Paradigm – Seven Axioms
We’ve looked at seven axioms of a missional theology, which is the paradigm for how we live with God daily and lead others to do the same. These truths are an attempt to name how we see Jesus practice his spirituality. They are at the center of orienting our life in God’s love in Jesus Christ:
- God is always present and at work
- God is like Jesus and in him is no un-christlikeness at all
- God is so real he most fully meets us in reality (i.e. right where we really are)
- God cares about it more than we do
- What God wants to do through us he will first do in us
- The goal of our faith and discipleship is union with the Trinity
- We learn love through embodied participation
These axioms are one way to describe how Jesus “sees” life: they are the assumptions he makes and form the basis of how he relates to God and others. By no means are we suggesting these are exhaustive or exclusive; many other truths could be included here. But we believe these six axioms craft a theological foundation for us to be centered on the love of God in Jesus and develop a spirituality to learn how to live like Jesus.
Posture – Grace and Truth Matrix
On the basis of these assumptions, we then looked at the posture of Jesus. We saw that his basic disposition was one of “grace and truth.” The quality of his character as he interacted with others and ministered was that he was fully present to them in love, which is expressed in grace and truth.
Remember that grace is God’s giving of himself to us in relationship. It has to with identity and connection. Also remember that truth is God’s revealing of reality and calling us to participate robustly in it. It has to do with authority and representation.
(Note that we didn’t define love as much as described love, as seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is because definitions are good for helping us think about truth, but descriptions are better for helping us embody truth.)
This love, expressed in grace and truth, is the measure of our discipleship to Jesus and the mark we bear as followers of Jesus.
And now… Practices!
We will spend the rest of this course focusing pressing into the practices of Jesus that flow from this paradigm and posture. These elements build on each other, step by step, to create a robust training process for living our lives in the way of Jesus.
This module is all about the WHAT of Jesus’ practices (what’s the overall “thing” we see him doing?), and we’ll spend the next several modules focusing on the HOW of Jesus’ practices, and doing a lot of training in how to minister in the same way Jesus does.
What do we do with the gap between us and Jesus?
So here’s where we want to start: when we introduce the paradigm and posture of Jesus, most of us immediately notice that there is a pretty substantial gap between our lives and Jesus’ life.
We see how he calibrates grace and truth and opens up space for transformation, and it’s amazing! Then we realize we can’t put our kids to bed without losing our temper and yelling at them (Call Out Culture). Or we notice that “keeping people happy” is how we’ve done ministry for years (Hang Out Culture). Or we realize that we’ve given up trying to lead our churches into any meaningful corporate transformation (Check Out Culture).
The question is: what do we do with this gap? How do we take meaningful action to begin to move in the direction of Jesus’ kind of love? In other words, what do we actually DO as disciples of Jesus who are growing into Christlikeness?
Small group leaders behaving badly
Here’s a story about one of our early leadership experiences that illustrates where most of us start in trying to answer these questions:
Jacob was one of my small group leaders when I was a junior high youth pastor. And he was really late for our meeting. Not like “stuck in traffic” late, more like “passive aggressive” late. Forty-five minutes late. On one hand I was ticked off. I had gone to bat for him a few times before this and he was making it harder for me to stick up for him. On the other hand I was relieved because I was anxious about the meeting.
Here’s why: six months before, Jacob had finished a year-long internship at a discipleship training school, and it had transformed his life. He left irresponsible and immature and came back disciplined and grown up. Jacob lived with his mother, who commented that her disrespectful boy had returned a polished and polite young man. A year away from home studying the Bible, being around other Christians, and working on discipline and diligence in his personal habits seemed to have paid off.
But it was pretty clear the polish was rubbing off. He’d promised to get a job once he returned but that hadn’t happened. As a result, his mother had kicked him out of the house (she had made it clear this would be the consequence). Jacob had moved in with a female friend and her roommate, and eventually started dating the roommate. So he is now living with two single women, one of whom he is dating… and he’s leading a small group in my junior high youth ministry.
That’s why I wasn’t looking forward to this conversation.
Two phone calls and numerous texts later Jacob finally arrived, a full hour late. He walked into my office, and as he dislodged his hand from his pocket to shake mine, a pack of cigarettes fell onto the floor.
He looked down at them, then back at me. Stifling a giggle, he muttered, “Oops” and bent down to scoop the cigarettes up, shoving them deeply in his interior jacket pocket.
The cigarettes, and his nonchalance about them, were the last straw for me. I told him he couldn’t lead a small group in the youth ministry anymore. He said, “Okay,” and immediately left my office.
The meeting I’d waited sixty minutes for had lasted sixty seconds.
I never saw Jacob again. As far as I know he no longer considers himself a Christian.
How do we measure Jacob’s discipleship?
We tell this story in order to ask the question about the “gap” for Jacob between his life and what we see in Jesus… How did Jacob seek to close this gap? And how do we evaluate the quality of his discipleship?
Probably we have a notion that dishonoring your parents, living with your girlfriend, and openly smoking cigarettes conflicts with your role as “Small Group Leader.” We sense those behaviors aren’t becoming of a disciple of Jesus, especially when we contrast them with the good behaviors we saw earlier in Jacob when he first got back from his discipleship school.
The other thing that happened for Jacob during his year away was a growth in his knowledge. His understanding of theology and the Bible increased as he studied with others.
Here’s what we notice: knowledge and behavior are the typical things we focus on when it comes to discipleship, and they’re the main strategies we think of when it comes to “closing the gap” we see between our lives and Jesus’ life.
Most of us, when we want to grow as disciples, imagine ways to increase our understanding and/or change our behavior. We focus on:
Content and conduct.
Doctrine and deeds.
Head and habits.
Words and works.
Doctrine done right
For example, some Christian traditions seek out an agreed-upon collection of knowledge (doctrine). The important thing in these traditions is that people intellectually comprehend the content of the doctrine. They look for cognitive understanding and agreement as a marker of Christian maturity.
The training pastors receive at most seminaries is primarily focused on the domain of the intellect, emphasizing knowledge and understanding. Tests measure the student’s ability to get the correct answer, defend the correct positions, and argue for the correct propositions.
Deeds done right
Other traditions focus more on behavior. The way you know if you’re growing as a disciple is that you exhibit good moral conduct. If knowledge is the “internal” realm of discipleship, behavior is the “external” realm.
For some traditions the behavior to watch for is speaking in tongues, for others it is evangelistic fervor. In the story above, the “bad” behavior noticed was smoking and the appearance of sexual impropriety. Behavior is seen as external conformity to the internal knowledge of God, and it’s evaluated according to standards laid out in scripture and our denominational traditions.
But whichever element takes the lead, knowledge and behavior seem to be the measuring stick we use to determine whether our discipleship efforts are successful.
Something more is needed
“Discipleship is being with Jesus to learn from Jesus how to live like Jesus.” – Dallas Willard
If we want to close the gap between us and Jesus, then obviously what Jesus knows (his words) and what he does (his works) are vitally important. To be with him and learn from him how to live like him, we will need to submit our minds to the gaining of new knowledge. We’ll also need to submit our bodies to new behaviors.
We need to pay attention to the words of Jesus and attempt to imitate the works of Jesus. We need doctrine and deeds.
BUT here’s what we notice: words and works are insufficient to help us really grow into Christlikeness. Focusing on gaining knowledge and changing behavior doesn’t seem to consistently produce wise and mature disciples of Jesus.
We’re not saying that knowledge and behavior aren’t part of the equation, just that they don’t seem to tell the whole story.
Knowledge and behavior are crucial, but insufficient.
So what’s missing? How did Jesus model discipleship? How do we start to close the gap between what we see in Jesus and what we see in our lives?
The missing ingredient
One of the reasons it’s so easy to focus on words and works is that they are easy to observe and measure. I can demonstrate knowledge and display behavior and get a sense of “progress” if I’m going in the right direction.
But we’ve found that the key to our transformation is something that’s more difficult to observe and measure. It’s something that lives in a deeper place than doctrine and deeds.
It’s encapsulated in Jesus’ question to the two disciples who begin following him in John 1:35-39. His first question to them is not “What do you know?” or “What do you believe?” or “Do you follow the Law?” or “Have you been good boys?” What Jesus is wondering in that moment is, “What do you want?”
His first question isn’t about what they know or what they do, but what they WANT. Jesus wants to talk about their desires. We’ll see in next week’s exercise that this is a consistent feature of Jesus’ ministry, but for now we just want to emphasize that closing the gap in our discipleship MUST involve getting our “wanters on the table” so they can be transformed.
Our discipleship must involve the transformation of our desires into the desires of Jesus.
This is how we actually learn to do what Jesus said was the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
In other words, for love to permeate the entirety of our humanness, it has to not only touch our knowledge (mind) and our bodies (strength), but our deepest desires (heart / soul). Love the Lord your God with your doctrine, your deeds, and your desires. Your words, your works, and your wants.
As James K.A. Smith says, “You are what you love” (not what you think or even what you necessarily do), and this is where formation must focus, because our lives are steered by that which we long for much more than that which we believe or know we should do.
This is why the first exercise was one of naming desire… we wanted that to be the starting place for this journey of transformation. And if you’ll remember our sixth axiom: divine union is the goal of our discipleship, and this doesn’t happen unless our desires are transformed.
Almost the entire Sermon on the Mount is Jesus helping people see that knowing the right things and performing “correct” actions were not enough to really be at home in God’s kingdom. In each illustration, he was helping people dive below the surface of knowledge and behavior, into the heart, where our motivations are born, where our lives are driven by that which we most deeply desire.
Here’s a way to visualize this:
A few things to notice about this:
- Words and works are “above the water line,” which means they’re easy to observe and measure, whereas “wants” require more honesty and discernment for discover. Many of us have no idea what we really want.
- The integration of words/works/wants happens within the field of grace & truth (love). This is necessary because one of the main temptations we have when beginning to name our desires is the temptation to hide in shame when we realize we want the “wrong” things. It’s necessary to name these things in the environment of God’s love.
- The transforming of desire is the goal, but the first step in this process is simply to become aware of your desires as they currently consist and name them as such (this is a way of “meeting God in reality”).
- The goal isn’t to ignore words and works, but to integrate them with wants. Our knowing and doing are also transformed as we integrate them with the transformation of our desires.
A tale of two dogs
Here’s a little parable to end this article, illustrating the difference between a discipleship driven by words and works only, versus a discipleship driven by the integration of words, works, and wants…
When I (Matt) was newly married, my wife Sharon and I bought a dog. Ivy, we called her. This was the first dog either of us had owned, and we didn’t know what we were doing.
Ivy was a nervous dog. She would bark incessantly at passing cars, squirrels in the yard, or random sounds she happened to hear outside. Every time I came home, she’d squat in front of me and leave me a pool of her “excitement” on the floor.
On weekdays, Ivy would spend 8-9 hours in a crate at home. We’d bribe her into her crate in the morning with a treat, and she’d be clawing at the latch when we walked in the door.
Ivy was our “suburb dog,” and she was always looking for a way to get out of her kennel, away from her captivity. She couldn’t wait to go on a walk, and she’d be pulling at the leash the entire time looking to run ahead, as if trying to escape. We didn’t do a good job of training her, so her nervous desire to escape never really left her.
If Ivy was a nervous “suburb dog,” Buzz was a relaxed “country dog.” Buzz was the name of the dog that hung around the farm where my dad grew up. Buzz just showed up one day at my dad’s house and my dad began feeding him; that’s how Buzz became my dad’s dog.
Buzz stayed by my dad because my dad took care of him. Pretty soon Buzz had his own dog house on the farm. There were no fences or collars or leashes for Buzz. He could go anywhere he wanted and he often did. Early on in their relationship, Buzz came home with porcupine quills in his nose, or briars in his paw, and my dad removed them and nursed Buzz back to health.
Buzz didn’t wander as far after that.
Buzz became a part of the farm and eventually he had a job: he would guard the chicken coop from foxes and wolves. If any animal came close, he’d bark and howl to alert my dad’s family of the threat. Buzz would also follow my dad around on his chores, often helping him round up the other farm animals being raised there.
Buzz could go anywhere he wanted, but chose to stay close to my dad.
Ivy lived caged up close to us for most of her life, and was always trying to run away.
Here’s the deal: God has called us to a “country dog” life with him but most of us try to live a “suburb dog” Christianity. God has invited us into a rich, integrated word/works/wants discipleship, but many of us insist on a word/works faith, involving only our knowledge and behavior.
We use rules, bribes, threats, punishments, deals, barters, cages, leashes, etc. to keep ourselves in line, but find that our desires always lead us away and into trouble. No rule is big enough to shape our desire – it just cages it until eventually it works its way out.
We never fully step into any responsibility or authority in the kingdom of God because we are busy trying to manage and limit our cravings or longings to get out and run away.
God has invited us into a life that looks much more like Buzz’s than Ivy’s.
We are given freedom, and that freedom can lead us into trouble. But God doesn’t want to put a leash or collar on us to make us stay in line; he wants us to learn the blessedness of staying close because of the care he gives. Buzz seldom left my dad’s side because he knew he was taken care of; God wants his goodness to likewise keep us close to him.
Also, Ivy was a pet who didn’t have any real responsibility in our family. We’d play with her and take her for walks, but her life was fairly boring. Her role in our family was one of leisure. Buzz on the other hand earned the trust of my dad’s family and had a role to play on the farm. Because Buzz was loyal and committed, he began to actually partner in running the farm.
Country dogs stay close to the master because they learn to trust his provision, and because they have an indispensable role to play in the family business.
When we attempt to live our faith by just words and works, by just knowing more and doing better, we end up in a cage of certitude and moralism. We tie holiness and growth to sinning less and knowing more.
When our desires, our wants, aren’t on the table for discipleship, we are left trying to steamroll them, ignore them, or even carefully gratify them in “safe” ways, but they’re never really transformed, so we’re always working against what we actually want! It just doesn’t work.
What God desires for us is the country dog life: learning to live in the freedom and responsibility we share with our Master. We can go wherever we want, but we’re learning to stay close to the Master because there is provision and affection there, as well as authority in the family business.
Unless we get our “wanter” on the table, unless we learn to observe, name, and reckon with our actual desires (good, bad, and ugly!), we will stay in a battle with our hearts.
The way into a country dog life with God is by meeting God in our wants and desires, and integrating our head, habits, and heart in the way of Jesus.
Questions for reflection:
- What has your experience of discipleship been mainly focused on? How did a words/works focus manifest itself? What were the results in your life?
- What excites you about this model? What brings clarity or conviction? Why do you think this is?
- What concerns you about this model? What brings conflict or confusion? Why do you think this is?
Resources for further learning
- You are What you Love, by James K.A. Smith
- Resisting the Temptation to Moral Formation: Opening to Spiritual Formation in the Cross and the Spirit, by John Coe
- The Cure, by John Lynch, Bruce McNicol, and Bill Thrall