We’ve gotten discipleship backwards. Jesus put it like this: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). In discipleship, we have reversed this. Instead, we start like this: Know the truth. Be set free. Follow Jesus.

Knowing facts about God is not enough

Many people have never actually seen what God is like. They only know facts about him. They can list off many things: He is loving, gracious, all knowing, all powerful, everywhere present, infinite, provider, caring, passionate, and more. But here is the issue: We never fall in love with someone by simply knowing a list of things about them.

I was speaking to a young woman who said she was struggling with her faith. She expressed deep confusion about what God was like, as this was the very One she was supposed to tell her friends, neighbors, and strangers about. She would describe for them God’s varied characteristics, but for some reason they were unaffected.

Then I pressed her. She has a boyfriend so I asked her: “What if I were trying to set you and your boyfriend up and I said: ‘He has two eyes, two legs, a face, hair, a mouth, he eats, he hugs people and he wears clothes.’ Would you be so caught up about him that you’d fall in love with him?” She laughed and said, “Of course not!.” I said, “How have you fallen in love with him?” She responded, “Our time in relationship with each other.” Exactly.

She spent time with him and walked with him to see what he was like. So much so, that if I told tell her, “Your boyfriend is a thief and a liar,” she wouldn’t believe me, because of her experiential understanding of who he is and what he is like. His being called a thief and a liar is a contradiction to his character that she knows intimately. This is how it is with God. He has always wanted a relationship with us, so we could show off what he is like to the entire world. We see this right away in the Garden of Eden, as God walks with Adam and Eve, God’s image bearers, in the cool of the day.

This is why discipleship starts with the first time we have contact with a person. Now, don’t read this and hear that facts about a person or facts about God aren’t important. Of course, it is important that her boyfriend has an actual heart that keeps him alive, just as it is important that God is, in fact, spirit. But, if you asked Adam and Eve why they believe God is their provider, they’d point to the variety and lushness of the garden, not because they found a tract behind the tree of life that told them so.

We show off what God is like as we walk in his ways

When we do not merely memorize facts about God, but actually experience those facts in relationship with him, we can show him clearly to others. So, instead of just saying, “God provides,” we see that he provides as we lean on his provision and wisdom. We don’t merely call him Comforter, but we have experienced his comfort in our lives. We can then authentically show off what God is like to others as we live in community with them. So, when they begin to trust in Jesus, they’ve already seen what a disciple does and experienced it. Because of this, they have an affectionate relationship with God and not merely an intellectual relationship with facts about God.

Isn’t this moralism? No. Instead, we are open with our sin, showing people how forgiving, loving and pursuant God is, even in our sin because of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We aren’t saying we are the gospel, but we are the image bearers of God, showing others the fullness of God in every way, in our righteousness and our sin. Of course, both of these are only possible because of the gospel (John 15:15; 1 John 1:5-10).

Where did we get so off track?

We’ve never had relationships like this. We’ve never merely known facts about someone and said we were in intimate relationship with them. Yet we can see many people living this way. They believe this list of facts, then they work the rest of their lives trying to do things to prove that God is real and true, the same way they know it with their minds. In reality, they’ve never been set free. They are still slaves. Jesus’ burden is heavy, not light. And, in the end, the gospel isn’t good news and definitely doesn’t bring great joy.

Maybe this is the reason why so many pastors and Christians are burnt out. They have a relationship with a spreadsheet of facts instead of walking in the ways of Jesus who sets them free, brings great joy, and whose burden is light. I wonder what would happen if our list of facts, or our systematic theology actually came from the truth of the Spirit working in our lives and seeking what the Word of God says about himself. If we allowed this sort of patience and long-suffering to happen, we’d truly experience God for he is and what he’s done in our world and in our lives. The Spirit would disciple us in the truth of who he is in both word and deed, showing us experientially who he is. The problem with our method of discipleship, is we often want people to cross this line of truth overnight, instead of resting in the sovereign work of God by trusting him to reveal himself to people as he sees fit, in his perfect timing.

If you fall in love with someone through experiencing who they are by seeing their beauty, both physical and spiritual, why wouldn’t you expect that shadow to point you to the reality of who God is, especially in light of his exponential depth of glory?

We need to go back to a discipleship that starts with walking with others as we walk with Jesus, so they’ll know the truth and that truth will set them free as it has set us free.

Cross-posted from Gospel-Centered Discipleship.