When Discipleship is Hard

“How did this week’s reading challenge you in your walk with the Lord?” he asked me, looking at me over the top of his steaming mug of coffee as we opened Jerry Bridges’ Respectable Sins.

It was 4 a.m. and I was still rubbing the sleep from the corners of my eyes. I poked at my syrup-drenched waffles and shifted in the stiff Waffle House bench seat.

I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college, and the fact that I was awake at this unnatural hour was a miracle in itself. What was even more of a miracle was that this older believer was gifting his time to me to help me grow in my faith as a new believer.

DISCIPLESHIP IS HARD

Discipleship is one of the hardest tasks in the Christian life. There are countless books on the topic. There are conferences and sermon series that could keep us busy for months. There is a massive emphasis on discipleship within churches today, and rightly so.

Most Christians don’t need to be convinced of the need for discipleship. The need is clear. What most Christians need is to know that they are not alone in the difficulty of discipleship. They need to be reminded of the importance of pushing forward even when things get hard.

I was introduced to true discipleship when I was in college. Not only was discipleship counter-cultural for me, but I found it to be counter-church-culture for me as well. I grew up in the church and experienced various levels of discipleship in the local church, but never something as specific and personal as the discipleship I received in college.

When I started meeting at Waffle House on Mondays at 4 a.m., I was experiencing something new. I was able to grow alongside one of my best friends under a man God had placed in our lives. Meeting at 4 a.m. on Mondays wasn’t our idea. However, God used that time to teach and grow both of us in many ways.

This experience of discipleship gave me a framework for understanding how discipleship functions. Some Mondays were great! Other Mondays our desire to sleep outweighed our desire to grow in our faith. But regardless of our occasional apathy and love of sleep, the discipler was always faithful to be there.

But the hardest part of discipleship was not waking up early to meet at 4 a.m. It was the difficulty of forming a deep relationship that caused us to be vulnerable for a season.

DISCIPLESHIP IS RELATIONAL

Discipleship is essentially a relationship-structured Kingdom of God growth strategy. Matthew 28:18-20 is the go-to passage concerning the call to make disciples. The passage, when broken down, assumes that we are actively sharing the Gospel and that when the hearers believe that we are baptizing and teaching them the calling of God’s people.

We do not have a hard time understanding that we are called to share the Gospel. Most do not struggle with the baptizing part. The part we struggle with is “teaching them to observe.” Why is this so hard?

We struggle with the teaching because we struggle to be relational. The problem is not that we don’t know how to befriend each other and it’s not that we don’t know the truth; the problem is that we don’t know how to leverage relationships for growth in the truth of the gospel.

Consider the way we spend our time. How often do we spend our time with someone we would not normally spend time with in order to teach them the commands of the Lord? How often do we press into relationships, asking the hard questions that prompt confession, growth, and obedience? How often do we invite a younger believer into the day-to-day of our lives so that we can model maturity and obedience to them?

We do not struggle to merely be relational. We struggle to build deep discipling relationships.

Many of the lessons I learned during our time of discipleship were more caught than taught. It was by seeing my discipler and his family live life that I grew most. We didn’t only meet at Waffle House. I also spent time in their house. We ate dinner. I went to their kid’s soccer games. By sacrificially inviting me into these moments of his life, he showed me how to be a faithful husband, father, and Christian man. We met at 4 a.m. because he prioritized his family time after work. We met at 4 a.m. because he prioritized time to disciple us. He prioritized both relationships to the point that they became blended.

Discipleship is most effective when people are most involved in our lives. Building these deep relationships is not always natural and easy. If you have spent any time in disciple-making, you know that those who God places in your life are not always those you would pick in a lineup.

But making disciples creates some of the most miraculous blessings through relationships.

DISCIPLESHIP IS VULNERABLE

Vulnerability is daunting. Maybe you feel comfortable with Scripture. Sufficient knowledge of the Word and the ability to teach might not be what is holding you back. Opening your life to allow people to see your flaws and hurts might not be easy for you. The fear of being hurt or rejected is always lingering.

Disciple-making requires deep relationship building. If we are going to spend time with people in this type of relationship, we cannot put on a façade of who we are. They will easily see the way we react to suffering, blessing, praise, and heartbreak.

But the beauty of disciple-making is that we are not pointing people to our character. As our failures are put on display, we get to point the ones we disciple to the only one who is worthy of being imitated.

It is true that we are to live as examples and be imitators of Christ. It is true that we will do much of our teaching through our living. However, at the end of the day, as disciplers we must point our disciples to Christ, not to ourselves. He is the exact imprint of God, the image of the invisible God, and the radiance of God’s glory (Heb. 1:3, Col. 1:15).

We are to be vulnerable so that we can teach others how to live as broken and sinful followers of Jesus. We bravely reveal our weaknesses so that we can highlight the Lord’s strength in us:

  • I am not married, but I have learned ways to apologize to my wife one day.

  • I do not have kids, but I have learned ways to lovingly discipline my children.

  • I have not led as a senior pastor or elder, but I have learned to love those who do not love you.

Much of what I have learned has been gleaned as the men who have discipled me have been vulnerable with their lives.

By the grace of God, it is through our vulnerability that people will come to a better understanding of how to live as followers of Christ.

DISCIPLESHIP IS SEASONAL

The hardest struggle for me in disciple-making is not the relational or vulnerable aspects; rather it is the struggle with the concept that discipleship is usually seasonal. I often miss the days we met at Waffle House (except for the 4 a.m. part). I fondly recall the first younger men I began to disciple. But the Lord has been overly gracious and faithful when these seasons of relationships ended.

When we are faithful to make disciples, we will experience the difficulty of seasonal relationships. But when we remain faithful to the call of discipleship, we will experience the joys of new relationships the Lord provides for us.

The great benefit of the depth of these seasonal discipleship relationships is the reconnection that happens every so often. I have been able to spend time with the guy who first discipled me. I have been able to watch a few more soccer games his kids have played in. After some time apart, I was able to talk through relationship struggles with one of the young men I discipled. I now have his wedding invitation on my refrigerator.

DISCIPLESHIP IS WORTH IT

While the period of deep discipleship is seasonal, the impact is eternal. I eagerly look forward to when we will spend eternity with all those God allowed us to be discipled by and those he allowed us to disciple.

Discipleship is hard because we build deep relationships of vulnerability that begin and end. But discipleship is eternally worthwhile.

Wesley Lassiter is the Youth Minister at Meansville Baptist Church. He is currently finishing his Bachelor degree at Spurgeon College (MBTS). He has written for Doctrine and Devotion and For The Church. Read more from Wesley at his website, radiantgrace.net, or follow him on Twitter.