The lifeway practiced by the man Jesus was seriously hard-core. The lifeway practiced by today’s comfy Christianity is often a sell-out. Might there be a way between–a transformative path for those who want to raise loving families and practice radical discipleship?
The larger-than-life British explorer Ernest Shackleton accomplished many things, but he is most famous for what he did not do: traverse the Antarctic continent in 1914. His infamous exploratory voyage aboard the Endurance is one of history’s most inspiring failures: rather than crossing the vast Antarctic, the Endurance became trapped in polar ice, and the expedition turned into a heroic struggle for survival, creatively and courageously endured by twenty-eight crewmen over a span of nearly two years. The incredible thing is, Shackleton seemed to know what he was getting into. Legend tells us that in preparation for the epic voyage, he posted the following want ad in a London newspaper:
Men wanted for hazardous journey.
Low wages. Bitter cold.
Long months of complete darkness.
Constant danger. Safe return doubtful.
Honour and recognition in event of success.
Authentically following the Way of Jesus can seem equally daunting sometimes: hazardous, foolish, impossible in our modern society. Like many residents of the U.S. and Canada today, I grew up middle-class. We had our own house, we had a decent family car, and college was an assumed right. We never experienced a hint of malnutrition, displacement, or the terror and chaos of living in a war zone. We were blessed with security. Globally speaking, I was born into privilege. I also grew up in a Christian home. As a teenager, I made my own decision to follow Jesus. Raised both privileged and Christian did not seem odd in affluent America; in fact, it seemed the norm. Therefore, I felt ambushed when I encountered the story of Jesus and the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark. In this dialogue, Jesus tells this man of privilege who has “done all the right things” that he still needs to do one thing: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor.” The story continues: “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, for he had great wealth” (Mark 10:17-30).
Demands Too Daunting
The man went away sad because Jesus’ demand was just too daunting. Give away everything, right now? Not gonna do it, thought the rich man. How about you? If you’re like me, the challenge is too daunting as well. I’ve got a family to feed, bills to pay, college for my kid to plan for. Jesus’ challenge has been too daunting for most Christians. It seems that most Christians throughout history have somehow sidestepped or explained away this daunting demand. In doing so, we sidestep full participation in the kingdom of God as well.
The challenge to the rich man is not the only extreme expectation Jesus throws down, of course. Andrew and Simon may have jumped at Jesus’ invitation alongside the Sea of Galilee. But if I’d been there with my brother, hip-deep in our fishing work, I might have responded: “Leave our nets, right now? Are you serious?” Even though I’m wild about Jesus, I probably would have said, “Let me catch some food for my family, then I’ll be right there.”
If I’m honest, the needs and wants of my family come first. Because of this, I don’t meet a lot of Jesus’ other qualifications for hard-core discipleship, either: in the Bible Jesus asks those who follow him to drop our careers, love our enemies, hate our families, share our resources, turn the other cheek, and be prepared to lay down our lives nonviolently for our friends.
I must say, I’m not doing any of these very well.
Looking across the last two thousand years, I find many other daunting examples of discipleship I’m not ready to emulate. Look at the fourth century, when Constantine created an unholy alliance of moneyed church and military state: am I ready to leave empire and live the rest of my life in a desert cave like the desert fathers did? Hardly. Am I prepared to dive into a life of strict voluntary poverty like Clare and Francis did in Assisi in the 1200s? I like a simple life, but not that simple. How about devoting my entire life to lepers like Mother Teresa did in Calcutta? No again.
As I contemplate my inability to follow these examples, I realize something obvious: my spiritual tradition overwhelmingly emphasizes the single, childless life. The landscape of Judeo-Christianity is packed with stories of single people who seem to have no families to provide for, no debts to pay back, no homes to keep up, no crops to cultivate, no diapers to clean. Nowhere in the New Testament do I read, “John slept through the morning prayers because his baby kept him up all night.” Or: “Paul stayed longer than expected with the church in Corinth, because his teenager was on the track team.” Or: “After supper, Jesus and the twelve took some time to wash dishes, and Peter stayed behind to deal with the crusty soup pots.” The most memorable time kitchen chores are mentioned is in the story of Martha, who is shown to represent the worst of two choices (Luke 10:40-41).
Give away everything. Dwell in the desert the rest of your years. Embrace poverty as a way of life. Renounce family. As a parent with kids to feed, these daunting demands of renunciation seem so unrealistic that, if you’re like me, you reject them before you even begin. As G. K. Chesterton famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and left untried.”[i]
A Way Between
So here’s our modern dilemma: we avoid absolute renunciation for good reasons, but then we completely cave to dominant culture. We may have deep relationships and wonderful worship experiences within our church communities, but we still cozily conform to consumerism. Our souls, and our habits, are allegiant to corporation culture, unconverted. Along with everyone else around us in modern society, we settle for practicing a comfortable, market-approved version of Christianity. We focus on our families and jobs, surrounding ourselves with other middle-class families, and together we live lives of isolated busyness and unexamined privilege. We are a staid and stale shadow of something that should be full-bodied and transformative. Søren Kierkegaard may have felt much the same in a very different time and a very different place. More than 150 years ago in Denmark, he determined his country’s Christianity—both domesticated and desiccated—to be about as genuine and flavorful “as tea made from a bit of paper which once lay in a drawer beside another bit of paper which had been used to wrap up a few dried tea leaves from which tea had already been made three times.”[ii]
Between the options of absolute renunciation and unexamined affluence, could there be another way? Our precious planet, God’s gift, is imperiled, largely by the actions of affluent industrial societies like ours. Could there be a transitional path that might help privileged people like us unshackle from consumer culture to wade ever deeper into the kingdom of God?
I think there is. My mind turns to some biblical examples of life change that seem a touch more possible for people like me. I don’t normally think of a locust-eating wilderness prophet in a camel’s hair cloak as a guide for families, but listen to this straightforward advice from John the Baptist: to be part of God’s ideal society, those who have two cloaks should share with those who lack; those who are blessed with surplus food should do the same (Luke 3:11). And then there’s the life example of the tax collector Zacchaeus, who—after experiencing radical acceptance by Jesus—feels so forgiven and blessed that he immediately gives half of his possessions to the poor, and pays back those he cheated at 400 percent interest (Luke 19:8).
These two examples are not about absolute renunciation: they encourage us to give away half and keep living in the world. Now this kind of mandate seems both powerful and possible: countercultural and life-changing, yes, yet doable, even when raising a family. Are we, as modern disciples with surplus possessions, called to a path of significant relinquishment? Looking at the inequity in the world, how could we not be?
And so we come to the key questions I write about in my book Rewilding the Way: How can we nurture families and practice radical discipleship? How can we be in today’s consumer culture but not tamed by it? How shall we imagine and embody a better, wilder “good life” in this watershed moment of history—one that is better for ourselves and our aching planet?
These are daunting questions for those of us who have grown up captive to corporation-controlled thinking. We’ve been trained to think small and ask permission from the authorities. We’ve been conditioned to believe this is the only kind of life there is. We are at a crossroads, seeking a way.
My family is part of the massive silent body of modern Christians who live in two worlds, striving to follow the radical Jesus while still being shackled to Caesar. Maybe you are too. We are the tribe of the semi-transformed, the halfway-there, the partially free. We want to live more transformatively, but we’ve made important life commitments—meaningful vocations, good marriages, growing families, home mortgages, community involvements—that we don’t intend to break.
Is there any hope for sorry half-disciples like us? Luckily, yes. Remember what Jesus said as the rich young man turned away sad, unwilling to give away his possessions? “With man, this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” We follow a God who is extravagant, mercy within mercy within mercy. God knows our hearts. He created us, inconsistent and imperfect, to be just as we are. I have to trust that God expects us to love our families and seek to walk the Jesus Way.
May the wild return.
[i] Gilbert K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World, (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co, 1912), 48.
[ii] Malcolm Muggeridge, A Third Testament (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 88.