I am not suggesting that this transition or movement is entirely steady, like a carefully graded upward inclination, a relentless climb toward perfection. But what I am saying is that the older disciple should be the wiser as well, especially with regard to the virtuous life. The long-term disciple, though he or she may have experienced numerous setbacks and obstacles along the path, will have progressed farther along in the transition toward Christlikeness than one who has only just begun on The Way.
This is a generalization, of course, but a useful one. Take Peter, for example. The Peter who writes two epistles to the churches in Asia Minor is wiser than the Peter who denied Jesus three times on the morning of his crucifixion. In a nutshell, the life of the Jesus-follower is a life of virtue-formation at the heart-level.
In the long-run we will see a progress that looks something like this:
- hard heart >>>> soft heart
- judgemental >>>> grace-giving
- self-involved >>>> other-oriented
- greedy/hoarding >>>> generous/open-handed
- legalistic >>>> merciful
- thankless >>>> thankful
- show-charity >>>> from-the-heart charity
And finally ( and this one is a hard learning):
- resents suffering >>>> accepts suffering as a key part of the process of discipleship
That last item may be more fundamental, more intrinsic to the process, than all the rest. We wish it were not so, and it sometimes seems that modern life in the West is organized to avoid suffering at all costs. I am more than happy to receive the benefits of this widespread conspiracy of avoidance, yet the cost, though largely hidden, may be steep indeed. If we are to follow Jesus, we must bear our cross. To avoid the cross is to avoid Jesus.
On a personal level, we can use these lines of transition (of course there are others, as well) as a self-diagnostic. Have I gotten side-tracked on any of these? Has my heart, in some areas at least, grown harder instead of softer? Have I become more self-protective rather than risk-taking in the name of Jesus? Is there an area where I am less merciful than I used to be, or where I cling to old legalisms? If there is any backward movement along any of these lines, that is an example of salt losing its flavor (Matt. 5:13). It's something I need to worry about.