Thomas E. Bergler, From Here to Maturity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.
"A spiritual discipline is something I can do right now which will allow me over time to receive God's grace so that I will be able later to do something I can't do right now" (61).
Within this simple definition of spiritual discipline is the inherent idea that our faith is meant for us to make progress from a particular starting point. Being a disciple is to move, from wherever we find ourselves at a particular moment, towards the cross of Jesus, being conformed to his likeness. From this perspective, it seems that spiritual discipline ought to be desired among every believer (perhaps every person regardless of their faith commitment), for we all wish to become better at living in some capacity. And yet, the current state of the American church shows a culture that has drifted far from this simple discipleship ideal. In this modern quest for a relevant church experience, the measuring stick has become how many people are in attendance more than how many are being made into disciples.
[A slight rabbit-trail from Bergler's discussion: When the church decided to make the gospel more "relevant," does this mean to imply that the gospel had somewhere become irrelevant? Of course not, they would say. It is not about changing the gospel, but about making the church experience of it more relevant than outdated and outmoded forms of worship. And yet, the shifts that have been made from this perspective seem to have changed more of the gospel message than we care to admit – and the primary work of believers to be disciple-makers is at the forefront of this change. But, once again, we are pointed to the "success" of this newer approach in that many people are attending, regardless of the lack of depth in their experience. Perpetual adolescents indeed.]
Chapter Three of Bergler's text is meant to move the discussion forward about how we can approach the current state of affairs and introduce much-needed change. "Although no one intends it, the result can be that the process of spiritual growth seems complicated and possibly even inaccessible" (57). Here is part of the problem of getting back. It is unfortunate that the culture of discipleship in most churches is so lacking and so twisted that the entire notion of spiritual growth is quickly dismissed upon its mention, for that is something that will require too much from me – it is too lofty a goal. Interestingly, there are many within modern evangelicalism who will often speak and sing and tweet about how they have surrendered their whole lives to Christ Jesus, but will scoff at the simplest of commands to come and follow.
The perception that exists is that spiritual discipline is for popes, monks, nuns, and modern-day saints. Beyond this it is simply too high of a plane for the normal person. But even the encouraging words of Moses speak to the heart of our commitment today: Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. t is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it (Deuteronomy 30:11–14). If we truly have a God that seeks to reveal himself to us, to conform us into his likeness, so that we might be everything that he has made us to be – loving us with an everlasting love – then why would we fall for the lie that following hard after him is too much for us to undertake?
One of the keys to spiritual growth in discipleship that Bergler points to in this chapter is that of Vision: not focusing on the means of spiritual growth, but rather keeping the goal as the center of focus (cf. 64f.). When we speak about the processes of discipleship it becomes easy for us to become overwhelmed by the daily work unless we see a particular goal. Nobody begins an exercise regiment for the sake of daily tasks, but rather with a mental image of what results can be achieved with the daily commitment that will be required. These many small steps become compelling only when the overall goal is sketched out in front of the individual. The same is true for any spiritual regiment. We need the small steps of discipleship to make Christlikeness attainable, but we need to the image of the risen Jesus to make discipleship worthwhile.
Without going through the particulars of Bergler's suggested approach(es) in this chapter, let me simply point out that what is being advocated, above all else, in a genuine model of discipleship is a change of heart. This is an essential part of discipleship, initiating the process as well as being the end-result. The commitment of the heart is vital to the success or failure of being conformed to the image of Christ. It is a movement away from ourselves and into the presence of Jesus. Maturity in any area of life is when self-centeredness is abandoned and the giving of the heart is sincere. Marriages that have this succeed every time, while those that do not make this change-of-heart end in failure (and sometimes in divorce).
What is keeping the modern church from developing a mature faith? Only ourselves. To this point we may consider the author's words: "Self-deception often stiffens this resistance to change. We deceive ourselves into believing we love God first when in fact we love several other things just as much" (74). Until this change of heart can be introduced into the experience of the church, a generation of believers will be lost in a sea of immaturity and ineffectiveness. Discipleship demands that Christ Jesus is our one thing – not our one thing more. This self-denial is to be crucified with Christ, and sharing in his risen life.