It’s mid-August. Every year at this time, professional football teams engage in training camp, preparing for the regular season. At the same time, rabid fans devour information from sports writers about their favorite teams. It’s a busy time of year in the world of sports.
As I reflect upon the kind of dedication it takes to be a professional athlete, it makes me think about what scripture says about discipleship. There are some interesting parallels between the two. So today, I’d like to talk about professional discipleship.
There are a number of traits that generally characterize pro athletes: discipline, hard work, and talent, to name a few. However, the one trait that brings everything together is an attitude and lifestyle that subordinates everything to the sport. For the pro athlete, especially the elite, every aspect of life must bend toward the demands of the profession. Diet, exercise, even sleep are all assessed based on how they contribute to the athlete’s success in the profession. Skipping a practice or a workout is, generally speaking, not an option. Conversely, certain activities are avoided for fear that they might undermine success.
This doesn’t apply to athletes alone. Professional musicians, particularly the elite, typically subordinate most other aspects of life to their craft. When others are enjoying recreational activities or entertainment, the professional musician is often alone practicing. Even relationships can be treated as a lower priority. Just like the pro athlete, the professional musician bends every aspect of life toward the demands of the profession.
And it’s not just athletes and entertainers. Variations on this theme can be found in professional business executives, medical professionals, military professionals, and farmers, to name a few. In fact, any person who rises to an elite level in any profession will likely subordinate other considerations to its demands. For the pro, all life will bend toward the profession.
The Pro v. the Hobbyist
What some people do as a profession, others pursue as a hobby. For some it’s athletics. For others it may be music or art or cooking or gardening.
I have hobbies just like anyone else. I play guitar. I’m a triathlete. However, my dedication to these hobbies is not professional. My life does not bend toward them. When choices have to be made about the allocation of my time and energy, these things will often be the first to go. So, while the professional triathlete will subordinate every aspect of his or her life to the demands of training, as a hobbyist I will set my training aside if necessary in favor of more pressing demands.
A Professional Slave
One could argue that elite professionals are actually slaves to their profession. On the one hand, the pro enters the profession by choice. He or she freely pursues it and is free to walk away at any time. On the other hand, once the choice is made, the pro’s life is completely dictated by the demands of the profession. The pro becomes a slave.
Years ago I was a small business owner. When I would talk to people about it, I would routinely say that, in reality, you don’t own the business. The business owns you. For the pro, this is certainly the case. In order to succeed, he or she has to live life as a slave to the profession.
Today, I’m a professional Bible teacher. Most other things in my life bend toward this. When I have to make hard decisions about how to invest my time and energy, other considerations are subordinated to this. This includes job opportunities. In addition to my full time job as a Bible professor, I am often invited to speak at churches. Because this is my profession, I have a general policy of saying “yes.” So, you could say that I’m a slave to teaching. As a professional Bible teacher, there are certain non-negotiable demands to which I must yield, toward which other parts of life must bend. That’s what it means to go pro. It’s what differentiates the pro from the hobbyist.
A Professional Disciple
If the pro athlete, musician, medical practitioner, or business owner is a slave to his or her profession, how much more will Christian discipleship require one to become a slave to discipleship? Jesus came calling people to become his disciples. Some will choose to follow him. Others will not. For those who make the choice to follow, they commit to professional discipleship. This means that all other considerations must become subordinate to that profession. All life must bend toward the demands of discipleship.
Jesus, in fact, demands nothing less than this. In Matt. 10:37-39, Jesus declares that those who love father, mother, or children more than him are not worthy of him. In fact, his followers must lose their lives in order to find them, which he repeats in Matt. 16:24-26. Discipleship to Jesus demands nothing less than absolute allegiance.
Jesus’ followers clearly embraced this disposition. In the introduction to their letters, Peter, James, and Paul identify themselves as slaves to Jesus (most translations use “servant,” but the Greek word is definitely “slave”). They were men who practiced before they preached.
Discipleship: Hobbyist or Pro
Many Christians treat discipleship as a hobby. They like the idea of it and practice when they can. However, for them it is mostly an at will activity. When confronted with other demands, they are quite willing to set discipleship aside.
For Jesus, there is no such thing as hobbyist discipleship. One is either a professional disciple or not at all. Nothing short of our absolute allegiance is acceptable. Any thing less and we are not worthy of him. I must regularly examine my commitment to discipleship and evaluate my attitude. Am I treating it like a hobby or a profession? Do my attitude and lifestyle reflect a commitment to professionalism? I invite you to ask the same question of yourself.