Discipleship is a daily resolve to choose to take up our cross and follow Yeshua through making wise decisions and representing Messiah in our lives.
Most of the time, we make simple choices between caffeinated or decaf coffee, healthy food or junk food. However, there are certain instances when we must make weighty decisions. Time slows to a stop. Your mind holds two options. Everything is driving you toward one choice, but your stomach turns at the thought of that decision. Eventually, steadily, you decide to listen to that turning and take the more difficult, less chosen path.
These are the truly defining moments of our lives; they are the choices that craft our character and shape the way people see us. It is the battle that occurs between our fleshly desires and the spiritual pull to which we strive to live. Paul describes this in Romans 7:15, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Thankfully this is not the end for us as Paul goes on to say that Messiah has delivered us from this state in Romans 8:1. Nevertheless, as can be observed, humankind still makes plenty of mistakes; even disciples of Yeshua fail to live without sin, and we sometimes fail to make the right decision.
It is during these times when a unique and important Jewish practice has relevance. For centuries, Jewish books and schools have focused on a vitally important tool of daily discipline called Mussar. Mussar is the practice of bettering oneself by focusing on character traits and the battle that occurs within us between right and wrong decisions. Essentially, Mussar is the idea that, although we sin and fail, our mission is to overcome those faults and slowly improve by daily devotion to God.
The Mussar masters describe the decisions we make as a battlefield. When faced with the option to sin or live up to our godly nature, we are like soldiers who either progress by overcoming the difficult choice or regress and retreat into a bad choice. Progressing into godly living by making the right decision in small battles will help us in larger, more difficult spiritual battles.
Simply understanding life as a series of tests or battles means we can be more adamant about overcoming obstacles when faced with them. It is here the practice of Mussar can greatly benefit disciples of Yeshua. I am not saying that Mussar will turn us into perfect humans, but like the Mussar masters, the apostles call us to a weighty yoke of discipleship. Mussar can help us create patterns of discipline to make us more devoted disciples.
The key factor for every activity that you want to improve requires practice and discipline, whether it is playing an instrument or learning a martial art. Why should we not treat discipleship in the same manner? More than anything else in life, our goal as disciples is to represent Yeshua to others by living out his words as it says in 1 John 2:6, “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
Yeshua understood the fallen nature of man and knew how difficult it was to make good choices. The book of Hebrews tells us that Yeshua can relate to and help us in our daily struggle: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). In other words, once we begin to strive to better ourselves, we will be assisted with our venture.
Each new day creates a new opportunity—an opportunity to choose good over evil, to sacrifice our physical desires for the desires that are not of this world—a chance to live up to the calling of disciples of the Messiah of God. Let us take to this mission of living like Messiah with a renewed strength and view each day as an opportunity to improve. Join me in the next blog as we explore Mussar practices and their function in enhancing our lives as disciples.
- Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler, Strive for Truth! Vol. 2, trans. Aryeh Carmell (Jerusalem and New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1978), 52-56.