The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together
Jared C. Wilson
-Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, ThD.
Yeah, I know… Both the title and the subtitle should pique the interest of any Christ-follower. Wilson begins the book asking, “What comes to mind when you hear the word “discipleship?” Usually people respond with adjectives such as “difficult, trusting, adventurous, obedient,” etc. The right answer for our context is following Jesus.
Other more desired answers would be along the lines of: “Believing God loves me even when I feel like nobody else does.” “Trusting God is doing something for my good even though my life has always been terrible up until now.” “Denying myself in order to do what’s right although I don’t really want to.” Those responses don’t suffice as a definition of discipleship like you’d find in a theological dictionary, but they all put more skin on the word. (12)
Wilson writes with candor and compassion, as a fellow stumbler. There’s no ivory tower perspective here. He served a church in a small town in Vermont prior to becoming the director of content strategy for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and managing editor of For the Church. He has written four other books: Unparalleled, The Story of Everything, The Prodigal Church, and Gospel Wakefulness. His blog is The Gospel-Driven Church.
When Baker Publishing asked him to write a book on discipleship, he said, “Okay. But I have one condition: it has to be printed with my blood.” He wanted to write a book for normal people like him who follow Jesus, knowing it is totally worth it, but who often find that following Jesus takes us to some pretty difficult places, for Christians who have gotten a little bloody. Candor—“How about a book on discipleship for people who don’t feel saved each morning until they’ve had at least two cups of coffee? For the sake of the cut-ups and the screw-ups, the tired and the torn-up, the weary and the wounded—how can we demystify discipleship?” (13-14)
So here’s the book for all the people who are tired of the mass-marketed, self-helpy “be a better Christian” projects. It wasn’t printed with his blood, but by his own admission he did bleed on the pages a little bit. The chapter titles give a picture of the scope of his effort and his journey: Sin and the Art of Soul Maintenance, Good News for Losers, Staring at the Glory Until You See It, The Rhythm of Listening, The Rhythm of Spilling Your Guts, The Revolution Will Not Be Instagrammed, The Nine Irrefutable Laws of Followship, Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?, Does Grace Go All the Way Down?
The entire book awakens, informs, and challenges. I’ve read a lot in the last year on Listening (having already reviewed Adam McHugh’s The Listening Life. Wilson’s subtitle for his chapter on listening is “When You Think God Is Giving You the Silent Treatment.” Ever felt that way? Thought so.
Wilson speaks from the ground up. Anyone in the trenches of church life knows that community efforts by churches are often tough going. “The dirty little secret of modern church programming is that small group programs are not working well… There are a lot of reasons for this, but they all boil down primarily to the fact that American Christians don’t want to experience community. Or, at least, they want other things more.” (124-5)
During the wrestle of his decision to leave the pastoral ministry, not his plan, he had to face his own idolatry diagnosis: “What, if taken away from you, would cause you a great crisis of identity?” Thinking of all the things people would say when he was no longer in pastoral ministry, the imaginary words came forth: “I thought you were the New England guy…, the small church guy…, the rural church guy…” (184-5) More real-life candor. The man in the mirror.
The chapter on The Nine Irrefutable Laws of Followship (When You Feel Stuck) is based on the nine named “fruit” produced by the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:22-23. He reminds us that they are God’s laws and also His promises: Be ye Loving, Joyful, Peaceful, Patient, Kind, Faithful, Gentle, Self-Controlled. Paul says there’s no law against them. To be gospel-centered is to be law-fulfilling.
Wilson concludes the book with helpful reminders: “You are not your quiet time, your cruddy prayer life, your standing before people, your past, your ability to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, or the sum of your spiritual accomplishments and religious devotion…. You are a great sinner, yes. But you have a great Savior.” (229-30)
Bottom line: Outstanding book. Get it. Let it prick, prod, encourage, give solace, and offer a needed guidance on this wandering, wonderful journey.