Discipleship: Character Qualities

Business books are big business. They help you hone skills, build winning teams, and improve your game. Every title boasts great stories and lots of win-win.

Biographies and histories are similar. Learning from others is entertaining, provides context, and yields wisdom. It’s hard to beat having examples to follow.

Discipleship books are a hybrid of both. They highlight best practices, tell stories, and inspire vision. They’re also very different from each other. I recently read the tables of contents from eighteen popular discipleship books. Not one of them was the same — evidence that there’s more than one way to do it. What’s crucial is to do it.

During our interviews with ministry leaders, my friend and I distilled this general description of discipleship: a group of believers who, through their close association with one another, are intentionally becoming more like their Leader.

That’s an excellent model because it reflects the group’s dependence on each other. It also keeps every eye on the goal — becoming like our Leader. We can’t “do” discipleship without knowing what He’s like.

So, what is He like? Here’s where the “character qualities” of discipleship emerge. Jesus Christ is loving and kind. He is humble, wise, and good. A man of peace, patience, and kindness. Yet, also strong enough to authoritatively wield justice and righteousness. He is the kind of person you trust, respect, and want to be like.

Consider someone who knows the Bible well, yet also has a strong temper. That’s not what Christ was like. That temper needs to be discipled away. Or, take the guy who avoids sinful habits, yet is highly self-centered. Was Christ self-centered? What about someone who is eloquent in prayer, and also in criticizing others?

All the features of our human sinfulness fall within the purview of discipleship. It informs the kind of persons we become. If I’m an angry person, it will take a learning process and a loving community to guide me toward patience and grace. This is hands on, carefully biblical, courageous, and loving work. It’s both personal, and communal. That’s why it takes shepherding, gifting, and love to make it happen.

It also takes the mind of Christ, so we’re not simply trying to “be this way instead of that way.” Discipleship runs deeper than behavior. It’s rooted what’s true.

Setting examples

I work with two men who are weeks from turning eighty. They travel the world, zealous for a cause, influencing millions.

Both are humble, friendly, sincere, and generous. They live in the present, tell the truth,  love their enemies, and view challenges as opportunities.

Both attended Moody Bible Institute back in the day, follow Jesus Christ today, and live to meet Him some day soon.

But not too soon. There’s much yet to be done.

What’s their secret? One told me, “God keeps opening doors and I keep walking through them.” The other quoted a verse from the Bible. That I may finish my course well.

Giants in the land. Serving others. Like their Lord.

Invasive technology vs. humans

Many of the recent classics feature invasive technology. 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Giver come to mind. The speaker on the wall, the camera in the room, the eye in the sky, always watching.

Today, we live with all of these things. We’re living the classics. The only difference is who’s watching, and why. In the right hands, invasive technology is a welcome convenience. But not all are right handed.

The threat isn’t with the technology, but with the humans who use it. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil. Which means the question of our time (and of every time) is not how to use technology, but how to redeem humans.

Here are a few words describing what “redeemed” looks like in day-to-day life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Dig deeply into any of these qualities and they grow even more appealing (e.g., love).

These are all descriptions of Jesus Christ, whose birthday is marked by Christmas. He was born to redeem humans, and December is a good month to read about Him.

Taking root and bearing fruit.

People leave. They leave marriages, families, churches, communities, and companies.

Leaving can be innate, as when birds leave nests. It can be natural, as in leaving town for a new job elsewhere. It can even be necessary. Dangers, deprivations, and emergencies insist.

But just as often, leaving reveals brokenness. Something isn’t working, so we leave.

Such departures seem mandatory in the moment, but there are reasons to reconsider. One such reason was featured in a New Yorker piece on Orange City, a multi-generational town in Iowa. It’s about being with the same people at the same stores, schools, churches, and coffee shops, every day, always. Consider this excerpt:

In his 1970 book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, the economist Albert O. Hirschman described different ways of expressing discontent. You can exit — stop buying a product, leave town. Or you can use voice — complain to the manufacturer, stay and try to change the place you live in. The easier it is to exit, the less likely it is that a problem will be fixed. That’s why the centripetal pull of Orange City was not just a conservative force; it could be a powerfully dynamic one as well. After all, it wasn’t those who fled the town who would push it onward, politically or economically — it was the ones who loved it enough to stay, or to come back.

There’s much to be said for the deepening of relationships (communities, churches, workplaces) through “voice” and faithfulness. There’s love in this. Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And it’s reciprocal. It sees beyond.

As the third and fourth generations flourish.

Why tough decisions matter

We just moved from a house to an apartment. Our living space dropped by sixty percent, and we lost our yard, garage, and basement. We had to get rid of most of our stuff.

Painful as that was, it was life-changing. Now our lives are more relational and agile.

I recently watched some friends walk through this at work. Their business, built on lean means and slim margins, faced a sudden loss and needed to shrink. Sobered, they asked God for wisdom and watched for His leading. No rancor, whining, or self-interest.

Yet, their crisis persisted. Their sacrifices weren’t enough. More was required.

That’s when fatigue can set in, along with regrettable choices. But one of them suggested reviewing their values — which led to a strategic switch from loss to gain. Just like that.

At the end of the day, their team is stronger, they triumphed together, and they witnessed God’s “wisdom and whatever He thought best” from front row seats.

Tough times can be rich. Return to your values, stick together, and petition the One who is wise.

Afterburners, Part Two

Lust may deliver the kick of afterburners, but that doesn’t mean we’re automatic victims. Many men choose instead to harness their passions to applied righteousness.

Here are several proven approaches for defeating monstrous temptations.

1. Work on your WANTER.
It comes down to what you want, so pray frequently to want what’s right. The man in Mark 9:24 provides a great model for how to pray: “Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’” Borrow his prayer. “Lord, help me to want what’s right!”

2. Take heart.
Focus on your righteousness, not your failures. Proverbs 24:16 says, “For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again.” If you belong to Jesus Christ, you are a righteous man. Remind yourself of this and rise again.

3. Claim Scripture.
You know this verse — we all learned it: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Memorize that last part. When deceit starts driving you toward lust, quickly ask God to show you that “way of escape” — and look for it. (And pray the “Wanter” prayer!)

4. Band together.
One man against afterburners is flimsy odds. Ecclesiastes 4:12 reads this way: “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Confide in close friends and slay the dragon with one another’s help.

5. Exercise your NO muscle.
Practice denying yourself. Start creatively with things like comfort and ease. Be manly. One guy and his buddy made a point to plunge into frozen ponds and streams a few times each winter. Another guy gives himself a buzz cut in the garage every Sunday, year round, wearing nothing but gym shorts, even when it’s zero degrees. Some friends once carried huge rocks the entire length of their hike through the Tetons — just because it was hard. One of them still has that rock proudly displayed in his desk at work. Have fun with this. Other ways to exercise the NO muscle: Put a filter on your computer. Leave your iGadget in the kitchen at night. Make sober commitments to your girlfriend when you’re thinking straight. Do something hard, just because you’re a man.

6. Do good things.
Ephesians 4:28 is interesting. It reads: “He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need.” Replace what’s harmful with what’s helpful, good, and redemptive. Actually do things for people. Doing good is a fabulous antidote to doing bad. Here’s a good question to ponder — How do men bring good into the lives of women?

7. Cultivate Love.
Love, not willpower, is the true source of victory. You are ten times more likely to shun evil out of love for someone than out of willpower. So, cultivate love. Your girlfriend. Your wife. Your kids. Your friends. Your Lord. Pick someone, study the definition of agape love in the Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, and practice loving someone. Love makes afterburners look like smoldering twigs.

The gift of arrogance

I sat in a classroom filled with students yesterday. The missionary up front was telling tales from his work in the Middle East. God doing miracles and people discovering Christ. I was spellbound.

So spellbound that I didn’t realize someone was trying to get into the room, but the door was locked. Noting my lack of awareness, one of the students pushed around me with much eye-rolling and head-shaking. He opened the door with drama and cast me a withering glance. Adults are so lame.

Confession: It hurt my feelings. No one enjoys being made the fool.

Confession Two: I am also guilty of arrogance. Nearly every day.

A taste of arrogance is good medicine. If I see that student today, I’ll thank him. Briefly.