Practical Advice for Discerning the Differences In People

Practical Advice for Discerning the Differences In People

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Biblical discernment is a huge issue for anyone who wants to care for another person. Anytime you’re discipling someone, you have to make judgment calls about the person you’re helping. There is no way around this truth. All good disciple-makers have to be comfortable with discerning people. Do you know how to biblically assess those who receive your care?

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You Will Make Mistakes

If you want to help any person mature in Christ, assessing them for who they are is part of the process. Initial and ongoing assessments are essential in soul care, which begs the question, “What if I make a misjudgment?” You will. There is no question about it because you’re not omniscient.

Jesus was always making judgment calls about people. Of course, His judgments were sure and right because He was perfect. Never making a mistake is a plus, but you and I are not a perfect replication of Christ. We will miss our assessments from time to time, but that does not have to be a bad thing. Simply admit you missed it and continue developing the relationship.

Making a mistake in a relationship is an excellent opportunity to build more in-depth into the relationship. The folks I build the deepest with are the ones who are humble enough to allow me to misjudge them and even sin against them. Their humility governs their forgiveness, and in spite of my mistakes, we become closer friends.

The key idea here is that though you are fallible, you can’t stop trying to discern the people you are discipling. If you do stop discerning because of your fear of making a mistake, you will weaken your care for them.

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The Spirit and the Word

Discipling others requires the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, which is why you want to have your “favorite go-to prayer” when it comes to soul care. Here is mine:

Dear Father, help me to understand this person. Help me to see what I am not seeing. Open up my eyes of discernment so I can hear, see, and discern this person accurately. I want to care for them exactly the way you would. I need your assistance in understanding them. Help me to know them correctly.

John MacArthur says we must be able to filter the person we are observing through the lens of Scripture, and what we see through that lens is how we are to think about them. Or, stated differently, let the Bible be your guide.

In its simplest definition, discernment is nothing more than the ability to decide between truth and error, right and wrong. Discernment is the process of making careful distinctions in our thinking about truth. In other words, the ability to think with discernment is synonymous with an ability to think biblically. – John MacArthur

  • Do you see with biblical eyes? How would you assess yourself on this matter?
  • Are you able to accurately label what you are observing regarding another person? Provide one illustration where this happened.
  • Can you carefully and compassionately help others to see what you are observing? Will you illustrate this one?

Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth (John 17:17).

There Are God-Given Limits

Counseling According to Character and Capacity01

While there are variables when it comes to figuring out a person, I want to speak to one of those variables. That is a person’s competency: ability, capacity, or “pre-determined-by-God ceiling.” Every person has a limit. No person is omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent.

If you want to help someone, you must discern them according to how God has made them. Sometimes I will describe it like this: when I am talking to someone:

I am trying to determine how fast your fastball is. Do you have a 45 MPH fastball? Do you have a 75 MPH fastball? Or, do you have a 95 MPH fastball? I don’t care how fast you can throw a ball, and God doesn’t either, but I do need to know how fast you can toss it if I am going to serve you effectively.

The 45 MPH guy and the 95 MPH guy are the same in God’s sight. One of them is not better than the other. But there is a difference between them, and you must discern this. If one can throw at one speed and the other is twice as fast, that fact will impact how you care for them.

Forrest Gump or Steve Jobs?

Forrest Gump is not a real person. You may remember the Gump character played by Tom Hanks in the 1994 movie named after him. I picked this fictional character to represent my slow guy, thinking it would be less offensive than picking a real person.

The late Steve Jobs is a real person. He was the co-founder and CEO of Apple Corporation. Apple makes excellent personal computers and has typically been on the cutting edge of the desktop computer market.

Forrest Gump had an IQ of 75. Steve Jobs’s IQ was much higher. While IQ is not the only criterion to determine a person’s ceiling, I am using it to make my point: we all have limitations, and we must know them to help others mature in Christ. If you can’t discern the individual, you could potentially become frustrated with them.

For example, if you are the parent of two or more children, you know there are “different strokes for different folks.” Children from the same parents can be different on many levels. While one child will learn math like nobody’s business, the other child will trudge along at a snail’s pace. Math does not come easy for all children.

Perhaps you have an athletically gifted child, but the other one, like me, could hardly make the T-ball team at age seventeen. Maybe you have a slow-reading child and a fast-reading one. It happens. Our children are quite different in their God-given capacities.

Everyone has limitations and varying gift mixes. The reason this is vital is that you could be trying to make a person do something that they simply cannot do. They don’t have that capacity. This juncture is where you must make a distinction between competency limitations and character issues. While competency limitations are not repent-able, character issues are.

Non-repent-able Competencies

Biff is a slow thinker. It takes him time to process everything. You know that if you ask him a question, he is going to chew on it for a while. That’s Biff. He’s not stubborn or unkind. The Lord gave him a slow processor.

Mable, his wife, knows this. But the first eight years of their marriage, she virtually pulled her hair out because of Biff’s slowness. She called him names like thick, dense, and even a retard. Her self-righteous expectations led to many sin issues, which nearly broke their marriage.

She expected him to be something that he was not. In time, Mable learned that Biff truly loved her and wanted to be a better husband, but he had a 65 MPH fastball, and that was as good as it was going to get. Mable had to address her expectations, which she did.

She had to learn how to slow down while giving her husband time to lead. Mable had a quick trigger, and though she could decide in a nanosecond, she learned how making the decision and getting things done quickly was not the main thing. She discovered her way did not serve Biff, their five kids, or put God’s name on display.

Also, her plow ahead mindset, making decisions at the speed of sound approach, was not necessary most of the time. She further learned that most things in her life were not as important as she made them out to be.

These discoveries led to her eventual growth and maturity, particularly in her understanding and love for the gospel. For example, Mable began to model the patience of the gospel as she connected it to God’s patience with her (Romans 5:8).

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Repent-able Sins

Bud, on the other hand, was slow on purpose. He was a lazy man, and it frustrated Madge, his wife, to no end. The first few times we met for counseling, I could not discern if Bud was playing a game or if he was just slow like Biff. Was I counseling Forrest Gump or Steve Jobs?

It was a valid question, though I did not frame it this way to Bud because I did not want to insult him or diminish the respect I hoped Madge would have for him. Then one day, we began to talk about his work. He’s a physical therapist and a good one. As we spoke, I noticed how his whole countenance changed. He began describing some of his clients (not by name) and some of their issues.

It was impressive how much he knew about physical therapy. There was a quickening of his speech as passion came out of him. Bud worked in a frenetic pace where demands were the norm, and he had to make decisions on the spot. And guess who was at the center of this demanding work environment? None other than Bud. The boy had a fast fastball.

I asked Madge about this, and she confirmed how Bud had always been able to make snap judgments at his work. The issue with Bud was not that he could not think on his feet but that he chose not to do this in other situations, like when he should care for his wife. He had a misplaced passion, a worship disorder of the heart, which was a repent-able offense.

  • Biff could repent all day long, but it would be mostly to no avail. His ceiling was lower than what Mable preferred, and this was God’s will for him and their marriage.
  • Bud was a different story. He could repent because his issues were character related, not capacity-related. Bud was a lazy man (1 Thessalonians 5:14). He was living a lie.

How Big Is Your Soul?

Every person has a ceiling. It does not matter where it is as long as you are fulfilling your God-given capacities. Paul was a “large souled individual.” He had substantial spiritual capabilities. He spoke multiple languages, had incredible discernment, and was spiritually profound. Everybody is not like the great New Testament apostle. I’m not.

With this concept in mind, Paul gave us instructions on how to interact with people like me, who have a smaller soul.

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

The word fainthearted in this verse means small-souled. This definition is crucial because it’s how Paul expects you to interact with a small-souled individual: “be patient with them.” Friends, we must understand this concept. We must not only discern our audience, but we must be patient with them too. If we don’t, there could be a temptation to frustrate your soul. For example:

  • You can expect more from them than what they can do.
  • You can sin against them because they can’t meet your expectations.
  • You can treat them wrong because they are not as good as so and so.
  • You can become jealous because your spouse has less “game” than another spouse.
  • You can become angry at God for giving you your spouse. (Most people would not see their frustration with their spouse as anger with God, but it is since He’s sovereign, and He permitted the marriage.)
  • You can disrespect them and, thus, refuse to serve them the way Christ cares for you.

The Subjective Soul

This concept of soul capacity is subjective. You want to tread carefully, which is why my strong call for discernment. Also, when it comes to assessing someone at a granular level (soul level), it’s wise to have community input. Part of “loosely holding your assessments” is asking other competent folks for their opinions. And there are many variables when trying to determine a person’s gift mix, so don’t overthink it.

Typically, you can discern what sin is and what it’s not. And once you do that, you know what you have. I asked one of our Mastermind students about his Down Syndrome child sinning, and how could he tell? He said that after a while, it’s not that difficult. My student is a student of his child, and he can typically separate capacity issues from character-related matters.

When it comes to sin, you should never expect a person to live sinfully no matter how slow or fast they can “throw a ball.” People are moral creatures. They know the difference between right and wrong (Romans 2:14-15). When Forrest was talking to his girlfriend, Jenny, he said, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.”

Work hard to see what you need to see. The person you’re discerning may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but you do not give them an ongoing “moral pass” (character) because he has God-given limitations (capacities).

Call to Action

    1. Do you have biblical discernment? Of course, you do if you’re a believer (1 Corinthians 2:14). But to what degree? How do you need to grow in this discipline? What hinders you from doing so?
    2. Can you humbly and accurately assess a person? Again, of course, you can if you’re a believer. But you may not be gifted at the level of a formalized biblical counselor. Will you discuss this with a close friend about how they see you and your discernment capacities?
    3. Do you know how to take what you discern about others and help them mature in Christ? What level or to what degree are your disciple-making abilities? What is something that you can do to become a more effective one?

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