Following Jesus is not without its surprises. It’s best to be forewarned. Here’s fair warning:
Soren Kierkegaard once said that what Jesus wants is followers not admirers. He’s right. To admire Jesus without trying to change our lives does nothing for Jesus or for us. Yet how exactly does one follow Jesus? Classically we have said that we do this by trying to imitate him. But that posits a further question: How do we imitate Jesus?
A negative example might be useful here: Many of us remember the “Jesus people” of the late 1960s, with their rather raw, literal approach to following Jesus. They tried to look like he looked. They put on flowing white robes, grew beards, walked bare-foot, and tried, in appearance and dress, to imitate the Jesus that centuries of Western artists painted for us. Obviously this is not what discipleship means, not only because we don’t know what Jesus looked like (although we do know that he was not the fair-skinned, fair-haired young man of Western art), but, more importantly, because attempts to mimic Jesus’ physical appearance miss the point of discipleship entirely.
More subtle is the attempt to imitate Jesus by trying to copy his actions. The algebra here works this way: Jesus did certain things, so we should do them too. He taught, healed, consoled the downtrodden, went off into the desert by himself, stayed up all night occasionally and prayed, and visited the homes of sinners. So we should do the same things: We should become teachers, nurses, preachers, counsellors, monks, social workers, and non-judgemental friends to the less-than-pious. In this view, imitation is carrying on the actions of Jesus.
This kind of imitation, however valuable as ministry, still is not quite what is required in terms of real discipleship. In the end, it too misses the point because one can be preacher of the gospel and not really be imitating Jesus, just as one can be a truck driver (not something Jesus did) and be imitating him. True imitation is not a question of trying to look like Jesus, nor of trying to duplicate his actions. What is it?
Perhaps one of the better answers to that question is given by John of the Cross, the great Spanish mystic. In his view, we imitate Jesus when we try to imitate his motivation, when we try to do things for the same reason he did. For him, that is how one “puts on Christ”. We enter real discipleship when, like Jesus, we have as our motivation the desire (“proper regnum Dei”) to draw all things into one – into one unity of heart, one family of love.
John of the Cross then offers some advice regarding how this can be done. We should begin, he says, by reading the scriptures and meditating the life on Jesus. Then we should pray to Christ and ask him to instill in us his desire, longing, and motivation. In essence, we should pray to Jesus and ask him to make us feel the way he felt while he was on earth.
Some surprises await us however, he points out, if we do this. Initially, when we first begin seriously to pray for this, we will fill with fervour, good feelings, a passion for goodness, and a warm sense of God’s presence. We will feel that we feel like Jesus – and that will be a very good feeling indeed. However, if we persevere in our prayer and desire to imitate him, things will eventually change, and in a way that we least expect. The warm feelings, fervour, and passion – that snug feeling that we feel like Jesus – will disappear and be replaced by something infinitely less pleasant. We will begin to feel sterile, dispassionate, dry. God’s presence will feel neither warm nor steady and we will be left wondering: “What’s wrong? How did I lose the way?”
However, as John of the Cross assures us, nothing is wrong. Rather our prayer has been answered. We prayed to Jesus, asking him to let us feel like he felt, and he granted our request. Exactly. For a large part of his life and ministry Jesus felt exactly as we are now feeling – dry, sterile, and not buoyed up by any warm feelings of God, even as he remained faithful in that darkness. Strange how it can feel, feeling like Jesus.
There’s a fervour that comes from the wetness of fertility that can make the soul swell with feelings of creativity, warmth, and immortality. God is in that. But there is also an aridity the comes from a deeper place, a heat that threatens to dry out the very marrow of the soul, a dryness that shrinks all swelling, especially pride, and leaves us vulnerable and mortal by bringing the soul to kindling temperature. God is in that dryness no less than in the wetness of fertility because in that painful longing we feel the eros of God and the motivation of Christ.