Discipleship #005: Challenges and Potholes

Even before Jesus chose his 12 disciples, he said to them “Enter through the narrow gate… For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” He wanted to let them know that the journey of discipleship was not an easy one. Salvation was for those who wished to find truth above all and was not for those who followed Jesus just for the sake of avoiding hell, and therefore, anyone who was not prepared to face and surpass the difficulties along the road would not be able to complete the journey.

Two authors, John Bunyan and C.S. Lewis were well aware of the fact that discipleship was a road full of all kinds and sizes of potholes, and produced 2 books revolving around them: Pilgrim’s Progress and TheScrewtape Letters respectively, which we will mainly use as references to study some of the challenges found in being a disciple of Christ.

A Series of Potholes

  • The Burden of Sin:  Christian, the protagonist of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, is described to be weighed down by a great burden: the knowledge of his sin. With this burden, he sets on a journey seeking for deliverance. However, right off the bat, Christian falls into the “Slough of Despond,” a miry swamp, and he sinks and sinks under the weight of his sins and his sense of guilt. This is not an uncommon story between disciples. Acute consciousness of our sin and imperfectness comes with a sense of guilt, and as guilt turns into shame, and shame into reluctance to face truth, we become separated from God—just like a shadow that cannot bear to be in the presence of light. But let us not forget the existence of grace. A loving God would not want his sons and daughters to fall into sloughs of desponds, He would rather take on the burden for Himself to free them, which is exactly what He did through Jesus. The least we can do is remember that important fact and pull ourselves up.
  • Fake Glory:  Glory is interpreted in the human way as fame and luminosity, but such things are transient. After all, the human fame is something given by fellow passionate humans; and human passions always die away. True glory is something much grander and humbler. According to Lewis in his essay The Weight of Glory, Glory is in reality “fame with God, approval, or (I might say) ‘appreciation’ by God.” The long and painful longing that could never be satisfied by human praise, can only cease the moment God smiles and says “you have done well.” As disciples, we must become children once again. We must recall those younger days when being praised by someone we loved and admired brought feelings of supreme bliss. Only a dependent child of God can enter paradise.
  • All Talk, No Action:  In his journey, Christian also meets Talkative, a fellow who is better looking from a distance than close up. Talkative is very enthusiastic in talking about his faith, but the more he talks, the more it is discovered that he possesses a shallow mentality. Talkative’s question, “Why, what difference is there between crying out against, and abhorring of, sin?” says much about him. Even though he denounces sin by mouth, he does not do so by spirit and action. He is like a carrot with large leaves and petite root. Like Talkative, sometimes we say and think we do not love sin, but we do not act like it. However, that is not faith. “…Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).
  • All Action, No Faith:  On the other hand, acting all the time but not keeping proper faith can be a stumbling block as well. Thinking that good deeds can get one to heaven ignores the grace factor and instigates pride. Surprisingly, mature disciples who know this are more susceptible to this kind of mentality, though perhaps in a smaller scale. Many times we forget that it is for God why we do everything good and that it is thanks to Him that we have anything good, and instead we focus on our holy actions and think ourselves righteous when that is far from the truth. In Bunyan’s allegory, the name of such person is Ignorance. Ignorance thinks of Jesus Christ only as an example and not as a Savior. However, when he gets to the Celestial City, he finds he does not have the “certificate” needed to enter.
  • The Slippery Slope:  Temptations are not always extravagant. The little things, such as small distractions and a fake sense of peace found in routine, can get us just as well. In The Screwtape Letters, a series of letters from a senior Demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a Junior Tempter, Lewis writes, “the safest road to hell is the gradual one— the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” We have to be careful, be constantly concerned about the things we are doing and why we are doing them, and do them wholeheartedly. Letting our spiritual disciplines become a joyless, superficial, empty habits makes the heart numb and devoid of meaning, devoid of God. To avoid slipping further, we must not wait until we end up in the worst possible situation before turning away. The moment we catch ourselves nodding off, we must wake up.
  • Triple Fear:  Fear of the unknown, fear of pain, fear of death. We all experience those. But in perspective, fear can be good. It can reminds us of our mortality and keeps us careful and humble. However, the problem lies in succumbing to fear and taking no action at all and hiding. It is essential to believe that Jesus triumphed over pain and death through the cross and his resurrection. When Bunyan’s Christian tries to cross The River of Death, the dreadful river that separates mankind from Paradise, he soon realizes that it is deeper or shallower depending on the faith of the one traversing it. Because there is doubt and fear in his heart, Christian has a rough time crossing the river, but with the help of his friend Hopeful he succeeds in crossing over. It is human to fear, but courage can be found in our hope and trust in God.
  • Right to happiness:  When we feel grief, there are times when we feel resentful towards God, because we think that we have the right to happiness. But it is not about having the “right.” Happiness is not something we can demand because we have no real ownership of it (the owner is God). However, we are permitted to it because of God’s grace. Small pieces of temporary happiness are gifts to be enjoyed while our lives last. As it is written in Ecclesiastes 5:18, “This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them– for this is their lot.” The point is to, above all, love the giver and not just the gift.

We can fall into holes, but we can get out from them just as well. The journey is hard. It requires an immeasurable amount of effort to keep going. There will be times we will think we will feel too tired to continue.

But we are not alone.

Indeed, the road of discipleship is full of potholes. It is long and twisty, and many times treacherous. Yet there will be times of pleasure, rejoicing, peace, and strength. It’s important to remember that it’s not just about waiting for the end or some reward far off in the future.  Discipleship has it’s rewards in the here and now and God is with us already and in the not yet.