Lesson 13 Character Development In Discipleship

When first created, one of the glories of man was that he was “made in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27), in God’s moral and spiritual likeness. The fall of man marred that image and moved him away from his likeness to God. It is God’s will to restore that image fully in His redeemed people, beginning here and now. It is our destiny. “For whom He did foreknow, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). “Though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). This involves our cooperation. “Put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Col. 3:10). “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The goal of the Apostle Paul in his ministry was to “present every man mature in Christ Jesus” (Col. 1:28).

The working of God in our lives, with all the varying circumstances, some difficult and even tragic, can best be understood by seeing His master work. God’s master work is the development of Christlikeness in our characters, and it is preparing us for eternity. It follows that in disciplemaking we should give attention to this same area. As we pray with those with whom we work, share personally, maintain accountability to monitor progress, we can better move toward growth. The salvation of God should be expressed through translating into our lives His character, as seen in the Lord Jesus. It is for this purpose that the apostle prayed that Christ might be formed in the believers (Gal. 4:19).

The Means and Motivation Of Character Development

One thinks of character as something that is somehow fixed from birth. Some say, “That is just the way I am.” Others think of character growth as that which is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit, as though we had no part. This ignores all the passages that are exhortations, appeals to the will, to cooperate with God in His holy work in us. If everything rested upon God, with no responsibility upon man, all believers would be spiritual. Obviously this is not the case.

Those who live holy lives do so because they want to do so.

They love the Lord deeply and want to please Him in every way in which His love constrains them (2 Cor. 5:14). They admire the Lord greatly and want to be like Him by being imitators of God (Eph. 5:1), as well as imitators of godly believers who model His life (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6). There is a hunger for God in deeper fellowship and knowledge of Him. These attitudes and actions are quite different from the mediocrity present in most church attenders. There are always those who are content to be saved and sure of Heaven. They are comfortable in conventional religious patterns of church activities. But there is a lack of spiritual vitality, fruitfulness, vision for Christ’s kingdom and sacrificial living. This certainly is insensitivity to God’s deeper purposes in our inner being and hinders character growth.

Character growth is the work of the Spirit in a yielded vessel. God is working in us to do His good pleasure but we are also to work out our own deliverance (Phil. 2:12-13). Our salvation is not by works (merit) but it is unto works (Eph. 2:10; Tit. 3:8).

Our own spiritual diligence can be encouraged by the labors of others who invest their lives in ministering to us (Col. 1:29). There is also the unique ministry of the resident, indwelling Spirit who seeks to work in yielded lives in such a way as to bring forth character fruit (Gal. 5:22-23) such as love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and self-discipline. On the side of man’s responsibility, we are summoned to crucify the flesh (Gal. 5:24), to take up our cross (Luke 9:23) and to surrender our lives for His glory (John 12:25).

God may well use trials to develop character, even using the evil others do for that purpose (Jas. 1:3). This requires that we understand life through the eyes of God and our own eyes of faith. Having a prayer partner, helper and friend to whom we are willing to be accountable can be of great help if we are not too proud to accept that. It is a voluntary thing, requiring willingness towards both God and man.

The Traits and Goals of Character Development

The obvious reason for lists of godly character traits in Scripture, as well as bad ones, is to alert us to proper goals. The lists have no practical effect in our lives unless we meditate upon them, consider our lives in the light of them and seek to grow in these areas. That is why James reminds us that trials can develop patience or why waiting on God can help us develop perseverance. The fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 and the virtues of 2 Peter 1:5-8 are two examples of these lists. Here are some major traits mentioned more than once in Scripture. By keeping in mind both character goals and the power of God’s indwelling Spirit, we can expect greater maturity in Christlikeness.

1. Sacrificial Love. We use this description to distinguish the highest form of divine love (agape) from the popular ideas that govern our usage. The Lord’s compassion, steadfastness, forgiveness and self-giving are absolute marvels of perfect love. He demonstrated that love is more than what we feel. It is what we do. Love is to be towards God and then towards others (Matt. 22:37-40). Contrary to popular notions, there is no command to love yourself. Self love is considered a negative trait in Scripture (2 Tim. 3:2). Love is a mark of being a true disciple of the Lord Jesus (John 13:35). It is a direct command of Christ appealing to the will, not our emotions (John 15:12). It is a test of spiritual life and a basis of assurance that we are truly His (1 John 3:14). Love is to be extended beyond those who love us even to our enemies (Matt. 5:44), which is certainly a matter of the will.

The description in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is considered to be a classic. What is said may be classified in this way:

a) The feelings of love: kind (goodness in action), compassionate (sensitive to needs), forgiving (not holding grudges), not envious or jealous.

b) The manners of love: patient (not irritable), considerate (not rude or thoughtless).

c) The necessities of love: unselfish, dependable, obedient when required.

Love is not something to be “worked up” but rather of Christ living out His life in us as yielded vessels. Our lives should reflect and transmit His love. Humanly speaking, we are not capable in ourselves of loving in this way.

2. Self-Discipline. The word derives from disciple and there can be no discipleship without it. It is one of the fruits of a Spirit-controlled life (Gal. 5:23). The Lord Jesus was the most disciplined man that ever lived. You cannot even conceive of Him as wasting time, wavering on spiritual priorities or leading a disorderly life. Failure in life is commonly due to lack of self-discipline. It applies to the use of the mind, the use of the tongue, the appetites of the body, the exercise of prayer and the use of time. It is also urgently necessary in difficult tests to endure hardships and to do what we need to do when we do not feel like doing it. Determined action places self-life squarely in the place of being denied or crucified in the interests of Christ and others. Self-discipline is not a matter of days or weeks but of a lifetime of daily applying the principle of “yes” to God and “no” to selfishness. It is oriented to being responsible, not self-indulgent. Self-discipline enables us to submit to God and to proper authority. It leads us to walk by faith and not by sight, living by every Word from God’s mouth (Matt. 4:4). It helps us persevere when we want to give up (Prov. 24:10; Eph. 3:13), and to be a finisher, like He was, not a quitter.

3. Patience (long suffering). This is self-restraint even when provoked. It does not retaliate {Eph. 4:2; Col. 1:11; 3:12). A person who cannot control his or her emotions, such as anger, is not following Christ.

4. Faithfulness (dependability). This is required of any good manager or worker (1 Cor. 4:2). Small matters of unfaithfulness indicate a likelihood to the same trait in greater matters (Luke 16:10-12). We may want to test this, as God does, in working with people.

5. Courage (boldness in trial). The Holy Spirit has not given us a spirit of fear or timidity (2 Tim. 1:7). The typical word of the Lord to His disciples was continually, “Fear not.” Courage does not require being unaware of danger. It does require us, despite difficulties and sorrows, to depend on God in a determined way. A fearful person is a liability, not an asset, in a difficult situation.

6. Zeal (eagerness, passion, in the things of God). It was present in the actions of the Lord (John 2:17). It is opposed to lukewarmness, which is sickening to God (Rev. 3:15-16). It should not be misguided or impulsive (Rom. 10:2; Phil. 3:6). Zeal according to knowledge is good fire for the work of God.

7. Humility (lowly and meek are associated ideas). The Lord said that His disciples needed to learn this from Him (Matt. 11:29). God favors such people (Isa. 57:15; 66:2), just as He hates pride. This restrains us from being argumentative, unteachable and difficult in personal dealings. It is a key character trait in God’s eyes.

8. Grace (undeserved favor). It has been said that the disciple should be dominated by grace in all dealings. Because God has dealt with us in grace we have the obligation to extend the same treatment to others. If God dealt with us according to our sins, even in daily life, who could stand (Psa. 130:3-4)? We need to remember this in our dealings with others.

9. Holiness (separation unto God and from defilement). This is a direct command of God that is linked with His own character (1 Pet. 1:16). He will not fellowship with us or hear us when we walk in unholy ways (Psa. 66:18).

10. Joy. This is God’s desire for us because it is present in Him (John 15:11). Gloom, pessimism and discouragement are not the mark of godly attitudes. Joy must go beyond circumstances because we are fixed by faith upon the Lord and His exceeding great and precious promises.

Many other virtues might be mentioned. These include peace (inner tranquility, unworried), kindness, gentleness, goodness, honesty and whole-heartedness or diligence. All that is evident in Christ is a model for us in moral excellence. The disciple should be daily before God and His Word in evaluating character needs.

Conclusion

How can we help others grow in these virtues? How can we develop them to a great degree in our own lives? Certainly it will not be by looking at our own weakness or failure, nor will it be by the devices of popular psychology surrounding image-building or self-confidence techniques. Scripturally, development is based upon the Spirit’s work in shaping us like clay in the Potter’s hands. It is by setting our eyes on Christ, and becoming His imitators. It is by praying with godly people with whom we work concerning growth. It is by claiming God’s promises to help us and by claiming Christ’s victory which has broken the power of sin over us (Rom. 6:6). It is by being saturated in the Word. It is by active involvement in serving the Lord. The wind of the Spirit is available to blow upon the sails of the vessel which moves in the direction God leads, not upon the ship that is anchored in idle self-absorption. It is for the spiritually ambitious. It is not for the spiritually self-satisfied or uninterested.

Experience has demonstrated that character flaws or weaknesses usually are not corrected by group teaching. We need individual attention that comes from making ourselves willingly accountable to a person we respect. This accountability will necessitate dealing frankly and directly with our deficiencies, even as the Spirit of God does through the Word, written or spoken. Those who would disciple must remember that “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) is part of true friendship. It is necessary in growth. There is a shortage of such mature believers and disciples. Still we should seek out the best available, while seeking to develop more of them.

Lesson 13 Character Development In Discipleship

1. God created man perfectly and in God’s own image (Gen. 1:26-27,31). Man’s sin has marred both him and God’s perfect creation (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12). Consider Romans 6:13, 16-17,22; 8:11-13.

2. What does it mean to be yielded to the Spirit or to walk according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4-5; Phil. 2:12-13)?

3. Which major character traits should a mature disciple possess according to the following verses?

Matthew 22:37-40

2 Peter 1:5-8

Galatians 5:22

2 Timothy 1:7

1 Peter 1:16

Select two or more that calls for the most attention in your life.

4. Discipline has been defined as doing the right thing, whether one feels like it or not. A major component of discipline is self-control. The undisciplined man is described in Proverbs 10:26; 18:9; 20:4. How would you advise him with a view for helping him?

5. How could you develop a more sacrificial love characteristic? Apply and comment on 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 in this analysis.

6. Identify the principles mentioned in the following verses which can help in the development of a disciplined thought-life.

Psalm 51:10 Proverbs 16:3

Proverbs 4:23 2 Corinthians 10:5-6

Philippians 4:8

Why is this a key to character development?

7. Discipline of the physical desires is also important. What motivated Paul to discipline himself in this respect?

1 Corinthians 9:22

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

2 Corinthians 5:9-15

8. What are the benefits of a Christlike character (John 15:8; 2 Pet. 1:4-11)?

9. Referring to specific character traits, list the three most important areas in which you need improvement. What do you intend to do about it?

Conclusion

“No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). How graphic and challenging were the Lord’s remarks to the would-be disciples! The words are particularly instructive when we view them in their context. The Lord had sent out the twelve to preach the Gospel in the towns and villages (Luke 9:1-6). The ministry of Jesus was attracting more attention and producing a greater following (vv. 7-11). The healings and feeding of the five thousand continued to swell the ranks (vv. 23-26). He restated His strong requirements just prior to sending out an additional seventy workers (10:1).

The Lord Jesus Christ is still interested in increasing the number of true disciples. His standards are the same. He still attracts many followers who often have an insufficient view of the true demands of discipleship. Many of us are at a crossroads in our Christian life just as the three disciples in Luke 9:57-62. We have followed Jesus for varying motives and to different degrees. We may call ourselves disciples; we have completed a Discipleship Training Class. Now we come face to face with the admonition of Christ: “If ye continue … then ye are my disciples indeed” (John 8:31).

We discover that discipleship is a continuous yielding to His goals and priorities. Let us examine again the Lord’s challenge to those who would be His disciples.

Having Put His Hand to the Plow

We have put our hands to a plow. Sometimes this is a jolting realization. Discipleship involves laboring for Christ. The plowman labors all day, wrestling with a crude instrument behind a slow animal. The work is hot, dirty and tedious. Row after row, day after day, he labors in the elements. How fitting that the Lord Jesus chose the plowman as a picture of discipleship. Did He not try to tell us that true discipleship was hard, tedious and sometimes dirty work? That we would have to work with crude instruments and slow animals, plodding along day after day, struggling against the same problems? We should re-evaluate our discipleship as laborers.

1. Helping Others (follow-up, personal discipling, shepherding). It should not be continuously necessary for someone to assign the discipling tasks to do or people to help.

The follower of the Lord will, without prompting, initiate relationships that will help others in their growth. They may need practical assistance, comfort, exhortation, correction or simply fellowship. If we are doing this consistently, our ministry will begin to show fruit in the lives of others. Are the people we are helping making progress or standing still?

2. Serving (giving, ministering to the Lord and others). The disciple is the slave of Christ and displays a servant heart toward others, having escaped the life of barren self-centeredness and selfish thinking. The faithful servant does not have to be reminded of what to do constantly. All forms of ministry, including that of giving, will naturally flow out of a stream of Spirit-directed living that focuses on the needs of others.

3. Evangelism As A Way Of Life. When the disciples were scattered by persecution in the days of the early church, they still went everywhere proclaiming the Word (Acts 8:4). The Lord commissioned them to witness and they did so (Acts 1:8). Sharing their faith was a way of life. The disciple is active in winning others to Christ and engaged in spiritual multiplication at its first stage—soul winning. If the seed is faithfully sown, watered by prayer, and supported by a consistent life, inevitably there will be fruit. Can you point to one person whom you have won to Christ who is today going on for the Lord?

4. Looking On The Fields. The Lord called His disciples to consider that which was already white unto harvest and said, “He that reapeth receiveth wages and gathereth fruit unto eternal life” (John 4:35-36). Here is no narrow vision limited to my personal life and home church. This involves world vision, prayer, fellowship with those places, and even a willingness to go myself if the Lord so desires. Missions and church-planting are on the heart of the Savior. Are they on yours?

And Looking Back … (Our Hindrances)

No plowman can plow a straight furrow while looking back. The Lord saw these major hindrances represented in the three would-be disciples:

1. Possessions (Luke 9:57-58-cars, cash, careers, homes). The Lord called on us to lay up treasure, but indicated that the treasure house was to be heaven and not earth (Matt. 6:19-20). Many believers are bogged down with buying automobiles, boats, summer homes, and taking lavish trips. Careers and earthly ambitions destroy the vision of the eternal and replace it with the temporal, which will have little value at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Where is your heart?

2. Family Ties (Luke 9:61-62-romances, friendships). Other human ties, such as close associates, and those in whom we have a romantic interest, can hinder us. The disciple must never raise the cry of “me first” in taking care of such interests before heeding the commands of Christ.

Fit For the Kingdom (Our Goal)

A plowman must not only not look back, but he must also fix his attention on a reference point in front of him if he is to be a fit plowman. Likewise, the best way to overcome hindrances to true discipleship is to have a proper perspective toward our mission in life.

1. One Calling (our life focus). “We pray … that our God would count you worthy of this calling” (2 Thess. 1:11). To what are you supremely committed in life? Is there anyone or anything to which you have a higher commitment than the Lord Jesus Christ? What are your life objectives and where does the Lord Jesus enter into the picture? Do you “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14)?

2. One Task (our priorities). We can be so divided by various tasks and competing interests that we are of no value in the work of the Kingdom of God. That is why the Savior strictly warned, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). The Lord of all knows what ought to come first. The disciple must know the same thing. Do jobs, houses, hobbies, even families yield to the claims of the primacy of Christ? If there are conflicts, in what way will we resolve them so as to not disown the principle of putting Christ and His interests first in my life?

3. One Life (our fitness for the Kingdom). “Only one life. It will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” So wrote one wise man long ago. If that life is a holy life, a dedicated life, a fruitful life, an obedient life, then it will be worthy of the Kingdom of God. If it is frittered away on petty tasks and interests or self-centered pursuits, then our life will be recorded as essentially a mistake. At the end of time, how will you wish you had spent your life as a believer?

Conclusion

It is a commendable thing to finish a course in discipleship. Most believers do not even start a course. Now that we have completed a searching series of lessons, where do we go? The above sections indicate areas of functioning discipleship. Where there is lack of effectiveness, there is apt to be lack of fruitfulness. Thus, we must continue to rigorously press ahead on these areas as we actively function in ministry. When we are prepared to meet our blessed Savior and to fall at His feet, let us hope that we will be able to repeat the great words of the Apostle, on the eve of a martyr’s death, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day, and not to me only, but unto all them that love His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7-8). Do you, as His disciple, await His appearing with that same anticipation and joy?