This past Sunday wasn’t the greatest day in my life as a parent.

The Pastor was out of the country preaching at churches in Brazil, and the Teenager walked through the open door of father-vacancy to break a few of the small rules our family holds dear — rules which all boil down to one central law really, and that’s Never Make Mom Mad.

Clayton crept in my room that night to apologize, asking if he could “take a mulligan — a do-over,” for the day.

“Of course, because that’s the way grace works,” I said. “And on top of that, I also forgive you for interrupting Benedict Cumberbatch’s exceptional monologue in this episode of Sherlock to ask me.”

We’ve had many conversations like this over the years (minus the Sherlock part on most occasions) — full circles of rebelling and repenting and forgiving. He even joked he’ll be titling his autobiography Clayton Adkins: The Mulligan Years.

I told him mine would read the same.

The Apostle Paul, in writing the job description for his calling as a minister of the gospel in the close of chapter one of Colossians, offers some insight into this back-and-forth, screw-up-and-be-sorry aspect to life:

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. Colossians 1:28

Paul says he does two things in his work of proclaiming Christ.

He teaches (Greek word didasko), helping people come to the truth.

He warns (Greek word noutheteo), admonishing people to stay close the truth.

An instructor in the ways of Christ must teach. Someone who’s leading the way toward God has to share the truths and tenets of the gospel — who Jesus is and what He’s done for us.

But Paul says he’s also about warning, too — as in “wait a minute, watch out, get back over here to the good stuff.” He imparts the truth, but he also reminds people of it, calling them back to what they already know. My husband the Pastor often describe his job this way, too.

So if the Christian leader has two jobs, to teach and to warn, it tell us that a Christian follower has two responses:

To learn and to return.

That’s it. Our two-step discipleship plan: Learn and return.

We keep learning the gospel of Christ.

We keep returning to it when we walk away.

And we will always walk away. Whether for a season or a moment, our hearts betray our doubts or fear or pride. We’ll try to earn the life that Christ has already purchased for us, or we’ll believe we can design a better life in another place or in another way or with another person.

Learn and return is our story, and it has been from the beginning — in the history of the Israelites in the desert, in the words of the psalmist who loses sight of God but finds Him again by the end of the chapter, in the tale of the disciple who passionately promises eternal faith only to be humbled by a rooster’s cry.

God knew we’d need these stories — filling His Word with dozens of roadmaps of those who learn but eventually have to return: Nebucchadnezzar and Jonah, King David and the Prodigal Son.

He knew we’d need the prophets — begging the people to come home, crying out with the voice of God that “in returning and rest you will be saved (Isaiah 30:15).

He knew we’d need a constant call to come back — building Sabbath worship into the system so that we can return and rest and remind each other where our hearts belong.

God is not surprised when our sinful hearts stray, whether in prolonged, rebellious action or momentary, wayward thought. He is most grieved when we do not come running back.

We are taught, and we are warned, then, Paul says, so that we might be presented “mature in Christ.” We need both knowledge and fear to return quickly the path of truth — both learning and humility to creep back in and ask for the do-over of grace.

Maturity as a disciple of Jesus isn’t about never walking away.

It’s about how quickly you find your way home.

This is a trememdous truth that I’m just learning — the fact that being mature doesn’t just mean sinning less but developing a quicker recall of the gospel and response in repentance and gratitude. What do you do to ‘learn?’ What are you doing to ‘return?’ How could this change your thoughts about your spiritual growth, or how you feel and respond in your relationships or parenting?