Just having celebrated Father’s Day, it seemed appropriate to talk about what it means to be a spiritual Mother – Father. It appears that the art of mentoring has been all but lost in modern Western culture. The days of being someone’s apprentice are few and far between and have all but been replaced by classroom theory.
Yet we find in the Scriptures and in many cultures the idea of spiritual parenting. We see Paul the apostle addressing the Galatian church as, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19 NRSV). This scripture shows the level of commitment that a spiritual parent gives to their spiritual children.
The Galatians had been pulled away from the simple gospel Paul had taught them and embraced false teachings. They had fallen back into living by the law instead of by grace. The Galatians were like newly conceived infants but not yet molded. Paul saw himself as a spiritual mother having to suffer painful labor to see Christ formed in them again. The same follows for a spiritual Mother – Father as they see the potential in someone and then commit to the formation at that life until Christ is formed in them.
A Teacher–Instructor teaches skills, inspires, and helps students discover their potential.
A spiritual parent agonizes and births something that goes beyond instruction and into the spirit of the person God has put in their life. This is called impartation, which means, to give, bestow, or transfer from something inside you to someone else. This is why Paul says elsewhere, “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15 NKJV).
A spiritual parent has moved beyond being self-centered, willful, and the petty thinking that makes things about “them”. A spiritual parent says, “If I end up saving only myself then I have failed.” There is a push in the cosmic struggle to bring sons and daughters into glory. God wants there to be a day in the New Creation where someone points to a spiritual Mom or Dad and says, ‘I’m here because of him or her.’ This means a commitment to carry someone else’s weight until God’s goal for that life is achieved.
By “leveling up,” I speak of moving beyond the rejection that our spiritual children sometimes bring us. As spiritual parents, our shoulders become big enough to carry such things. In fact, not working through rejection keeps us from becoming spiritual parents. It’s hard to spiritually parent another if we ourselves have remained infants. Leveling-up means that we have learned to process rejection without receiving it; rejection hurts us but does not ruin us. Jesus, as a spiritual father, did this the night he was betrayed. He not only washed his betrayer’s feet, but he also served Judas bread. A spiritual mother or father, though not perfect, has metabolized the rejection to the point where they can remain connected to those who rejected them.
One of my spiritual fathers wants this on his gravestone, “An orphan, who on his way to becoming a son, became a father.” This is a beautiful vision of someone who aspires to become a spiritual parent.
Raising up sons and daughters requires that we believe in them. I have an uncle who is a retired career army officer and Drill Sergeant for 25 years. I once called him for advice because I was helping a military family with something. I asked him if he was tough like the drill sergeants you see in the movies. He shocked me when he said that “Yes, he’s tough on them,” but he treats them all like sons and daughters. This means that he labored and worried over them and did everything in his power to help them.
Along with believing in them is the need to persevere with them as Paul said, “until Christ is formed in you.” Persevering means that when they are down, we pick them up. When they want to quit, we talk them out of it. When they want to run away, we give them hope. “Parents never seem to outgrow their children,” said Warren Wiersbe. “When they’re little, they’re a handful; but when they’re grown, they’re a heartful!”[ii] A spiritual Mother and Father are committed to carry the child God gave them up to full term until they become spiritual parents themselves. Notice that the “win” for Paul was not that they become a doctor, a lawyer or the world’s greatest athlete. The “win” was “until Christ was formed” in them. What good is having all of the above if Christ is not in their lives? Spiritual parents need the confidence to serve as a working model for those they influence. According to John Maxwell, one of the definitions of leadership is that leadership is “influence.” Perhaps this is what Paul was aspiring to when he was encouraging the church at Philippi:
Philippians 4:9 (NRSV)
9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
[ii] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 708.