Editor’s note: We are continuing our blog series on mentoring using the Mentoring Pillars written by Jim Feiker. This fourth pillar talks about the need to discern where God is working in the life of the mentee. This determines their level of readiness for further growth.

My brothers and I own a lake cabin in northern Minnesota. Every year Bev and I trek to a small bay on the south side of Big Pelican Lake to observe water life and just to enjoy the beauty and solitude. The bay is often calm and mirror-like and is surrounded by forest. Early in the morning one can see air bubbles rising all over the water, indicating life under the surface exhaling their last bit of air before resurfacing. The bigger the bubbles, the bigger the creature. These bubbles have led us to find turtles, muskrats, and marine life. We go to the bubbles to find life.

 The same is true with a person’s heart. People express “life bubbles” from their hearts that reveal what is really going on in their lives. It is when we are sensitively watching and listening for these heart bubbles that we can often detect what is happening in someone else. We see what are root causes and issues, not just symptoms. These “bubbles” often reveal people’s needs and desires, where God is working, and what people are ready for. How do we detect the “bubbles”? How do we discern where God is working so that we can join him there?

Co-laborers with God

Accurately understanding how God views people and what our role is in ministering to them is critical to our effectiveness. We will minister to people with respect and grace if we have a biblical perspective on these things.

First Corinthians 3:1-14 helps us understand both our role in evangelism and in helping believers move toward maturity in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 3:9, Paul uses two metaphors to describe God’s people and His work in their lives — a field and a building. God nurtures people as a farmer would work his field, watering and fertilizing it to nurture growth. God is also building his temple, people in whom he dwells and through whom his glory is shown. In this building process, he consolidates his people into a body, the Church, conforming them to the very image of Christ. In all this, Paul says our role is that of a fellow worker with God, both in the field and in the building. He says we are only God’s servants, co-laboring with God.

People are God’s field

It is God alone, who causes people to grow and change (3:7). God is the ultimate change agent, gardener, and teacher. He resides as a living person in every believer’s life (Romans 8:9), and is actively at work in them by the Spirit. Every believer is God’s unique workmanship – an art piece, a poem, a tapestry in process (Ephesians 2:10). He gives both the desire and power to do His will (Philippians 2:13), teaching and guiding us into all truth (John 16:13). He will equip us with all the resources we need to do His will, working in us that which pleases him (Hebrews 13:21).

People are God’s building

Christ is the architect, contractor, and the foundation to the building (1 Cor. 3:9-11). Christ owns the blueprints and design plan. He is designing each individual within the body to fit together. Jesus begins the work in people’s lives and then also brings it to completion. he is responsible for the process, results, and timing of when to place each building block into people. In this building process, we are his servants, working with him by his grace, resources, and power to place blocks on the foundation of Christ.

Therefore, we see that God is actively and personally working in each believer’s life to bring them to maturity in Christ. So as co-laborers with God, our ministry is to join God in what He is presently doing in people’s lives, under His timing and direction. Since He is already actively working on some very specific things, as effective ministers, we are to get in sync with God and partner with Him in the role He wants for us.

Partnering with God

Ministry at a distance

We have several options in this partnering relationship. One option would be to decide not to get involved with people at all. Or we could choose to minister to them at a distance with no significant relationship with them. The result would be that people will see us as detached, unreal, and unable to relate to their needs. They will not be able to identify with us.

Crisis involvement

Another option would be to only get involved when someone has a problem, critical need or crisis. We help them only when they take the initiative and come to us for help. The result? We end up always ministering to people’s weaknesses and apparent problems.

Curriculum Involvement

In this option, we prescribe an agenda before understanding people’s real needs and then run them through our curriculum. The result? People feel we don’t understand them. They may feel “cloned” as we push or pull them through our curriculum. They are not motivated to learn or grow because God is not working in the area of our curriculum. We might see a need for this curriculum, but God’s timing may be different from ours in addressing it.

It is appropriate to choose a curriculum together with a person after we have understood their real needs. In mentoring, we need to be in mutual dialogue with people, listening with understanding and allowing them to be actively involved in the learning process.

Co-laborer with God in the context of a close relationship

By the grace of God (3:10), and in dependence on Him, we identify as best as we can where God is working, and join Him there. We do this by depending on the Spirit as we listen to and dialogue with a person in a healthy relationship.1See previous post on healthy relationships in mentoring. We believe God is able to be the real teacher and change agent. The result is that people feel understood by us as we deal with root issues, not just symptoms. They feel safe to share heart issues and primary needs in an authentic relationship. They become motivated to the max to learn because God is working in this area.

We become facilitators, pointing people to Christ and his divine resources and allowing them to discover on their own what God is teaching them. From this truth, they discover their own convictions, and their worldviews and values are transformed by the power of the Spirit. We become dispensers of God’s grace and affirmers rather than law keepers. This is life-based relational mentoring in action.

Implications of being God’s co-laborer

Closely associating with people in their real-life experiences is essential. In dialogue, we can discern together where God is at work in a person. Only when we have a healthy relationship of dialogue, listening, and understanding, utterly dependent on the Spirit can we detect God’s work in someone else. This builds trust and safety as we mutually sharing our lives. See the previous mentoring pillar.

Another implication of this truth is that we allow God and the person to determine the real issues and needs. We do not set our agenda or curriculum for them. We do it with them.

Although we may see apparent needs in a person’s life, we cannot conclude that this is where God is presently working. God will not give all people the same light, or revelation, or understanding at the same time. Growth patterns and understanding levels will not look the same in all people. God is working on those things people are ready for, on which they have been given discernment by the Spirit. This is the biblical principle of readiness and timing.

Not yet ready

In 1 Corinthians 3:2, Paul says, “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.” The Corinthian believers were spiritual babies, and Paul taught them according to their level of maturity. Similarly, Jesus told the disciples that they could not bear or handle the burden of the truth yet (John 16:12.) The author to the Hebrews says the readers are infants, understanding only foundational truths (Hebrews 5:11-14).  They were not yet moving on to a maturity, which is characterized by an ability to feed themselves on the spiritual truths and discern spiritual things.

How to discern where God is working

Understand readiness to learn

Readiness in learning is talking about a person’s receptivity to truth and their understanding of that truth. We are talking about the light a person has been given by the Spirit in the Scriptures at a given point in their life. It is their ability to discern truth. But it goes beyond that. Understanding also has to do with our obedience to the truth God has already given us. He will not take us on to new truth until we have obeyed what we already know.

Whenever our knowledge gets ahead of our obedience or understanding, it produces a gap of unreality in our lives. Therefore, readiness is a key factor that helps us determine where God is presently working in a person. It will greatly affect our teaching and mentoring.

God’s process of working in lives is focused on a few things He has revealed to them. God does not reveal everything, nor work on every area of life at once. Not all people are ready for the same things at the same time.

Timing of truth and application is crucial in our helping people grow. Some things must wait until the Holy Spirit has given them understanding. As we work with God, we must be sensitive to His timing in a person’s life. A significant relationship with dialogue will help us to discern where a person is in their understanding, what light God has given them.

Only as we minister by the grace of God, dependent on His divine resources and power, will we be able to discern by the Spirit, where God is working in a life and what a person is ready for (2 Timothy 2:1).

The windows of the heart

Here are a few suggestions on how to more accurately discern where God is presently working in a person’s life. In active dialogue with the person, listen to the windows into their heart.

The window of their mouth

Let them talk and carefully listen to understand. It is true that out of the mouth, the heart speaks (Matt 12:34-35). By listening to them, and to their questions, their heart will be revealed. Then by drawing them out for deeper understanding with a few opened-ended questions, they often reveal what God is doing in their life (Proverbs 20:5).

This also includes listening to what they are learning from the Scripture. Be sensitive to what God is teaching them from their devotional reading or Bible study, especially key are patterns of repeated truth.

Often a person’s heart is revealed in prayer. Notice what they talk to God about.

The window of their view of God

Listen to what they reveal about their concept of God.

There is scarcely an error in doctrine or failure in Christian ethics that are not the symptom of false thoughts about God.

A. W. Tozer, Treasurers from Tozer

One’s view of God is a clear window, revealing their values and heart issues.

Observe their reactions to God’s work, discipline, and circumstances in their life (Hebrews 12:11; James 1:2). Do they see God in these experiences? Do they have a biblical perspective on these experiences?

The window of their inner dialogue

Draw out what they are telling themselves. Often, they are entertaining and holding on to false thoughts about themselves. These thoughts need to be dismantled by truth (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Ask for discernment

Ask God for his discernment into people’s lives (James 1:5; 2 Chronicles 1:10-11). He alone knows what he is doing in a person’s life. He, by his Spirit, can give us wisdom and insight into people that will astound us.

Be sensitive to teachable moments where God has brought need, conviction (exposed issues in their life) and has opened new understanding to people.

Ask them where God is working in their life – or what they would like to see God do in their lives in the next six months. Many times, we can just ask people what God is doing in their lives. Most older believers know where God is presently working because God is revealing himself to them. He is a faithful, able teacher, committed to shepherd and bring about their growth.

We have been called to a very unique ministry of coaching and mentoring people whom God has given us. By God’s grace and his wisdom may we work with him in people’s lives as co-labors, carefully discerning the bubbles where he is presently working.