“You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.” This familiar idiom has been in use for almost a millennium. A variation of it was recorded way back in 1175: Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken. Obviously this is old English, in modern English it would read, “who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?” The meaning remains the same regardless of the dialect—a person can provide opportunity but cannot force participation. Obviously, there are circumstances and persons who can compel an action but a truly voluntary effort cannot be forced. Every free action is ultimately a matter of choice.
Those of us who wish to lead others to trust God fully need this reminder. As Jesus was concluding his earthly ministry, he instructed his followers to continue the work of making disciples. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:19–20, ESV) We churchy folks call this work discipleship. Discipleship is the process of training people to become fully devoted to Christ by teaching them to act like him.
The objective is quite straightforward but the trouble is in the execution. How we make people into sold-out zealous Jesus followers is a matter of heated debate. Some would emphasize teaching, assuming that all a person needs to grow is the right understanding. Few would challenge the importance of biblical understanding but most would say that mental knowledge is not enough, there needs to be opportunity for application. The calling is to teach people so that they can ‘observe’ or ‘do’. Action is imperative. And now the debate rages further—what kind of activity is needed? Should we lead people into benevolence work or into accountability groups? There are lots of opinions and a veritable library of books contain them all.
In this post I don’t seek to resolve the discussion, or even offer an alternative, I would rather offer a needed correction to an assumption that hinders our efforts. When it comes to discipleship we need greater humility. Too often we approach the work as though we were making widgets. The assumption is that everyone is the same and a well-designed process will succeed in discipling every person to the same degree. This is simply wrong. We can lead the horse to the trough, but we cannot provide the living water and we can’t force the horse to drink. There are three people involved in every discipleship relationship. There is the disciple, the teacher, and the Holy Spirit. And in this arrangement we are always only one of the three. We have no control over the will of the disciple and we certainly have no control over the Holy Spirit. We have input on the process but no power over the outcome. A person may respond with obedience and give Jesus their whole being, or they may gradually disengage and relapse into an old lifestyle. Our best efforts are not definitive.
This realization requires some humility, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to discouragement. If anything, it should lead us into greater liberty. We can spend less time wondering about perfecting the process and rather commit that time to engaging with people. We can speak the truth in clumsy, imperfect ways knowing that our best efforts may not be definitive, but God can use them to amazing effect. We can’t fix people but we can be available to the One who can. And by God’s amazing grace, he uses the imperfect, like us, to move others towards his perfection.
So lets keep leading horses to the trough. Lets pray that the Spirit of God pours out his living water, and we might have the joy of seeing someone drink deeply.