Have you ever tried a new and exciting diet?
Several years ago, I watched in horror as my friend ate two large pieces of greasy beef. There was no bun, no lettuce or anything else for that matter. There was just meat — and lots of it. What surprised me more than the fact that he could consume so much meat was that he was proud of himself for being on a diet. Why eat a salad with no dressing for lunch when you can eat 32 ounces of ground beef?
Most people know that the basic ingredients to weight loss are a balanced diet and exercise, yet fad diets continue to pop up. They are often startlingly different in content, but what they tend to have in common is the promise of a shortcut.
There may be another reason for so much literature available on diet, exercise and weight loss: It is easier to think about losing weight than to actually do it. It is easier to read a book about diet and exercise than to prepare healthy food and commit to regularly exercising.
Diets are similar in this way to Christian discipleship. I am confident that you could read a book about Christian discipleship every day from now until you died and you would not have read every book written on discipleship.
Like dieting, Christian discipleship is not that complicated. The reason there are thousands of books on Christian discipleship is not because nobody has figured out how to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, or because we can’t quite figure out what a mature disciple looks like. Rather, I suspect there are so many books on discipleship because it is easier to read about discipleship than to be a disciple. It is easier to think about what it would be like to live lives of radical faithfulness to the God Christians worship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit than it is to actually live such a life.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40).
In the “General Rules,” John Wesley organized Methodism around Jesus’ summary of discipleship. The first rule is a simple reminder to “do no harm.” If we love God and neighbor, we will not do things that harm them or our relationship with them. The second rule, “do good” to others, echoes Jesus’ second greatest commandment. Wesley’s “doing good” is an active expression of love of neighbor. The third rule echoes Jesus’ commandment to love God with heart, soul and mind through the means of grace. When we pray, worship, receive the Eucharist, search the Scriptures and fast, we express our love for God.
One of the profound gifts of Methodism is its recognition that understanding Christian discipleship is relatively easy. What is far more difficult is actually putting it into practice.
I have a hunch that when a parishioner expresses a desire to go deeper in their faith, most pastors are most comfortable recommending a book for them to read. And while this is understandable — there are some great books to recommend — I wonder if this is like giving people stones when they ask for bread.
If someone came to me wanting to lose weight and asking me what he or she should do, I could recommend they read a book about how to lose weight, or I could invite them to go running with me.
If someone asks me how they can go deeper in their life with God, I hope that as I listen to them I can think of the perfect book to give them that would help them continue thinking about their faith. But I also hope I would take the time to ask them about how their life with God is. Are they practicing the means of grace? Are they doing good to their neighbors? What do they think the next step of faithfulness looks like? I hope I would walk with them.
KEVIN M. WATSON is an Emory University assistant professor of Wesleyan and Methodist studies who previously taught at Seattle Pacific University from 2011 to 2014. His books include “The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience” (fmchr.ch/tcmkwatson).1