When I was a kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Then I wanted to be a firefighter. After that it was a police officer. I did eventually enlist in the United States Marine Corps and served for 6 years in the Marine Reserve. During that time I worked in a hardware store, and then in a medical lab where I worked for 20 years. As a teenager, I was determined to never get married. At 21, I married; at 22 I became a father, and again at 26.
At various stages of my life, if you’d have asked me then, I’d say I had a pretty good plan and was doing well. As you can see by the above paragraph, I had no idea what I was doing or who I was supposed to be. It’s a short paragraph, but between the lines is a lot of turmoil. Doubts, fears, and a lack of direction left me grabbing for “whatever worked.” But just getting by never quite seemed good enough. I’ll bet it’s the same for you. It wasn’t until I made a radical shift in my life that things began to make sense, and the tumultuous storm of uncertainty in my heart and mind was made still.
One might think that the day I professed my faith in Jesus is when things began to come together, but not so. Early in my walk of faith I just relabeled my worldly habits with Christian lingo. I still operated under my own wisdom and effort. What had changed were the vehicles. Rather than trying to find my identity in parties, relationships, and vocations, I was seeking it in ministries, traditions, and religious habits. Having a title in the church replaced the need for ribbons over the left breast pocket of my uniform or a bigger paycheck. The day that things began to settle was the day I died.
Jesus said that unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it will only ever be a single seed, but that when it dies, it will bear fruit. When a seed dies, the husk starts to sluff off and the shell begins to crack. Once in the ground, that dead seed becomes one with the soil and is transformed into a plant. The original seed is unrecognizable. In the same way, until I was willing to lay down all the things I was seeking identity in and simply trust Jesus for that, I was still striving. The verbage was right, but the heart was still going its own way, motivated by my values, my priorities, and my desires.
As Jesus began his ministry, his first recorded words are, “Repent, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). This is the first command of Jesus to all would-be followers: Repent and Believe. To repent is to turn away; to turn away, not just from what we most often think of as our sins, but from our striving, our own wisdom and strength; to turn away from our preferences, opinions, and traditions. We need to turn from a captive mindset to the freedom, grace, and power that we are created in Christ Jesus to live in.
The people of Jesus’ day were slaves to a religious system. In many cases, tradition had replaced God’s intent and they wore themselves out trying to meet requirements rather than being filled as they simply met with God. Jesus’ ministry was a wake-up call. It was meant to rouse the spirits of God’s people to embrace abundant life rather than settle for clinical obedience to a system.
We are a people of systems. We want formulas and steps. We look to the Bible for “5 steps to a happier you,” or “7 keys to success.” We tend to work Christian service like a barter system where we do good to gain favor. We give to get. We are convinced that God has a specific plan for each of our lives and that we have to work hard so we don’t stray from it. We refuse God’s grace, and embrace, in practice, a works based theology. We need to repent.
The next command Jesus gives those who would seek to be his disciple is, “Follow me, and I will make you…”. This goes against everything in our being. We want to do things for Jesus. We want to serve him; we want to please him with our efforts and labor. We want to make ourselves what we think he would want us to be. Yet he invites us, not to serve, but to follow.
If we are to follow Jesus, we must keep our eyes on him and give him our undivided attention. We do this through reading and studying the Bible, through prayer, meditation (pondering, if you prefer), and fellowship with other saints. When we start looking around, eyeing the things of the world, longing for lesser and temporary things, we lose sight, we lose track of where we are, of who he is, who we are, and where we’re going, and we wind up going astray.
“Let us keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Only when we follow Jesus will we become who we are meant to be. There is such great freedom in simply following him. No hoops to jump through, no line to toe. Just follow him, enjoy the adventure, and learn from him.