Recently a guy said to me, “Lewie, what is wrong with me? I am doing the very things I swore I would never do!” His dad later asked me, “What has happened to my son? I feel like I don’t know him anymore.” A dramatic change in your disciple’s behavior is probably not as sudden as it appears. Though hidden for years a root of bitterness buried in the secrecy of his heart will eventually manifest its fruit in his life.
While young your disciple can manage his bitterness and keep it at bay. But as he grows older he accumulates more hurt and disappointment that if not dealt with properly moves him towards a tipping point where the bitterness overwhelms him and takes over his life. Even his future is now controlled by his past hurt.
There is an agenda behind all bitterness. Your disciple targets his bitterness with precision. A son or daughter knows exactly what will hurt and disappoint his mom and dad, as any student knows the values of his school, and a parishioner understands what will get the attention of her church. The bitter person uses this knowledge as a means to either get the attention of another, to seek revenge, or to cause a person to pay for a wrong done.
Some closing insights on bitterness and forgiveness:
Not only will it frustrate your disciple but it will also be futile to try and get him to change his behavior before he understands how to forgive those who have hurt him.
You will need to partner with your disciple as he confronts his past because fear will hinder him from facing his hurt and disappointment.
All bitterness is ultimately directed towards God. (More on that later.)
Digging up the roots of any tree is a labor-intensive task. (It is difficult enough pulling on the root of a stubborn weed.) As tedious as it may be to pick up the fruit from the ground day after day it is a seemingly better alternative than the daunting prospect of rooting up the tree. For many they would rather pick the fruit of their sinful behavior year after year than face the dread of getting at its root. Even for the discipler it is much easier and less intimidating to continue dealing with the fruit of his disciple’s life rather than having to struggle with the cause.
After 30 years of making disciples I have observed that if there is one consistent sin in the lives of people it would be bitterness. Most people have at least one person or organization that has deeply hurt or disappointed them. It could be a coach, parent, teacher, friend, pastor, youth pastor, girlfriend, boyfriend, boss, school, company, and even a church. In Hebrews 12:15 the author describes bitterness as a root:
See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.
In 2010 I was diagnosed with cancer. My surgeon said to me that the best way to deal with cancer is to get it out of there. I was willing to go through major surgery in order to rid myself of the cancer knowing that if I did not it would eventually kill me. The reason a discipler must relentlessly pursue the root cause in your disciple is because bitterness is a spiritual cancer and it will slowly eat away at him until it destroys him.
Self-destructive behavior is the fruit of a deeper cause, which is usually bitterness.
The door leading to the root of bitterness in your disciple will be found in the stories of hurt and disappointment from his life.
Sin generates tragedy. Gerald wept openly in the IHOP as he told me that he had gotten two women pregnant within a month, neither of whom he wanted to marry, and both mothers wanted to keep the baby. He said to me, “Do you know how scary it is to have your behavior out of control?”
It is easy to be preoccupied with your disciple’s destructive behavior and its consequences (How to pay child support for two babies for 18 years?) and miss its cause. The drama of his escapades can become a welcome diversion for both you and your disciple from the more difficult challenge of dealing with the root cause. I say a welcome diversion because to face the cause behind his injurious behavior will require trust, fortitude, perseverance, and courage for both of you.
For you there is the risk of your disciple pushing you away or rejecting you, as you edge closer to the shame that he has covered for years. For the disciple you are asking him to place himself in the vulnerable position of trusting you and the Lord as he faces his greatest fears and most painful memories. Many will choose to continue on the path of destructive behavior, no matter how grave the consequences, rather than to face the cause. The root in most cases is bitterness that is tied to their hurt.
Expect your disciple to either lash out at you or to disappear as you begin to explore the hurt and fear in his life. This is normal.
Although you have to deal with the consequences of his behavior, you must also keep a balanced approach of searching for the root cause.
The process of discovering root causes will take months and years rather than days and weeks.
The dark side of man enjoys the failure of others, regrettably even in the lives of family and friends. This is evident in our appetite for gossip and our eagerness to hear of the drama in the lives of others. (By drama I mean the failure, conflict, hurt, sin, hatred, and hardship brought on by selfishness.) Unhealthy people build their relationships around this drama, so that without the drama they have no relationships.
As a disciple of Jesus you must guard your heart against this taste for gossip and drama, which frankly is evil. There is a fine line between entering into the life story of your disciple and being sucked into the self-centered drama of his life. For some of your disciples the only way they will know how to relate to you is by creating drama, which may explain his unusual behavior and attitude towards you.
Not only is our nature drawn to the failure of others but Satan also draws our attention and the attention of our disciple to his steps backward, which can blind both of us to his progress. Spiritual progress is difficult to perceive, much like the growth of a child, whereas failure is obvious.
Love, on the other hand, has the faith and strength to detect the baby steps of growth. Paul tells us that: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” 1 Corinthians 13. Our disciples should sense from us optimism grounded in a conviction that the gospel and the Holy Spirit are able to transform lives.
To teach your disciple how to love is to teach your disciple how to forgive. I have nothing close to a photographic memory except when I am hurt, rejected, or wronged. (I wish I could remember the Bible half as clearly as I do the wrongs done to me.) There are many things that I have forgotten from my childhood but my hurts and disappointments are etched in my heart as if in stone. These memories are so powerful that they can even overshadow all the good that has been done for me.
People keep a running ledger of those they feel “owe me an apology” and yet Paul tells us that “Love keeps no record of wrongs” 1 Corinthians 13:5. Your disciple will learn how to release others from his ledger by experiencing God’s forgiveness in the cross of Jesus and then through your example of forgiving him and forgiving others.
There will be times that your disciple will take a couple of steps backwards which may surprise and disappoint you. During his failure it is easy for both you and him to focus on the two steps of regress. One way to help him understand forgiveness is to focus on the step of progress rather than on the two steps back. Often his experience has been people holding his failure and sin over his head to use them as leverage.
A satanic test of your disciple is a rite of passage for him into kingdom ministry. Not only should you not be surprised by this rigorous test, but you should expect it and prepare your disciple for it. Jesus was tested by Satan prior to his ministry and Peter was sifted by Satan ahead of him being used powerfully on the day of Pentecost.
Jesus passed all his tests, Peter did not, and yet even Peter’s failure was turned into success by the grace of God. Paul tells us that a messenger of Satan had tormented him but his anguish was what allowed Christ’s power to rest on him. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
A couple of observations concerning satanic testing:
The test is conducted in solitude. Your disciple must go through the test alone. Circumstances will be set so that he will be isolated during the test. (Do not try and rescue your disciple from the testing or the isolation. Not only is this not possible, but it is a necessary part of the rite of passage.)
Your disciple will have a deep emotional response to the test. He will be emotionally and physically drained. “And he (Peter) went outside and wept bitterly.” (Matthew 26:75)
Your responsibility is to frame for your disciple the satanic testing in the context of a rite of passage and then to point him to his kingdom ministry as Jesus did with Peter. (John 21:15-19)
The story of Peter’s denial and restoration is given a significant place in the biblical narrative. It presents for us the forgiving nature of Jesus, even after being blatantly betrayed by a friend, and provides an example on how we are to relate to and forgive our own disciples. We are even allowed to witness an intimate interchange between Jesus and Peter after his denial. (John 21:15-19)
Disciple making is a love relationship between a discipler and his disciple. Intimacy is formed between individuals by a familiarity with the deepest nature of one another. Your disciple’s failure is an opportunity to bind your hearts together because it reveals his heart to you and your response to his failure reveals your heart to him.
In some cases the failure could have happened years ago, but his sharing of that failure with you is a significant event and should be handled carefully. Shame has a long powerful grip; therefore it is important that you respond with tenderness, forgiveness, and affection. He probably has had a hard time believing that he is forgiven by God or others and an even more difficult time forgiving himself.
I am able to forgive others not only because God has forgiven me through the death of Jesus, but because Jesus has paid for the sins of others that were committed against me. (Jesus has paid the punishment for all your disciple’s sins, even the sins against you.) John writes:
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10-11)
The height of hypocrisy is to expect God and others to forgive me while I refuse to forgive others or myself.
There is no simple formula for making disciples. The Modern Western approach would like for you to think that to mix the right ingredients, at the right time, will result in a disciple. I am humored at publishers trying to simplify the disciple making process into a step-by-step curriculum. Disciples are made as a result of the triadic relational interaction between the disciple, discipler, and the Holy Spirit. These relationships are complex, mysterious, and often risky; this is why many would rather choose a safe, non-relational approach to ministry. Programs can be done without a relationship, disciple making cannot.
The bond of love between you and your disciple will not only draw you into his failures, but you may find yourself the object of his failure, even as Jesus was the object of Peter’s betrayal. If Jesus’ disciples brought him pain, what makes me think that my disciples will not hurt me? If Paul’s disciples brought anxiety and disappointment to his life, what makes me think that I will not experience the same questioning and betrayal?
Forgiveness is the nature of God and therefore an important lesson for your disciple to learn. A disciple learns how to forgive by being forgiven by his discipler, just as Jesus forgave Peter after his very public failure. (I can hear Jesus’ critics saying, “What kind of teacher is this Jesus guy anyway? Look! Even his own disciples have betrayed him!” )To lay down your life for your disciple is to open yourself up to hurt, pain, and maybe even public ridicule.
Though we were an enemy of God, he took the initiative in seeking an adoptive relationship with us to become his children. Paul writes: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). Your disciple’s behavior may not deserve your love, but that is beside the point. Love reaches out to her enemies and to those who betray her.
A couple of closing thoughts:
Your forgiveness of your disciple is an opportunity for him to understand the forgiveness and love of God.
You are able to forgive your disciple because Jesus paid for his sin on the cross. (Even his sin against you.)
To Parents. Children are a disciple of their parents. Your child will fail somewhere along the way and bring you heartache, disappointment, and possibly public shame. You are to forgive as Jesus forgave Peter. (Be aware. Your other children are watching how you handle the failure of their siblings.)