Note: While this article was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. – ed.
There is no precise map for the path of discipleship, no trail that is the same for all. Each of us will walk a unique road led by the Spirit, led by the providential hand of our Father in heaven.
We know that discipleship is meant to be lifelong: we never stop growing as disciples, never stop walking on the track marked out for us. The apostle Paul speaks to this:
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.Philippians 3:12 (NRSVCE)
We too are called to “press on” to the end of our course. If there is no exact blueprint, there are typical stages in discipleship that we can identify. Knowing these can help us cooperate with the grace of Christ in being his disciples and in making disciples.
One of the primary aims of this book is to offer an outline of what formation in discipleship might look like. This occupied the previous five chapters. In this final chapter, we stand back and take a broader, panoramic view of the stages in discipleship. There are many ways to describe these stages. Here we identify three typical discipleship crossroads that – in one way or another – most followers of Christ will face during their lives.
When we are walking a path and come to a crossroads, we have a decision to make. Which way will I take from here? What is the best route to get me to my destination? Should I continue straight on or turn to the right or the left? Or should I turn back and return by the way I came?
We can’t avoid discipleship crossroads. We have to face them and pray for the grace to continue on the path of costly discipleship.
The First Crossroads: Will I Cast My Lot with Jesus?
The first crossroads is also the true beginning of discipleship. Will I cast in my lot, throw down my nets, and set off down the track following Jesus? Or will I keep my options open, remain at a safe distance, or simply turn back and go home?
No one becomes a disciple without facing this crossroads at one time or another. No matter how long it takes or what steps brought us to this place, at some point we have to take the plunge and decide to follow. This decision is the act of faith; it is faith in action.
When Jesus called, Matthew left his tax booth (see Matthew 9:9). He acted on faith and began to follow Jesus. All of us who have faced this crossroads know that it is grace that carried us through and strengthened us to decide to follow. However much wrestling we may do, it is the grace of God, often operative through the prayers of others, that moves us to say yes to the Lord’s invitation. But we have the ability to resist this grace and to decline the offer.
The classic case – which we have looked at before – that exemplifies this crossroads is that of the rich young man who approaches Jesus. He comes energetically and expresses a desire to follow God and to do his will. This man is already a “believer,” not an atheist. He actually wants to serve God m some way.
But primarily, it seems, the young man wants to be justified in the life he is already living. He is hoping to be told, “You are doing just great. Keep it up, and you’ll be fine.”
And so Jesus reviews the basics: “Are you keeping the commandments of God?” “Yes,” he says,
“I have kept them from my youth.” And now, feeling quite good about himself, the rich man asks the fateful question: “What do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:20). In Mark’s version of the encounter, Jesus looks at him and loves him (see 10:21). Christ calls us because he loves us, not to make our lives miserable.
Jesus then gives this young man an enormous gift: the call to leave other things behind and to follow him personally. What is the response of this rich young man? He becomes sad because he has great possessions and cannot leave them behind. He isn’t happy even with his many possessions; they cannot give him true joy. But at this point in his life, he can’t leave them. And so he departs, a downhearted man.
ln direct contrast, we have the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, a man of no importance or standing. He places himself on the roadside as Jesus is passing by, and he cries out again and again for Jesus to have mercy on him. Others tell him to be silent, but he continues to call out.
Jesus hears and responds; he asks Bartimaeus what he wants. Bartimaeus asks to receive his sight, and Jesus immediately grants his request: his eyes are miraculously opened. And then, significantly, the Gospel says that Bartimaeus “followed him on the way” (Mark 10:52). The act of healing leads directly to the path of discipleship.
The rich young man, full of good deeds, could not find it in himself to follow Jesus; the cost was too high. The blind beggar, who received his sight as a sheer gift, gladly followed after him. Both found themselves at a crossroads: one turned back and went home, while the other cast in his lot and followed.
We can distinguish two distinct paths that approach this crossroads. The first path is that of the nonbeliever who is being drawn to consider Jesus and the claims that he makes. For the nonbeliever, Jesus really is a new figure, someone never before encountered or considered. There is a freshness and newness in this encounter but also great obstacles, because deciding to follow Jesus brings about a complete change of belief and life.
The second path is that of the baptized Christian who has been raised (more or less) in the faith and who has identified (more or less) as a believer throughout childhood and early adolescence. For this person, this first crossroads presents the question, “Will I really choose to be a follower of Jesus through my own faith and decision?”
The temptation for many young people raised as Catholics is to avoid this crossroads in the hope of maintaining some kind of religious affiliation with no real cost. We are all acquainted with the double-life syndrome: I claim to be a Christian, go to Mass or youth group on occasion, but during the rest of my life, I live (and want to live) the way everyone else does. Foolishly, people think they can have it both ways. They want to hold on to their lives on their own terms while at the same time make some gesture toward following Jesus. This never works.
“No one can serve two masters.”Matthew 6:24
We have encountered countless young people in their late teens and early twenties who face this crossroads. At present, the statistics aren’t encouraging for this age cohort. Many young Christians and, sadly, especially many young Catholics, effectively abandon the practice of their faith in this transition period of early adulthood.
I recall this crossroads in my life with great clarity. In high school, I wanted to keep some part of my faith intact, hut I also really wanted to run my own life and not be bothered by the things of God. I avoided situations that might put me in the way of encountering God, because I didn’t want to face this crossroads. My hope was that God would send his blessings from a distance and basically leave me alone.
In the end, I couldn’t avoid facing this crossroads. With real struggle and through the prayers of many, I found my way across this intersection and onto the path of discipleship. It was only then that I really tasted the joy that comes on the far side of this crossroads, the joy of knowing Jesus and finding true freedom in him.
When we navigate this first crossroads and decide to cast our lot with Jesus, there is a flow of grace into our lives: joy, new power for living, and fresh zeal to make Jesus known to others. It is the joy and delight of the man who found the treasure hidden in the field and sold everything he had to buy the field and possess the treasure (see Matthew 13:44).
Once we are past this first crossroads, we may be tempted to think, “This is it. I have now made the key decision: I have become an intentional disciple of Jesus. I can now walk this path with ease and joy, serving the Lord to the end.” But other crossroads lie ahead.
The Second Crossroads: Will I Turn Back in the Face of Hard Things?
For those who have navigated the first crossroads and have set out on the track of discipleship with determination, things get exciting. There is usually a sense of joy and new adventure – a lightness in our step. We experience God being close at hand, and we progress in the spiritual life rapidly, at least in certain areas. There is commonly a honeymoon period, when all seems good and relatively easy. The Christian life is great!
But this doesn’t last (very) long. Soon we come up against more challenging issues that don’t change easily. We might find ourselves out of our depth, engaged in mission or service that is daunting and difficult. We face new questions that are profoundly perplexing. Things begin to get hard. Why?
Some part of this is due to the things that oppose us – the world, the flesh, and the devil. We find opposition in the world around us; we experience the pull of our own desires, which lead us away from the things of God; and we discover that we have a personal enemy, the devil, who opposes us in many ways. Strikingly, it seems as if God is allowing these hard things and possibly even sending trials and difficulties our way.
Let’s recall that just after Jesus was baptized by John, the Spirit led him out into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. We are called to face the same challenges that Jesus faced. Jesus will make use of these trials to sift our hearts and to purify them.
One of the clearest biblical examples of this kind of testing occurs in the Book of Exodus. The people of Israel were powerfully delivered from Egypt. They watched as the Lord conquered the Egyptians, who drowned in the Red Sea. But quite quickly the Lord led the Israelites into the desert, where they had no water and no food. They grumbled and asked Moses to lead them back to Egypt, to the land of their slavery, where at least they had food (see Exodus 15-16).
It didn’t take long for the Israelites to give up and wish to turn back. But through Moses and his intercession for the people, the Lord provided water and food for them, and they continued on.
Another striking example of the second crossroads of discipleship appears in the Gospel of John, chapter 6, the Bread of Life Discourse. In the opening scene, Jesus quietly performs a great miracle, the feeding of the five thousand. This reveals him to be the Messiah who, like Moses, provides bread for the people to eat in the wilderness. In fact, the people are so stirred up that they want to take hold of Jesus and acclaim him as the king, the Messiah of Israel. But this is not the plan of the Father for Jesus.
Now comes the sifting of hearts. The next day, the crowds who were fed with the loaves realize that Jesus and the disciples have departed. The crowds follow them to the city of Capernaum. When they find Jesus, they ask him how he got there. Jesus doesn’t answer their question directly. Instead, he cautions them against just seeking more “bread” to eat. He turns them away from the sign toward the reality, which is the true eternal food that the Son will give to them.
When asked about this bread, Jesus says solemnly that he is the true bread from heaven given by the Father. Some of the leaders take offense at this claim (no surprise), and they challenge him about what this means. Jesus is, after all, just a man from the town of Nazareth. Who is he claiming to be?
Jesus doesn’t back down. In fact, he uses provocative language to challenge the people further. He says that his very flesh is food and his blood is drink. To have eternal life, one must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
As readers, we recognize that Jesus spoke here about the Eucharist and about the sacrifice for sins that he would offer on the cross. But the people listening were deeply scandalized. Here is John’s report of what they said and did: “Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’” (John 6:60). The result: “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (6:66).
Notice that these are disciples who turn back and walk away. Jesus’ hard words, in fact, were the occasion for many of his disciples to turn back; his words were difficult and challenging. The disciples came to this crossroads and decided not to continue.
What does Jesus do? Does he chase after the disciples to call them back? Does he apologize for being too demanding? No, he turns and challenges even the twelve apostles: “Will you also go away?” (John 6:67). Jesus is testing them, leading them through a trial of their faith.
Peter, speaking for the Twelve, says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). The apostles pass the test; they successfully navigate this crossroads.
This second crossroads will look different for each of us. Often we don’t even realize that we are being tested. Perhaps we are in the midst of a trial or a perplexing situation, and we are tempted to wonder if we should give up and go back to the life we had before. Sometimes this crossroads is a personal crisis in our lives. Sometimes it is a hard truth that we have difficulty accepting. Sometimes it comes because God asks us for something that we are not ready to give.
However it comes – and it may come more than once – we can be sure that we will find the cross in our path. This is truly a “cross road” that we must embrace. By embracing the cross and continuing on with Christ, we pass an important test, thus deepening God’s action in us. Crucially, it was only after the disciples went through these kinds of tests that Jesus began to entrust himself to them and reveal to them more intimate and deeper truths.
During our years of student ministry, we have watched many young people reach this crossroads. Through prayer and the help of others, many, even most, have met the grace of God to continue on. But some do not, and this is always a source of grief and sadness.
We can see this diverse response in the parable of the sower. The same seed is sown, but it yields differing results, depending on how people respond to the word and the grace given (see Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). A crucial part of becoming a mature disciple of Christ is facing and successfully navigating this second crossroads. Grace is always available if we are ready to receive it and act upon it.
The Third Crossroads: Reliance on God in the Midst of Apparent Defeat
This third crossroads might seem like just a version of the second, but we can distinguish it by when it occurs and what provokes it. The second crossroads often occurs early in the path of discipleship, in the first few years. The third crossroads typically happens later, and it often involves the temptation to discouragement and despair because of failure, real or apparent.
Consider the example of the apostle Paul. By the time he was writing the Second Letter to the Corinthians (between AD 55 and 57), he was a seasoned missionary and a leader in the early Christian movement. He had crisscrossed the Roman world and successfully founded many new local churches. Along the way he suffered a great deal (see the list of his hardships in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29); he was no stranger to severe physical hardship and personal rejection. He was well tested as a disciple.
Still, in the opening of his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul recounts his recent experience of mission in the province of Asia:
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.”2 Corinthians 1:8-9, (ESV)
Paul was pushed to his limits and even beyond them; he “despaired of life itself” under the unbearable challenges that he faced. But when he came through this severe test, Paul was able to perceive its divine purpose:
“But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”2 Corinthians 1:9 (ESV)
Paul, the seasoned apostle, still had something to learn about trusting in God. He was pressed, by the circumstances of his mission, to trust God even more deeply.
Hudson Taylor was a pioneering English Protestant missionary in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He founded an impressive mission society, the China Inland Mission. Through years of labor, in which he showed extraordinary trust in God, he saw many Chinese come to faith in Christ. The mission expanded, and many missionaries went inland to share the gospel with the Chinese.
But in the year 1900, the Boxer Rebellion erupted, a backlash against foreigners in China. Taylor’s missionaries were in the crosshairs of the rebellion. Away on furlough, Hudson Taylor received the horrifying reports of the slaughter of his missionaries and their families. In the end, fifty-eight missionaries along with twenty-one of their children were killed in the rebellion. Taylor was so distraught by this news that he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t even pray – but he was somehow able to trust. His faith held firm in this awful test of his life’s work.
Even in the case of a seasoned disciple, there can be much room to grow through hardship and testing. Many Christian leaders throughout the centuries have testified to the severe test of the third crossroads. The only way through it is by means of a deeper and more radical trust in God and his providence.
This article © by Dan Keating is the 2nd portion of a three-part series:
Part 2: Discipleship Crossroads
This article is adapted from the book Called to Christian Joy and Maturity by Daniel A. Keating and Gordy C. DeMarais, published in 2021 by The Word Among Us Press, Fredrick, Maryland, USA. Used with permission.
Top image credit: illustration of discipleship path – cross and resurrection, from ChristianPhotoshops.com, © Kevin Carden. Used with permission.