As newlyweds, my husband Darius and I met with Pastor Adrian Craig, the president of the conference where my husband was about to begin his first ministerial job. After the initial pleasantries and congratulations, Pastor Craig asked us, “Did you know that God created marriage for the purpose of character growth?”
As a 23 year-old woman, I’d never thought of marriage in those terms—but I soon discovered that he was right.
In the first few years of our marriage, each time Darius and I encountered conflict, my default response was to blame him for whatever was going wrong. But, over the next few years, I came to understand that the ugliness that bubbled up out of me each time we bumped up against each other was not because of what he had done or said, but because of what was inside of me.
As I slowly learned to take responsibility for my flaws, my character was formed in new ways. I gradually learned to manage my anger more appropriately, to be less perfectionistic and judgemental, to be more empathetic and to cut my husband some slack when he didn’t do things the way I did. I came to see that marriage was indeed an opportunity for character refinement and, as I slowly made progress, married life gradually became a lot less bumpy.
But then our children were born. Those character flaws that I thought were gone seemed to return with a vengeance. More than that, I learned I had more flaws than I’d realised! As my children grew from infancy to toddlerhood, I came to see how lacking in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control I really was.
I would have despaired, except that it was at this time that I joined a small group. We’d just moved to a new town, and, in my effort to connect, I reached out to a church in my neighborhood and asked if there was a women’s group I could join. They informed me that, indeed, there was a group within walking distance of my new home. So, on Wednesday mornings, I would bundle my babies into a double stroller and walk the short distance to meet with a group of women from all walks of life and several different denominations.
I remember my first meeting—as the only Adventist in the group, I thought I needed to put my best foot forward, to be a witness to my Adventist faith. However, I soon discovered that the women in this group did not wear masks. Instead, marital woes, parenting woes, in-law and other inter-personal woes were all shared in very raw and very real ways, and then bathed in prayer.
As I attended this group for the next two years, I witnessed Christians carrying each other’s burdens and gently restoring those who confessed their weaknesses (Galatians 6:1,2). Although I did not learn to be quite as vulnerable as others in the group, I did learn that I could share some of my flaws and challenges and still be loved; that when I shared a personal or family-life burden and asked for prayer, the burden seemed to lighten; and that my need for character growth was less discouraging in the context of this authentic Christian community.
In retrospect, I now see that my experiences, both in my family and in the many faith-based small groups I’ve been a part of since that time, have been experiences of discipleship.
Some people I’ve met consider discipleship to be “just the latest buzz word”. Others have told me that the word “discipleship” is not in the Bible, and therefore unbiblical. And yet, as I read the New Testament, I am convinced that the concept of discipleship was central to the life and ministry of Jesus and the apostles. While there are many definitions of the term “discipleship”, most of them a helpful depiction of this New Testament construct, the definition that most resonates with me is this one:
“Christian discipleship is the life-long process of learning to follow Jesus and become more like Him, for the benefit of others.”
Let me unpack this a little.
Discipleship is a process of learning. How do we know this? Because the word translated “disciple” in the New Testament is mathetes, which is derived from the Greek word “to learn”. Thus, a Christian disciple is one who is learning to follow Jesus.
As we learn to follow Jesus, to “abide with” and “remain in” Him (John 15); and as we “gaze on [His] beauty” (Psalm 27:4), we recognise how unlike Him we are and how much we want to become more like Him. Over and over again, the New Testament underscores “formation” or “transformation” as the goal of the Christian life (Romans 6:6; 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 5:17; Galatians 2:20; 4:19).
I love the way Ellen White described this: “To restore in man the image of His Maker, to bring him back to the perfection in which he was created . . . this is the object of education [or discipleship], the great object of life.”1
I also love that Ellen White describes this process of formation as a lifelong journey, one that “cannot be completed in this life, but that will be continued in the life to come”.2 [pullquote]
As we face the changing circumstances of life across the life span, we are given new opportunities to be formed in His image. As this statement reveals so profoundly:
“[Family life] can reveal just how much we need to become like Christ. About the time our children are raised, life surprises many of us with enlarged prostates, diabetes, aching backs and breast cancer. Our married children divorce and move back home. Resentment, disappointment, and many negative emotions that we believe were gone return with a rage. What becomes so powerfully true is that all events and circumstances form us into Christ. And that formation takes place throughout life.”3
When I finally understood this truth, that discipleship is a life-long journey, “a long obedience in the same direction”4, I understood why the women in my small group all those years ago wore no masks. And while I wanted to speed up my formation, they understood that it was “not the work of a moment, an hour, or a day, but of a lifetime”.5 Consequently, they felt no shame about the shortcomings of their lives.
There’s one last piece of my definition: Christian discipleship must be for the benefit of others. As I learn to love and follow Jesus, I also learn to love others (Matthew 22:37-39). This begins in my family: when I grow in the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23), my family benefits; when I learn to manage my anger without sinning (Ephesians 4:26), my family benefits; when I learn to express my sexuality in God-honouring ways (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5), my family benefits; and so on. But it also extends to my relationships with those beyond my family, particularly with those who need to know and experience the love and grace of Jesus. As I learn to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, and as I learn to be changed by Him, I also learn to participate in and be committed to His mission to the world (Matthew 4:19).
I still have a long way to go. I’m still too focused on my own needs and desires too much of the time. But I know the work that God has done in my life. And I know that God’s work in my life and in the lives of others—my family and my faith community—is a life-long process. So I can live without pretence and without shame, and I can be patient with myself and with others, because I know His work in us is not finished yet.
Dr Edyta Jankiewicz is a Family Ministries specialist for the South Pacific Division’s Discipleship Ministries team.