Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23 NASB). This “tough love” statement is well known among believers. Yet, how many of those professing Christ as Savior give serious thought to verses such as this one that help us measure our progress on God’s scale of maturing faith? It’s been said that making disciples requires being one first. This is where discipleship may take on a greater degree of difficulty than first imagined. Discipleship from any perspective is definitely hard work beyond our capacity and capability. But Jesus has already done the heavy lifting of dying on the cross and rising from the dead. What then could be so hard about following Jesus? Oh, you mean according to His terms. As 21st Century believers, we have virtually every tool available to free up even more time than ever before to follow Christ’s footprints along the narrow way. A difficult and challenging road of resolute faith, first traveled twenty centuries ago by disciples who were outfitted with a lot less than what’s available to us today… or were they?
Besides laying down His life for us, Jesus also laid down a gauntlet of Scriptures defining discipleship. While some disciple-identifying passages might be shrugged off as hyperbole—to illustrate a point or make a stark contrast—others, such as Luke 9:23 present the criteria necessary for reaching a certain goal. In this case, what it takes to be a disciple of Christ… according to Christ Himself. Maybe not hyperbolic but seemingly just as impossible.
So then, should believers pick and choose what they will or will not when it comes to discipleship? Definitely not! Or, rationalize Scriptural passages that demand so much from them? Certainly not! Does the old adage “just do the best you can” work here? Surely not! It only mimics the secular world’s futile approach to solving problems independently of God. Can true Christ-following discipleship be done without His help? Absolutely not! Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) and “…If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31).
But truly abiding discipleship requires more than wishful thinking or great intentions. Luke provides three examples of those promising to follow Jesus or requesting a postponement. Jesus knew their hearts well enough to respond to each promise or request on an individual basis. The first person needed to understand discipleship’s hardship potential, while the two procrastinators needed lessons in priority setting. Unlike the rich young ruler’s sad refusal of Jesus’ offer, the text here (Luke 9:57-62) doesn’t tell us the end result. All believers must individually count the cost and measure priorities as they define and apply Jesus’ generically stated nonnegotiable discipleship terms.
Weighing the cost of truly abiding discipleship begins at the foot of a “cross” that would have borne your name on it had Jesus not taken your place on His cross. Instead, as a believer, your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Honest humility and overwhelming loving appreciation shine through Paul’s own cost evaluation captured for us in Philippians 3:7-14 including these words: “…I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…” a blueprint discipleship attitude fueled by the indwelling Holy Spirit and stoked with fervent prayer, opened Bibles and willing hearts. Denying oneself is in large part identifying with Christ in a Scriptural way and not being ashamed of the gospel as Paul wrote about in Romans 1:16.
Peter wrote this about Jesus: “…He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Paul echoes this spiritual healing, “For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:10-11). Denying, taking and following are active verbs that help define and describe what it means to be alive to God in Christ. Certainly no hyperbole there!
Without love for Christ, discipleship can resemble legalistic religion more so than a loving relationship. The Father’s love is a key motivator for healthy discipleship. His love started it all. Disciples show their love in return with each step of obedient faith. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). The actual weight of the burden won’t change but yoking up with Jesus provides extra strength to carry it. “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Discipleship is a team effort with Christ.
Following Christ also takes courage. True abiding-in Christ discipleship is a life-changing choice not so much for the faint-of-heart as it is for the faith-in-heart. When verbs and adverbs of faith begin outweighing the nouns of head knowledge filling a believer’s discipleship vocabulary. Believers face tough decisions all along Christ’s narrow path. A road where shortcuts just don’t exist. Yet not without a spiritual map or compass. David wrote, “I have set the LORD continually before me; Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken… Thou wilt make known to me the path of life; In Thy presence is fulness of joy…” (Psalm 16:8, 11). There is no better Guide to show us the Way!
Daily discipleship can become problematic for those who compartmentalize discipleship among a mixture of rationalized priorities. In other words, a smorgasbord approach. “Life is short, you know… just can’t fit it all in” may describe something you’ve heard or even said yourself. But if we cannot find time for the Lord then we are too busy. Consider some of the final words of Peter, a truly humbled disciple of Christ to the very end. Not always perfect. But God doesn’t expect perfection. God does expect believers to genuinely follow Christ on His terms, and live out such qualities as those outlined by Peter, self-described bond-servant and apostle, in 2 Peter 1:1-11.
Jesus asked His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter correctly identified Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16). It was a giant first step in the right direction of focusing on what mattered most to God. The same question that every person and potential disciple must also answer. Among Peter’s many teaching moments with Jesus was a dust-up over Peter’s objection to having his feet washed by his Teacher and Lord. However, Peter quickly did an about face upon Jesus’ rebuke saying, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head” (John 13:9). Peter was “all-in”… does that describe the 21st Century church, as well?
It’s hard enough to reach our potential as ordinary people, let alone as born-again Christians. The world depends upon itself and its own measurements to define potential. In contrast, the plumb line of believers is “held” in God’s hand through His Word. For example, God speaks about a believer’s potential according to the “measure of faith” that He has graciously given to them (Romans 12:1-3). Again, God doesn’t expect perfection and He doesn’t set us up to fail if we step out in faith. Instead, God is always ready to catch us, pick us up or steady us for the next step.
As for the title question, the answer is “No!” So, who or what actually is making discipleship hard? Certainly not Jesus! Paul and other First Century believers have proven that Jesus’ rigorous standards can be met through the enduring strength and power of God. Could it be fear of persecution: “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12)? Or, could it simply be a believer’s unwillingness to whole-heartedly love, trust, prioritize and serve God to the fullest extent possible? Like Peter, are you “all-in” for Jesus?
Alan Summers, GBC Elder
All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB), 1975 and 1995 versions