We’ve all had experiences that have shaped us into the people we are today. Key moments and decisions that changed us, that defined us. But despite this, most of us would be at a loss to describe exactly how that life-shaping process transpired. What are the ingredients that have helped us make progress in our spiritual lives? Is it Sacraments? Teaching? Adversity? All of the above? And is it God’s work alone, or do we play a role?
I found myself asking those questions when I was tasked with teaching discipleship at a seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. My title was “Professor of Discipleship,” which sounds very professional. But if I had difficulty defining my own spiritual journey, how could I recommend a path to others?
What does it mean to grow as a disciple?
I am not the first person to have asked this question. The Reformation, for example, relied on religious instruction to pass on the doctrinal foundations of the faith, pietism on a devotional reading of Scripture, prayer and mission, and contemporary writers on the renewal of the spiritual disciplines.
Each of these has merit, but their diversity can often bring confusion instead of clarity. What we need is a role model. A real-life character who can show us in everyday experience what it means to do the hard work of laying aside the old and putting on the new.
Enter Peter, the impetuous disciple who seems to speak first and think later. The story that grabbed me was Matthew 16 where Peter confesses Jesus is the Christ. If we had been there and overheard Jesus’s praise of Peter, there would have been no doubt in our minds that he had unique spiritual perception and was granted stunning authority. Peter’s real progress is apparent.
However, the stunning turnaround comes only moments later after Peter has taken Jesus aside to ‘correct’ his proclivity for suffering as essential to his kingdom mission. If the affirmation above was glowing, the rebuke was equally stern and unbending. How could it be that Peter, the rock on which the church would be built, was now Satan? The passage was an enigma to me, how could Peter be so right and so wrong at the same time?
Though Peter’s spiritual progress was real, his expectations of Jesus still needed a complete overhaul. Peter was “all in” as a follower of Jesus, but his understanding of the values of Jesus’s kingdom was at a pre-kindergarten level. The sharp rebuke against the backdrop of a glowing affirmation made it unmistakable. Peter needed transformation at the heart level — where thoughts, feelings and behaviour take shape.
This is not the only scene where Jesus engages Peter to confront him with his false expectations either. There were about thirteen such encounters that I began to see as “stations” of Peter’s spiritual formation. Often the common thread was Jesus’s confrontation of Peter’s expectations and his subsequent invitation to Peter to rewire his heart based on the new reality of the kingdom of God.
Through it all, I began to realize that Peter was not an impetuous bigmouth as we often hear him represented. Rather, he was a paradigm, a model of discipleship. I saw so much of myself in him and I recognized the painful spiritual rescripting that Peter went through in my own process of growth in Christ. It is painful but necessary to realize our core beliefs and values must be overhauled.
Peter’s quick responses are not merely the outworking of his strong personality. Rather, those stories are inspired by the Holy Spirit to show us what it means to have our souls shaped in the Jesus way. Peter represents the disciples, and, by extension, he represents the church of Jesus Christ — you and me. Peter’s outspoken nature reveals his heart, allowing us to see ourselves in Peter.
On a personal level, Peter’s experience helped me come to terms with loss in the journey of faith. It’s not always the result of a mistake nor is it the outworking of random circumstances over which we have no control. It can be and must be the fruit of following Jesus in an alienated world.
Through Peter, I have learned that spiritual formation is for real people who may never darken the door of a seminary or monastery. It’s for fishermen. Making progress in our spiritual lives is utterly accessible. All that is needed is the will to follow closely and the humility to suspect one’s own inclinations and change accordingly when necessary, in order to walk with Christ.