If I asked you to describe a superhero, what would come to mind? Maybe a chiselled body, a commanding voice, intolerance for injustice—but probably not someone who enjoys romantic movies yet struggles to call his mother on a regular basis. How about a princess? You may picture a beautiful woman with an amazing voice, an innate way with animals, someone used to the good life—but you probably wouldn’t picture someone who’s old, married and who prefers to live in a modest flat instead of a luxurious palace. Stereotypes are abundant in the media and, let’s be honest, they are two-dimensional characters, both predictable and boring.
Have you ever thought of Christianity in a similar vein? Now, before you put up your defences, let me please give you some examples.
For many, even among churchgoers, being a Christian is largely just a way of thinking and a decision to embrace certain habits. For example, for many, being Christian means going to church, having a set of rules that you live by (and expect others to live by), and for the most part being more conservative than secular society, morally at the very least. Many in church and out of church believe that Christianity is far more theology than ministry,
and certainly more talking than doing. It’s a bit harsh, I know, but from my conversations with many people these are the stereotypes we are facing as Christians.
The biblical reality is however quite different from what many in the church portray. Whether it makes you uncomfortable or not, the fact is, unless you are a disciple of Jesus you are not a Christian. For those who would like a definition, a disciple is someone who is actively becoming more like Jesus while also helping others become more like Jesus. This includes introducing people to Jesus.
Discipleship is not one or two-dimensional. It is not simply paying your tithe and keeping the pew warm. It is not simply agreeing with doctrinal fundamentals, nor is it going out of your way to tell others that they are wrong and you are right.
Following Jesus involves everything
Discipleship takes place at your desk at work and on your screen at home. It is a process that impacts not only thoughts but actions. Discipleship is not satisfied in watching a church service as you would watch a movie. Discipleship means becoming who Jesus wants you to be, not who you want to be, nor who you think Jesus wants you to be.
Think of the original disciples. They gave up their careers, their families, their positions, their wealth, their culture and their pride. The rich young ruler sadly wasn’t willing to give everything up, although the prestigious Nicodemus and wealthy Joseph of Arimathea eventually did. Does this mean we have to give up our careers and wealth too? Maybe. It depends what God is asking and calling you to do. The point is that being a disciple isn’t just about using the Ten Commandments as a righteous checklist like the rich young ruler did. Rather, it means going beyond the basic commandments and doing anything Jesus is asking you to do.
Now, don’t get too discouraged, as this is not an instant transformation. Just like a good novel takes time to paint a three-dimensional character for its reader, it takes a lifetime for Jesus to turn us into His authentic and faithful followers. It wasn’t until after Jesus was resurrected that His disciples finally were truly transformed into worthy role models; and they spent more than three years with Jesus face to face! Discipleship involves continual growth, earnest faithfulness and love; love which serves to qualify the growth and faithfulness.
Following Jesus benefits everything
To love the Lord, with all of your heart, strength, mind and soul, as well as your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40), not only benefits others but benefits us. Loving God, and loving others as we love ourselves, are integral in growing and maintaining a healthy wellbeing spiritually but also physically, socially and psychologically.
In relation to loving the Lord, studies have shown that those who have a positive attachment to God have greater life satisfaction.1 Those who have a spiritual connection with the Divine have also been found to get along better with their neighbours and co-workers, and have also shown to cope far better when life does not go as well as hoped. Being connected to God is not synonymous with being religious of course; you can strictly follow a set of rules or traditions and yet not have a loving relationship with Christ.
Loving others also has multiple benefits. Depression has been named as the single greatest contributor to global disability by the World Health Organisation.2 Interestingly, a recent study has found that depression can be cured or at least significantly reduced by positive social connections.3 In other words, when you belong to social groups that you identify with, depression symptoms are reduced, often completely. When we love others, we are connected with them. This does not mean we agree with everything they believe or say, but it means that we treat them as we ourselves would like to be treated. The longest living communities on Earth are all interdependent communities; they are strongly bonded relationally.4
To love others as we love ourselves implies that we have a healthy and positive self-concept. When we think of ourselves as terrible and treat ourselves with disrespect, the same is done to others. When the Lord made us in His image it pleased Him to the point where He sent His Son Jesus to sacrifice Himself for our sakes. If this is indeed true, then are we not worthy of love and respect? When we love ourselves in a godly sense, not to be confused with a narcissistic lust of self, although we know we are sinful beings we regard others and ourselves as vessels that can be used by God for great things. According to another recent study, those who are highly spiritual and faithful have higher rates of optimism, sense of self-worth, perceived meaning in life and hope.5
Following Jesus is everything
The reality of having an abundant life right now is fantastic. However, we know that this life is temporary. When all is said and done (quite literally) what matters is eternity, which is why discipleship is everything. In the end our relationship with Christ is all that really matters. The big question is: is Jesus the motivation behind everything we do?
Joe Azzopardi is a Doctor of Philosophy candidate at Avondale College of Higher Education.