What Does It Mean to Follow Jesus?

Nancy Kane
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Life is a pilgrimage—a journey to our eternal destination. For all of us, there is the life we planned, the life we have, and the life that is waiting for us. “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned,” Joseph Campbell writes, “so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”[1] While Joseph Campbell refers to a life of our own making, Jesus invites us to a journey on the path to the “life that is waiting for us”—one that He has destined from eternity, a path marked by freedom in Christ and His unfailing love. His invitation is to leave behind our well-ordered, predictable lives to live an extraordinary life filled with deep meaning and purpose. This sacred way involves entering into a whole new way of seeing and thinking, a whole new manner of moving and relating. Through this process of discovery that we will call the five Stages of the Soul, we discover who we are, our unique place in this world, and the humble honor of knowing and being known by the One who created us.

The Journey Is Not Always Linear

Like a hiker setting out to walk the trails of the mountains of Colorado, we must have a reliable map of the terrain ahead to help keep us on the right path. It is the same with our spiritual life. To understand the spiraling path of the five Stages of the Soul—from Our First Love (conversion) to deeper, Intimate Love—we need a way to navigate and then assess the growth of our love for God over our entire lives. This process can give us a language for our experience and can assure us that we are not alone in our doubts and struggles.

In the courses I have taught on Christian spiritual formation, I have asked students in the beginning of the course, “How does God actually change us?” Generally, students look bewildered and offer vague responses about prayer, Bible reading, and trials. The students seem confused not only about how God forms us but about what the process of spiritual growth and change looks like.

As a young believer, I was told that a commitment to follow Christ would involve a lifelong journey of living life with Christ and for Christ. At some unknown point, I would come to the journey’s end and then enter into my eternal, heavenly home. The process, I was told, was clear: salvation (conversion), sanctification (a very, very long process!), and glorification (seeing Christ face to face in eternity). I was further instructed that God would be transforming me into the image of Christ through the process of sanctification as I chose to obey the directives in His Word and live a life of surrender. I would hopefully end my journey as a follower of Christ reflecting something of the character of Christ.

But what about the days when I wasn’t following Christ? What about the seasons of doubt and dryness? What about the days when my heart was cold and rebellious and I wanted nothing to do with God? Had the sanctification process stopped? Or what about the days when all seemed well, from my perspective, and I was faithfully following Christ? Was I actually changing then? If I was being kind to others, did that mean my heart was actually changing or had I just learned to act nice? How did I know, other than gaping flaws in my character, if I was actually becoming more like Christ?

“Life is a pilgrimage—a journey to our eternal destination.”

To be formed into Christ’s image and continue to mature and persevere through trials, we need to understand the stages of growth and change. These Stages of the Soul can serve as markers of where we are in our formation so that by the end of our days we can, with full confidence, know “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18b–19).

What will it take to become like Christ? Most of us start with the notion that we first must change. We were told, somewhere along the way, that God would love us if we change. But the truth is actually the reverse. God loves us first so we will change. What motivates us to grow in our love relationship with God is actually experiencing His love in the depth of our souls—to know God as a lover rather than a rule giver. Real intimacy with God—not only worship, discipleship, or practicing moral uprightness—is a giving of ourselves that mirrors the radical gift of God in Christ. We are called to become whole and holy (Lev. 11:45), which means conformity with a love that is willing to give up everything for others.

God Transforms Us on the Journey

This journey takes time, radical honesty, and examination of our hearts. It will require us to be willing to enter into the unknown territory of our souls—the parts we are afraid of examining. Daily, it will cost us letting go of everything we hold dear to realize what has eternal value. It will mean being primarily concerned about grieving God’s heart in all the decisions we make. It will mean loving God more than anything else and allowing Him to remake us entirely.

C. S. Lewis vividly describes and compares the process of our soul transformation to the reconstruction of a home. He writes:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.[2]

During this transformation, God is co-creating with each one of us to make something beautiful out of our lives that we never could realize on our own. He does not call us to be wandering travelers on this journey. He calls us to actively participate with Him so that we can become the fulfillment of His divine purposes in this world.

[1] Joseph Campbell, A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living (San Anselmo, CA: Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2011).

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr., New York: HarperOne, 2001), 205.

For Further Reading:

Stages of the Soul

by Nancy Kane

How can you tell if you’re actually growing? Sure, when you’re working on getting rid of a huge character flaw you can see...

book cover for Stages of the Soul