Several years ago, I had lunch with one of my wisest friends, Richard. I consider Richard wise for several reasons; among them are that he's found a way to make a living as an artist (not easy to do), he has a great beard, he's generally happy, and he lives his life very differently than most people I know, who aren't generally happy.
Among our topics of conversation that day was why, even among people who participate faithfully in Christian churches for the majority of their lives, some people grow to take on a significant amount of the character of Jesus and others never do. We disagreed on why this happens.
My case was, because churches generally do not do a very good job of leading people to learn reliable ways of living in the Kingdom of God (focusing more on getting people ready to die than getting them ready to live), that people are pretty much doing the best they can but have been given poor guidance. If we were to offer more reliable guidance, I thought that almost everyone would be ready and willing to walk the path of whole-life discipleship to Jesus.
Richard thought differently. He thought that people's lack of growth comes from their simple choice not to grow. Through God's grace, the opportunity has been made available to everyone, and most people just choose to say, "Thanks, but that's really not for me right now."
Now it's nearly a decade after that conversation, and I think that the best answer is somewhere between our two opinions. I absolutely still believe that churches must do a better job of seeing themselves as training centers where people learn to take Jesus' invitation to live in God's kingdom. We have to experience and teach deeper, fuller, and more reliable answers than "pray, read your bible, and go tell everyone you know about Jesus." Or, as Henry Cloud summarizes what we usually hear in church, "God is good. You're bad. Try harder."
Yet although the lack of reliable guidance is true, Richard's point is also true: God's grace (that builds Jesus' character in us) is already available to everyone, and many of us simply choose to say "no, thanks."
So, what's the explanation that accepts both sides of our conversation?
The option of not growing will always be available to us.
I continue to shape my ministry around the assumption that if leaders in churches can live, model and offer a more reliable way of living in God's kingdom, many more people will willfully and thankfully enter into it than we're accustomed to see doing so now. My dream for churches is that among the people committed to them, lives overflowing with the love, joy, peace, and hope that were characteristic of Jesus would become the norm rather than outstanding exceptions.
But, at least in our culture, I've also become convinced that the option of living another kind of Christianity will always be available. This other kind of Christianity accepts a mediocre kind of life (with one foot in the kingdom and one foot happy to remain outside) as the acceptable norm. It sees getting into heaven as the point of Christianity, rather than getting heaven into us (or, staying out of hell rather than getting the hell out of us.) It's a way for us to do enough religious things to feel like we are paying our dues or doing our duty, but to still avoid entrusting ourselves, here and now, to Jesus, his kingdom, and his way of life.
Dallas Willard calls this kind of Christianity "Vampire Christianity." In his article, "Why Bother With Discipleship?", he says, "One in effect says to Jesus: 'I'd like a little of your blood, please. But I don't care to be your student or have your character. In fact, won't you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I'll see you in heaven.' But can we really imagine that this is an approach that Jesus finds acceptable?"
As I read the gospels, I don't see that Jesus ever intended to leave this option open to us. Rather, the only kind of life he describes and invites us to is one of being his disciple (student, follower, or apprentice), with he being our Lord and Teacher, as to how we live our lives.
Perhaps a large part of the problem is that we don't really understand how good Jesus' way of life really is, and how much we miss out on by not living it. The option of not growing will always be available to us, but we cannot afford to take it. It costs us too much life.
In one of his most often-quotes passages, Willard says:
"...the cost of nondiscipleship is far greater – even when this life alone is considered – than the price paid to walk with Jesus. Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring." (From his article "Discipleship: For Super-Christians Only?" in [amazon_link id="0060694424" target="_blank" ]The Spirit of the Disciplines[/amazon_link]).
You and I both have many choices today, and as we make them we will be headed down one road or the other: either toward a life ever more full of the character of Jesus himself, or toward something less. The good news is that God's grace and our relationships with one another provide everything that we need to consistently choose wisely, beginning right now.