Tensions We Face in Discipleship: The Buffered Self

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I few weeks ago I touched on one of the larger tensions in following Christ as working out how much of growth in the Christian life is up to me. What I suggested is the way that you were rescued is the same way that you progress – God’s grace. While grace is not opposed to our effort, it is opposed to earning or making ourselves presentable to God through our own effort. So growth is God’s work in my heart as I participate with Him (consent to) that work.

But there are other tensions in following Christ. Take for instance, can you actually be a follower Christ on your own? Maybe this is more of a western problem due to a rampant attitude of individualism. Philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age describes the modern person as the “buffered self”. This is the individual that is self-contained: I determine what I do, who I am, and what I will be. If the older notion of human purpose was to live for the glory of God, we now live for ourselves and God exists to sustain me or make me happy. If a person used to look outside of themselves for instruction on how to live, now people look to self for the answers (or Google in the privacy of their home or smartphone).

This just isn’t a problem with people don’t need God. Even people who are religious have subtle motivations that lead them to buffer themselves from others. A person can regularly show up on Sunday morning and no meaningful connection to others during the week. Whether a person lets kids’ activities rule their life or simply keeps their faith private by walling others out, the erroneous belief is growth can happen individually without others.

Why is this belief wrong? Because if a person buffers themselves effectively from others with no meaningful relationships, it will be impossible to live out the “one another” commands (some 50+ in the New Testament). Besides that, you need others to speak truth to you, not only cheering on the good character traits that are blossoming through God’s work in your heart but also confronting your less than stellar moments when those poor character traits leak out of your heart. It’s only the “buffered self” that isn’t willing to hear about selfishness, coveting, narcissism, laziness, and the list goes on ad nauseam. People are God’s gift to us because who else will encourage us but also tell us how incredibly broken we are?

How do we overcome the tendency to buffer ourselves from other? At least one way is to move beyond sitting next to someone shoulder to shoulder on Sunday to a place where you sit face to face, maybe around a table, or even better in someone’s living room. C.J. Mahaney in his book “Why Small Groups” quotes theologian Bruce Milne, “The Christian life is inescapably corporate.” Milne is simply saying that the way God constructed the discipleship pathway is it inescapably includes others. One application of this would be, this fall jump into the pathway of being an intentional disciple by joining a small group (in our case a Life Group)!

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