Have you ever wondered why Paul kept putting so much time and effort into the Corinthian church? Why didn’t he just move on in the face of so many problems, headaches, and heartaches? Why did he—time and time again—take the time to explain why they should hold to his yoke and way of life, when they kept listening to people who were so clearly trying to take advantage of them?
I submit that it was because Paul really, deeply, and truly loved them. He had so personally invested himself in them, with them, and for them, that he could not—indeed would not—let them go. His discipleship of the people of Corinth was no casual relationship simply for the sake of delivering the gospel, it was part of it. As loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself are not two but one commandment, the gospel preached and the love it calls us to, are also one.
Discipleship is relational. It is personal. It is life-on-life. You cannot disciple in a biblical sense from a distance. It is up close and personal. It is relational because love is relational. Love is not a concept to be understood but a relational commitment to be lived out.
I have been learning that love takes time. Paul spent upwards of two years with the Corinthians. Two years with the Apostle Paul and they were still this messed up! But Paul was not giving up. He was willing to put in the time. Jesus spent three years with the disciples teaching them what loving one another looked like. Love takes time. It is not learned in a few weeks, or even a few months. It takes years to get any good at it, and after that there is always room to grow.
Love takes personal investment. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:15 (NIV), I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. Is that not a strong statement of personal investment? As Paul was personally invested in the lives of the Corinthians, we need to be invested in the lives of one another if we are going to learn to love, let alone be able to teach others how to love. Love by its very nature is personal and costly.
Love not only requires our time and personal investment, it means being vulnerable. You cannot love or model love and remain at arm’s length. That is the difference between being nice to others and loving others. The world says “be nice to one another,” Jesus says, Love one another, and further, as I have loved you, so you must love one another (John 13:34, NIV). You can be nice and not be open and vulnerable. But to love others you have to open up to them.
And yes, that means there is the distinct possibility of getting hurt.
But it is perhaps especially in our hurts that love is so essential. Would you agree that some of the best fruits of love are compassion, mercy, grace, and forgiveness? Are these not at the heart of understanding the love of Christ? Yet these fruits, the ones we should covet most, only come from working love into the dark soil of adversity. Compassion is only learned when we are caught up in the pain of another. Mercy is only learned when we relent and do not carry through with our anger or treating someone as they deserve. How can a person have an idea of the beauty and love of mercy if they never experience it from you or I? Likewise grace is a one-way love given to bless a person who did not earn it or expect it. How can you learn the love of giving forgiveness if you are never hurt? How can a person learn the preciousness of that gift if they never receive it and experience it themselves?
Indeed, I submit to you that a Christian who does not experience compassion, mercy, grace, and forgiveness from fellow Christians will have a very hard time accepting that God has given those things to him or her, and will only have a shallow and dull understanding of them; and because of that, their love will be dull and shallow. Therefore, if we walk away from the work of cultivating the soil of suffering with the love of Christ, we will never see much of a harvest of those fruits in our lives, or in the lives of those around us.
Discipleship is intentionally helping another person to love God and love others. If we don’t incarnate God’s love for us in love for others, how will people learn what that means? How can we impart what we don’t practice?
Love takes time, personal investment, and being vulnerable. Can I be honest with you? I have been learning that these are three things we are loathe to give. Our time is precious and we are very jealous of it. People like to keep their investments in themselves. And (least where I live) being vulnerable is just, well, anti-New England.
Paul said in Philippians 4:9 (NIV), Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. One of those “whatevers” is seeing that discipleship is not something that is done from a distance. It is a relationship in which we learn, practice, and teach love. It requires our time, our investment, and our openness. If we are going to obey the Great Commission we have to figure a way to let go of some of our reasons to avoid the cost that practicing Jesus’ love requires.
How do you do that? Well, let me share three questions to ask yourself in order to ascertain where you are at and what you might need to address in order to be a more effective discipler, and then a set of three more questions that you can ask about any person that you are currently or might start discipling.
First, are you compartmentalizing your discipleship relationships to programs? If most or all of your discipling relationships only happen in a small group or bible study or a Sunday school class, then you might need to ask yourself if you are using those settings as a buffer to keep you from getting too close to people…or to keep people from getting to close to you.
Second, if your motto is “all I need is my Bible and Jesus” you might need to ask if you are using Bible study as a way to avoid people. If our Bible study does not lead us into relationships to learn, incarnate, and then impart God’s love to others, then we have gotten off track.
Third, when you are talking with a non-Christian and the subject of faith comes up and they want to hear more, does your mind go in the direction of “I need to get him to my church so he can hear the gospel,” or does it go in the direction of “I need to invite him over for dinner so he can meet my family and I can tell him the gospel?” Inviting him or her over shows that we are interested in them. Just bringing them to church can be a way of staying at arm’s length.
Now, how can you start? Here are three questions a fellow pastor shared with me which I have found very helpful. You can ask them of anybody, Christian or not who you are discipling.
Who is this person in Christ? Maybe they are in Christ now, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. Where are they in their walk with God?
What has Christ done and is currently doing in this person that I can partner with? This is a great question. It helps us to look for what we can work with, and frees us from thinking that we need to have all the answers to everything. What is Jesus doing that I can come and support? How am I gifted to help?
What does Christ want to do through this person? We are working for Christ and His kingdom so we need to have that kingdom focus as we work with them.
If we prayerfully, honestly, and humbly ask those questions of ourselves and the people in our lives, I think you will find that God will bless you and use you in very powerful ways in the lives of others.