When I was 16, I dropped out of high school to do an apprenticeship as a butcher in a meat factory. Yet, four years later, I was given an incredible scholarship to study theology in the United States.
I had been living alone for the last year, so when I got to college and bumped into 18 year olds who stayed up all night playing video games, I felt like a man among boys. And I had this voice hovering in my heart: to whom much is given, much is required. I thought I had been given a once-in-a-generation opportunity and so God was going to require certain things from my life. So I was getting up at 4am, praying for two hours, and even jogging for an hour before breakfast.
In the middle of this process, I met a girl called Christy. After a while of her getting up at the same time and joining me to pray and memorise scripture, one day she told me, “I just can’t follow God like you follow God. I’m not you, and me trying to live God’s call on your life, your way, is destroying my walk with God, my way.” And, believe it or not, that was one of the most helpful things that anybody has ever said to me as a pastor, because what she was effectively saying was, “Don’t put your call and your yoke over me and expect me to thrive.” In doing so, we moralise our call, or our season, or our preferences, and we start judging people on how they measure up to those things, which just creates a cycle of death for them.
We have to have an approach that can hold this tension. We can’t be lazy, or squander the call of God on our lives, but we also can’t be legalistic. The solution at the heart of this, the way that enables us to reach our full redemptive potential, is to find the yoke that fits us and to walk in the way of Jesus: the way of practising his teachings.
THE WAY OF PRACTICE
Jesus is passionate about people being his disciples and practising what he taught in their lives. It’s easy to hear that through a filter that says, “Do stuff for God” but it’s not about trying harder; it’s about what Paul instructed Timothy to do – “Train yourself to be godly.” In order to live out what is possible through the calling of God that is on your life, you need to go to the gym of spiritual formation. We are called to put into practice what Jesus has taught us; not to see how good we are, but to learn to get better at following Jesus.
I want to be very clear here. I am not trying to make you into a good Christian. I’m trying to help you be good at being a Christian. And there is a radical difference. ‘Good Christians’, as we usually picture them, sound anaemic to me: nice people, defined primarily by what they don’t do. But good Christians actually turn tables over. Good Christians get into riots. Good Christians bless and love their enemies. Good Christians know the right thing to say at the right time. Good Christians welcome the other. Good Christians are incredibleI The goal is not that you become a good Christian. The goal is to train yourself to be good at being a Christian.
You do not get into the Kingdom of God by practice; you get in by acknowledging that you are terrible at practising. You get in by grace. It’s not about how to get into the kingdom, but how to live in it. Then, once you’re in by grace, we believe that Jesus taught his followers how to participate in God’s reign. He taught what the kingdom is like, what its characteristics are, and therefore what kind of practices are followed those who participate in it and are ready for it.
There are two basic kinds of practice. The first is about disengagement: practices of withdrawal. For example: solitude, silence, fasting, chastity, secrecy, or listening. These are practices where you are so burned out or so worked out that the way you actually change is by ceasing, withdrawing and reflecting. These practices will help get you profoundly in touch with your inner life.
The other kind are practices of engagement, such as: study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission. These are practices that you step into, where you actually begin to do things. And in practising these classical spiritual disciplines you will learn to grow in your capacity to follow Jesus.
LISTENING & DOING
“Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word and does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and after looking at himself goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”
We live in a time of history where it’s never been easier to listen to the best content in the world and yet to practice almost none of it. It’s so easy to delight in ideas and concepts from so many great teachers. But you become like Jesus by obeying him. You’re not going to be held accountable for how many talks you’ve listened to, but you will be accountable for whether or not you’ve obeyed what God has put in front of you. In Matthew 7, both the wise people and the foolish people hear the teaching of Jesus and appreciate it. But Jesus tell us that it’s the people who put it into practice who, when the storms of life come, are the ones that don’t fall apart.
Both kinds of people would probably call themselves Christian and attend a local church. They’re both in a small group and they worship with their hands raised, but one leaves the service and does what Jesus says – they practise it – while the other doesn’t. And when the financial, relational or circumstantial drama hits, one completely crashes and the other manages to hold it together. Why? Because their life was built on following Jesus, while the other’s was built on the way of the world, with a little Christianity thrown in for one day a week.
When we practise what Jesus has taught us, it makes him so much more present and real as we join him in his lifestyle. It also makes his love tangible. So instead of Christianity being a concept, it becomes an actual way of life. It becomes this thing you can step into and encounter.
It also forms us into the kinds of people who have the character to transform and shape the world. if we become his apprentices, if we sign up under him and learn from him, he will disciple us, train us and walk with us in such a way that we become like him.
Our world is filled right now with people who say one thing but, under pressure, collapse and fall apart. It’s heartbreaking to watch. What we actually need is people who do what Jesus says, and in so doing develop the character to begin to shape history.
TIME TO EXPERIMENT
All of us are called to grow spiritually, and to do that we have to first ask ourselves the question: Where am I right now? One of the greatest things you can do is start asking the Holy Spirit to search you – heart, soul, mind and strength – and ask him: What’s the area that most needs attention? Where do I need to withdraw? Where do I need to engage? From there, you can make a plan and then step into it.
But then we need to come together with our communities and ask the same question: What do we need corporately, as a church? What does my small group need? Even, what does my family need as we follow Jesus together? As we are really honest with ourselves and with those around us, we will start to understand the particular formation school that Jesus offers us.
The next step I like to call ‘experiments’. You just have a go at something for a certain period of time and see what happens. It could be that this week you don’t do anything except read the Bible, every chance you get, then just see what happens at the end of the week. Or you could have a ‘secrecy week’, where you give to someone every day and not tell anybody about it. It can be fun and joyful! Other times, you might experiment for a longer period of time; maybe three months, or even a year. One incredibly gifted pastor I knew felt like he was weak in one particular area, and wanted to learn to trust God when it came to resources. So, as a family, they decided to give all of the money they earned to the poor for the next three months and see if Jesus really would feed them like he promised (which, of course, he did). My friend didn’t think that just because he was gifted in one area he couldn’t also benefit from growing in his discipleship somewhere else.
If we can learn to not just get a vision for the Kingdom of God, and not just be formed into people who love God, but also to get skillful in practising what Jesus has for us in the world, I believe we’re going to step into the kind of discipleship that the world is aching for. When you try to do this in your own strength, all you will find is fatigue and guilt. But when you practise in the Spirit, you will find it leads to growth, as you actually learn to become like the Master.
by Jon Tyson
*This article has been adapted from Jon’s sermon, ‘The Way of Practice’, preached at Church of the City New York in January 2018, and is used by permission. You can hear the full version via the podcast on their website: church.nyc/teaching-resources