What is Discipleship?—Taking Care of the Outside, Too

I have two silver cans in my basement exactly the same shape and size. I took their labels off to use them as a sermon illustration some time ago. I wanted to demonstrate how we can’t rely on judgments coming from outward appearances alone. You have to get into the contents of a person.

The problem is, without the labels, I can’t tell what is in one can or the other. I suppose I could just open them (which was the point of my sermon). But one is a can of chili, the other a can of dog food. Even with the lid off, both look similar. I’d almost have to—gulp!—sample each one to figure it out. I’m not sure I’m that committed. I might just throw both in the trash. Or give them to the next door neighbor’s dog and hope the animal is housebroken.

Without wearing an outward appearance, it’s hard for onlookers to know exactly what we are.  In a lot of cases, Christians look the same as non-Christians. They use the same amount of profanity, attend the same movies, date the same way, marry the same way, and spend their time in the same preoccupations. Once again, we have two cans—same color, same size, with no external indication that there is anything different in either one.

Part of discipleship, though, is learning not to keep everything inside. Paul said, “Work out your own salvation” (Phil. 2:12). This doesn’t mean to invent it. It means after you receive salvation, you enter the discipleship process of working it out.

It’s similar to the way grass grows up through cracks in concrete.  Your outer, visible life is a hardened layer that resists faith springing up.  Yes, I know all about the little voice within that says the place for Christian belief is only in private devotionals or Bible studies or church. It doesn’t belong at school. Think how your peers would react if they found out the real reason for your not getting plastered on Friday night had more to do with the Holy Spirit than homework!

Yet the possibilities are wonderful. What would happen if you did away with little white lies in business transactions because you knew the devil is the father of them? Suppose your posts on Facebook were dominated by healthy, edifying communication? What if just for a week you practiced making the needs of others a priority, rather than lamenting about how no one cares for you? Singles, what if Jesus was allowed to be Lord of your hot romance? These are the critical places where belief crosses over into living—where you work out your own salvation.

For sure all of those hypothetical scenarios would become complicated if God were brought into the middle of them. It takes time and cultivation to bring your faith fully out into the light of day. But that’s why we call it discipleship—a combination of discipline and learning.

When Jesus said, “Clean the inside of the cup and dish,” He promised an effect:  “the outside of them may be clean also” (Matt. 23:26). What goes on within is strongly linked to what ends up without. Own it. I’ve heard speeches plenty of times about the inside being what’s really important, but that’s only partially true. Both inward reality and outward appearance is important. One without the other leads to confusion. People will begin to wonder which is the real you—what they see of you at the club or what they hear of your alleged religious beliefs. Consistency will go a long way toward clearing up the issue.

Jesus told His disciples, “Let your light shine, that men may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).  People have to see something. Our labels should say, “Father in heaven,” so onlookers will know what secret reality drives us.

Without that label, no one will know if we’re chili or dog food.


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