Last month I began a new series sermon series on some of the difficult sayings of Jesus. Not sayings that are difficult or hard to comprehend. Rather sayings that are difficult to accept, to believe, to obey. Victor Kuligin, author and seminary professor in Namibia on the African continent, published a book named Ten Things I Wish Jesus Never Said. It’s an accessible book on Christian discipleship, particularly as following Jesus becomes difficult as believers wrestle with the call of obedience when Jesus sets the bar far, far beyond our comfort level.
Throughout the book, Kuligin likens obeying Jesus’ difficult teachings to a spiritual art. The chapter divisions reflect this premise:
- The Art of Spiritual Poverty (Mt 5:3)
- The Art of Spiritual Self-Mutilation (Mt 5:29)
- The Art of Spiritual Commitment (Lk 9:62)
- The Art of Spiritual Self-Crucifixion (Lk 9:23)
- The Art of Spiritual Martyrdom (Mt 5:11)
- The Art of Spiritual Love (Mt 5:43-45)
- The Art of Spiritual Forgiveness (Mt 6:15)
- The Art of Spiritual Self-Loathing (Lk 14:26)
- The Art of Spiritual Discernment (Mt 7:1)
- The Art of Spiritual Self-Assessment (Mt 7:21)
The final chapter summarizes the 10 things he wishes Jesus never said by describing the last spiritual art necessary for disciples to pursue the Christ and the Christian life: the Art of Spiritual Surrender (Mt 11:28-30).
Although the editing and writing of the book could be improved (too many references to other sections—both backward and forward—in the text; too much thematic repetition across chapter divisions), the message of the author is refreshing. Kuligin writes as an honest disciple frustrated with his lack of progress in holiness, righteousness, and faith in following Jesus, especially in regard to the difficult calls to obey Jesus. In fact, his preferred title for the book was rejected by the publisher. From the preface:
My working title for this book was Ten Things I Hate About Jesus. The title was meant to be provocative, much like the teaching of Jesus. There was a certain shock value to his teaching that we have unfortunately lost in our teaching today. We have become so comfortable with Jesus after two thousand years of dissecting his instruction and parsing his words that often the shock value is entirely muted. Crossway Books opted, perhaps wisely so, for a less offensive title, but one that still attempts to maintain a certain provocative value.
As an American expatriot living and ministering in a tiny African nation, Kuligin brings Christians living in prosperous cultures a valuable perspective on discipleship. I’ve noticed many Bible scholars from the Global West tend to rush in their reading of the “hard sayings” of Jesus to a spiritualized interpretation that blunts the sharp point of these teachings. But Christians who live under the specter of poverty, oppression, ostracism, irrelevance, persecution and other harsh forms of hardship see things differently. We can learn a lot from our brothers and sisters in such environments, for often they have more in common with our spiritual ancestors than we do.
One of the strengths of Kuligin’s presentation is his chapter sections on the lessons we can learn from church history that illustrate the “spiritual arts” of discipleship. Some might criticize the author (who seems to be a Reformed Baptist of sorts) for not citing more Puritans (who were expert at identifying areas of weakness in Christian disobedience and systematically seeking to rectify these wrongs). Instead the quotations and illustrations are selected from a broad swath of church history. I think this a wise choice. We are the richer for hearing the Christian witness from theologians, pastors, martyrs, and mystics from every era of history, especially from pre-Reformation centuries frequently neglected by evangelical Protestants.
Who is the best audience for this book? I envision first providing new Christians with more basic instruction on the Bible and the nature of discipleship. But the next step in a believer’s training could easily be Ten Things I Wish Jesus Never Said. For Christians who have professed faith for a number of years but seem to be going through the motions of the Christian life, this book will function as a wake-up call to discipleship that is real, costly, and rewarding. I plan to use the wisdom contained in these pages to inform my series on the difficult sayings of Jesus.