I’ve never fancied myself a follower. I was raised to value independence, self-sufficiency, and the freedom and opportunities they promise. Like many Gen-Xers, my parents were working-class children of the 1950s who wanted their five kids to have opportunities they didn’t. An atheist before atheism was cool, I was a child of the American Dream rather than a child of God. I viewed leaders as strong, followers as sheep, and influence and power as the Holy Grail of achievement.
This approach served me well me in many ways. I was a driven and productive student who, despite my tendency to challenge teachers and procrastinate, was able to cobble together a portfolio of grades, sports, and activities. Eventually, that got me a Congressional nomination to one of the country’s premier leadership training schools—the United States Air Force Academy. There I learned just how deeply my opposition to respecting authority for authority’s sake was rooted. And after trying my arrogant best to remain independent in a system that required conformity, I transferred to a state university where I learned that having the freedom to do whatever I wanted was both a blessing and a curse.
By my late 20s, I had worked my way through college, found a career, lost it, married, had two children, divorced, fell into a dark place, and pulled myself up by my bootstraps. As a result, I started to see that there is more to success than drive (especially when you’re heading in the wrong direction). Sure—in the same way that a broken clock is right twice a day—I muscled toward the pursuit of happiness and sometimes even found it. But when winds changed, as they always did, it became harder and harder to blame people and circumstances if things got chaotic. And things always seemed to get chaotic, despite my best efforts to keep them under control.
God showed me two things: First, something needed to change, and second, that something was me.
In the mid-90s a series of both fortunate and unfortunate events converged, which God used to show me two things: First, something needed to change, and second, that something was me. I’d sensed that my internal compass was flawed; there had always been a gap between the person I was and the one I thought I was supposed to be. This disconnect was my dirty little secret—one I sometimes kept even from myself. The American Dream provided a compelling vision of where I wanted to go, but offered little clarity about how I might actually get there.
I wish I could say all of that changed when I had an unsought and unwanted conversion to Christianity in 2003, but my journey from atheism to faith was not that cut-and-dried. Instead, my path to Jesus wove first through seven years of recovery-based agnosticism. The principles I practiced in those years—learning to value humility, becoming teachable, and recognizing the power in relying on God and serving others—began to shrink my considerable ego and soften what I hadn’t yet realized was a granite-hard heart. I am not entirely sure how to characterize this prequel to following Jesus, but I know it was the beginning of a shift away from my indignant independence and illusion of control, toward a different approach to living. I was beginning to see some value in following, but I still had a long way to go.
Then came Jesus, the Bible, and a different kind of following.
Like the American Dream, the Bible gives a lot of information about where we are headed but very few specific directions on how we’re supposed to get there. The life of Jesus, the apostles, and the heroes and heroines of the faith provide models for how we might want—or not want—to approach the challenges and opportunities of day-to-day life. Some stories value action (David facing Goliath) while others value waiting (Abraham and Sarah). Even Jesus took different approaches; sometimes He kicked over tables and sometimes He turned the other cheek. This leaves us with many stories to guide our paths, not necessarily instruction on when a specific tactic is best.
“How do you decide what you are supposed to be doing when there are scriptures in the Bible to justify walking many different paths?” This was the question I posed most frequently to lifelong Christians in the weeks and months following my conversion. I was surprised at the number of people who responded by snapping at me, assuming that I was trying to challenge the legitimacy of the Bible rather than seeking guidance. Others told me they discarded difficult passages, usually suggesting that they were no longer culturally applicable or that they were merely poetic. This was a confusing time in my journey as I sifted through the various traditions, approaches, and doctrines—each of which captured part of what I was seeing in the biblical text, but none of which seemed to capture the larger mysteries that were playing out in my daily life.
We Western Christians tend to view the road to Jesus as a linear path from here to there. When we meet people walking down the same road in the same direction, we assume they are walking toward Jesus. If they’re on the same path in a different direction, they must be walking away. And if they’re on a different route altogether, they are surely not on the road to Jesus. As an insider/outsider whose path to Jesus was anything but straight and predictable, I can’t help but take a different view. I envision Jesus as a constant who beckons us from where we begin—and we all begin in different places. So, while everyone may not be on the road to Jesus, those who are may pass or even run into each other on the way there.
This view makes Christian life an adventure. An exciting who-knows-what’s-coming-next, throw-caution-to-the-wind, face-your-fears kind of adventure that I never expected to find in this tradition. Why not? Because most of the people I encountered who had been practicing Christians for their entire lives didn’t seem to be living particularly dynamic existences. Instead, they seemed frightened of everything and everyone that was not just like them. Here I was this newbie Christian, giving up my home, my career, and so many other things I was depending on while feigning independence; and meanwhile, many lifelong Christians I was looking to for guidance admitted they had never experienced their faith in that way. As I described how I prayed, read Scripture, discerned God’s will, and answered the call, they told me that they’d been given next to no instruction on how to discern God’s voice in the Scriptures. Instead, they were taught to read, memorize, recite, and defend passages without wrestling with their meaning. I pray for more. And I am continually surprised and delighted to find this prayer answered the more committed I become to something I once hated: following.
Indeed, looking back, I can see that my reticence to follow and need for independence were symptomatic of my desire for control—which was, in my case, rooted in fear. Fear of looking like a failure. Fear of not having enough. Fear of letting people down. Fear of not fulfilling my potential. Fear of an unknown future.
Here’s the beautiful paradox of this new life: The more consumed I become with taking the risk involved in crying out for wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and discernment (see Proverbs 2), the less fearful I become and the more clearly my path opens up before me. It has proven true even as the risks grow larger and the outcomes less sure. This has become my disciple’s journey—and it is my prayer for yours.