In our last post, we looked at discipleship through the eyes of James 5:16, Hebrews 10:23-25, and Hebrews 3:13. These passages encourage us to meet together often as believers, to have rich face-to-face relationships, to confess our struggles, to motivate one another to love and good deeds, to help one another to unearth our deepest sins, and to encourage one another to set our hope fully on Christ.
How do we have these kinds of relationships? How do we develop godly discipleship relationships in the body of Christ?
Step 1: Make your discipleship vision known in the church
When Jesus called fishermen to follow Him there was a clear cultural understanding of the relationship he was asking to have with them. This is not the case today. However, we have some cultural parallels to the discipleship model: the clearest and closest is that of “mentorship.”
As potential spiritual mentors and mentees, we need to cast a vision of real mentorship in our churches and see if God is raising up men and women who identify with this same burden. There are many contexts in which we can state our renewed vision for discipleship: a Sunday school class, a Bible study, or in private conversation. If you are a leader, speak with your fellow leaders about this vision. Use your platform in the church to state the vision when the time is right. If you are a layperson, start with the leadership of your church, your elders and teachers, and share your burden.
Most importantly, simply begin practicing it. Older Christians, approach younger believers you already know and express an interest in developing a mentorship relationship. You may be surprised at the reaction.
Step 2: Foster genuine friendships
Jesus was not an austere, detached rabbi to His disciples. He was their friend (John 15:15). He called them His brothers, sisters, and mothers (Matthew 12:50). He stayed in their homes and ate their food. They traveled with Him, attended social functions with Him, and prayed with Him.
Find the most natural friendship and family settings and invite your mentor or mentee into them: a family outing, the dinner table, a coffee shop, a long drive, running an errand. Combined with formal times of prayer and Bible exploration, we can start building friendships that matter and impact our hearts.
Step 3: Start with your known struggles and victories
Take time to share spiritual autobiographies. Talk about your “sovereign beginnings,” your upbringing, family, significant life events. Talk about the spiritual landmarks of your lives: the first time the gospel became real to you, the mountaintop experiences of faith, or the valleys of doubt.
Start with what you know: what have you struggled with or what do you struggle with the most? What sins stick out like a sore thumb? What is your most obvious character flaw? If the closest person to you were asked, what would he or she say is your biggest weakness?
If you are really brave, you can play the “If you really knew me” game. This is where you are given 2 minutes (no more) to complete the sentence, “If you really knew me . . .” In just 2 minutes, being as honest as possible, complete that sentence over and over. You’ll be surprised what you will confess.
Step 4: Make knowing the heart your journey
When David saw the penetrating depth of his sin, he prayed, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Psalm 51:6). It is the “secret heart,” the inner places hidden even to us, where sin is born. It is also where transformation takes place.
Solomon noted, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5). What a blessing it is to have a true “man of understanding” in our midst, someone who can draw out of us the deep motivations and intentions of our hearts, someone who can help us see what makes us tick. With skillful questions and probing thoughts he drops a bucket deep into our hearts and draws out observations about ourselves which we are afraid to admit, even things we have never noticed before.
Jesus was certainly a man of understanding. He refuses to remain on the surface. With piercing prophetic insight, Jesus was able to ask the right questions and get to the heart of a matter.
How do we become a man of understanding? First, like Solomon, we must pray for it. God will give wisdom to those who ask in faith.
Second, we must make knowing the heart the stated goal in our discipleship. Mentors and mentees must agree that they will not be satisfied with mere appearances. It isn’t merely about behavioral accountability, but motivational accountability. Jonathan Dodson suggests a list of questions that get to heart-motivations:
1. What are you desiring more than anything else?
2. What do you find yourself day dreaming or fantasizing about?
3. What lies are you subtly believing that undermine the truth of the gospel?
4. Are you astonished with the gospel?
5. Where have you made much of yourself and little of God?
6. Is technology stealing attention from your family?
7. Is work replacing your spouse’s place in your heart?
8. Where do your thoughts drift to when you enter a social setting?
9. What fears are paralyzing your heart from enjoying God?
10. What consumes your thoughts when you have alone time?
Last, we must become students of our own sinful nature. We must become proficient at understanding “the secret heart” of others as we come to understand our own. The Scriptures are fully sufficient to help us with this. Each Bible character is a mirror through which people might spot their deepest fears and sins (1 Corinthians 10:6). God’s perfect law is like a mirror that helps us to see who we really are (James 1:22-25; Hebrews 4:12-13). We are to read God’s words of instruction and notice how it provokes in us our most covetous desires, showing us the utter sinfulness of our hearts (Romans 7:7-13). The better we become at understanding how sin is at work in ourselves, the more we can help others do the same.
Step 5: Make loving God your goal
Discipleship is not about convincing someone else how little we are sinning so that they can think well of us. It is about being a tool in the hand of God for someone else’s spiritual formation. Larry Crabb does an excellent job defining spiritual formation:
“Spiritual Formation: The process by which the Holy Spirit does two great works. First, He exposes everything in us that blocks a deeply satisfying encounter with God, and He makes us hate it. And then secondly, He develops an appetite for God, until it’s stronger than any other desire in us—till we want to know and reflect God more than we want our kids to turn out right, our health to improve, our marriages to be better . . . anything.”
With this in mind, discipleship is about being a means of grace for others; it is relating to one another so that we might be godly tools of true spiritual formation. It is about stirring in one another a deep and abiding appetite for God, a hunger for Him. Discipleship is about helping each other to see our idols so that we can repent and make God the focus of all our worship.
How do we do this in discipleship relationships? There is no how-to method to this. It simply must be learned in the context of real relationships.
Good books to take you further:
Battling Unbelief: Defeating Sin with Superior Pleasure, by John Piper
Becoming a True Spiritual Community: A Profound Vision of What the Church Can Be, by Larry Crabb
Connecting: The Mentoring Relationships You Need to Succeed, by Paul D. Stanley and Robert Clinton
Inside Out, by Larry Crabb
Respectable Sins, by Jerry Bridges
Seeing with New Eyes, by David Powlison
Speaking the Truth in Love, by David Powlison
Soul Talk: Speaking with Power Into the Lives of Others, by Larry Crabb
When I Don’t Desire God, by John Piper
You Can Change, by Tim Chester