What Frederick the Great Taught Me About Discipleship
Rory Sutherland recounts in a TED Talk the story of how potatoes were introduced to 18th Century Prussian peasants in what is modern day Germany. Frederick the Great wanted to bring potatoes to Prussia because at the time the only source of carbohydrates was wheat. His thinking: Introducing potatoes would diversify and stabilize the economy, making it less susceptible to inflation and drought.
At first he tried to enforce people to eat/grow potatoes and peasants resisted. Potatoes weren’t all that appealing; aesthetically they look pretty gross when you pull them out of the ground, and tasted bland.
There are records of people choosing to be executed rather than grow potatoes.
The Inefficacy of Legislating Behavior
Enforcing behaviors with rules and laws – even when it’s good for people – is not very effective for lasting change. In fact, it tends to antagonize and make people more committed to their existing way of life.
And even if people DO change because of rules and laws, they usually do so out of fear of punishment and reprisal.
We have ENTIRE CHRISTIAN DENOMINATIONS AND CHURCHES who go all in on rules, punishments, and behavior modification. Not to mention many parents – Christian and non-Christian – have only this kind of imagination for what it looks like to raise well-behaved children.
Change the Story and Behavior will Follow
Frustrated by his inability to legislate dietary carbs, King Fred decided on a different strategy: He rebranded the potato.
Frederick declared potatoes as the ‘royal vegetable’ and planted scads of them in his royal veggie patch. They became ‘exclusive’ – the caviar/quinoa of 18th Century Germany.
He directed soldiers to guard the veggie patch; now, not only were the veggies exclusive, but the soldiers guarding it communicated how valuable they were as well. All peasants know, “if anything is worth guarding it’s worth stealing.”
The story on potatoes transformed from ‘ugly and bland’ to ‘exclusive and valuable’.
Pretty soon there was an underground market for the royal veggie – potatoes – and everyone wanted to get their hands on it.
Discipleship is the Potato and we are the Peasants.
King Frederick knew the potato had an image problem. No amount of legislation or punishments would change the way people perceived them. In fact, the more rules and punishments he made the more people resisted and resented potatoes.
The American Church can learn a lot from King Frederick.
Discipleship is American Christianity’s potato. It seems bland and boring, and efforts to legislate, bribe, bait and switch, add-on, back-door, or mandate Christ-following has led to similar resistance and resentment among many people who have tried (and tried, and tried and tried) to make. Discipleship. work. but. just. it. just. doesn’t.
Tried…and Tired…are so easy to confuse when typing. (I did it twice composing that sentence just now)
Also, one leads to the other: Tried, then tired – the story of many well-meaning, earnest Christians in discipleship.
Try —> Tired —> Give Up —-> Feel Guilty —-> Tried —> Tired —-> Give Up —> Feel Guilty (and on and on and on)
Where is King Fred When you Need Him?
Tell a Better Story
Sharon and I have used similar cibarious tactics at the dinner table with Deacon (6) and Celeste (3): At one point carrots were dubbed “Buzz Blasters” and cauliflower rebranded as “white broccoli”. But we need to extend the usefulness of this illustration past dinner to discipleship.
The church needs a paradigm shift when it comes to discipleship. We need to tell a better story about following Jesus.
Because King Fred teaches us: If you change perception, you change the reality one can perceive.
What we need is a rebranding of discipleship: from trying harder, straining, trying not to sin, looking for the next emotional ‘hit’ from CCM, a sermon, a one sentence daily devotional, or a short blog post (!) to….
1. God is already present and at work.
How is God at work in your life right now? How do you know? What evidence do you have that he cares more about your growth and maturity and ability to love and live like Jesus than you do? What significant relationship or situation is he waiting to meet you in right now, today?
Rebrand: The life of Christian discipleship is something we enter into already ongoing… rather than kick start or manufacture.
I notice: Half of the time my impulse to read a book ABOUT God is my frantic striving to get God to DO something. As this awareness comes (I call it a Kairos Moment), I put the book down (palms down) and turn over my efforts to make something happen. I then surrender to God’s goodness and presence (palms up) and ask: what is going on in me -or around me- right now that you want speak to, God?
Becoming sober-minded and fully awake. Becoming present to myself and others. Settling down. Bringing focused attention back to right now and what God wants to do. This has changed everything in my discipleship. It is no longer a bland, boring pursuit of chasing after God, longing for him to show up; rather, it’s a quickening of my spirit to come alive right here, right now. It’s being caught up in his pursuit of me.
2. God continues to bring good news to us even after we become a Christian.
What good news – what gospel – is the Lord seeking to give you? What bad news are you living in? What lie do you trust as true?
Sometimes the rebranding we need is to wake up to the story we are living in (potatoes are gross) so that we can repent (potatoes can be delicious).
Rebrand: The life of Christian discipleship is a continual repentance – a turning and learning and receiving – the way IN is the way ONWARD…rather than repentance being ‘bad news’ that I shouldn’t have to do anymore- or- at least much less than I used to.
“Repentance” – that’s a scary word for many of us. At its most basic level, repentance is simply ‘agreeing with God about reality’. It’s going from what I think/see/know about life to what God knows. It’s putting on the mind of Christ – it’s being renewed in the spirit of our minds.
God’s commitment to you in Jesus Christ is to never – EVER – stop hunting down and un-truthing the bad news that wages war against your soul.
I notice: When I wake up in the morning the bad news begins without my permission or endorsement. My bad news is one of scarcity, a haranguing of “NOT ENOUGH’S!” that resound in my mind and taunt my emotions:
- Not enough sleep. (For instance, last night I slept 10:30-2:30, awake 2:30-6:30, napped 6:30-8:30 – Can anything good come from that kind of sleep?)
- Not enough energy. (“If I have coffee now…and some before lunch…and skip my work out to sleep until 8:30…will I crash at 3pm?”)
- Not enough time. (“If I sleep in and don’t do my time of silence and prayer, I’ll have to do that later, which means I won’t have the time to finish my blog post…”)
- Not enough motivation. (“With that kind of sleep, no WONDER I have such a hard time focusing and getting things done…I wonder what’s happening on twitter?”)
- Not enough food. (“I can’t eat Frosted Flakes for breakfast! I’ll have a blood sugar crash at 10am and be starving and exhausted!”)
It’s bad news – no doubt – because it keeps me from wonder, appreciation, and joy. Robs me of worship. Convinces me to clench, grab, and control.
- Is it possible for me to experience God’s goodness on 6 hours of sleep? I say no – but God says YES.
- Is it possible for me to enjoy my morning if I don’t have every detail work out according to my wishes for maximum alone time and reading? I say no – but God says YES.
What bad news threatens to rob you of the fruit of the spirit? What tape plays in your head?
Today – see if you can trust 2 things: God is already present and at work – and – you are living in some kind of bad news that God wants to speak to.
It just may wake you up – rebrand how you see life with God – from something boring and unappetizing to something valuable and nourishing.