Disciple-making is, at its essence, humbly helping other disciples to faithfully follow Jesus. As disciples, our commission is to help others understand what it means to be part of his family and teach them to obey all that he has commanded us (Matthew 28:18–19).
This means that we call others to find rest in the Savior of our souls. It means waging war against sin for another like we wage war against sin for ourselves (Hebrews 3:13). Disciple-making is ultimately the fulfillment of the Golden Rule — doing for another as you would hope another would do for you (Luke 6:31). The more we grow in Christ, the more we long to see others grow in Christ.
But just like our own maturation as Christians, disciple-making is fraught with difficulties. There are setbacks, disappointments, sleepless nights, times of confusion and hurt. In the lives of others, as in our own, progress towards Christlikeness can seem glacially slow. Sometimes weaknesses become lifelong handicaps. It is easy to lose heart and shift our focus to places where our efforts produce clearer results. And perhaps no period in life presents this challenge more prominently than middle-age.
What Makes Perseverance Hard
In our twenties (and even into our thirties), our most abundant resource is time. Early in our careers or in our marriages before children, there is often substantial freedom and few demanding commitments. It is easy to schedule early morning Bible studies, weekly coffee with a younger Christian, time for walks or workouts, or to linger together late into the evening over a meal.
But as we settle into families and careers, time becomes more precious and more challenging to steward. The demands of our job grow as our responsibilities increase. Meanwhile, the challenges of disciple-making do not diminish. We are tempted all the more to avoid the messiness inherent to challenging (and being challenged by) others to be conformed to Christ. Take it from demons, who know how to challenge our faithfulness in middle-age.
You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it — all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.
Screwtape, the eponymous senior demon of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, is instructing his trainee on how best to keep his charge from being useful in the cause of the Enemy. While Lewis’s insight applies to our lives as disciples, it has clear implications for our calling as disciple-makers.
Danger of ‘Succeeding’
If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is “finding his place in it,” while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of really being at home in earth, which is just what we want.
The danger we face is succumbing to the “sense of really being at home in earth” — letting the world find its place in us rather than remembering that we were created for another world, altogether. Screwtape tells his junior that the aim must be “unraveling their souls from heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth,” attacking the conviction that we have been destined to life in “[God’s] own eternal world.”
What Joy Teaches
This conviction — that we were made for Christ and for an eternity of delight in all that he is, all that he has done, and all that he has made — is reinforced in our earthly life by joy. We experience joy when we connect truth, goodness, and beauty with their ultimate source and purpose — in the one who is the eternally happy God (1 Timothy 1:11), the fountainhead of all satisfying, replenishing, life-giving grace, our true friend and home. Earthly joys resonate with and point to the Joy of heaven.
And the New Testament puts disciple-making at the head of this list. Consider how Paul describes the joy he experiences in seeing others follow Jesus:
Now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thessalonians 3:8–10)
God has designed us so that there is something exquisitely happifying in seeing other people whom we love find their joy in Christ. The exhilaration of seeing others progress in their walk with Christ motivates, emboldens, and heartens Paul amidst the many trials and demands of his extraordinarily full life (2 Corinthians 1:24; Philippians 1:25).
Invest in Heavenly Riches
While discipleship bestows immense joy, Paul was also candid about the setbacks, disappointments, and discouragements he experienced in the process. Some in Corinth thought his ministry too afflicted to be apostolic. The Philippians began to doubt that he’d made the right decision to go to Rome in chains. Some fellow workers flirted with settling into the path of least resistance (Galatians 2:11–14).
Some of his closest friends, in whom he had much invested, turned away (2 Timothy 1:15) or gave up altogether (2 Timothy 4:10). At his most crucial hour, none of those whom he had discipled came to his defense (2 Timothy 4:16). But the surpassing joys of disciple-making kept Paul going. It lessened his attachments to the earth by heightening his anticipation of the age to come:
What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy. (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20)
The apex of Paul’s joy before Jesus at his coming is the apex of ours, too. The fellowship we have experienced, the joys of co-laboring for gospel faithfulness, the shared delights of seeing the beauty of Christ in all of his works and ways will be enhanced and deepened and clarified at his appearing. And that joy will be compounded as we see it in the eyes of those in whom we have invested.
How to Complete Your Joy
This is not a minor theme. The joy that results from the discipleship of others is also what fuels John’s letters. “We are writing these things,” John exclaims, “so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4). It is not hyperbole for him to write, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
And while we may be tempted to think that this diminishes the present joys of food or sport or film or literature, the reverse is actually the case. Having our eyes set on the joys to be found in heaven heightens our experience with others of earthly joys by providing their context and aim. They are the foretaste of the joys to be experienced together, forevermore.
Take it from a demon, middle-age is a great time to make a living when you might be making a life. The most fruitful way to overcome the gravitational pull toward the self-centrism and diminished gospel ambition of middle life is to pour ourselves out for joy in disciple-making. And what would be more foolish than saying we can’t make more time for joy?