I had a great conversation yesterday with a pastor friend who is trying to more deeply embody a Jesus-style discipleship in his church. I asked, “when you do discipleship, how do you practice accountability in a group without creating a controlling or toxic atmosphere?” I thought his response was pretty Jesus-like: hold people accountable by being honest about what you see in their lives while always communicating that you love them and that they have a choice in how to respond. And their choices don’t impact your care for them or their intrinsic worth.
Jesus wielded authority without a “position” and without apology. People just “sensed” that there was authority to his words. He could speak very strongly to his disciples, but continued to serve and relate to them in a way that communicated their value and loved-ness. He gave them multiple opportunities to “opt out”. But he never tried to convince, control, or manipulate them. He always pushed them, always spoke the truth to them, but never withdrew his love, or confused their actions/attitudes/beliefs with their identity or their human dignity.
There’s a growing sickness in America and most of us feel it. It’s not just in the church. It’s everywhere. We don’t really know people anymore. We have thousands of acquaintances but very few friends. In the age of social media, loneliness is pandemic and we have forgotten how to see the humanity of others. We are all emotionally malnourished and underdeveloped. Our disconnection from others makes it easy for us form caricatured opinions about who they are as people from the wounded silos of our private minds. So when we speak of our politics, our faith, our opinions, or our lifestyles, we feel it deeply—we can taste it in the air—that our right to be human is on the line. So we hide away or scream our heads off, building thick walls to demonize anyone who would oppose us.
Here’s where it plays out in the American church and in discipleship: It’s very difficult for most Americans to “speak the truth” to each other without also speaking a lie: that if you are defensive or disagree with me, I can and will simply “unfriend” you. Or I will bully you into submission. The lie is “you’re not worth my energy, my care, my respect.” Disengagement is dehumanizing. Shame-based control is dehumanizing. But hard truth spoken in genuine love can be the most honoring gift we can give. It says, “I trust you to hear me. I think you’re worth the effort. I believe in you enough to risk you rejecting me for what I’m saying.”
Sadly, most of us forgot how to love. We THINK we love someone when in fact the thing we love most is our relationship with that person, and how that relationship benefits US. (Trust me, I speak from experience.) Object relations theorists posit that the infant mind can only identify something by its function. So for many of us, our underdeveloped social selves draw cartoonish caricatures of people, mistaking them for “things” identifiable only by their function.
So when someone “speaks the truth” to me or holds me accountable for something, I’m not listening for “is this person right?” But rather I’m listening for “does this person care?” And if they don’t care, then their choice to “speak the truth” will always come with a lie: that if I don’t shape up, I can never have value, can never belong, can never be loved. In that way many of the zealous “advocates for truth” coming from churches, political causes, and activist groups are in fact propagating a more insidious lie than any truth they hope to offer: it’s the lie of shame.
So here’s a few tips for that “difficult conversation” you simply must have with a friend or family member or that incendiary comment you’re dying to make on your friend’s Facebook post:
Ask yourself: do I REALLY care about this person? Do I care enough that I’m willing to feel the pain of losing them? Or do I just love the function they have in my life? Will I stick with them if they push back?
It’s okay to be wrong, to realize you’ve misread someone. We’ve all done it. Know when to apologize.
Don’t say things just to ease your mind. Believe it or not, your job isn’t to “clarify your position” or make sure people know what you think about a given topic. If your motivation is to feel better rather than to show love, then your “truth-telling” is intrinsically self-centered.
Conversation, not prosecution. Try giving them the benefit of the doubt, believing them to be reasonable people who want to hear you out (even if they’re not). Don’t prepare lengthy arguments, lists of offenses, or ultimatums against them. That stuff comes MUCH later.
Love is not an esoteric concept or philosophy. It’s a real feeling and involves real choices. If you can’t FEEL yourself in someone else’s shoes and deeply long for their wellbeing, don’t say you love them just before you slap them. That’s two-faced.
I tend to never ask for feedback (good or bad) because I’m afraid of the feedback I might get! But when someone lovingly speaks truth to me, I breathe a huge sigh of relief. It’s healing to hear painful truth from people who love me no matter what. It makes me feel seen. It makes me feel invested-in. It makes me feel human.
There’s an old story about an ex-prostitute who poured a bottle of perfume all over Jesus’ feet and wept while drying his feet with her hair. Judas stands by thinking, “What a waste. That could’ve been sold to benefit the poor.”
Of course, Judas really just wanted to fill the moneybag so he could help himself (as was his habit). But maybe in that moment he had convinced himself that his heart was of little consequence. And anyway, he was right wasn’t he? Wasn’t his analysis correct that this perfume represented a year’s wages and shouldn’t be wastefully poured on the ground? Shouldn’t someone stand for truth? Here was nothing more than an absurd emotional charade. Surely an objective, thoughtful analysis would lead to a better decision on how to use this precious stuff.
Heavy. That’s how I feel when I type those words. Because neither I nor my coreligionists have improved much on the example of Judas these 2000 years. Maybe it’s a guy thing. (Maybe not.) We still value analysis, truth, and wise decision-making that feed into strategic objectives. Spontaneous outpourings of lavish affection arising from faith? Not so much.
The amazing thing is that Jesus seems to say, “Let’s assume that you’re approach is right. Your filters stink. Your beliefs are wrong. You think I’m nothing more than a philanthropist magician. You’re not going deep enough. If you’re going to analyze this woman’s behavior, then consider this analysis: her actions are far more valuable than a year’s wages. Unbeknownst to her, she has prepared my body for burial and identified me as the Christ who must suffer and die. But furthermore, you assume that truth is truth and your heart is of little consequence. But I see what’s in your heart. I see that you’re a thief and it matters a great deal.
My heart is deeply and uncomfortably intertwined with the ways I process and speak truth. Yet somehow I’ve bought into the modernist myth of the objective analysis. Frankly, it doesn’t exist. Self-deception on the other hand is very real and very powerful. It’s SO easy to ride my truth horse into town, to make my stand, to take control, to sweep out the filth, and to leave feeling proud of my own courage. But I’d be dead wrong. I’d be Judas-wrong.
So Jesus comes in and says, “That might be a good idea if your truth didn’t stink so bad. See, if you knew me, you’d still get up on your truth horse and ride into town. Except the horse would be a donkey. And you’d come not to clean up the filth but to live among the filth. And the way you’d make your stand is to lay down to die.”
When the Pharisees objected to Jesus healing on the Sabbath, it’s amazing that he didn’t just say, “Ah, come ON guys! RELAX! I’m Jesus okay? You don’t have to be so strict all the time!” He says, “Alright let’s talk about the law then. Since you value it so much, why don’t you follow it? Furthermore have you considered that I might be the Lord of the Sabbath?”
Jesus engages analyzers on their terms, giving them better assumptions with which to form a thoughtful analysis that will lead to heart-felt christlikeness. Jesus helps the thinker think in better ways.
Jesus engages heart-givers on their terms, giving them better assumptions upon which to give their hearts in ways that will lead to thoughtful christlikeness. Jesus helps the feeler feel in better ways.
I just think it’s really cool that Jesus is a person and not The Force. As a person, he can relate to people in the ways they feel most loved. Jesus relates to me by giving me lots of intense and undivided attention. But for another person, it may look like his presence showing up in quiet moments to say, “We don’t have to talk. Let’s just be together.” Other people might feel like Jesus is always dropping little presents into their life or protecting them or helping them process reality.
But the end goal is always the same: to pull me—mind and heart—into a close relationship with him and to make me a mature person: Not the untouchable sage I think of when I hear the word “maturity” but a right-thinking, right-feeling, always-loving person. Ya know… like Jesus.
The central locus of the Christian faith, the very heart of the matter, is in a set of relationships that we’re invited into. Like politics or the mob, it’s not about WHAT you know but WHO you know. Jesus is all like, “I’m in the Father, He’s in me, so if you’re in me, He’s in you.” He’s all like, “Phillip, don’t you KNOW me?” It started with an “eternity past” self-sustaining triune love relationship. Then people come along and we get invited to the party, to a love feast. Before some book of rules floated down from the sky, the first human was in the habit of taking walks with God. Very cool.
So in my opinion, salvation is more about relationship to the Truth (Jesus, both the cosmic and incarnate “logos”) than it is about the exegetical purity of your creed. (by the way Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and C.S. Lewis helped me out there.) Actually, I think God’s going to laugh at some of our ridiculous theology. Oh he’ll judge us alright. But not by the bullet points of our creed.
So… ya know how it feels when you sit down with someone and see past all the nonsense (work, pedigree, image) to the real person beneath, the inner 10-year-old? I wish we could do that with everybody we meet. It wouldn’t excuse their beliefs and behaviors, but it sure would shed some light on the brokenness that informs their thoughts and decisions. I’ve been recently offended by people who come off as passive-aggressive, arrogant, and judgmental. But the more I know about their back stories, their families of origin, the more compassion I have. Their behavior is still unacceptable and I believe they should be in counseling. But THEY are acceptable. That’s the difference. Here I am, lumping people into groups and condemning them when every single person is totally unique.
The cool thing is, God sees the heart of every individual. He has compassion on them in all their brokenness. He invites them into His family, but doesn’t tolerate immature and insecure behavior. I wish I were more like that, seeing past the outer orbit to the core of the human heart.
The end of the story (I’m reading John 14 again, btw) is Jesus really wants everyone to join his Dad’s commune. He’s going up to heaven to put fresh sheets on our beds so that “you also may be where I am.” He’s inviting us all upstairs for the ultimate slumber party. Everything else flows out of that relational proximity, that closeness to the Truth.
My favorite hang out time in community is in the morning over a cup of coffee. So I make a habit of spending my mornings in community with Jesus, not saying a lot, just enjoying His companionship. That’s what I’m doing right now. Just sidling up close to Jesus: my housemate, my mob boss, my friend.
When my two sons were young we went to Atlanta for the groundbreaking of one of the more famous skyscrapers. We had been reading about the project for months in the local papers and were excited to watch the construction of the “tallest building in the South”. As we arrived on the scene, the bulldozers were already clearing the site, but there was a viewing area for spectators with an architectural rendering of the completed structure emblazoned on the side of the construction fencing. “Wow!” my oldest exclaimed, “It’s humongous!” And indeed it was, soaring nearly seventy stories above Peachtree Street, it certainly promised to be a focal point of the city skyline. We faithfully trekked to the site and watched trucks haul away dirt and debris while other trucks delivered steel girders and other building materials. After several weeks of this vigil, one of the boys exclaimed in frustration, “Dad, when are they going to start working on the building?” (It was a question that I had pondered myself, because all that existed was a large hole and lots of mud.) Approaching a worker with a set of plans under his arm, I inquired, “Can you give us some idea when the building is going to begin?” His chuckle made it obvious the question had come up before.
“It’s hard to believe it,” he said, “but this hole is the most important part of the building. We have to dig down several hundred feet and build a solid foundation to support a structure that’s over seventy stories tall. It will take several months to pour the concrete and sink the steel pillars, but then we’ll start going up. Once we start, it will rise pretty fast!”
The Bible compares living the Christian life with constructing a building. Just as there are phases in building a building, there are phases in the growth of a Christian, and the first phase is: “laying a foundation”. Our initial salvation experience is the beginning of a process of growth that lasts a lifetime. The success of our Christian walk is determined by the strength of our spiritual foundation. Matthew 7: 24-27 asserts that the Christian life built on a solid foundation will withstand the storms of life. The tallest building in the South is still standing today. Believers who lay solid foundations are more likely to stand tall than those who fail to establish a solid base for growth.
This foundations phase actually consists of four interconnecting parts:
relating to God,
relating to other Christians,
understanding truth, and
applying truth so that it transforms us.
Let’s explore these together!
The success of our Christian walk is determined by the strength of our spiritual foundation.
Relating to God
Unlike other religions, the essence of Christianity is a relationship with God, not a set of rules. In John 17: 3 the Scripture affirms that eternal life is all about knowing God. It is thrilling to remember that God desires a relationship with us that will never end. The great news is that believers don’t have to wait for heaven to experience this. It begins the moment we accept Christ!
Having a relationship with God is not all that different from having a relationship with anyone else. As we relate to others, we get to know them better and the relationship deepens over time. There are specific situations that will help believers better experience a relationship with God. The first of these involves setting aside time for personal devotions, a quiet time each day devoted to prayer, Bible reading, and personal meditation. The Scripture promises in James 4: 8 that as we “come near to God, He will come near to us”. This “coming near to God” is not a religious duty, but a time for relational development. Of course just as good disciplines and habits can be beneficial in other areas of life, the more we remain faithfully committed to our quiet time, the more benefit we derive from it.
Another aspect of developing a relationship with God is attending public worship in a church that exalts Him. Although we can worship God any place, any time, worshipping with other Christians deepens and develops our ability to relate to God. There are many different public worship experiences and not all churches structure them in the same way.
Worship that focuses on the greatness of God and includes times of singing praise, prayerful meditation, and Biblical preaching should be a priority. Ask God to help you find a church in your community and become a part of the fellowship. This leads to another important part of laying a good foundation: relating to other Christians.
Relating to Other Christians
God has placed us in His spiritual family, the Church, to encourage us, protect us, correct us, direct us, and provide for us. Again there are specific situations that help believers experience relationships with other Christians. Each of these plays a unique role in helping to form a spiritual foundation and each will require some effort. But they all are incredibly beneficial. Christians who do not have connections with other Christians tend to stop growing. (cf. Hebrews 10: 24-25)
Unlike other religions, the essence of Christianity is a relationship with God, not a set of rules.
In the first century there were very few church buildings. Mostly the believers met together in private homes for Bible teaching, prayer, and fellowship. There are benefits to meeting with large groups in public worship, but there is also an advantage gained from being part of a small group. The intimacy of the setting provides a place for relationships to flourish. Many modern believers have learned that meeting together in small groups helps to forge close relationships as members discuss Scripture, pray for each other, and share personal matters.
The term “mentoring” was coined by the modern business community to describe a relationship where a seasoned executive tutors a younger colleague in commercial practices. But long before mentoring was introduced to the world of commerce, it had already existed in the spiritual community as “one-to-one discipleship”.
In this case it describes an intentional relationship between a young believer and a more mature Christian who models the Christian life, answers questions, gives counsel, and helps the younger Christian stay focused on the priorities of growth.
One important priority for growth (and the third part of laying good foundations) involves developing an increasing understanding of God’s truth. The Bible is the Book of Truth for Christians, but it can appear overwhelming to a new learner. It was Jesus who proclaimed that knowing truth sets people free from the bondage of sin. Therefore, it is helpful to have a basic plan of study for learning the truths that we need to build upon, a plan that focuses on specific themes and principles of foundational development. A good beginning series of studies for young believers should include the themes mentioned earlier: truth that helps someone to know more about God, truth that helps people understand other people, and truth that helps someone to grow spiritually.
There are specific approaches to gaining an understanding of these foundational truths. The first is a curriculum of systematic instruction. This is the first of a series of “Pocket Principles” that are designed specifically for helping new believers lay solid spiritual foundations. If you received this “Pocket Principle” from a mentor or small group leader, continue to work closely with that person to discover and apply the other truths in this series.
Another way of gaining insights into living the Christian life is by reading. There are many excellent materials and resources available in Christian bookstores, libraries, and on the Internet. Your own informal reading will supplement your growth. But be sure to focus on the foundational themes mentioned above as a starting point.
Christians who do not have connections with other Christians tend to stop growing. (Hebrews 10: 24-25)
Your local church is also an excellent source of content. Besides the weekly sermon delivered by the pastor or other teacher, many churches offer small groups devoted to helping new believers get established in the faith. Consult the churches in your area for opportunities to learn foundational truths.
But as important as truth is in the growth process, it is not the information alone that transforms us. In fact other parts of Scripture warn us that knowledge by itself can be dangerous, leading to spiritual pride and the deadening of our hearts to God. This particular sin characterized the Pharisees who were enemies of Christ. It is only truth that is obeyed or applied to our lives that changes us and causes growth. Romans 12: 2 reminds us that it is a life consecrated to obeying God that is impacted by truth. When our minds are transformed in this way we help establish the will of God on earth. This is more than just knowing the truth, it is actually doing truth.
A skyscraper is an engineering marvel, but soaring high means digging deep and laying solid foundations. A maxim of the Christian life asserts that “you can only grow as tall as you grow deep”. Laying good foundations takes time and effort, but the benefits are worth it. The new believer needs to embrace experientially the truths related to knowing and understanding God and other believers.
Applying truth will require becoming involved in specific situations that facilitate foundational growth. Establishing a time for personal devotions, joining a small group, locating an older believer who can come alongside you as an encouraging mentor, setting up a systematic plan of study , and participating in public worship are layers of spiritual brick and mortar that form this foundation. But these situations without a heart commitment to obey the truth will not suffice. Blessings to you as you grow!
It is only truth that is obeyed or applied to our lives that changes us and causes growth.
So where are you laying foundations?
Where do you find is the best place to find a mentor?
Have you made time for studying God’s word?
What are some of the things you have done to help lay foundations for growing in your faith as a Christian?
Get this Pocket Principle in Knowing God, part of Cornerstone from the WDA Store
We need to pay close attention at all times to the motivational dynamics of the Christian life—the primary reasons (from a human perspective) why people do not see Jesus as precious, and therefore do not see the appeal of following Him with their whole hearts, are in fact motivational reasons. Specifically, the “sin beneath the sin” of all sins is idolatry—the elevation of a created thing to a place where it becomes one’s functional “Lord” and “Savior,” the ultimate object of worship and service (Romans 1). Therefore, the key to persuading people to trust and follow Jesus (grace and truth!) rests in persuading hearts that Jesus is more precious and lovely than the idols that we are all prone to worship and serve. Remember, it is the Gospel (the fantastically great news of Jesus) that alone is the power of God for salvation—it is the only power for true, heart-level transformation.
For every one look you take at your sin, take ten looks at Jesus.
– Robert Murray McCheyne
The reason I preach the Gospel to you every single week is precisely because you forget the Gospel every single week!
– Martin Luther
The first and greatest commandment is that you “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.”
We must directly address why the Gospel does not “take” with many—idolatry is that reason.
John Calvin rightly said that the human heart is an idol factory. Our hearts will instinctively erect counterfeit gods or pseudo-saviors to whom we give our allegiance, our ultimate affections, and our obedience.
A working definition of idolatry.An idol is any person or idea, any created thing that captures the loyalties and affections of our hearts more than God Himself. An idol is anything that becomes more essential to us than Him.
An idol is anything which occupies God’s place—it is anything upon which you will base your life. It is what you look to for your sense of meaning, happiness, and validation. When something becomes your idol, you will give it your unquestioned loyalty. You will let it run your life, determine your choices, and govern the use of your money and time. You will give yourself to it effortlessly. – Timothy Keller
We must assume that everyone is religious by nature.Every human being, whether Christian, religious, agnostic, or atheist, will worship something or someone. One of our primary tasks is to understand what is capturing the ultimate affections of people’s hearts. Ecclesiastes reminds us that God has put eternity into the heart of man (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We were created to be in relationship with God. He designed us to love, honor, adore, and obey Him. If we don’t do this, by necessity we will have to love, honor, adore, and obey something or someone else! Our idols are our “rather-than’s” that capture and sabotage our hearts’ affections that belong first to God.
This is part 5 of a series of articles by Scott Sauls.
Scott Sauls, a graduate of Furman University and Covenant Seminary, is foremost a son of God and the husband of one beautiful wife (Patti), the father of two fabulous daughters (Abby and Ellie), and the primary source of love and affection for a small dog (Lulu). Professionally, Scott serves as the Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to Nashville, Scott was a Lead and Preaching Pastor, as well as the writer of small group studies, for Redeemer Presbyterian of New York City. Twitter: @scottsauls
Editor’s Note: Scott was a member of our WDA Campus Ministry (Next Generation Ministry) while at Furman University. We are excited to see our alumni continuing to carry a vision for discipleship!