Suffering is a fact of life for many people in our world. It is into this world that Jesus Christ commands us to go and follow him as his disciples and servants. He asks us to share the good news of his love and grace with suffering humanity, knowing very well we may suffer.
In this tension of faith and suffering we ask questions: what does following Jesus mean if and when suffering and disaster strike us? How can we keep the balance between his grace and love and the reality of suffering? Since we as his disciples are also subject to suffering and disaster, what difference does it make to follow and serve him?
What does it mean to follow Jesus?
Following Jesus in a world of suffering and disaster first means a call to discipleship. In Mark 1:16-17, Jesus calls Simon and his brother Andrew to follow him. It was a call to discipleship. This call is not short-term or based on instant gratification but on a lifelong walk with God. David Watson explains that this is a call to a person (Jesus), a call to obedience and submission to his will and plan for our lives, a call to serve, and more importantly, a call to suffer. Following Jesus in a world of suffering and disaster requires following the way of Jesus, that is, the way of the cross. Life for Jesus ended, if you like, in suffering and disaster, rejection and pain and agonizing death. We should not be surprised if following Jesus demands that we walk the same way.
Let us take the example of some of Jesus’ followers to illustrate this call to suffer: Peter and John were imprisoned and beaten for their boldness in witnessing to Jesus and the resurrection. Stephen was stoned to death and by the sword James was killed (Acts 8:1ff). The apostle Paul, an ardent follower of Jesus, immediately after the Damascus road experience and subsequent ministry, catalogues his sufferings: beaten five times with 39 lashes, three times with rods, and stoned once and shipwrecked once, often going hungry, sometimes misunderstood and many times falsely accused (2 Cor 11:25-29). For Paul, his call to follow Jesus involved emotional pain and constant grief and deep concern for fellow unbelieving Jews and co-workers in ministry (Rom 10:1-10; 2 Tim 4:10, 14).
Secondly, following Jesus means a continuous and unceasing carrying of the cross as we follow him on the road of obedience. Jesus made it crystal clear that following him demands that we take up our cross and follow him (Luke 14:27, Mark 10:38). According to Sanders, this involves a willingness to accept ostracism and unpopularity with the world for his sake. Commenting on the bearing of the cross, Keener says, ‘In those days a condemned criminal would ‘carry the cross’ (ie the horizontal beam of the cross) out to the site of his crucifixion, usually amid a jeering mob. No one would choose this fate for himself but Jesus calls upon his true followers to choose it and hate their own lives in comparison to their devotion to him.’
Thirdly, following Jesus means surrendering our ‘heart affections, life’s conduct, and personal possessions’. It is what Jesus means when he says whoever would follow him must give up everything (Luke 14:33). This is quite a task in our materialistic world where we hold the things we own with clenched fists, claiming that we got them by the sweat of our brow. This sort of bragging ignores the fact that we are only stewards and not owners of all that has been entrusted to us. Jesus desires that his followers exhibit an attitude which acknowledges the ownership of God over who we are and what we have and demonstrates a willingness to say, ‘Lord, if you want any of them back again, tell me, and I will let them go’.
Fourthly, following Jesus means loving one another as a direct result of the love he has shown us. Establishing love as an authentic badge of discipleship, Jesus teaches that when we love one another, all people will know that we are his disciples (John 13:34-35). Such love is agape. William Barclay describes this love as the spirit that says, ‘No matter what any man does to me, I will never seek to do harm to him; I will never set out for revenge; I will always seek nothing but his highest good’. Hence, it is the love that is ‘unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill’ (my italics).
Fifthly, following Jesus means continual adjustment. This is because Jesus determines the agenda and sets the pace for discipleship. Matthew 8:19-20 presents a case of the teacher of the law who was willing to follow Jesus wherever he went. Jesus, discerning the inner motives and his unspoken conditions, revealed to him that sometimes the destinations would not be reasonable and accommodations would not be appropriate. Unwilling to adjust to Jesus’ stipulations, the man retreated! How many times have we hesitated to follow Jesus because we try to fit God in our plans and not vice versa? Following him is tough, but it is worth it. Willingness to adjust our lives is pertinent if we are to follow him.
Sixthly, following Jesus is a relationship. Following Jesus entails developing an intimate relationship with him. This is what elevates Christianity beyond all other religions, philosophies, and worldviews. Mark 3:14-15 says, ‘He appointed the twelve—designating them as apostles, that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority over demons’. A closer look at this Scripture—‘that they might be with him’—reveals that endeavouring to do anything for Jesus is linked with desiring and developing a relationship with him. Christianity in general and discipleship in particular is based on a relationship with Jesus, not on spiritual directions and rules. Once we decide to let him have control over our lives, he will show us the way and teach us. This entails all the directions we need as we deepen our relationship with him.
Seventhly, following Jesus is a change process. Following Jesus means enrolling ourselves in the school of change. Looking at the twelve disciples, it is amazing how they were transformed when they followed him. As our interests and philosophies of life change, we may mess up and fail Jesus just like the disciples, but their transformation stories become ours at that very moment. A disciple should never give up because they fail or miss the target, for even the first disciples of Jesus were not exceptional. ‘Because of their struggles, the positive changes that took place in their lives hold promise for all of us.’ Peter and Paul are supreme examples of change through following Jesus. Peter in the gospel accounts is not the same Peter in the book of Acts (Acts 4:8-12). Paul is emphatic about the undeniable change within him after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-15; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 1:11-24). Encountering Jesus transformed these individuals. Following Jesus means answering the Master’s beckoning hand that lovingly declares, ‘Come and follow me and I will make you . . .’ Following him is an appointment with change, one that makes us what he always wants us to be or become.