Two wildly contrasting visions: the way of ISIS or the way of Jesus. Both call for radical discipleship, but paint incompatible portraits of what that discipleship entails.
Recently I launched an evening class to study this matter. As Jesus declared in Luke 6:40, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher.” The Qur’an teaches that Muhammad’s life is the best pattern for human beings to model their lives by. Hundreds of millions of Muslims study the vast literature of traditions concerning Muhammad to learn even the most insignificant details of his life (how he cleaned his teeth, how he washed his hands, his preferred position for sleep, etc.), believing that the better they emulate Muhammad’s example in their own lives, the more pleased God will be with them.
If the stories of Muhammad’s life and teachings were all good or at least harmless, we would expect that radical disciples of Islam would reflect such goodness or harmlessness. Unfortunately, what we see in groups like ISIS is a focus on examples in Muhammad’s life which by civilized standards were barbaric, cruel and domineering. The committed disciple becomes like his teacher.
This process is true for Christian disciples as well – Jesus intends that his followers will become more and more like him. But while Muhammad sought to teach his followers how to channel and enjoy their natural impulses through religious rituals and rules, Jesus calls us to crucify our fallen human nature (what the old divines called “mortification of the flesh”) by surrendering our lives to him (Gal 2:20) and receiving from him a new kind and quality of life – resurrection life (“the immeasurable greatness of God’s power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead” [Eph 1:19-20]).
The Scriptures call us to imitate Christ, but this is something we cannot accomplish by drawing on our old natures. Living as disciples of Jesus is possible only through the transforming, indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who trains us in how to put to death our fleshly desires, and who enlivens our spirits with the holy passions of heaven. In Romans 8, Paul contrasts life in the flesh with life in the Spirit, declaring that the former leads to death, but the latter issues in unquenchable life. It is the indwelling Spirit who creates within us a supernatural intimacy with God, bringing home to us the truth that God has made us His children, enabling us to cry “Abba, Father” when our hearts are opened to Him.
It is hugely significant that Islam knows nothing of the Holy Spirit (the Qur’an uses this term a few times, but clearly understands this being to be a messenger from Allah, and most Muslim scholars interpret this spirit to be the angel Gabriel). There is no indwelling presence of God; there is no crucifixion of fallen human nature, and no gift of new life in Christ, for human beings do not need saving, only minor tune-ups. A Muslim can be a good disciple of Muhammad merely by applying his or her will to change behavior patterns to conform to particular religious rituals and rules. But it is impossible for a Christian to be a disciple of Jesus without the Holy Spirit. As Paul says, the life of the flesh is at war with God. It is the Spirit who applies the redeeming work of Christ to our lives, who enables us to embrace with joy the truth that Jesus is Lord, and to experience in increasing measure the resurrection power that brings to our spirits life where before there was only death.
As many of us have discovered to our own dismay, and as the example of ISIS makes clear, it is easily possible to be very religious and spiritually dead at one and the same time. Only the Holy Spirit can bring us to life in Christ. And only life in Christ will make us disciples in the eyes of God. May He preserve us from the trap of believing that “religious activity” is a sure sign of spiritual life, and may we drink deeply of the living water of the Spirit, so that we are never satisfied with anything less.