The myth of the overnight disciple
Our culture is obsessed with the notion of instant success. Millions of us buy lottery tickets each week, and when the American Idol tryouts come to cities across America, the line of hopefuls wraps around the block. Many of us also believe immediate success can be attained in the spiritual realm. We read stories of great spiritual leaders and think they became heroes of the faith because of how they responded at a decisive moment, but when we look a little deeper into their story, we discover God had been working in their hearts long before they exhibited any sort of spiritual boldness.
One of the essential elements of discipleship is that while it begins in an instant, it always becomes a life-long process. Becoming mature in Christ never happens overnight. Don’t make the mistake many do: they view themselves or their circumstances as “broken” and want God to immediately “fix” them. There is no shortage of health and wealth practitioners who promise to help us change overnight, but here’s the problem with that kind of thinking: people are not machines that break and can be “fixed” with a few new parts and a tune up. We are relational beings who at times are ill or wounded and in need of healing. And healing, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual, happens gradually, with improvement coming one day at a time.
The same is true with spiritual maturity. Spiritual giants do not magically appear in times of need or crisis. They are grown by God from weak and wrong-thinking little people like you and me. The Bible is full of stories that demonstrate this truth.
A classic example is Simon bar Jonah. When Jesus invited Simon to follow him, he nicknamed him Petros, (Rock or Rocky). The nickname was ironic–Simon more often resembled a pile of sand than a rock. He had good intentions and a genuine desire to please God, but Simon was confused about a lot a things, and he often said and did things he would later regret.
Many of us have been there and done that, and Simon Rocky’s story has lessons for all of us. If you have a Bible handy, open it to Matthew 26. We will pick up the story in an upper room where Jesus shares a last supper with the twelve apostles. In the course of conversation, Jesus casually brings up a topic he has mentioned several times recently, his impending death. He looks into the faces of the men who have been his friends and daily companions for three years and says, “One of you will betray me” (v. 21).
After supper they walk to the Mount of Olives, and Jesus says something even more disturbing: “Tonight all of you will desert me. For the Scriptures say, ‘God will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered'” (v. 31).
Jesus does not say this to rebuke his disciples; he wants to prepare them for what is about to happen, but Peter’s pride is hurt. He becomes indignant and says, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.”
Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, Peter–this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.”
“No!” Peter insists. “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you” (vv. 33–35).
Jesus says no more about it and they walk up the Mount of Olives to a garden named Gethsemane. Jesus is under tremendous stress, and he turns to Peter and two other disciples and says, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (v. 36). Jesus then goes a little farther into the garden for prayer. When he returns, the three are sound asleep. They were unable to support Jesus when he most needed them. The Lord immediately identifies the reason they were unable to do what he asked: “The spirit is willing,” Jesus says, “but the body is weak” (vv. 36-41).
Why did Peter and the others fail Jesus? Because Peter’s “spirit” (the part of him that had genuinely turned to God) was not aligned with his “body” (what he physically did). So, for example, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter did what he was accustomed to doing. He responded physically and met force with force–he grabbed a sword and chopped off an opponent’s ear. And when Jesus stepped in and healed the man and blocked Peter from doing the only thing his body knew how to do, he ran away with the rest of the disciples.
But it seems Peter was not as afraid as the others, because he only ran a short way. He turned and followed Jesus and the mob from a distance. He even made it into the courtyard of the High Priest who arrested Jesus. So Peter’s spirit was still willing, and now his body was beginning to become willing, or at least his legs. Other parts of his body were obviously weaker than his legs. Like his mouth. So as “the rock” sits in the courtyard where his legs have taken him, his mouth fails him, and he repeatedly denies any affiliation with Jesus. Jesus is being led across the courtyard when Peter denies him a third time. Their eyes lock, a rooster crows, and everything comes together. “Suddenly, Jesus’s words flashed through Peter’s mind: ‘Before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.’ And he went away, weeping bitterly” (v. 75).
So it turns out that all of Peter’s good intentions were useless, and even though he had been warned by Jesus just a few hours earlier, Peter was not able to resist the automatic tendencies ingrained in his flesh. He did what he was accustomed to doing–his habitual response that had been conditioned by a lifetime of wrong thinking.
But God was not done with Simon. In the hours and days that followed, Peter’s thinking began to change. He was able to look beyond the false narratives he had built his life on, and gradually Peter became the rock Jesus had seen in him all along. The Book of Acts documents how Jesus’s teachings began disrupting the status quo. The response from nonbelievers was brutal: persecution broke out and blood ran in the streets. Acts 8 tells us the entire church was scattered, “except the apostles.” Peter refused to run away again. Beatings, imprisonment, and death threats no longer frightened him. His body (what he did with his life) had caught up with his spirit, so that now both were strong.
Peter still had plenty of room to grow, but as he lived out his faith each day he became the person God created him to be. His spirit was willing, and his body was strong. And Peter’s story is not an isolated one. Scripture is filled with stories of men and women who began their faith journey with a willing spirit but a body that needed spiritual training in order to cooperate. More on that next time.
Next: An indestructible life.