I grew up going to Bible camp every summer. It was an amazing time, and I loved the experience. Through the worship, the teaching, the team exercises and the fun, my passion for Jesus was renewed each summer.
The last evening of camp I was ready to go back home and tell all my friends about Jesus and see amazing things happen!
But it seemed that in the span of the four-hour drive home, my passion had oozed out like the air in a leaky balloon. I made myself a snack, watched some TV and went back to life as usual, wondering how I had felt so differently less than 24 hours ago.
Passion alone wasn’t enough to sustain my discipleship.
Listening to the predominant narrative of modern evangelical Christianity, you could get the impression that passion is all we need to live a life of discipleship to Jesus.
If we can just become passionate and enthusiastic enough, we will have the fuel we need to fulfill the Great Commission and live the way of Jesus. It’s a “Bible camp” mentality that continues into adulthood for most of us, I think.
When passion falls short
Jesus, however, tells a different story in the Gospel of Mark when he is approaching the cross. At the last supper with his disciples, he tells them they will all fall away, but none of them believe it!
Peter passionately declares, “Even if all fall away, I will not!” Jesus responds will a dire warning: “Tonight… you will disown me three times.”
Peter simply cannot believe it. How could it ever happen when he feels this passionately about it? “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you!” he proclaims.
Jesus takes his disciples from dinner out to their favorite camping spot, the olive groves of Gethsemane, where he finds it necessary to pray. He takes Peter, James and John with him and tells them to simply sit with him while he prays.
Instead they fall asleep. Jesus comes back and wakes up the slumbering disciples, warning them with these important words,
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
You probably know the rest of the story. They fall asleep again, right up until Jesus is betrayed. The whole situation takes them off guard and, just as Jesus predicted, they all fall away, and Peter disowns Jesus three times.
Passion wasn’t enough for the disciples to stay awake and pray with Jesus. Passion wasn’t enough for them to remain firmly loyal to Jesus in the face of adversity and threat. Passion wasn’t enough for them to keep their promises of fidelity to Jesus. Passion just isn’t enough.
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That’s why Jesus could predict they would all fall away. He wasn’t using some sort of divine omniscience when he prophesied the disciples’ betrayal, he was simply observing that they were attempting to live on passion alone, and he knew that it wouldn’t be enough for them when temptation came.
Training that sustains us
That’s why he urged them to watch and pray, so that you will not fall into temptation! The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. In other words, the passion is there, but you need more than passion. You need training.
It’s a bit like the difference between my passion for basketball and soccer. I like watching and playing both sports. I am passionate about both. But the difference in my skill in these sports is remarkable. I can play basketball fairly well, but I’m pretty awful at soccer.
Why? Well, I have trained in basketball since I was in elementary school, while I’ve never trained in soccer. I’ve only played pickup games, which I love doing, but mostly I am a liability to my team!
Why? Because my spirit is willing (I love playing soccer!), but my flesh is weak (I’m not very good at it!).
Disciples need training
In the same way, passion was not enough for the disciples to remain faithful in trial. They desperately wanted to come through for Jesus, I’m sure. They genuinely thought that they could, too. They assumed their passion would carry them, but it wasn’t enough. They needed training.
They needed to learn to watch and pray, so that when temptation comes they will have the capability to actually do what they so desperately want to do.
We need the same thing, if we’re going to follow Jesus as disciples. That’s what “spiritual disciplines” are all about, training us so that we can be poised and ready for the trials and temptations that come our way as we join Jesus in his work.
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Disciplines for training disciples
I have to remind myself of this every once in awhile. My passion is not enough to sustain me, I need to submit to a regimen of training so that my flesh isn’t weak on the day of temptation. This is why we (try to) begin each day in gratitude, worship, Scripture, and prayer.
It’s why we gather on Sundays to celebrate what God is doing in our midst and gather at the Lord’s table. It’s why I spend personal time in prayer and reflection. It’s why we share what we are thankful for around the breakfast table as a family.
As we engage in these simple exercises, these predictable patterns, we find that God’s grace inhabits those spaces and he begins to transform us. We become spiritually “strong” not by trying really hard, but by indirect effort. That’s how we train as disciples… doing little, seemingly insignificant things that allow us to do the things we cannot do by direct effort.
How are you and your community training as disciples right now? What are some of the results you’ve seen so far? What adjustments do you need to make?