When I was younger, my older brother and I shared a room. On some nights, when the two of us were too restless to sleep, he and I would stare up at the glow-in-the-dark star-covered ceiling, listening to the spring peepers chirp from the nearby pond, and talk about things which struck either of us as mysterious. Sometimes, I wonder whether nights like that was what launched me into studying theology and the humanities: My brother was always so interested in how the world worked, I must have figured it would be nice to speculate why it worked the way it did, too.
My brother is a true-blooded member of my family; the mathematical and scientific approach to life appealed to him as the most straight-shooting, efficient way of viewing the world. Within what he considered the pure sciences, the complexities of how the universe works can be boiled down and accounted for in models. As he lay there in his bed in the darkened room, complex systems unfolded elegantly within the mind’s eye. Clockwork. Anything could be understood given time.
But understood fully? I doubt it.
Models do hold a special place in my heart. But, while I do have an appreciation for models, they always seemed to frustrate and fascinate me at the same time. When I was in grade school it felt as though as soon as I had one model down, it would be dismissed as inadequate and I would be given a newer, more complicated model to assimilate into my memory.
One evening after returning home from high school, I staggered up the stairs into my room. My brother was in his bunk, his eyes peering over the edge of his pillow at his phone as his thumbs tapped out a message to one of his friends. I said nothing, but climbed the ladder on the side of our bunks and collapsed. I lay there, unblinking.
After a few seconds, I heard my brother remark, “Interesting day?”
“You could say that,” I replied. “I just found out that the Rutherford model of the atom is inadequate to expressing what it actually is. It wore me out.”
“Because I’d like to know that I’m basing what I know off of something accurate.”
He laughed. “Like that’s going to happen anytime soon. Models don’t ever capture its object’s true essence. Like an electron, for instance. It’s best conveyed as a mathematical function. But that’s too hard for the average person to grasp.”
I buried my face in my pillow. “Life ain’t that simple, I suppose.”
“No, I don’t suppose it is.”
Grasping models fully can falsely lure us into thinking that we have mastered the knowledge about its object completely. While the model can help us grasp one or more elements of the object, it cannot replace the thing in itself. Understanding Rutherford’s take on the atom gave me a false sense of security in terms of knowing about one of the basic building blocks of reality. Instead, the subject matter (pun intended) was more sophisticated than I realized.
As a guy studying to be a pastor, or something related to it, I have to admit that my brother’s right. He’s right most of the time, actually. Most recently, I realized how right he was as a senior in high school through an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with some of my peers on what discipleship looks like.
In high school, I often found myself spending my Fridays with a group of guys who decided to dedicate their evenings to studying the Word and fellowship. Admittedly, I began going Friday nights because a senior by the name of Kyle had invited me to attend. After going a few times, I became hooked. I couldn’t wait to start my own.
But somewhere along the line, in my own attempts to recreate the space I experienced in high school, I think I lost the core of discipleship. It wasn’t until I read some of Donald Miller’s work that I realized that there were words for what was wrong. He states:
I’m the kind of person who wants to present my most honest, authentic self to the world–so I hide backstage and rehearse honest and authentic lines until the curtain opens […] The same personality trait that made me a […] writer also made me terrible at relationships. You can only hide backstage for so long. To have an intimate relationship, you have to show people who you really are. I’d gotten good in reeling in a [person] and then bowing to say, “Thanks, you’ve been a great audience,” right around the time I had to let [him or her] know who I really was.
Experience has led me to believe it’s due to my being prone to always feel as though I must always prove myself to my own unattainable standard. I always have to get to the material. I always have to have my act together. I always have to be a mere step below God.
And so I tried. I tried to do everything that Kyle did. I tried to make Bible Study something of a come-and-see event. I tried to incorporate what John Wesley described as “the means of grace” – that is, “channels of conveying [God’s] grace to the souls of men.” Things like prayer and searching the Scriptures in a variety of ways. But nothing seemed to replicate the same space that Kyle was able to make.
I felt tired, worn out, and frustrated about what discipleship was before I stepped out of high school.
My boss, a self-professed recovering Calvinist, mentioned to me that within churches which lean towards a Reformed lens of interpreting Scripture, the stress is always on truth at the expense of everything else. Arminians, on the other hand, tend to err on the side of love, which caused the Calvinists to regard them as what the youth would describe as “weak sauce.”
I once thought that Calvin was pretty solid. I still do on some accounts. I just think his followers need to move their lens of truth in the direction of love.
I think it is for a similar reason why Saint Francis of Assisi is attributed with saying, “Preach the Gospel always and, when necessary, use words.” The church should pause for a moment from trying to answer the questions that few are asking and instead try to express the love and compassion of Christ toward all who do thirst for something more. G.K. Chesterton argued in one of his more famous pieces that he was not trying to prove that Christianity was the Truth, but rather that “the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles’ Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics.” In other words, it was the best way of living regardless. And oftentimes when something is ultimately beneficial, it points to the fact that it was true to begin with. What truth is can be validated by the lives we lead.
If all discipleship is is defined by the process of getting closer to the right doctrine and living in light of it, then we have to realize that under this microscope lens of objectivism, there’s no room for error.* If there’s no room for error, there is no room left for me. Like anyone, I come from a certain place through which I have learned to see the world. While there may be (and I hope to God that there is) an objective truth, my own perspective hinders me from seeing all of it fully. My own lens is warped and I have my own beliefs, doubts, questions, struggles, and experiences which either impede or aid how I see through that lens to what is truth.
When I look back upon the model that Kyle set for the rest of us who participated in his Bible Study on Friday nights all those years ago, I realize now that the reason why it was so special was because Kyle was never one to perform in front of others. He understood that his identity rested in Christ alone. It was ok to not be ok. Being flawed was a place to begin, not just a status we had to own and manage for the rest of our lives.
I think the thing that Kyle did that I still have yet to learn is to actually begin to “swim in the baptismal waters” through allowing grace to catch up to me for once. Andrew C. Thompson observes “If justification is really about how we are viewed in God’s eyes, then the new birth is how we come to be viewed in our own eyes.” We become content with who we are for once, our identity secured with Christ through baptism.
Kyle’s model, while it might have not always prioritized the exact truths as worded in Scripture, instead lived out discipleship by prioritizing people, meeting them where they were. My own attempts since then, focusing more on the product than the process, never really got close.
When I was younger, models were the bane of my existence. Now I realize that they’re necessary even in spite of their shortcomings because they illustrated some truth about the world. Likewise, we Christians have our shortcomings in modeling the one we claim to follow, but all that means is that there’s always room for improvement.
Life ain’t that simple, you know.
Never really was.
 Donald Miller, Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2014), 1-2.
 Andrew C. Thompson, The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice in Today’s World (Franklin: Seedbed Publishing, 2015), 16.
 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 14.
 Thompson, 31.
 Ibid., 12.