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Many Obstacles, One Voice
Why the Bible is vital for Discipleship
The blindfolded child stumbled carefully forwards, “That’s it, just two more steps and then you need to climb over an obstacle.” His partner said calmly.
He didn’t know what he could trust and what he couldn’t, what if his partner was just out to make him look foolish! There was a whole obstacle course ahead and he couldn’t see one inch before his eyes! A second command came, then another, then another, each one was different from the last, sometimes he would have to squeeze through something, then he crawled down on his hands and knees and then there was something like a gate he had to push open. He was picking up pace now, he didn’t know anything about how well his competitors were doing but he didn’t really care, he could trust the voice and that gave him confidence.
“Just two more to go!” came the voice again, it was almost over!
Surely enough, the course came to an end and, taking the blindfold off, he looked back over everything the voice had helped him to traverse. Crikey he thought That looks even harder than I thought!
They’d come second place, which was good, they didn’t win but there were still sweets, so it didn’t really matter. What did matter was the trust they’d formed, which never really went away after that. They were friends now, through and through.
My guess is you’ve probably played some form of this game at a youth camp or retreat, a trust-building exercise framed as a race to help kids not to rely on themselves, but on those around them. Stepping into the world can feel like being blindfolded sometimes, with tonnes of obstacles ahead but rather than one voice telling you which way you should go, a choir starts to form.
“I don’t think he’ll make it, look at him, [insert smart alec comment].” Says Twitter.
“Honey, I believe in you! Xx Just keep going and believe in yourself.” Says Facebook.
“You never get this right, you never will again, just stop.” Says that voice in your mind.
Three voices down. Hundreds to go.
Discipleship cannot be just another voice.
Last week I talked about doxology, this week I’d love to just say a couple of things about discipleship and what I mean by that and how we can ensure the saints don’t just hear it as another voice among many.
The Apostle Paul says a couple of times in his first epistle to the Corinthians: “Therefore I urge you to imitate me.” (1 Co 4:16) Which, though a good scriptural model of leadership, is only good if set in context. What we are to imitate in Paul, or our leaders, are “my ways in Christ Jesus” (1 Co 4:17), “Imitat[ing Paul], as [he] also imitate[s] Christ.” (1 Co 11:1).
Don’t rely on yourself, because for one thing, you’ll find out pretty quickly that you don’t have all the answers, you may not even have any answers! The good news is that it’s not about you, it’s about Jesus. Discipleship, whether in groups, classes or more personally, should not only be about the leader imparting her or his own wisdom unto those in their care but rather showing the disciples what it is that they should imitate. Not us, not the leaders, at least not ultimately, but Christ.
By the Book
Thinking about the example I began with, the two kids, one fumbling in the dark, the other eyes open, looking out for the obstacles ahead. Imagine if instead, it was a whole group of kids. Kid #1 steps up blindfolded, there’s no voice, no one is guiding him. Bit by bit he makes his way through, rolls his ankle once, bangs his head twice, slips over more than a few times, but eventually gets to the end. Kid #2 steps up, but this time she can have help from Kid #1, though he isn’t allowed to see the course, he just has his memory.
Likewise, she goes through the course, possibly faring slightly better than the first kid, but she still hurts herself considerably about halfway through. Unbeknownst to either of them, some of the obstacles had been moved.
When Kid #3 comes in, not only is Kid #2 annoyed at Kid #1, but she also doesn’t believe she can get Kid #3 through. The process goes on and on and on, some are more confident, some hurt themselves more than others, but they all eventually just about get through.
This is a picture of discipleship if we just go by our own experience fumbling through life to inform the next generation along. That isn’t to say that experience isn’t important, but it’s far from all important.
Our lives do not all look the same. I’m a lower-class city boy from South London who has experienced lots of suffering in many ways. A few years ago, I met regularly with a young farmer who had grown up in a loving upper-middle-class family and had never really wanted for anything.
We had almost nothing in common, so what on earth could I have given him if my experience of the obstacles I’d faced was all I had to go with. I have discipled medical professionals, new converts, musicians, and together with my wife both men and women. There’s only one thing that remains a constant in each of those instances.
It’s not a roadmap, it’s not a rulebook, it’s the voice of God.
Teaching people to listen, to trust, to follow, to love, that’s at the absolute core of discipleship and I would argue that if you’re not bringing the bible into your discipleship contexts, you probably shouldn’t be using the D-word at all.
Jesus himself quoted the Old Testament 53 times in the course of the written record, Paul almost triples that at 141 times. We can be absolutely sure that if Jesus, who was God, whose voice was literally the voice of God and Paul, whose very words became scripture, relied on the Bible, that we should too.
We know that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16–17) can we say the same about our own words, our own experience, our own wisdom?
“All my words are profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
By no means.
Open the book and show the saints how to do so likewise. They may, while blindfolded by the world, be cautious at first, they may try their own way, but bit by bit, opening the word with them, you’ll teach them to trust it. Even better would be to apologise when you give advice which was incorrect or ill-informed, so they can be 100% sure that you’re not under any illusions of grandeur, but instead you’re willing to say, with Paul, that they should only imitate you as you imitate Christ.
I’d love to say I’ve always done this perfectly but that would be a lie. There is room for growth here for me too. Maybe you’re reading this Substack longing for someone to disciple you, maybe you’re a discipler of others. Whatever your context I really hope that this article and the others to follow will be an encouragement to you.
Grace and Peace
Adsum Try Ravenhill
Podcasts to check out:
The Pactum is a wonderful podcast to listen to if you love Theology and want to dig deeper. In this episode, they explain what on earth ‘The Pactum’ even means.
For the Church is a Podcast by Midwestern Seminary and this episode is on the book Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett, a book I’ve just finished and highly recommend you read. If you want a taster, this is it.
If you haven’t heard of this one, you may be living under a rock, but on the off chance you haven’t, the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is a must-listen. I grew up during the heyday and saw many of my peers leave my church growing up over the teaching of Mars Hill and I’ve witnessed how it’s continued to damage many other churches in my own network. I had to be really careful listening to this to make sure I learned from it and didn’t simply treat it as popcorn listening or fuel for my anger. I say this to prepare you for what’s ahead. I don’t want you to be unaware brothers and sisters about what you’re going to hear if you listen to this.
Finally, a podcast that isn’t out yet but should be out by next week, The Treasure Chest. I have a collection of old beautiful books of Sermons by 19th Century Preacher Charles Spurgeon and I’ve long wished I could listen to them aloud. I decided, given that I already have the recording equipment, that I would do it myself. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, watch this space!
I hope you all have a wonderful Sunday and a fruitful, doxology filled, week.