law of the Lord’ (Psalm 1:2). Knowledge is a vital part of discipleship, but discipleship is far more than knowing rightly.
The Gap in Our Discipleship
The problem is that most of us experience a monumental gap between what we know and what we do.
New knowledge and information don’t always seem to translate into a new way of life. Many of us have had the experience of hearing an illuminating sermon on Sunday, waking up on Monday with a new resolve and conviction only to be already failing by Tuesday night 2. There is a gap in our discipleship.
My failure to follow Christ often does not stem from a lack of information or knowledge. I know very well what He calls me to do. I have heard the sermons, I have read the scriptures and I have been to the bible studies. I am simply disobedient. When I fail to act in ways that are consistent with Jesus’ call to follow, is it because I don’t know what to do; or is it that I have the knowledge, but lack the desire?
What Do You Want?
James K. Smith, in his book You Are What You Love, suggests that the opening of the Gospel of John gives an incredible insight into the life of a disciple. When two would-be disciples who are caught up in the enthusiasm of John the Baptist begin to follow Jesus, he wheels around and asks them, ‘What do you want?’ (John 1:38)
Jesus doesn’t encounter Matthew and John – or you and me – and ask ‘what do you know’. He doesn’t even ask them what they believe. He simply asks, ‘what do you want’. This is the most incisive, piercing question Jesus can of us because our wants and longings and desires are at the very core of our who we are; the well-spring from which our actions and behaviours flow 3.
Humans have tended to pit the mind and the heart against one another: ancient cultures by elevating reason and virtue to soften the emotions, and modern culture by elevating self-expression. Tim Keller suggests that in the Bible, however, the heart is the home of not just our emotions, but also our deepest convictions.
Scripture counsels, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Prov 4:23). Discipleship, we might say, is a way to curate your heart, to be attentive to and intentional about what you love 4. Following Jesus is then not only about believing the right things but about aligning our loves and longings with his – to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is our greatest treasure 5.
If the above is true, then the question of what we love and desire most in this world is one of the most crucial questions we can ask ourselves in critical reflection: our loves and desires will drive us closer to Christ or further away.
We are Lovers
What if, instead of starting from the assumption that we are primarily thinkers who need to fill up our heads with thoughts, we started from the conviction that we are first and foremost lovers who need to have our affections and desires satisfied.
Augustine, writing in Confessions said that:
‘You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you’.
The question is not whether you will be a lover or not. We are all lovers of some kind, with deep affections and desires. The real question is what you will love as ultimate 6. Augustine is writing that our hearts are made to find their end in God, and we will experience a deeply unsettling anxiety and restlessness when we try to love substitutes.
James K. Smith, when writing of the heart and the affections writes that:
‘The longings of our hearts both point us in the direction of the kingdom and propel us towards it. You are what you love because you live towards what you most desire’.
It was Martin Luther, who once remarked that: ‘whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God’. If this is true, then filling our heads with knowledge will be important, but not enough to shape us into the image of Christ. We not only need heads that have been filled to the brim with gospel-soaked scriptures and good theology but hearts that have been calibrated to the stirrings of the great I AM.
Returning to Our First Love
The church in Ephesus is arguably host to the greatest city-wide revival that has occurred in history. The gospel has exploded throughout Ephesus. Disease, the demonic and wickedness is literally being forced to the edges. A holy fear had gripped the city and the scriptures say that:
‘Many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily’.
One piece of silver was approximately one day’s wages, so the church in Ephesus is built off the back of an incredible gospel witness, confession and sacrifice in repentance. Men such as Paul, Timothy and John had been deacons, leaders and preachers for the Ephesian church. Yet, forty years later after the incredible revival, Jesus has this hard word for them in Revelations 2:
‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my names sake, and you have not grown weary.
But this I have against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember, therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works that you did at first’.
Jesus has come to an on the surface successful, enduring, theologically rich church and lays this accusation at their doorstep: You don’t even love me. Having rich, theological thoughts and enduring faithfulness did not automatically lead the church in Ephesus into a vibrant, rich relationship with Jesus. They forgot their first love. How then, do we return to our first love?
The Means of Grace
If I go into my house and flip a light switch on, I can turn on the electricity but I don’t provide the electricity. I can turn on a tap, but I don’t make the water flow. There will be no light and no water without someone else first providing it 7. So it is with the Christian. There are paths which God has already told us will stir our affections. These paths are the stuff of everyday, basic Christianity – unimpressively mundane but spectacularly potent 8. The discipline for every Christian is to place ourselves in the pathway of grace and return to our first love.
Zaccheus in Luke 19, desperately wanted to see Jesus but couldn’t because the crowds had surrounded Jesus. He couldn’t see him, couldn’t talk to him, couldn’t experience him and so he ran ahead of the crowds and climbed a sycamore tree. I have this image in my head of Zaccheus calling out to Jesus from the thick of the sycamore tree, ‘Jesus, I’m here!’ and this smile coming over him when Jesus turns his head and sees him. He positioned himself along the pathway of grace. He couldn’t have forced Jesus’ hand, he couldn’t make grace flow but he could put himself by faith along the path where grace was coming 9.
How do we return to our first love?
The means of graces are the rhythms and habits where we can place ourselves in the path of Gods grace and stir our affections for Him, just like Zaccheus placed himself in the path of Jesus and sought after Him. Jonathan Edwards encouraged those around him to:
‘Endeavour to promote spiritual appetites by laying ourselves in the way of allurement’.
The means of grace or spiritual disciplines are the means through which we can return to our first love, the things that have traditionally stoked our affections for Jesus and continue to stoke our affections because God has already told us he can be found there. Traditionally, there are three categories that many spiritual disciplines fit under
- Hearing God Speak (in his word)
- Having Gods Ear (by prayer)
- Belonging to God’s Body (in fellowship)
Hearing God Speak
Now, I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance amongst all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32)
The most incredible thing about opening the scriptures is not simply that we have one of the most ancient books of history in our hands, nor the incredible efforts of men and women such as Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, Paul or Peter. No, the most incredible thing is that when we open up the scriptures, God speaks.
Bart Ehrman, agnostic writer and professor at the University of North Carolina used to start his class on the New Testament with a series of questions. He would ask:
- How many of you would agree that the Bible is the inspired Word of God? (Almost everyone raises their hands)
- Now, how many of you have read the Harry Potter series (Again, almost everyone raises their hands)
- Now, how many of you have read the entire bible (This time: scattered hands throughout the auditorium)
Then Ehrman would laugh, and say:
‘I can see why you might want to read a book by J.K. Rowling. But if you think that God wrote a book, wouldn’t you want to hear what he has to say?’
Before printing it and binding it and covering it with leather, consider the concept of God’s word 10. God speaks. He reveals himself to us. He communicates with us. His word, as John Frame says, is ‘his powerful, authoritative self-expression‘. Just as the words of a friend are central in revealing his person to us, so it is with God.
In John 6, after the crowd leaves Jesus, he turns to his disciples and asks them, ‘Do you want to go away as well’. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom else shall we go. You have the words of eternal life’. So it is with us.
Having Gods Ear
In a sense, prayer is as basic as two people relating to one another, conversing, interacting, but with this significant caveat: in this relationship, we don’t chat as peers. He is our creator, and we are his creatures. He is the great Lord and we are his happy servants 11. It should not surprise us then, that prayer is not about getting things from God, but about getting God himself 12.
John Piper writes:
‘Prayer is not only the measure of our hearts, revealing what we really desire, it is also the indispensable remedy for our hearts when we do not desire God the way we ought to’.
The great purpose of prayer is to ask that – in and through all his gifts – God would be our joy. In other words, the very purpose of prayer is to come humbly, expectantly and because of Jesus, boldly into the presence of God, to relate to him, talk with him and ultimately enjoy him as our great Treasure.
Belonging to Gods Body
In some ways, this is the most important means of grace. It is the one time that Gods people gather together as one and combine multiple means of grace to not only stir our affections, but to stir the affections of those around us. We were made to worship Jesus together. Amongst the multitude. With the great horde. Swallowed up in the magnificent mass of the redeemed. God didn’t fashion us to enjoy him as solitary individuals, but as happy members of a countlessly large family 13.
Rightly did J.R. Tolkien call his nine ‘the Fellowship of the Ring’. This is no chummy hobnob with apps and drinks and a game on the tube. It is an all-in, life-or-death collective venture in the face of great evil and overwhelming opposition 14. True fellowship is less like friends gathered together to watch the Super Bowl and more like players on the field in blood, sweat and tears, huddled together for the next down 15.
Hebrews 10:24-25 says:
‘And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near’
I think often of some years ago when I was out riding with a friend up our local mountain. We were in a heavy training period ahead of a cycling event we were taking part of, but unbeknown to me, I was fighting an undiagnosed medical condition. In the middle of the ride, it was like the energy had been drained out of all the recesses in my body. I was in a world of pain and was convinced that I wouldn’t make it to the top.
My friend told me to stick on his wheel. I knew that if I kept looking at the mountain ahead of me that I would soon give up as the enormousness of the climb would swallow me. Yet, if I focused on myself and the pain that my body was in, I would never make it to the top. As long as I focused on my friend and the gentle encouragement that he kept giving me, I would be able to make it to the top.
In the same way, the church is our greatest weapon in our fight for satisfaction in Christ, by gently encouraging us to stir our affections. When our hearts are cold and our ears are closed, God’s community sings to us, prays for us and reads with us as God himself opens our wooden hearts. They stoke our affections when our fire grows low.
It was Martin Luther who once said:
‘At home, in my own house, there is no warmth or vigor in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart and it breaks its way through’.
The Long Labor of Love
Friends, each and every one of us is a lover at heart. We orient our lives around what we love, even when we know and believe differently. The hard course of discipleship will be a long journey of curating our hearts and our minds in order to follow Jesus better. It is a long labour of love.
Praise be to God that he is faithful to us, that the Holy Spirit himself teaches us and guides us into all understanding, and that we love only because God has overwhelmed our own hearts with his tremendous love. Let us throw ourselves at the feet of the Father, asking him to help us love Him well.