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The Catch-22 of Discipleship

I have heard several people use the term “Catch-22” the past week in reference to difficult life situations.  Joseph Heller coined the term “Catch-22” in his 1961 novel by the same name.  I looked up Catch-22 in the dictionary to see what the term has come to mean in popular use. The most prevalent definition is, “a frustrating situation in which one is trapped by contradictory conditions.”

Every one of us can probably describe personal experiences of being in a Catch-22.  When we cry out in anger or exasperation, “I feel like I’m between a rock and hard place,” or “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t,“ we are expressing what it feels like to be in a Catch-22.

I got to thinking about it, and being a follower and disciple of Jesus is a bit like a Catch-22.  Jesus issued some astounding challenges, and almost every challenge included some sort of selfless expression of inclusive love which usually placed the disciple at some kind of risk.

I think of the time a man came up to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus responded with the challenge, “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.”  We are told the man went away “shocked and grieving.”[i]

I think it is a safe bet to say the man felt like he was in a Catch-22.  He was interested in eternal life and was intrigued by Jesus, perhaps even wanted to follow Jesus, but could not let go of his worldly treasure that obviously possessed his heart.  He was not willing to make that sacrifice and reorder his priorities and values.

Following Jesus challenges the disciple into selfless and sacrificial acts of love that puts the needs of others ahead of the self and often places the disciple at risk.  Following Jesus calls upon the disciple to reorder personal priorities and values.  Our natural and instinctive inclinations are not to do that.   In the face of Jesus’ many challenges to love lavishly, recklessly, inclusively and with abandon, we may feel a lot like this man who came to Jesus – in a Catch-22.

We live in a culture of “selfies” and a selfies mindset that makes it very difficult to really trust the challenges of Jesus – trust in the sense of moving our lives in the direction he leads.   Our instincts to put self first, protect the self and wallow in self-indulgence are very powerful and put us in a Catch-22.

Tragically, what we often do to resolve the Catch-22 is water-down and dilute the challenges of Jesus to make them more palatable.

However, there is one major difference between this discipleship Catch-22 and the many other Catch-22s we may find ourselves caught in.  The discipleship Catch-22 is a paradox.  Of course, a paradox is a proposition that seems self-contradictory, but yet contains truth.  To follow Jesus into the challenges of selfless and self-giving love appears contradictory to a “selfies” cultural orientation.  But that’s the paradox of the Jesus life.  When we trust the paradox the Catch-22 is resolved.  It is when we follow Jesus into giving ourselves away in selfless love that we become the fullest, experience the greatest joy and know the deepest purpose.

I call it The Catch-22 of Discipleship.


[i] Mark 10:17-22;   other versions are found in Matthew 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30

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