This article is by Trevin Wax and published by The Gospel Coalition
Our youngest son, David, turned 7 last month. I love the first and second grade years of school. Kids are still kids, unapologetically so, abounding with passion and energy, yet growing in self-control. They’re past the stage of shorter attention spans, they’ve not arrived at the “too cool to be a kid” stage that marks upper elementary classes, and they’re blissfully unaware of the tortured self-awareness that will creep over most of them in adolescence.
Last summer, David learned to swim. This spring, he learned to ride his bike without training wheels. For his birthday, he received a little guitar with nylon strings. How do you teach a kid to swim, to ride a bike, and to play a guitar? It takes a combination of instruction, imitation, and intuition. And as I watch him grow, I’m reminded that the life of discipleship requires all three as well.
First, there’s instruction. You have to tell the kid what to do. Doggie-paddle and kick your feet. Put your fingers on these two strings. Push the pedal down when you start. And what not to do. Don’t stop paddling. Don’t press the strings lightly. Watch out for that mailbox!
Instruction matters for learning any new skill. You can ignore the assembly instructions for your new piece of furniture or the new item you just bought from the store, but you do so to your peril. The same is true in the Christian life. We often say that the Bible is a story, not just a book of “do’s and don’ts,” and that’s true, but it’s also true that the story contains a lot of “do’s and don’ts.” The Scriptures are filled with instruction—from the Law of Moses, to the proverbs of Solomon, to the “do this” / “not that” lists we find in the letters of Paul.
The life of discipleship starts with trusting in Jesus and giving one’s life to him. That life of faith is proved by good deeds—by living in a way that brings us in line with our Messiah’s instruction.
But instruction alone is not enough for discipleship. We do not become disciples by treating the Scriptures as an instruction manual and taking a few classes at church. Instruction only gets you so far when you want to ride a bike, play a guitar, or learn how to swim. In fact, one of the most exasperating aspects of trying to teach your children a new skill is when you conclude that you cannot merely explain it to them.
You cannot simply tell your child how to ride a bike. Throw your child in the pool and give them instructions on what to do. See what happens. You can bark orders to them all you want, but they won’t be swimming on the first try, or the second, no matter how clear your instruction. Tell your 7-year-old how to play the F chord, barred on the guitar. Even a 35-year-old won’t be able to play that chord the first time they receive instruction. Why not? The muscles in the hand aren’t strong enough to play it right, even if you know how. Instruction only takes us so far.
Learning a new skill also requires imitation. You’re going to have to show a child how swimming works. You’ll need to spend some time in the pool with them. You’ll need older siblings or neighborhood friends to zip around the driveway on their bikes, so that your child will know that it is possible to ride one.
You can try to teach yourself how to play the guitar by reading a book (I have Acoustic Guitar for Dummies, and it’s aptly titled for me). But at some point, you have to pull up YouTube videos of people showing you how to play your favorite song, or you have to get together with friends who play better than you do, in order to learn some new skills.
I love seeing our daughter and our youngest son picking up the guitar and playing along with me. That’s how I learned. I played along with others. As they’ve seen me find joy in practicing and playing, they’ve grown in their desire for the same experience. There are chords to be learned. There is pain to feel in your fingers. There are callouses to be created. There are barre chords to be mastered and strumming patterns to start.
The life of discipleship requires a combination of instruction and imitation. Wisdom is not obedience to instruction in the simplest sense, but is instead a robust understanding of how to live, an understanding modeled by the example of the person who is giving direction. A holistic view of discipleship means that spiritual direction is not merely delivered; it is displayed. We don’t merely tell people to follow Jesus; we show them how.
But even imitation doesn’t get us all the way to discipleship, just as showing your kids how you swim or ride your bike won’t get them all the way there. There’s something mysterious, something unexplainable in the way we develop new skills.
Instruction gets you going. Imitation helps you along. But every parent knows that something else is required. In the end, the kid on the bike has to figure out how to maintain balance while riding. Go too fast, and you’re likely to run into a mailbox (I know this firsthand). Go too slow, and you’ll wobble and simply fall over. There’s a rhythm—a balancing act that must take place in order to ride a bike. You can’t tell. Neither can you show. The only way to learn is to keep trying. Fall down. Keep trying. Watch others go. Know that it’s possible, and then keep trying until somehow, in some way, the body, the brain, and the bike all work together and, like magic, your kid is riding down the sidewalk, and in a few days, popping wheelies. “Look, Dad, no hands!” What seemed unimaginable when your kid can’t get six feet down the road without falling is now a breeze, and the kid is doing tricks.
The same is true with swimming. One week, the kid is terrified of being in the pool without floaties. Next week, she’s like a fish. Or with the guitar. You pick it up and learn how to strum a few chords, but it will take weeks or months to arrive at the point where you can move your fingers without thinking and even (gasp!) sing along with the music you’re making.
This is the development of new intuitions. In the spiritual life, it’s the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in changing us from the inside out. The Spirit enables our growth. From him we receive new intuitions that make the Christian life possible.
As a parent, you read your children Bible stories and tell them what’s right and wrong (instruction), you pray with them at night and take them to church where they see you interacting with other Christians who love Jesus (imitation). Then you watch your kids wobble a few times, fall over into sin, and you wonder how they’ll turn out. Will they love Jesus? Will they want to serve him? You can do all you can do, but at some point, you realize it’s out of your hands. It’s in Someone else’s.
The blessing comes when the Spirit regenerates the heart and then begins to develop those unseen spiritual intuitions in your child. And suddenly, the kid who didn’t seem to care about the things of God is reading the Bible and framing their favorite verses. They’re burdened for friends and family who don’t know Jesus. They’re praying real prayers at night when they go to bed. Something mysterious has happened. The Spirit, who was active all along in the instruction that was given and the imitation that took place, continues to work, developing Christ-honoring intuitions in the heart.
Long Road of Discipleship
This is what discipleship looks like. No matter how many times you keep wobbling on that bike, or going underwater while you swim, or hitting that wrong string while you strum—you’re the righteous person who, though you fall seven times, keeps getting back up, trusting that the Spirit is going to take all that instruction and imitation and use it to form within you the intuitions that will bring glory to Jesus.
Disciples are not made overnight. We start the life of discipleship in a moment—the flash of supernatural faith that marks the miracle of conversion. But making a disciple takes time. It takes sacrifice. The higher goal that comes through expertise must take precedent over the lesser goals to which we devote our lives: leisure, money, consumption, entertainment. Higher freedom comes through adopting the right restrictions, where we follow instruction, imitate others, and pray for the Spirit to use these paths of cultivation and sacrifice in developing within us the intuitions that mark spiritual growth.
Discipleship is hard. That’s why it’s thrilling. With the Spirit supplying the wind at your back and the Scriptures providing a balancing force, we’re riding up and down the hills of life, feeling the rush of air as we sail past obstacles, boundaries, and temptations that would have tripped us up earlier in our journey.