This month (September 2018) it will be fifty years since I started as a student at the London Bible College. I was a fresh-faced 18 year old, living away from home for the first time, a young lad from a Yorkshire pit village trying to adjust to life in the capital. Not an easy transition! This anniversary has caused me to reflect on my journey as a disciple of Jesus, the highs and the lows, and to remind myself of some of the key moments and lessons along the way. There are many things that could be highlighted, but I have chosen just six. My hope is that they will be an encouragement to you on your own journey, at whatever stage you may find yourself.
The importance of a true conversion
My life as a disciple actually began a few years earlier, when in August 1964 I came to faith in a small Methodist chapel in the village of Brierley where I was growing-up. A group of students from Cliff College (a Methodist training college in Derbyshire) were holding a week of special services, and encouraged by my sister I went along to hear them. Although not from a Christian background, I had some understanding through attending Sunday School and also a Church of England primary school, but I had never heard the gospel presented so clearly before – that I was a sinner and that Christ had died for me. With tears rolling down my cheeks I responded to the invitation to receive the gift of salvation. It was real and deep and I knew I had been born again (John 3:3). In that moment the divine life entered mine and I became God’s child. This experience of conversion has been the foundation stone for the rest of my life. Without that clear sense of a personal relationship with God I think it is impossible to move forward into a life of discipleship. As Jesus said, ‘No-one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’ John 3:5
A quality decision to follow Jesus
Discipleship should be a natural progression from any true experience of conversion. I am grateful for those who helped me to grown in my new found faith and challenged me to be wholehearted in following Jesus. There were many minor battles to be fought as I surrendered to the claims of Christ upon my life and allowed him to become my Lord. The words of Jesus in Matthew 6:33 constantly rang in my ears: ‘Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.’ It was a struggle to make his will my priority and it required some painful readjustments, but gradually I came to the place where I was ready to do what he wanted me to do – to follow his plan for my life. I felt that I was being called to some form of Christian ministry, and with that in mind I decided to study for a degree in theology at London Bible College. That was a key decision at a crucial moment in my life, but the principle of seeking first God’s kingdom has continued to be a guiding principle in all my decision-making ever since.
A call to serve
Life at Bible College was tough with academic pressures as well as the challenge of hearing so many divergent view-points, but overall I enjoyed my time there. The greatest bonus was meeting my future wife Evelyn who was also a student. Discipleship must issue in a life of service, however that is expressed. For us, we felt God was calling us to work overseas with a focus on Chinese people. I had been greatly challenged by the life of Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China who came from my home town of Barnsley. Evelyn already had an interest in Malaysia, so we applied to join the Overseas Missionary Fellowship and left for Singapore in 1975, soon after we were married. Before we left one of Evelyn’s aunties gave me a beautiful leather-bound Bible, in which she wrote the words from 1Thessalonians 5:24: ‘The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.’ The reality of God’s faithfulness, and his provision for those whom he calls, has been the bedrock of our life of service. He has never let us down, never failed us. Ministry takes many different forms (not just ‘full-time service’), and changes with the seasons of life, but the faithfulness of God means that he is utterly dependable whatever he asks us to do, or wherever we are called to serve. Our aim as disciples is simple – to glorify God in all we do.
The BIG lesson – without God it is impossible
After eight exciting years in Malaysia (during which time our two children were born) we served in a local church back in Yorkshire, and then leading a missions training at a conference centre called Bawtry Hall. I learnt so much during that period and grew tremendously in my understanding and developed my skill-set. Yet I also knew failure and disappointment, made mistakes and saw my own weakness. Through it all God was teaching me the great lesson of John 5:5 where Jesus says, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.’
I began to see that I was not required to make things happen or to produce the goods; indeed by my own efforts I could not. What was required was that I should learn to abide in Christ and allow him (through the Holy Spirit) to live his life in me and through me. In other words my weakness would be his opportunity. Once this truth dawned on my soul I was set free from the endless striving that had characterised my life. Over time I began to learn how to work with God rather than for God. There is a world of difference between these two approaches! I hope this dependency on God has characterised my life ever since. It is certainly the truth I most like to share with others, and it makes discipleship both attainable and sustainable.
Falling into grace – identity as God’s deeply loved child
Although I had known God’s grace ever since my conversion, I did not know the full extent of his grace towards me, and in particular that I was loved unconditionally. In various ways God began to show me that his love for me came with no strings attached – he knew the worst about me and loved me just the same. I began to see that my identity was not in my performance or my productivity, but in what God thought about me – and he loved me unreservedly.
A key scripture in this process was 1John3:1 which says, ‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ What defines us is not what we do, but who we are. Identity is given, not earned. Not only are we God’s children (that is marvellous enough), but we are God’s deeply loved children (which is totally amazing). Once we know ourselves to be loved like this we can stop trying to earn love and instead share the love we are receiving. What is more, we are free to be changed and transformed. Since we no longer fear God’s disapproval we are free to be ourselves, to be open and honest before him, admitting our need and allowing him to heal and release us.
Discipleship cannot be sustained if it is based simply on ‘being good’, ‘keeping the rules’ or ‘doing the right thing’. It needs something more passionate than that, the knowledge that I am loved with an everlasting love. Surrender to God is always surrender to love.
The on-going need to TRUST
As I enter the later stages of my life, and old-age is a growing reality, I am discovering that what delights God more than anything else is our trust in him. Faith is often expressed in our actions, but it is supremely shown in our trusting God when the way is hard and we are unsure what lies ahead. This too is discipleship.
Over the years I have had to learn to become comfortable with mystery and not-knowing, instead relying on the goodness, wisdom and love of God for those situations which are difficult to bear. Evelyn is currently facing a recurrence of breast cancer and she has much pain and often feels weak. Together we live with uncertainty and limitation. Our discipleship has to be worked out in this context, and though we may be less actively engaged than before, we still seek to glorify God in our present circumstances. The words of Proverbs 3:5-5 encourage us: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.’
Discipleship has been called ‘a long obedience in the same direction.’ It involves a life-long decision to follow Jesus wherever he may lead us, steadily following day-by-day in the Master’s footsteps. It is not always easy, but it is eternally worthwhile. One day we shall hear those heart-warming words, ‘’Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ Matthew 25:23