Triperspectival Discipleship: Orthopathy

discipleshiptitleIf any single piece of the discipleship process gets consistently overlooked it’s the orthopathy piece. Right passion is simply not a matter of importance to most Christians. In some circles we completely devalue the place of the emotions, while others value them but never focus them. But passion is an important piece of the process of making disciples. We need to consider carefully, then, how to cultivate godly passions as part of our disciple making.

The Scriptures command of us certain emotional responses. Paul says, “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). Psalm 37 mandates that followers of God “delight [themselves] in the Lord.” These are commands, not recommendations. We are commanded to do acts of mercy with cheerfulness (Romans 12:8), to be a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7), and to count suffering as joy (James 1:2-8). To our surprise, perhaps, the Bible actually commands us to feel certain emotions, and warns us that it is sin not to feel such emotions. We are told to hate sin, love justice and mercy, fear God, and desire the word. We are commanded not to worry, not to be ruled by anger, and to love our enemies as ourselves. The Bible has a lot to say about our emotions, if we neglect them we will never be able to grow as a disciple. Disciple-making, then, must confront, challenge, encourage, and shape the emotions in godly ways.

Orthopathy may be identified as the existential perspective in our triperspectival approach to discipleship. The existential perspective focuses on the character and inner satisfaction of the disciple. True discipleship is not merely the affirmation of right truths or the discipline to do right things, it is fundamentally the change of heart that desires to believe and do because of a great love for God. So the Puritan pastor Jonathan Edwards rightly said:

God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that He might communicate, and the creature receive, His glory; and that it might [be] received both by the mind and heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it. (quoted in John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory, 79).

It is not honoring to God to simply obey, or to simply believe. He demands also that our hearts be directed towards Him. This, after all, was His fundamental complaint against the prophets who did the right things, said the right words, but whose hearts were far from Him (Isa. 29:13). Discipleship that stops short of orthopathy is not true discipleship.

How this plays out in our disciple-making is not nearly as neat and tidy as we’d like it to be. After all, we cannot make people feel certain things for God. Nonetheless, we can help people cultivate godly emotions. For starters, we ought to encourage people to confess and repent of ungodly emotions. We ought to help people identify sinful emotional responses (worry, anger stemming from selfishness, lust, etc.). We ought to invite them, then, and demonstrate for them how to confess these sinful emotions and repent of them, asking God to help us develop more Biblical emotional responses. We ought also, then, to see how we might cultivate Biblical emotional responses. We begin by saturating the mind in Scripture no doubt, for the normative helps influence the existential perspective. As we come to see who God is, what He says about Himself, more clearly our hearts will be more naturally drawn to Him. In addition we ought to seek out healthy emotional experiences. Great worship can fuel a heart for God, loving community and powerful sermons can too – again we see the importance of the corporate worship service for discipleship. We can utilize as well the powerful tool of imagination.

Think about what stirs us, affects us, and moves us. Is it not stories, images, and legends? James K.A. Smith argues that a fundamental shift must take place in the ways that we talk about Christian education. We need to shift our focus away from “worldview-talk” and turn instead to a the idea of “the social-imaginary.” Borrowing from philosopher Charles Taylor, Smith develops the idea simply. He writes:

As a way of working out this shifting of the center of gravity of human identity from the cognitive to the affective, from minds to embodied hearts, I want also to suggest that we consider a (temporary) moratorium on the notion of “worldview” and instead consider adopting Charles Taylor’s notion of “the social imaginary”…The social imaginary, he says, is “much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode.” Congruent with Wilson’s account of the importance of the adaptive unconscious, Taylor intuits that what we “think about” is just the tip of the iceberg and cannot fully or even adequately account for how and why we make our way in the world. There’s something else and something more rumbling beneath the cognitive that drives much of our action and behavior. Taylor describes this as an imaginary in order to refer to “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings,” which is “not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories, and legends.” (Desiring the Kingdom, 65)

We might tap into, then, the power of the imagination to fuel godly emotions. Good biographies, stories, songs, and images can drive us to truth if they point that way. They can, of course, also drive us away from truth, so we must be discerning. But to cultivate orthopathy we ought to use every means at our disposal. Without this passion we stop short of genuine discipleship.

So much more needs to be said about each of these aspects. I look forward to the ongoing research that I am helping in and to the work of my colleagues. For my purposes here, it is sufficient to get us thinking about these three perspectives as each important and relevant to any process of discipleship. Right doctrine, right practice, and right passion are all essential components to helping people grow as followers of Christ.


  1. Dave…I really appreciate the depth of thinking here on the orthopathy of discipleship. I help provide leadership to the Emerging Leader Network in my church movement — and we employ an immersive model of discipleship that we describe as engaging “head, hand and heart.” While we reflect on the “heart” having a vitally important role among the three, it can be the most elusive when it comes to developing intentional pathways of growth. But you’ve done an excellent job at providing some tangible ways to access the heart.

    It also seems whenever we pair “head and hand” learning, the heart has a unique opportunity to get involved in the process (rather than just classroom oriented learning that is often devoid of connection to the deeper areas of our beings).


    Tim Mossholder

    1. That’s kind of you to say, Tim. Feel free to share any links to the work you’re doing. Any outlets that are promoting more holistic discipleship are of interest to me.

  2. I like your thoughts here Dave. I’m curious if you’ve read “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Pete Scazzero? The thesis of his material is that “you cannot be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature” and “you cannot separate your spiritual health from your emotional health.”

    1. I have not read that work Paul, but that sounds like it’s right up my alley. Thanks for mentioning it.

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