What Frederick the Great Can Teach Us about Discipleship


Rory Sutherland recounts in a TED Talk the story of how potatoes were introduced to eighteenth-century Prussian peasants in what is now modern-day Germany. Frederick the Great wanted to bring potatoes to Prussia because the only source of carbohydrates at the time was wheat. He believed that the introduction of the potato would diversify and stabilize the economy, making it less susceptible to inflation and drought.

At first, he tried to force potato planting by means of the peasantry. The peasants resisted. Potatoes weren’t all that appealing (aesthetically, they look pretty gross when you pull them out of the ground), and they tasted bland. There are, in fact, records of people choosing to be executed rather than grow potatoes!

The Inefficacy of Legislating Behavior

Frederick encountered a law of human nature: Enforcing behaviors with rules and laws–even when they may be good for people–is not very effective in producing lasting change. Even so, we have entire Christian denominations and churches that go all in on rules, punishments, and rewards for behavior modification. Not to mention, many parents (Christian and non-Christian) have only this kind of imagination for what it looks like to raise well-behaved children.

It hasn’t worked. It never will.

Change the Story and Behavior Will Follow

Frustrated by his inability to legislate carbs, King Fred decided on a different strategy: Change the story of the potato.

Frederick declared potatoes the “royal vegetable” and planted scads of them in his royal veggie patch. They became exclusive—the caviar of eighteenth-century Germany.

He directed soldiers to guard the veggie patch. Now the veggies were not only exclusive, but having soldiers guard them communicated how valuable they were. Every peasant knew that “if something’s worth guarding, it’s worth stealing” (Sutherland).

The story about potatoes transformed from their being ugly and bland to their being exclusive and valuable.

Soon after, there was an underground market for this royal veggie. Everyone wanted to get their hands on it, yet all that had changed was the story the peasants had told themselves about it.

The problem wasn’t getting the peasants to eat potatoes. The problem was what the peasants were telling themselves about potatoes.

Telling a Better Story About Discipleship

Discipleship is American Christianity’s potato. It seems bland and boring, and efforts to legislate, bribe, bait and switch, add on to, back door, or mandate following Christ have led to similar resistance and resentment among many people who have tried (and tried, and tried, and tried) to make discipleship work.

But these kinds of efforts just don’t work.

A multitude of Christians experience discipleship as an endless loop:

Try Hard —> Get Tired —> Give Up —-> Feel Guilty —-> Try Hard —> Get Tired —-> Give Up —> Feel Guilty, etc.

We are caught in imaginative gridlock. We arm ourselves with a bevy of shoulds, oughts, musts, and have tos. Then we build in punishments and rewards and tell ourselves that those will do the trick. But what we need aren’t better tactics and techniques at behavior modification. What we need is a better story about discipleship.

My wife and I are learning to tell our kids better stories about undesirable foods while at the family dinner table. At one point we dubbed carrots “Buzz Blasters,” and cauliflower we rebranded as “white broccoli.” But for our purposes here, we need to extend the usefulness of this illustration past dinner to discipleship. We need a rebranding of discipleship. We need to shift away from trying harder, straining, and trying not to sin and move toward something more than the next emotional hit from CCM, a sermon, a one-sentence daily devotional, or, dare I say, a short blog post.

Identifying Two Fundamental Shifts

Here are two principles I have begun to embrace in my understanding of discipleship along with some questions and thoughts to help us realize them. These have helped me move away from notions that were not life-giving to me or those I felt called to disciple and into a more spirit-filled discipleship.

1. God is already present and at work.

How is God at work in your life right now? How do you know? What evidence do you have that he cares more about your growth, maturity, and ability to love and live like Jesus than you do? In which significant relationships or situations is he waiting to meet you right now—today?

Old Story: If I find the right book, sermon, small group, or retreat, I’ll be able to realize the abundant life Jesus promised.

New Story: The life of Christian discipleship is something I enter into that is already occurring, not something that I can kick start or manufacture.

I have noticed that in many instances my impulse to read a book about God is actually just me frantically striving to get God to do something. As I become aware of this, I put the book down and turn my palms down, turning over my efforts to make something happen. I then surrender to God’s goodness and presence, turning my palms up, and ask what’s going on in and around me at that very moment that is causing me to want to speak to God.

This practice has changed everything in my discipleship. It’s no longer a bland, boring chase after God, longing for him to show up. Rather, it’s a quickening of my spirit, a call to come alive right there, right then. It’s being caught by him in his pursuit of me.

2. God continues to bring the gospel to us even after we become Christians.

What good news, what gospel, is the Lord seeking to give you right now? What bad news are you living in? What lies do you trust as truth?

Sometimes the rebranding that is needed is simply to wake up to the story we are living in (potatoes are gross) so that we can repent (potatoes can be delicious).

Old Story: The gospel is what non-Christians need in order to become Christians, and repentance is something I should grow out of as I mature in Christ.

New Story: Discipleship is a life of continual repentance, and repentance is not something that I shouldn’t have to deal with much anymore since having already made an initial decision to turn to Christ. The way in is the way onward—a life of perpetual turning, learning, and receiving.

God’s commitment to you in Jesus Christ is to never stop hunting down the bad news that wages war against your soul and bringing truth (himself) to it.

Reinterpreting Bad News

In the mornings, I have noticed that bad news begins without my permission or endorsement. My bad news involves thoughts of scarcity and internal harangues about inadequacies. These criticisms resound in my mind and taunt my emotions. Here’s a look at some of my “bad news” morning headlines, as well as some of their accompanying thoughts.

You don’t get enough sleep: Some nights I sleep from 10:30-2:30, wake up at 2:30 for no apparent reason, then nap from 6:30-8:30. “Can anything good come from this kind of sleep?” I hear in my mind.

You won’t have enough energy: “If I have coffee now, some before lunch, and then skip my workout to sleep until 8:30, will I crash at 3pm?”

There’s not enough time: “If I sleep in and don’t have my time of silence and prayer, I’ll have to do it later, which means I won’t have the time to finish my blog post.”

You don’t have the motivation: “With this kind of sleep, no wonder I have such a hard time focusing and getting things done. I wonder what’s happening on Twitter?”

You’re not healthy: “I can’t eat Frosted Flakes for breakfast! I’ll have a blood sugar crash at 10am and be starving and exhausted!”

It’s all bad news, no doubt. But it’s bad news because it keeps me from the wonder, appreciation, and joy available to me in Jesus Christ. It’s bad news because it robs me of worship. It’s bad news because it convinces me to clench, grab, and control.

What bad news threatens to rob you of the fruit of the Spirit? What bad-news ticker constantly scrolls across the screen in your head?

Today, see if you can begin to trust two things:

1. God is already present and at work.

2. You are living in some kind of bad news that God wants to speak to.

Doing so may just wake you up and rebrand how you see life with God—from something boring and unappetizing to something valuable and nourishing.

Practice Discipleship in Community with V3 Coaches & Fellow Church Planters!

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Matt Tebbe
Matt Tebbe trains leaders to build Jesus-shaped cultures in their churches, communities, and homes using simple, reproducible tools. He’s also a bi-vocational church planter in Fishers, IN at The Table (www.thetableindy.org). He lives in the greater Indianapolis area with his wife and two kids.
Matt Tebbe

1 Comment

  1. Nate Feb 8, 2016 Reply


    Can you respond to the perception (either implied or declared) that discipleship can be a control mechanism? It seems to me that this is a slippery slope that few accost in a healthy way.


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