While getting my hair cut recently, I glanced at my stamp card (only six more times and I’ll get a ¥500 discount!). It had two kanji I’d never seen before, so I looked them up. This helped start a conversation with my barber, and through it I learnt a new word. I did that to build a good relationship with a view to sharing the gospel.
I’m sure we all have learning experiences like that. It may not only be new words; you might have learned a whole range of things, for example:
- Cultural insights: through a mistake you made, you now understand how important nemawashi (laying the ground work) is for meetings in Japan.
- Personal understanding: you realise you put off doing things that can’t be done quickly.
- Biblical knowledge: Jesus makes two types of “I am” statements in John’s Gospel: those followed by a metaphor (like gate, way, etc.) and those that enhance Jesus’ claim of divinity.1
- Appreciation of community: a brother or sister in Christ contacted you when you were discouraged and helped you see things differently.
There are many more areas in which we learn. This article seeks to encourage our learning and growing.
Learning from Jesus
There are three main words used to describe Christians in the New Testament: follower (used 10 times), believer (used 59 times), and disciple (used a dominating 290 times). Thus, a fundamental characteristic of a Christian is being a disciple of Jesus Christ. The basic meaning of “disciple” is learner. Christ’s disciples learn from him and learn to be more like him. Christian discipleship is a calling to life-long learning.
There is so much to learn about Jesus and his kingdom, rule, and plan for the world (and how we fit into that plan). Jesus commands us in Matthew 11:29 to “learn from me” (NIV). Let’s take that command to heart. He is holding classes and tutorials every day. He is our coach and mentor.
God’s provision for growth and our effort
2 Peter 1:3–11 encourages us in personal growth. The Life Application Bible gives it the heading “Guidance for growing Christians.” We could summarise these verses by saying: “God has given us everything we need for life and godliness, so work hard to develop Christian character.”
God gives us the resources—his divine power and his very great and precious promises (verses 3–4). We make every effort to add to or grow in godliness (verses 5–7). It is not just God giving and us doing nothing. Neither is it just us working hard and God simply watching. Each Christian is a product of both God’s enabling and our own effort and response to God.
The fact that we are Jesus’ disciples means we need to be in learning mode. God has given us what we need to grow; so like plants drawing nutrients from the soil, let’s grow.
Resources for growth
Here are a few suggested resources for growth.
There have never been so many books for us to read. A character in a contemporary Christian novel I read recently was told, “Remember—the things that annoy, irritate, and disappoint us have just as much power to reveal the truth about ourselves as anything else.”2 That made me think, and I’m trying to follow through so that I can grow in patience and peace.
Or what about reading something that has stood the test of time? You could try reading a Puritan writer like Richard Baxter or Richard Sibbes. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis will challenge you. God of All Comfort by Hannah Whitall Smith should comfort you. It may be good to read something beyond your reading comfort zone. While you may not agree with everything, you may learn and grow more.
Quotes and proverbs
Two quotes are helping me right now: “The weakest link is better than the strongest memory” and “Mission advances by prayer”. Be inspired and challenged by the power of other people’s wisdom.
Much information gathering comes from the internet. It was invaluable in writing this article. There is a vast ocean of material out there. We need to be discerning, but there are thousands of short useful YouTube videos, TED talks, and online courses from all kinds of organisations. Let’s take a discerning look.
Probably our greatest untapped resource for learning is other people, both in the body of Christ and outside it. Spend time with people. As missionaries we can sometimes assume that we are always on the giving and discipling side of a relationship. That may be true in some areas, but sometimes we need to be the learners. Every person you meet has something to teach you. Who knows, they might just be God’s messenger to you!
Areas of growth
With all this emphasis on learning, you might be tempted to think it’s all about head knowledge. But as David Mathis says, “We don’t just learn facts, but we learn a Face. We’re not just learners of principles, but of a Person . . . The center of lifelong learning for the Christian is knowing God himself in Christ.”3
Pursuing Christlikeness is precisely what the apostle Peter is encouraging us to do when he says “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love” (2 Peter 1:5–7 NIV). None of us has yet attained all God wants for us in Christlikeness.
A sometimes forgotten area of Christlikeness—perhaps a particular need for missionaries in Japan—is rest and Sabbath keeping. Jesus worked very hard, but we’re apt to forget that he also rested. Missionaries rarely need to be told to work harder, but sometimes we need rest and self-care; sometimes we need to say no. Some very experienced missionaries once told some younger missionaries, “Rest is part of the work.”
The Bible is a big book. Do you spend time digging deeper into it? As I write, the soccer World Cup is reaching its climax. The best players in the world don’t just have natural talent; they have training regimes, coaches, and a whole host of support staff. To be the best, they have to train hard and eat well. The same should be true of us as we seek to grow in our discipleship. We need to be reading the Bible and digging deeper—regularly and responsibly. What can you do to help yourself move forward in this area?
I talked earlier about learning my need for the encouragement of Christian community. What aspects of personal growth might you need to consider? For example: in parenting, your marriage, team building, leadership skills, self-care, or healthy conflict.
As missionaries to Japan, cultural understanding is a key to our ability to thrive in life and ministry. How can you better equip yourself to grow in this area as Christ’s disciple?
You don’t get too far in Japan without speaking Japanese. For those who are newer to Japan, keep going with that language learning—it does pay off in the end! For those who’ve been here longer, are you still learning? How can we grow as Christ’s disciples in this area of our life and mission?
As disciples of Jesus, learning is “what we do”, not just by our own efforts but through God’s gracious enabling.
1. Dane Ortlund, Defiant Grace (Darlington, England: EP Books, 2011), 108–111.
2. Sharon G. Brown, Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey (Illinois: IVP, 2013), 80.
3. David Mathis, “Resolve to be a Lifelong Learner,” 19 November 2014, www.desiringgod.org/articles/resolve-to-be-a-lifelong-learner (accessed 28 July 2018).
Peter Dallman, with his wife Janet, has served in Japan with OMF International since 1998. He has worked in church planting and welcoming new missionaries, and is now involved in training missionaries.