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Discerning a Client's Spiritual State

October 2004
By: Jim Pye
Counseling with women and men who are facing crisis pregnancies and/or
being screened for STDs presents both challenges and opportunities. Perhaps
our most difficult task is discerning where he or she is spiritually.

The challenge of discerning
The basis for this discernment always must be sound doctrine. Part of the counselor's work is to understand what clients believe about God and about themselves. Before anyone can receive forgiveness for sins and the promise of eternal life, he must believe he is a sinner and that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin. Jesus, the Son of God, said, "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" (John 3:36).

After Adam fell into transgression and hid himself from God, God asked, "Where art thou?" God knew Adam's physical location, but His query ran much deeper. It was, in essence, an offer for Adam to come clean with his Maker and acknowledge his condition. We too must be skilled in asking good questions that will help us to see where our clients are spiritually and to discern what they believe about Jesus Christ.

The importance of discerning
Recently I reviewed the responses several clients gave to the standard diagnostic question: "If you were to stand before God and He were to ask you, 'Why should I let you into Heaven?' how would you respond?" Many centers may use a similar approach on intake forms. I found that more than a few of our counselors felt their clients were Christians based on answers that were biblically unsound. This underscores the importance of accurately assessing a client's spiritual condition.

If we incorrectly conclude that a person is born again, we miss an opportunity to explain the Gospel to her and to bring her to saving faith.

Jesus pointed out these distinctions time and again. Upon receiving his sight, blind Bartimeus exclaimed, "Lord, I believe!" and he worshipped Christ. Yet the Pharisees who overheard this exchange refused to acknowledge Jesus as Lord despite the miracle and thus remained spiritually blind. Though the Pharisees were religious leaders, Jesus made it clear that they were still under the condemnation of sin (see John 9:36-41).
We must be
skilled in asking
good questions
that will help
us to see where
our clients
are spiritually.

Christ always presented truth about Himself. Our task is the same. Our ultimate goal is to lead the client to Jesus Christ. Our hope is that there will be lasting change in the client's life and life itself for the child.

Yet, in discerning clients' spiritual states, we must be careful not to become "fruit inspectors." Often we look at the clients' lifestyle choices and presume they are not Christians. Obviously every client we counsel is sexually active. Many will also be engaged in other destructive and addictive behaviors. However, one need only read the first epistle to the Corinthians to find an historical precedent for Christians living as unbelievers do. External behavior, whether moral or immoral, is not a wholly reliable indicator of whether or not a person is saved.

When trying to decide if you have a Christian or an unbeliever sitting across from you, it is imperative that you go beyond the circumstances that have brought the client. To do this, you need to be a good listener and ask good, focused questions. Let's examine some client responses as an exercise in discernment.

Responses that are lacking
More often than not, you are likely to hear a works-based response to your diagnostic question. Here are some common answers to the "Heaven" question:

*I'm basically a good person.
*I've always tried to do what's right.
*I've never done any really bad things, like killing somebody.
*I don't believe a loving God would send anybody to Hell.
*I was baptized when I was twelve.
*I was raised in the church.
*I believe in God.
*I pray to God every day.

It is readily apparent that all of these answers focus on what the person has done for God, rather than what Christ has done for the person. While these answers are not biblical with respect to the doctrine of salvation, they do not necessarily reveal that the person is not saved. Many of our clients have placed their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ but lack a foundation in biblical teachings. Therefore, they cannot articulate their justification correctly. Remember, it can be a challenge! When you receive a response similar to these, you must ask follow-up questions that will help draw out the counselee's belief about Christ and His atoning death on the cross.

Responses to look for
If your client has truly trusted in Christ alone for her salvation, her answer should include something about Jesus, something about sin, and something about forgiveness. The heart of the Gospel is that all have sinned, God's wrath against us for our sin was satisfied by the death of Jesus, and the believer asks God for forgiveness on the basis of Christ's death on the cross. A Christian typically will have at least a basic understanding of these truths and be able to relate that to you. The following responses give a good indication the client is a Christian, even though her circumstances may suggest otherwise:

*I have trusted in the death of Christ for forgiveness of my sins.
*I believe Jesus died for me on the cross and rose again.
*I prayed to receive Christ and asked Him to come into my life.
*Jesus died for me and forgave me of my sin. I believe Jesus is the Son of God and His death paid for my sins.

These answers are Christocentric and reveal a basic understanding of the Gospel. With these clients, we want to appeal to Scripture as the final authority in their lives and challenge them to live according to their new, redeemed nature rather than their old, sin nature. Reconciliation and discipleship should be your goal for these clients.

While discerning what your client believes can be difficult at times, you are never alone in the process. We have the Holy Spirit to provide wisdom and direction as we work to meet the spiritual, emotional, and practical needs of young men and women.

Jim Pye is Director of Men's Ministry at the Hope Pregnancy Centers of the Brazos Valley in Texas. He can be reached at

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