This is the audio recording of the third reading of week five of Start, entitled The Goal of Counter-Formation.
“The new life into which we are baptized is lived out in days, hours, and minutes. God is forming us into a new people. And the place of that formation is in the small moments of today.”
Matthew 4 contains a famous story that begins with Jesus walking along the Sea of Galilee. As He walked, He saw two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, casting a net into the sea. “Follow me,” He called out to them, “and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). The next verse says the two men immediately left their nets and followed Jesus.
This simple story gives us insight into the process and goal of counter-formation into the way of Jesus.
Counter-formation begins with an invitation. God invites us into a relationship with Him. Jesus affirms and demonstrates His desire to help those far from God know Him throughout the gospels. We need to recognize that God desires for us to know Him. He does not merely tolerate us or allow us into His presence. He invites and welcomes us.
The next step in counter-formation is our response. In the case of Simon and Andrew, their response to Jesus involved leaving their profession. Answering God’s invitation into a relationship with Him will rarely include that sort of life change for us (although it certainly can!). Still, this story reminds us that it does involve some life change. Responding to Jesus is not about praying a prayer and remaining unchanged, nor is it about professing belief and continuing with our lives as if nothing has changed. Remember, we’re not talking about mere belief; we’re talking about formation. As we consider the state of our counter-formation, it may be worthwhile to consider what we have left behind to follow Jesus. In Philippians 3, Paul reflects on his own life and says, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13b-14). We are invited to say yes to Jesus, to turn from our old ways, and be transformed by Him.
The next step in our journey of counter-formation is captured in the final phrase from the story of Simon and Andrew. It says they “followed Jesus.” They became His students, seeking to learn from Him at every opportunity. This learning wasn’t so they could pass a test or earn a degree. It wasn’t even primarily so that they could get into heaven. It was so they could understand and replicate His way of life. That is the essence of Christian discipleship, and we do ourselves and the world around us a disservice if we don’t take it seriously. Consider these words from Dallas Willard:
The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples — students, apprentices, practitioners — of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from Him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.
If that quote strikes you as extreme, take a moment to sit with it. The point Willard makes is that when Christians take Jesus’ call to discipleship seriously, it changes our lives so radically that it can change the world. Put differently, our journey of counter-formation contributes to the counter-formation of the world.
There is a remarkable story in Acts 19 about Paul going to the city of Ephesus. Ancient Ephesus was a large, cosmopolitan city known for worshipping the Greek goddess Artemis. When Paul arrives in the city, he and his people start sharing about Jesus. Acts 19:10 says this goes on for two years, and during that time, Jews and Greeks in the city turn away from Artemis and become followers of Jesus. Then look what happens in Acts 19:23:
About that time, there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” (Acts 19:23-27, emphasis added)
Do you see what happened? As people in Ephesus became Christians, their lifestyles began to change. One specific change they made was they stopped buying silver statues of Artemis because Paul had helped them see, as the text says, that “gods made with human hands are not gods.” So many people stopped buying statues that it disrupted the local economy. The point of the story isn’t that economic disruption is good. The point is that something was happening in Ephesus that dishonored the Lord — people were buying statues of a pagan goddess, believing them to be representations of that goddess — and as people came to faith in Christ, they stopped buying statues.
Imagine how a community of people counter-formed in the way of Jesus could impact society. As we die to ourselves and seek to love God and our neighbors, we can be a force for good in a dark world.
The specific words Willard uses to describe the discipleship process and counter-formation are instructive. He calls us to “steadily (learn) from (Jesus) how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens.” We never ‘arrive’ in this life, but we can always steadily learn. That requires intentionality and discipline, but the payoff — a transformed life continuously transforming —is massive. There is always an opportunity to grow when it comes to counter-formation in the way of Jesus. There is more to learn, more to discover, more ways to crucify our flesh, more ways to experience intimacy with God, and more ways to put on the character of Christ. This ought not to overwhelm us. Instead, we can let it inspire us to joyfully pursue counter-formation and live with greater obedience to Jesus and greater connection to the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.
- What, in your own words, is the goal of counter-formation?
- What are one or two key takeaways you have from this week’s reading?
- Take a moment to pray about specific action steps you feel God nudging you toward in response to what you’ve read. What comes to mind as you pray about those things?
Dallas Willard, The Great Omission