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How you begin a discipleship relationship will influence the type of discipleship you offer. If you misjudge your assessment of a person, you will not be able to help him. This concept means it is essential that you are clear on what you’re looking for in the people you are serving.
Initially, the main thing you want to know is the person’s authentic self. This identity question is the real truth about the individual, which does not mean you’re looking for biblical truth necessarily. You’re looking for their truth, whatever that is.
Everybody lives according to their truth. You should assume they are not entirely mirroring the Word of God. I don’t. You don’t. The people you disciple don’t. This fact is not a call for you to be cynical, suspicious, or to bring uncharitable judgments about anyone not living according to God’s Word. But you must realize there is always inconsistency between the person you’re caring for and the Christ they must imitate (Ephesians 5:1).
If a person comes to you for help, the most caring thing you can do for them is assume there is a gap between where they are and where they need to be. We all live in a gap. Your job is to figure out where they are and what it will take to close their gap.
A few years ago, I was counseling a teenage girl who was struggling with God. During our counseling session, I asked her if she loved God. She said that she did love Him. I asked her why she loved Him and she said, “Because He first loved me.”
I blurted, “Stop that! I’m not looking for what the Bible says. Tell me what you think.”
She asked, “Really?”
I said, “Yes.”
Then she began to tell me about her anger toward God. I thanked her. She was surprised that I would “rejoice” for telling me about her anger toward the Lord. But she revealed to me “her truth,” which gave us the correct place to begin soul care. Sometimes when you’re helping Christians, they automatically go into Christian-speak without thinking. They have been conditioned to provide Bible answers while hiding the actual truth about themselves.
Once they begin telling you their truth–who they are and how they think–you can start the process of helping them. This idea is more challenging than you might think. A Christianized culture has a particular kind of behaviorism that is hard to analyze, which makes it imperative for you to have a way of discerning authentic Christianity.
When you are assessing a person to help them, what essential character trait must that person possess? If you could name one thing that you would like to see from the person you’re helping, what would it be?
Humility – I think many of us would say humility. This response is a reasonable answer, but people can fake humility. Anybody can be kind, and it’s easy to equate niceness to humility. The problem with humility is it is hard to discern, especially if tact, kindness, or even serving are the evidence of the humble heart. Of course, when you begin to see patterns of anger or patterns of stubbornness, you’ll quickly figure out it may not be humility you’re observing. It could be that he was presenting a false humility.
Honesty – Some would say they are looking for honesty, which is a good thing to look for in a person, but people can distort honesty as well. My friend who said she loved God appeared to be honest, but the truth is that she was lying. Most Christians do not tell big, bold lies. We’re too Christianized for that kind of tomfoolery. Lying is more than black versus white. We have another term for lying that we call “spin.”
A person who spins the truth is doing one of three things: (1) leaving out parts of the truth, (2) adding to the truth, (3) or avoiding the truth. Any one of these is a form of lying. Though honesty is a good thing to look for in a person, honesty can be distorted and twisted, to the point where it’s hard to discern.
Serving – One of the goals of counseling is for the person to learn how to serve others. Typically the counselee is more self-centered than other-centered, especially when they begin the counseling process. The counselor’s goal is to teach them how to consider others to be more significant than themselves (Philippians 2:3-4). I’ve often said one of the ways you’ll know when the counseling is over is when the counselee becomes a servant-giver rather than a selfish-taker.
Even so, you can fake serving. How many of us have seen pastors, elders, deacons, ministry leaders, and small group leaders exposed for their heinous sins? Though most of them loved the Lord, there was undiscernible deception working in their hearts.
There are many essential Christian traits you should be looking for when discipling someone, but you must realize we all can fake out each other. Here is a shortlist of things we can disingenuously present to others: kindness, graciousness, respect, honoring, doing your homework, being punctual, not gossiping, and exercising self-control.
For me, there is one thing that rises above every other sound Christian trait. It is the main thing I’m looking for in a person. It is the main thing I look for in myself. It is the one thing that is hard to fake. That thing is repentance. You can use the word “change” here if you wish. You can also add the words “responsive teachableness.”
Humility, honesty, and serving, as well as the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, are excellent character traits. We should model all of these Christlike qualities.
But please know that we can efficiently produce any of these things for public display. There is a reason Jesus gave us the story of the tares among the wheat (Matthew 13:24). It is hard at times to distinguish between the real and the fake.
The discerning discipler is going to be looking under the fruit to find the primary fruit. That main fruit is repentance. Granted there is repentance that leads to death, but that kind of repentance can be ferreted out quickly (2 Corinthians 7:10). The repentance that leads to life will be evident. Counseling is like walking up steps–there is forward and upward progression, which means there is a measurable and objective change in a person’s life.
While someone may fake humility, it will only take a car ride home with his spouse to see if he is repentant. Many times in the counseling office I get the nods of affirmation, and we’re going to do better, only to find out the next day that he blew up again at his wife and refuses to come back to counseling.
An authentic Christian is one who is willing and able to change. How could it be otherwise? The point of Christianity is about change. The focus of the gospel is to transform us from the darkness to the light. Christ came to change us. Repentance (or change) is the heart of what Christianity is about, and if a person is not transforming, he is denying and defying what he claims to be.
It would be like a human saying, “I am not going to grow.” How could it be? That is death, not life. We are built to grow and change. Similarly, you must challenge as to whether he is a Christian if he is not “walking up steps” even if he’s stumbling up them. Repentance is the one fruit that produces all of the other fruit. If repentance is not under all of the believer’s other fruit, the other fruit will not last. The Christian life is a life of repentance and ongoing repenting.
This concept does not mean a Christian will not sin, fail, or make a mistake. We know better than this. We understand the doctrine of progressive sanctification as a work in progress. In fact, failure is one of the clearest ways to tell if a person is authentically a Christian. When a Christian sins (fails) there should be an internal compelling within him to change (repent).
Knowing that repentance can be faked, (also called worldly sorrow), you will want to get “inside his repentance” to figure out what kind of repentance you are observing. There are at least two sub-components of repentance that point to its genuineness.
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night, your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (Psalm 32:3-4).
Brokenness – There is a “misery element” to the Christian who sins. If he continues to choose not to repent, the heavy hand of God will bear down on him. The reason for this is because God is in him and when he sins, he grieves God.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice (Ephesians 4:29-31).
Paul talked about how the sinning person grieves God. When you grieve the Spirit, there will be a misery element that will break out on you. Contrition is one of the things that I’m looking for when trying to discern if a person is an authentic Christian. Does he show misery? Is he sorrowful? How broken is he about what he did?
Teachability – Like repentance, he can fake sorrow too. He can show sorrow that leads to death (2 Corinthians 7:10), which is why you’re looking for a corresponding sign of his sorrow. This other sign is teachability.
He is teachable because he wants to learn. Why? He has a compelling “Interest” (Spirit) inside of him that is motivating him to want to learn, change, and grow. If God is in you, He will stir you up to want to change. The un-teachable person is different from this. He does not grieve over his sin, and he does not want to learn to change. Here are a few characteristics of the un-teachable person.
All of us are capable of such things, and I suspect all of us have done such things as Christians. But if we are Christians, we can regain our spiritual senses and repent. We do this because our primary desire is to honor God. We want to change for the sake of Christ and the sake of others. If a person consistently maintains a spirit of rebellion, as discerned from the list, there is a good chance he is not a Christian.
Your sanctification life should be trending upward. There may be dips along the way, but the general trend is up. The reason for this is simple:
Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).
Rick Thomas leads a training network for Christians to assist them in becoming more effective soul care providers. RickThomas.Net reaches people around the world through consulting, training, podcasting, writing, counseling, and speaking.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology, and in 1991 he received a BS in Education. In 1993 he was ordained into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, CA. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).