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Discipleship Joy

When we talk about discipleship, our tone gets serious. What about our discipleship joy?

Will we still be disciples in the age of the Resurrection? That question occurred to me recently as I was listening to a group of my theological colleagues discuss discipleship. The conversation was a bit of a downer, and it struck me that – given what they were saying about discipleship – I was not looking forward to being a disciple for all eternity.

My colleagues’ depiction of the life of discipleship was obviously borrowed from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They emphasized the “cost” of discipleship. Christians are to walk “the way of the Cross.” To be a disciple is to show a willingness to take on suffering.

Let me say right off that none of that is simply confused. As a Protestant I have my own assemblage of special saints to whom I look for inspiration and guidance, several of them Catholic: Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Archbishop Romero. I know that we have to be willing to suffer for the cause of the Gospel, and that we must align ourselves with those on the margins of society. I have long taken seriously Kierkegaard’s insistence that it is not so much that “the way is narrow” but that “the narrowness is the way” (from Gospel of Sufferings).

All of that is foundational for my theology and spirituality. And while I have typically failed to live up to my own advocacy on these matters, I have never doubted the importance of suffering in the Christian life. What troubles me, though, is the kind of talk that seems to make discipleship all about suffering. 

Serious undertone
Actually, I don’t think that my theologian friends who discussed discipleship were fully endorsing the it’s-all-about suffering view of discipleship that I was hearing in their comments. Before the theological discussion got started, for example, one of them commented that he had enjoyed seeing his favorite major league team win with a three-run homer in the ninth inning the night before. And another of the theologians had reported that she and her husband had just had a wonderful time with their grandchildren. My hunch is that each of them would see those experiences as blessings of the Christian life – as something that Jesus approved of, even though it involved no obvious suffering. The problem, however, is that we when we start talking about discipleship, our tone gets serious, and the seriousness for us often carries connotations of suffering.

After I witnessed the serious tone of that Bonhoefferian discussion, I decided to check in with the German martyr himself, to be sure that he was being used properly by my friends. And I did not have to go very far into his The Cost of Discipleship to find the encouragement I was hoping for. To be sure, Bonhoeffer does rather quickly get into talk about the “yoke” of Jesus, pointing us to a way that “is hard, unutterably hard, for those who try to resist it.” But for those who submit to Jesus, we experience the burden as a “kindly yoke” that we bear as disciples, even as we must stay aware of “the seriousness of his commands.”

Ever-increasing joy!
Significantly, though, he sets up the “kindly yoke” theme with a reference to joy just four pages into his book. Because we walk “a road of boundless mercy” as we follow Jesus, says Bonhoeffer, we can also proclaim this: “Discipleship means joy.” And Bonhoeffer returns to the idea of joy near the end of his book, when he emphasizes that “the Christian life is not one of gloom, but of ever-increasing joy in the Lord.” There is some hiddenness about the grounding of this joy, though, “for in the present all we know is his good work.” So, he says, we have to a await a future revealing of the glory.

A while back I heard someone report that Abraham Kuyper had a crucifix above his bed, and each night he would look at it and repent for the ways he had failed to participate enough that day in the Saviour’s suffering. That was a laudable act of piety. But I wonder whether on some evenings Kuyper might have been inclined simply to tell Jesus about how much he enjoyed going to an art exhibit, or about having had a great dinner conversation with his wife. Could not reporting those kinds of experiences also be a way of being accountable to the Lord for the ways of discipleship?

Here is my theological point in all of this. The path of discipleship continues into the age of the Resurrection, and the future joy will be joy for disciples. And as we wait for that, we can experience some discipleship joy along the way – even at major league baseball games and by spending time with our kids at playgrounds.

  • Dr. Mouw is President Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, where he presently serves as Professor of Faith and Public Life. He is the author of more than 20 books, including "Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport."

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