How do you turn a frog into a prince or a princess?
That’s a good question because the ultimate test of growth—the ultimate test of effective discipleship—is beauty. Not knowledge, but beauty.
A fundamental concept
Truth is always intended to produce beauty. In both the Old and New Testaments, God’s strategy for his people has been to make them his beautiful bride. His purpose is to bring men and women together in a matrix of relationships in which he incarnates his very nature. As we cooperate effectively with this gifted, transforming community, we become effective members of the second incarnation, making visible the glory of the invisible God in the same way Jesus Christ did.
Ezekiel 16 is a remarkable portrait of God’s effort to make Israel beautiful. She is described as a newborn infant cast out on a rubbish heap, squirming in her blood, moments away from death itself. But God rescues this infant and pours out his nourishing care upon her.
Under his protection she matures to the time for love. A romance blossoms: He takes her as his bride and lavishes his riches upon her. His fervent love has transformed her into a beautiful queen known throughout the world—completing the incredible advancement from rubbish heap to royalty.
But then she is ruined—because she forgot that her beauty was God’s splendor placed upon her.
I did considerable research for writing my first book on the concept of beauty, but not until I studied Ezekiel 16 did I determine what I believe is beauty’s true definition. It is simple: Beauty is the possession and the expression of the nature of God. Anything truly beautiful somehow possesses and expresses some facet of God’s nature.
In the New Testament the pattern is the same. Jesus Christ loves his bride, the church, so he can remove her every spot and wrinkle and blemish to make her beautiful. She then becomes his way of displaying himself to the world.
Her beauty is not like a mannequin in a bridal shop. Her beauty is not static, but dynamic. The beauty of this bride is people in relationship—how they relate to each other in love.
The church in Ephesus, commended by Paul for its love—is taken to the woodshed in the book of Revelation because that love was lost. Even though the Ephesian church was theologically sound, our Lord threatened to remove his glory from them because they had lost their beauty.
Is Christ confined?
The first step in understanding how to turn a frog into a prince or a princess is to define a prince or a princess. What kind of disciple do we want to deploy into the world?
Obviously our prince or princess should have the fruit of the Spirit—the marks of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the evidence of the indwelling character of God, who wants to make himself visible and use his people to reach the lost.
Picture now a growing Christian in your church who is indwelt by Jesus Christ himself. Does Christ working in the life of this individual have an opportunity to mix it up with the sinners of this world? Or is his heart broken week after week because he is confined and can never get out where the real people are, to love them and communicate with them and care for them?
The qualities in the life of a person indwelt by Jesus Christ are not to be kept in a trophy case. They are qualities the world needs desperately to see if we’re to be effective in evangelism and discipleship. Yet the average Christian has no non-Christian friends after he has known the Lord for two years.
Because of this we engage in all kinds of contrived evangelism programs. For some, it’s evangelistic mugging missions on Tuesday nights. After coming out of their spiritual phone booth with a big S on their chest, they charge into a neighborhood—never their own—to “win” it for Christ. But this is not the central New Testament pattern for evangelism.
Evangelism is a way of living beautifully and allowing this beauty to be seen and felt. The ultimate apologetic for Christianity is Christians existing together in loving relationships, and opening up these family webs of relationships to the non-Christian so he can hear the music of the gospel before we share the words with him.
At best, only five percent of a congregation will become involved in an evangelism program with a cold-turkey approach. But the entire congregation can get involved in loving people, if that is important to them and if they receive help in how to do it.
The dirty word ‘success’
An important passage that helps us describe our prince or princess is 1 Corinthians 9, which I believe is probably the greatest description of a proficient discipler in the New Testament. From this passage it is obvious Paul intended to succeed. Yet I’m afraid success is something of a dirty word for many of us, a word we’re uncomfortable with.
Paul wrote in verse 24, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” In the next verse he makes it clear we’re competing and should undergo training. He concludes, “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
I hope your desire is to succeed. Successful people are those who discover how things work and then get on the good side of how things work.
Being raised on a farm, I remember that one of the exciting things in spring was to watch new calves come running out of the barn for the first time, glorying in the sunshine and the wide open space. But there were boundaries to this new world, boundaries marked by a single-strand electric fence.
The calves knew nothing about electric fences. Inevitably some would charge into the wire, then jerk away looking quite startled.
Some didn’t learn too quickly. Out went their wet little tongue to lick the wire—zapped again! A few tested the fence a third or fourth time, but finally most of them figured out how it worked and then got on the good side of it.
Successful people are also those who develop a habit of doing the things unsuccessful people won’t do. You may say you don’t like the sound of that, since it speaks of doing and God is more interested in our being. But you can’t be without doing. If you want to be like Christ you have to get into the Bible, and that’s doing. You have to be faithful in your prayer life, and that’s doing.
The successful person is progressively becoming the person God designed him to become, and progressively doing what God designed him to do. He develops the habits which the unsuccessful person won’t, not because he likes to do them, but because he has surrendered himself to a purpose that demands that he do them.
Your purpose in life determines everything. If your purpose is noble, you’ll become noble as you accomplish it. If your purpose is honest you’ll become honest as you accomplish it. If your purpose is cheap you’ll become cheap as you accomplish it.
I believe that a successful person—a winner, a prince or princess—is someone who feels the gold medal around his neck before he begins the race. If you believe you can’t win—or if you believe you can—you’re right. What you see in your life is what you’ll get. And what you see is directly related to your faith.
Faith is simply adding God to the equation of your life—looking into the future and expecting God to work supernaturally through you. If you believe this will happen, it will—because God wants it to happen. Faith is simply taking the truths of his Scripture out of mothballs and putting them to work in the particular ministry in which you find yourself. It is believing God wants to use you in building redemptive relationships.
Let’s look at more marks of a winner in 1 Corinthians 9. Here we see Paul expressing an all-consuming purpose, as in verse 22: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” And in verse 19: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” It’s easy to see he was committed to marking lives for Christ.
Carlyle wrote, “The minds of men are not inflamed by small ideas.” If you want to be effective in discipleship, you need afire in the boiler. You must have an all-consuming purpose that becomes contagious.
Another quality found in 1 Corinthians 9 is that of a sacrificial, giving spirit. Paul listed the rights he gave up: to food and drink, to a wife, to financial support. Instead of using these rights, he said, “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ” (9:12). “I have not used any of these rights,” he stressed again in verse 15. Rather, “I make myself a slave to everyone” (19).