Simulator Disciples

How do you learn to do something when you have no clue how to do it?

Jon Swanson writes a lot lately about learning to follow Jesus. His thoughts challenge me. I realize that I don’t know how, and that I’m not even sure I know what it means.

As I’ve thought about this internal dilemma I’ve uncovered another disquieting revelation. I tend to think about following Jesus as something I need to perfect before I can really do it.

Does that make sense?

It’s as though my current efforts are rough drafts to be dumped in the trash as soon as I get it right. I’m practicing on the sidelines until I get good enough to join the actual game.

Intellectually, of course, I know better. But I’ve discovered that when I open me up and take an honest look, I find a lot of junk that doesn’t make much sense.


Some activities need to be mastered before you actually try them. A pilot can’t use trial-and-error with real planes filled with real people. The brain surgeon can’t just poke around and experiment on living patients until he figures out how things work.

But following Jesus isn’t like that. You can’t learn it in a simulator. I’m thinking that a good analogy is learning a language.

Imagine trying to internalize a language if you refused to speak until you were fluent. No way—it’s an on-the-job, experiential progression. You learn and speak simple words and phrases, make lots of mistakes, and gradually get a little better at it.

I’m told that the most efficient language acquisition happens through total immersion. Living in the culture, forcing yourself to learn as you go about daily routines, turns out to be maybe the best way to learn the language.

Of course, you spend a lot of time looking like an idiot. You ask dumb questions and use the wrong words. Your accent marks you as a foreigner. You get slapped because your sincere attempt to ask for directions turns out to be some sort of unintended, indecent suggestion.

This happens even when you think you share common words. A friend spoke at a conference in London. For some reason he used the word “pants” frequently in his first presentation and noticed some nervous laughter. Turns out that “trousers” might have been a better choice, since in London “pants” refers to underwear.

I picture him telling the audience that he had to change into clean pants after the long plane ride.

Jumping in

I think following Jesus is like that. You can only learn by doing. You start with the simple stuff, ask a lot of dumb questions, and make a lot of mistakes.

And immersion is probably the best way to learn. Making following part of everything I do, even when I get it wrong, seems like what He asks.

A couple of questions:

  • Am I serious enough to immerse myself in following? Will I take the risk, face the fear, be willing to look and sound like a foreigner?
  • How easy do I make this learning for others? Do I invite their questions? Do I laugh or criticize when they get it wrong?

I don’t want to be a simulator disciple. I don’t want to wait until I get it all perfect before I start doing it for real.

How about you?

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