What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in the everyday? Why is it that some parts of our lives seem to be changed and transformed quite quickly when we meet God, and there are other things we struggle with for long periods of time? How do I know if God is really at work in my life? Why are things sometimes slow and unspectacular?
A way of thinking about following Jesus is to consider it as a long obedience in the same direction.
A way of thinking about following Jesus is to consider it as a long obedience in the same direction. When we make a decision to follow Jesus things can be very exciting at first. Perhaps we read the bible following a daily plan and it seems to illuminate our whole beings. Or every time we open the Bibles the words jump off the page. Every word feels immediate, encouraging and speaks directly to us. Prayer feels easy as we pour our hearts out to God and sense God’s closeness to us. We are full of joy. These are good things. Like any intimate relationship, the early days are full of joy and discovery – being ‘in love’ is one of the most wonderful things about human experience. But this ecstatic joy usually fades. That initial ‘fire’ of being in love burns away. Perhaps God doesn’t answer our prayers as quickly as we would like. We read the scriptures but find them confusing, offensive, or dull. Maybe we don’t sense God’s closeness in the same way? We struggle with selfishness or lust or anger and assume that God must continually be cross with us because we haven’t changed. We are weak and useless!
Our individualistic consumer culture can feed us the lie that when a relationship is no longer as exciting or passionate or as vibrant as it once was we should give up and move on. The “He’s just not into you any longer” syndrome of romantic relationships can shape the way we think God feels about us, or our own weariness can stop us from continuing to follow Jesus as we once did. But following Jesus is a process full of ups and downs and of joys and challenges. One helpful thing for followers of the Way (a term the early Christians used) is that the overwhelming, never stopping, never giving up love of God undergirds everything. However we feel at a particular point in time in our journey with God – God is for us, loves us, deeply and consistently, and by God’s Holy Spirit working slowly and gently in us. The art of discipleship is often about time.
‘God goes slowly because he is love. If he was not love he would have gone much faster.'
The God who walks slowly
In a world full of speed, power and the spectacular, what if we understood God as primarily walking slowly with us, alongside us, toward us. The Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wrote about the way in which God works with people. ‘God goes slowly because he is love. If he was not love he would have gone much faster. Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed to the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is ‘slow’ yet it is Lord over all other speeds since it is the speed of love’ Throughout scripture, God is at work, but often in slow ways. God journeys with the people of Israel as they spend 40 years in the desert having escaped from slavery in Egypt. As we meet characters in the Bible from Abraham to Jacob, from David to Paul we aren’t given a set of impressive hagiographies. Scripture portrays men and women with sometimes searing honesty. We read of the ups and downs, failures and successes, the faithfulness and disobedience in the grand arch of people’s lives. We can take comfort in the fact that God continues to walk with us and work in and through us over the long term. Perhaps we can feel like God is really only interested in us when we are doing well? But God’s love towards us is unconditional which can be confusing, as we are so used to relationships which are often transactional.
The God who sees the lowly, disenfranchised and despised
Hagar declares, “You are the God who sees me. I have truly seen the One who sees me”
I’m struck too, by the way in which God is interested in people who are not the usual suspects. People who are ‘outsiders’ and ‘misfits’ seem to be chosen by God for important tasks. Again, through both the Old and New Testament we hear the stories of those who are marginalised coming to the fore. In Genesis 16 we meet Hagar the Egyptian servant of Sari Abram’s wife. Abram and Sari are unable to have their own children. Sari decides to take things into her own hands, and so urges Abram to sleep with her servant girl Hagar. Hagar falls pregnant and as you might imagine causes claustrophobic tension in the household. Eventually Hagar runs away. That could have been the end of the story, since it’s a Jewish story - but no, God sends an Angel to pursue Hagar as she wanders into the desert and lets her know that she is seen, and that God has great plans for her offspring. Hagar declares, “You are the God who sees me. I have truly seen the One who sees me” (Genesis 16:13b). It’s hard to overstate just quite how profound this idea is. Later we meet David, the youngest in the family and a mere shepherd boy, who eventually is crowned king. Gideon is found hiding in a wine press and declared a ‘might warrior.’ In the New Testament we meet a string of characters who fall foul of the strict laws of who was in and who was out in Jewish culture. Jesus sees the sick, the lame, the blind, the mentally distressed, the Samaritan, the Roman centurion, the children. The outsiders become insiders through his love and mercy.
The Psalmist, King David, declares, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me”
The God who sits with us in the dark and difficult places
Again, we tend to assume that when we have failed, messed up, when things are collapsing, or falling apart, that God is drawing back, absenting Himself and letting us get out of the mess ourselves. I can feel like God is ‘no where’, yet in the darkness we may discover that God is ‘now here’. Christian traditions tend to understand the idea of times of darkness, difficulty, and seeming abandonment by God in different ways. The Psalmist, King David, declares, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Some Christian traditions which are more attuned to the mystical remind us that God is at work in us and with us in the most difficult times. Writers like St John of the Cross help us to see that in dark and difficult times, perhaps marked by confusion, helplessness and crisis, our faith may being honed and purified and reshaped. Other traditions view times of darkness and difficulty as spiritual attacks which need to be rebuked and resisted.
We are all pilgrims
It’s important to remember that the journey of Christian faith is a pilgrimage. On a pilgrimage we are invited to share our bread with one another. Find others who you can share your journey with. The Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of the Christian journey of being a race. This is more about focus rather than about speed. It’s not a Usain Bolt kind of thing. It’s not fast or instantaneous. It’s not a three-minute boil-in-the-bag kind of work. Walking with Jesus is a lifelong decision and ongoing commitment. It’s building a rhythm of prayer (however simple) and reading of scripture and meeting with others, also attempting to follow Jesus, that help us to walk along the path - however slow and faltering that may seem.
Dr Benjamin Aldous is the Principal Officer for Evangelism & Mission for Churches Together in England, and author of The God Who Walks Slowly: Reflections on mission with Kosuke Koyama.