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Mable said she was a Christian. I believed her. And I counseled her as though she were a Christian. Within a few minutes of conversation, she sinned in three specific ways. Of course, thinking she was a Christian, I assumed I could bring to her attention what she did not seem to know about her poor word choices.
Because I was her brother in Christ, it made sense to me that she would be grateful that I would love her enough to mention these obvious blind spots. At least, that is the case with me. To think someone would love me enough to bring corrective care to me, so I can mature in Christ, is a high honor.
Based on her profession and our mutual relationship with Jesus, I approached the subject–not making an accusation, but asking a few questions about what appeared to be sin problems in her life. Let’s just say that she was not happy. She became defensive. She responded in anger. I was surprised.
Just because someone says they are a Christian, does not necessarily mean they are, or that they will respond like a Christian. Mable may be a Christian, but in this instance, she did not provide a biblical response with the grace of a Christian.
I made an assumption.
I was wrong.
When you meet an individual for discipleship purposes, one of the first things you want to do is find the appropriate starting point before you begin helping them. And just because the person says they are a Christian does not necessarily mean you can start with your understanding, assumptions, and expectations of how a Christian should think and behave.
The temptation is to “map your interpretation and practice of a Christian over” the person you’re helping, expecting them to be like you. It would be wiser to “slow down your care” until you have a firmer understanding of who they are.
I’m not suggesting that you should be cynical or suspicious of people. You should never be that way about people. You should never judge others negatively. But you must discern them before you get too far along in your soul-care strategies.
This worldview about other-centered care is a wisdom issue. You must be wise in your discipleship practices because nobody is who you think them to be when you first meet them.
Mable said she was a Christian. She acted as though she was a Christian. Mable used the language and mannerisms of a Christian. And she carried a Bible and attended church meetings regularly. None of those things automatically meant she was a maturing believer according to the New Testament’s teaching on authentic Christianity.
You may think you understand the individual and you know where to dive into the “sanctification river” with them. Then, after a few strokes down that river, you realize you assumed too much. Through better question-asking and more data gathering, you learn that the right “starting point” with them is farther back than what you previously considered.
If you want to help them, you must “keep backing up” until you find the correct starting place. Once you find that place, you can begin helping them according to who they are.
It’s like dating. The girl may be beautiful. The boy may be drop-dead gorgeous. After the first date, your opinions have already changed. Of course, if you don’t get your head out of the clouds, you may marry your worst nightmare.
We all need others discerning us. We need people in our lives who are loving enough and willing enough to exegete us according to God’s Word. A part of this “wisdom issue” is always thinking the best about people—believing what they tell you about themselves.
But here is my big caveat for you. Though you want to “think the best” because love believes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7), you must continue to ask more clarifying questions. You must continue to learn more about the person you’re helping because whatever it is that you know about them, it will not be enough for you to care for them adequately.
Too many times I have “jumped the gun” by taking them at their word and launched into a counseling session as though we were on the same page. More than likely, you will never be on the same page with any person you’re helping.
There will be times when you will back up so far that you will “cross the regeneration line” as you realize the person is not a Christian. It does not matter “where they are,” but it’s essential that you know where they are.
You don’t want to disciple an unbeliever like a believer. And you don’t want to disciple an immature believer like a mature one. Keep backing up until you have a sense that you’re at the right place.
The types of questions you ask others are not that important as long as they are about (1) relationships and (2) centered in God’s Word. The more they talk about themselves or others (relationships) and the more they talk about biblical ideas (God’s Word), you will learn them (Luke 6:45).
Do not be fearful of giving them things to do, but always be aware that you may need to change midstream, as you gain more intel on them. Hold your ideas about them loosely, and be ready to change your perspective as you learn more.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).