“Whose disciple are you, anyway?” When I first heard this question from author and teacher Dallas Willard, I winced. What went through my head is what I suspect would be the first reaction of most of us: “Nobody’s! I don’t have a master; I am my own person!”
But no matter how much we prefer to think of ourselves as “our own person,” our thought patterns, emotional responses and actions are largely a product of those who have influenced us. We learn to live from somebody else. All our lives we have been disciples of our parents, influenced by our favourite teachers, affected by our friends, moulded by writers, artists and politicians. If I think I have developed myself independently, that is probably because I have been mastered by someone important in my life who thinks so! Such individualism is at the core of what it means to be a modern and Western person.
Whether or not what we learn from, absorb and emulate in others is incoherent or even best for us, this process of being “discipled into life” is necessary for us to survive as individuals and communities. In each of our lives, a time comes when, in order to grow into the people we want to be, we have to stop, identify and evaluate our past and present masters. We then have a choice to make about which masters we want to follow—but we will always have masters. We are always someone’s disciples.
But at times Christianity has not made this easy for people. Left to the simplistic ways Christian spirituality has often been portrayed, one can hardly be compelled to choose Jesus as the master teacher of life and Christianity as the way to life abundant. For one thing, Christianity has been sold to people primarily as a way to get to heaven one day. However, if being a Christian is merely about life after death, Christianity becomes a sophisticated form of self-centredness in which one is obsessed with one’s eternal destiny, often at the expense of making a difference in this life. Here, the unconditional acceptance of God that was meant to be a starting point in life is made into the finish line.
Another misunderstanding of Christian spirituality has been the notion that the ultimate goal of Christian transformation is mere obedience. But the God of the Bible does not want to mechanically guide human lives. God creates persons with their own will, nurturing people to grow their own personality and their own ways of making a difference in the kingdom of God. God as described in the Bible cannot be conceived just in terms of “giving us directions,” because the last thing God would ever want is a person with increasing obedience and a shrinking heart. Instead, the ultimate goal of God’s nurture for our lives is for us to get caught up in the higher life of the kingdom, in which we learn to love all that is good and right and beautiful, so God can let us loose in the universe to do what we want to do. Created in the image of God, we are not simple emanations of God’s energy but persons, very much like God is a person, endowed with the ability to affect the universe with our will and choices, making an impact no-one else can make.
When our lives are caught up in the life of God, goodness, sacrifice and patience begin to make sense to us. We learn to live a life in which behaviours such as loving one’s enemies will be the only sensible thing to do. Greed, envy, hatred and all we have learned from former masters become nonsensical. And that’s the only true human freedom. Danish existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard caputured it this way: “And now Lord, with your help, I shall become myself.”
The New Testament is full of exhotation for the followers of Christ to discipline their lives. We are invited to run, strive, work and stuggle on our spiritual jouneys. This is in no way a call for us to “earn our salvation” by merit.
The effort the Christian life entains is to strive to live an “open life“, a life God is allowed to affect.
Jesus lives such an open life-a life into which God was welcome to enter, to heal, to guide. He developed specific practices for such a life, and His followers through the centuries have cherished them and applied them to their space and time. We today are handed this rich treasure of spritual practices. Through them we practise the presence of God. To live fully, we developo life habits that keep us open to God; we organise our lives to learn to love God, people and all of life.
Throught them we allow God to grow us and through us to serve humanity.
And that’s what the Christian symbol of grapes on a vine stands for: the sweetness of the fruits that a life open to God can produce.
It is significant that the Bible talks about “spiritual life”. It only talks about life. That’s why these spiritual disciplines are not only for spiritual giants, not only for those who devote their whole lives to it. There are for ordinary human beings, people who have jobs, people who care for children, peole who wash dishes.
Solitude, simplicity, study, prayer, medication, slowing down, giving and fasting are some of the practices that have become known as spiritual disciplines.
Although the word discipline has a connocation of “hard work”, they are not a way to earn any favours from God. They are but a means of grace, a way we create an opening in our armour, permission for God to enter our lives and transform us. And God always does.
Instead of drifting on the raft of life from one maser to another, through spiritual disciplines we raise the sails of our lives to expose them to the wind of God. And instead of growing into a wild shoot without purpose, through spiritual disciplines we allow God to water the plan of our life and grow us into something true and beautiful. With God’s help, we can become ourselves.