The Art of Following

To follow is to love another more than yourself.

A young friend of mine is joining the Marines this summer. He’ll head to San Diego for 13 weeks of boot camp. To help recruits imagine what awaits, the Marines show them short videos of what happens each week of camp. The videos are intimidating and inspiring. What is very clear is that recruits are told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it for every moment of their lives for those 13 weeks.  

In one of the videos that highlights hand-to-hand combat training, a recruit gets knocked down by another man and loses the contest. Standing inches from the recruit’s face, the drill sergeant yells: “YOU DID NOT FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS, AND YOU LOST!”

That drill sergeant didn’t begin with tips for next time. He didn’t see if the recruit was embarrassed. The first thing he said to him was, “You did not follow.” Boot camp is all about learning how to follow. You do things exactly as you are told. You go where people tell you to go. You do what people tell you to do.

In the video of the final week of training, the recruits have become Marines. They speak of the transformation that has happened to them. They talk about being part of a family, of understanding what they are capable of, of their eagerness to use their skills to serve their country. They are proud. They are ready. They are . . . followers.  

The Marines have perfected the art of training followers. After 13 weeks, recruits can rappel down walls, fire weapons, and run for miles while carrying heavy loads of gear. But their most important skill is following. In a combat situation, only one person leads. Following gets the mission accomplished.  

Following isn’t a skill that most of us are encouraged to develop. If you want to learn how to lead, there are books and conferences galore. Workshops, classes, seminars, and videos abound on the topic of leadership. But what if your most important job is to follow? Not all of us are called to lead. But each of us—every last one of us—is called to follow.

And you know what? We don’t want to. That’s why there aren’t any conferences on following. Because no one wants to follow. That’s why it takes 13 weeks of 24/7 discipline to train a Marine. Following is not appealing. Following is doing what someone else wants you do to. If we are straight up honest, we don’t want to follow.

This, however, is Jesus’ first invitation: “Follow me.” It was the invitation of a rabbi to potential disciples. And not unlike Marine boot camp, a rabbi expected his disciples to follow him in the way he ate, slept, walked, prayed, and thought. A disciple was to follow his rabbi so closely that he would be covered in the dust of the rabbi. The disciples were supposed to imitate the life of the rabbi. This is why Jesus says in John 13, “Now that I, your Lord and Rabbi, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”  Now that I . . . you also. That’s the essence of following.

While we don’t always want to follow Jesus, we know that we should. We should follow him. We should follow him in the way we deal with our anger, our money, and our sex lives. We should pray as Jesus taught us to pray. We should care for children as he cared for children.

Jesus is our Lord. So even if we don’t always want to follow and we don’t often follow very well, we do know that we should.

But what about following others? What about following human beings?

What about following the church council when they decide to move from one morning service to two? What about following your sibling about what to do for the family reunion? 

What about following your child when he chooses to major in something that you don’t understand? 

Why is this harder? Well, those people aren’t Jesus. But there is something else afoot here. With Jesus, we know that he knows best. We do. But with other people? We aren’t so sure. Following other people is hard because most of the time we are fairly certain that we know better than they do. And most of us aren’t in the Marines, so our following or not following doesn’t appear to affect the mission. We aren’t in combat, so it’s not like anyone is going to die if we don’t follow. Right?

Wrong. Paul writes: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).

We are in combat. We have an enemy. And that enemy likes it very much when we tear down those who have been raised up to lead. That enemy loves it when we tell ourselves that we could do better than they are doing. That enemy is especially happy when the lack of following kills churches, communities, and families. Does our lack of following affect the mission? Most definitely.

Marines learn to follow for the sake of the mission and for the good of the corps. Recruits learn to rely on each other and trust each other. This is called “unit cohesion.” It’s not metaphorical that people who serve together in the military call each other “brother” and “sister.” Their loyalty to those with whom they serve runs deep. They know that a breakdown in the unit will result in a failure to achieve their objectives. A cohesive unit leads to a completed mission. Likewise, when we refuse to follow, or grumble against our leaders, or abandon our “unit,” the mission is compromised.

Take the example of a church council that has decided to move from one morning worship service to two. Are there costs involved in this decision? Yes. Musicians, nursery attendants, preachers, ushers, and greeters all have to be found to cover both services. Many members of the church might no longer see each other, as some will go to the early service and some will attend later. Rehearsals, church school classes, and fellowship times all need to be altered.

Why would a council make a decision that costs so much? Because they are committed to the mission. They have seen the ushers scrambling to set up extra chairs; they have heard about people leaving because there wasn’t enough room; they have served in nurseries that are overflowing with babies. The mission of the church is to welcome anyone who wants to come so that they can hear the Good News, and right now, that mission is compromised by lack of space. While they are aware of the sacrifices that will have to be made, the council is committed to the mission.

It is so tempting in an instance like this for people in the congregation to assume that the church council has not thought through all of the angles. It is tempting to think that they are making a big mistake. It is tempting to consider leaving. But following, in this case, means that for the sake of the mission you may sacrifice the comforts you’ve had, such as greeting the same people in worship, easily making a nursery schedule, or playing with the same band week after week. The council is  committed to the mission, they have prayed about this decision, researched it well, and listened to the Lord. To follow means we sacrifice—just as the leaders are—for the sake of the mission.

Or take the example of a family reunion. Your sister has a vision of everyone gathering for a week at the shore. There are large houses to rent that can hold everyone. The beach is a short walk away. There are cute shops and trails to hike and even an amusement park within driving distance. She has a plan. She also lives just an hour from the shore. For you, it’s a 10-hour drive in a minivan with twin 7-year-olds and a toddler.

But you can hear your sister’s excitement as she talks about taking your kids to the ocean for the first time, and showing you her favorite places, and booking the restaurant for Mom and Dad’s anniversary dinner. This is the sister who came your way last time and slept on the futon in the basement. The twins snuck downstairs and crawled in with her every night, ensuring that she got no sleep for four days. So you listen to her joy, and you remember how much you love her, and you follow. To follow is to love another more than you love yourself.

And what about your child who is choosing something that you do not want him to choose? He comes home for Christmas and announces that he’s majoring in film studies. You think, “Film studies? Do people get jobs with that?” You ask him what he’d like to do after college, and he— your child who rarely speaks—is a flow of information. He chats about summer internships and a professor who can put in a good word with some people in New York. He mentions grad school and keeping his grades up so that an advanced degree could be an option.

As he talks, you notice that as much as you are fearful, he is joyful. You’ve never seen him like this. The boy who was your student for so long is now your teacher, talking about lighting design and camera angles and the power of images with no words. And so you sit at the kitchen table and you follow his lead, asking about favorite directors and movies you should see. To follow, especially when it comes to our children, means that we are willing to learn even from those who have learned from us. To follow means that you are ready for anyone to be your teacher.

To follow is to sacrifice your comfort for the sake of the mission, to love others more than you love yourself, and to allow anyone to be your teacher. These are hard things. These are things that we resist. We like our missions, and our own selves, and we like to choose our own teachers. This is why it is very hard to be a follower.

But just as young recruits speak of the transformation that comes when they are finally Marines, we go through the hard drills of “followership” because we believe that these drills transform us more and more into the image of Jesus himself. We empty ourselves of our pride and our egos and our own wills as we follow our Rabbi, who emptied himself, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8).

The One we follow showed us how to do it: love others more than yourself. Love others more than your own life. “This is how they will know that you are my disciples [followers!],” Jesus said, “if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why isn’t following a skill most of us are encouraged to develop as we grow up?
  2. Which do you find more difficult: following Jesus or following others? If possible, share some examples.
  3. “To follow is to sacrifice your comfort for the sake of the mission,” says Hulst. How do you see this happening in your church family? At home? At school? At your place of employment?
  4. Hulst writes, “Each of us—every last one of us—is called to follow.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  5. Do you believe it’s possible to be a leader and to follow others at the same time? How would you characterize yourself?

 

About the Author

Mary Hulst is university pastor for Calvin University and teaches at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Comments

Thanks Mary for this article helping us to understand the meaning of following, especially what it means to follow Jesus.  At first reading I thought, this was insightful.  But at the same time, I was conflicted in my understanding and appreciation of this article.  Something is amiss.  Then the bell rang in my head.  Neither the example of the marine recruit, nor the example of the church fit the meaning of following Jesus.  In fact, I think you missed the mark of what it means to be a follower of Jesus altogether.

If we look at the example of Jesus, especially as our model, he was not a follower.  In fact, he was quite the opposite.  Rather than following the precepts of the institutionalized Jewish religion, he chose to challenge those teachings at almost every point.  He was critical of the legalisms, ceremonies, sacrifices, Sabbath keeping, and narrow mindedness of the Jewish religion altogether.  When the Jews of Jesus’ day thought salvation was found in the institution of the Jewish religion, Jesus protested loudly.  He was anti institutional religion to the core.  The Jewish leaders, in contrast, claimed that salvation was found in being a devout follower of the institutionalized religion and laws of Judaism.  This sounds much more like the example of the marine recruit falling in lockstep with the orders of his officer.  This is not what Jesus taught. Salvation was not found in the institution of Judaism and following its rules in strict obedience.  That’s not the obedience that Jesus called for or the way in which he wanted his disciples to follow him.

Instead of giving value and respect to lockstep obedience, he simply called his disciple to let their actions reflect a love for God and for neighbor.  “Do unto your neighbor what you would want him to do unto you.”  When teaching them about the foundation of their lives, he told them to build on a rock solid foundation of doing good (Matthew 7).  And when telling his followers who would win the approval of God in heaven, he likened such people to sheep who did good, and not the goats who failed Jesus’ test of good works.  Over and over again, Jesus taught his disciples to do the loving and good thing in every situation.  He didn’t call his followers to a lockstep obedience to any institution, even the church, for there was no organized church at that point of Biblical history.  In Jesus’ mind and teaching, simply doing good was the overarching principle that won God’s approval.  And such teaching was a scathing rebuke of the Jewish religion of Jesus’ day. 

Your example of the church sounds very similar to your example of the marines.  In fact, the example of the church, family, son or daughter sounds off kilter to me.  As to the church, do Christians simply follow the dictates of their church or denomination, like the Jews were to follow the instructions of their Jewish religion?  I think that Christians are to weigh carefully what they, themselves, believe and then do the right thing before God.  Two examples: homosexuality and abortion.

Although the church (CRC) refuses to admit practicing homosexuals to full or professing membership, should I as a Christian follow that example?  The church says, until you (the homosexual) change, we cannot accept you fully, your life is a disgrace to God.  But as an individual before God, I feel compelled to accept and love my practicing homosexual brother and sister, as fully accepted and loved by God, as any other Christian.  I can’t make the distinction that the church calls for me to make.  It is simply an institutional precept that does not square with God’s love.

Or in regard to the right to life/abortion issue, the church (CRC) does not make exceptions in regard to abortion (except for the endangerment of the mother’s life).  No abortion is permissible, whether the unborn child (fetus) is a result of rape, incest, or having a severe handicap.  But, as a Christian, I realize that the unborn child is as much a child under God’s eternal care as the child who is born.  I need not worry about the eternal well being of such a child.  With that in mind, I can see a mother-to-be legitimately seeing abortion as a viable option, rather than subjecting such a child and its parents to a life of heartache.  As a Christian, I don’t feel compelled by the dictates of the institutionalized church to do what in my heart I know what is wrong.  Just because the church makes declarations and institutionalizes itself, doesn’t mean I should follow it blindly.

The principle that Jesus made clear in his life and teaching was to love God and neighbor.  And love for God was best demonstrated in one’s love for neighbor.  To be a follower of Jesus is to follow after that example as best we can.  With this, according to Jesus, God will be pleased.

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