Comments Off on Meditations on Wholeness in Christ: Men and Women of God
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.”
Genesis 1:26 NKJV
Our Creator, holding all that is true and real within Himself, reflects both the masculine and the feminine, and so do we. The more nearly we function in His image, the more nearly we reflect both the masculine and the feminine in their proper balance – that is, in the differing degrees and aptitudes appropriate to our sexual identities as male and female.
Invariably when a soul needs healing there will be an imbalance within of the masculine and the feminine. He or she is tipping the scales too far toward one extreme of the continuum. This imbalance of the power to initiate and the power to respond can always be healed when a person forsakes his vision and will in separation from God (what the Scriptures calls dying to the old man), comes into the Presence, and there unites with the incredible realities outside himself. 
Every one of us needs to be taken further up and further in to the wonderful reality that we are men and we are women, creatures more magnificently God-imaged than we have yet perceived. This is not an ideal that we must live up to. In fact, we must resign from trying to make ourselves, from trying to be on our own. Let us repent of our resistance, our reluctance to fully put ourselves in God’s hands. Let us lift our faces and hearts to the One who made us, who gave His life for us, and who is even now streaming His love toward us, and see what we will become in Him.
Gracious Father, we do look up to You even now and declare that we want to be Yours. We confess that You are beautiful and we thank and praise You for drawing us to Yourself. Forgive us Lord for holding back from You, for falling under the fear and confusion of this world about what it is to be man and woman. Grant us all we need to yield to You. Accomplish Your wonderful, integrating work in every facet of our souls. Restore to us our powers to respond and to initiate, to be and to do in Your image, for Your glory.
Comments Off on Spiritual Fathering and Godly Authority
by Sarah Colyn
Authority exercised with humility, and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live. (Weight of Glory, p. 170)
On becoming spiritual fathers and mothers
God loves us and wants to bring us to life. His love is creative and procreative, and we humans are the consummate objects of His begetting love. He is always brooding over us with His fathering intentions, moving toward us, desiring that we become. In this relentless movement of His will, generation after generation, He is always raising up spiritual fathers and mothers to serve the becoming of His people. God Himself initiates spiritual fathering. To understand how someone becomes a spiritual father or mother we must begin with the desire and action of God. Bishop Kallistos Ware, esteemed Orthodox priest and teacher at Oxford, wrote a chapter about spiritual fathering in volume one of The Inner Kingdom: “Spiritual guides are ordained, not by human hands, but by the hand of God” (p. 129). The Spirit proceeds from the Father, is sent by the Son to those who trust in Him, and anoints His followers with the charisms of spiritual fathering. We’ll return a bit later to what these charisms may be – these gifts that empower spiritual fathering. But first let’s consider a bit more how someone becomes a spiritual mother or father.
God Himself ordains spiritual mothers and fathers, and when we study the lives of those who have worn this mantle well, they did not aim themselves at this job. Leanne has written about the moment in her life when she fell to her knees in conversion to a single resolve: to obey God’s will (see chapter 9 of Heaven’s Calling). After this prayer her life had a singular aim: “My eyes would now be solely on the object – on God Himself” (Listening Prayer, p. 138). In his chapter on the spiritual guide, Kallistos Ware relates stories of some extraordinary elders in the Orthodox tradition. What these spiritual fathers and mothers had in common was a wholehearted longing for communion with God. Ware describes these saints who fled to solitude: “They fled, not in order to prepare themselves [to guide and inspire others], but simply out of a consuming desire to be alone with God. God accepted their love, but then He sent them back as instruments of healing in the world from which they had withdrawn” (Inner Kingdom, p. 132). It seems that a true spiritual father or mother becomes one not by applying for the position, but by desiring nothing but God and then responding to His will. Oswald Chambers puts it this way: “Never choose to be a worker for God, but once God has placed His call on you, woe be to you if you ‘turn aside to the right hand or to the left’ (Deuteronomy 5:32). We are not here to work for God because we have chosen to do so, but because God has ‘laid hold of’ us” (My Utmost for His Highest, June 16).
If God ordains spiritual mothers and fathers, how do they end up in positions where they can exercise their gifts? The most natural way to discover that you are becoming a spiritual mother or father is that others will ask you to serve them in this way. When God ordains, fellow humans will identify by recognizing the gifting and seeking this person out. Kallistos Ware describes this process in which others approach, seek advice, and even ask to live under the care of someone who evidences the capacity to give spiritual fathering: “Thus it is his spiritual children who reveal the elder to himself” (Inner Kingdom, p. 130). Sponsorship in A.A. and other 12-step recovery programs is a modern manifestation of spiritual mothering and fathering. Sponsors are revealed in the same way Ware describes – identified by those who need sponsoring. As A.A.’s literature on sponsorship describes, “Often, the new person simply approaches a more experienced member who seems compatible, and asks that member to be a sponsor. Most A.A.s are happy and grateful to receive such a request. An old A.A. saying suggests, ‘Stick with the winners.’ It’s only reasonable to seek a sharing of experience with a member who seems to be using the A.A. program successfully in everyday life” (Questions & Answers on Sponsorship, p. 9).
Wonderfully, to become a spiritual mother or father is to be ordained by God and identified by members of His body. What then of the many lay and clergy leaders in our churches today whose appointment may have been more bureaucratic than charismatic? Perhaps there are some leaders reading this essay who have been assigned to a spiritual leadership role and feel the pain of inadequate preparation for this calling. Surely there are some of us who, rather than being sent by God from our desert cell, were nominated by a Tuesday-night committee. And perhaps some of us have mistakenly tried to rise to this challenge in our own strength or turned to the wisdom of the world for tools and techniques to lead others. Kallistos Ware offers us compassion and extends a lively hope:
Under the pressure of outward circumstances and probably without clearly realizing what is happening to us, we assume the responsibilities of teaching, preaching, and pastoral counseling, while lacking any deep knowledge of the desert and its creative silence. But through instructing others we ourselves perhaps begin to learn. Slowly we recognize our powerlessness to heal the wounds of humanity solely through philanthropic programs, common sense and psychoanalysis. Our self-dependence is broken down, we appreciate our own inadequacy, and so we start to understand what Christ meant by the “one thing that is necessary” (Lk 10:42). That is the moment when a person may by the divine mercy start to advance along the path of the starets [spiritual fathers and mothers]. Through our pastoral experience, through our anguish over the pain of others, we are brought to undertake the journey inwards and to seek the hidden treasure-house of the Kingdom, where alone a genuine solution to the world’s problems can be found…. Provided we seek with humble sincerity to enter into the “secret chamber” of our heart, we can all share to some degree in the grace of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood (Inner Kingdom, p. 135).
It is not too late for any of us to grow in this “grace of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood”; there is a radiant path through this world, and walking this path in obedience to God will cause us to become, including as spiritual fathers and mothers. Perhaps we will find ourselves more able to stay on that path if we highlight what it looks like when we leave the path. When those attempting to serve as leaders “turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (Deuteronomy 5:32), certain characteristic errors ensue. On the one hand, spiritual mothers and fathers can assert carnal forms of power over those they are called to serve. This error is based on an ersatz masculinity. On the other hand, spiritual mothers and fathers can turn aside from God’s will by failing to exercise godly authority. When Christian leaders bend to worldly pressure and unhealed fear, they fail to come into the true masculine. Let’s consider these two errors in turn that we might better discern how to walk on the narrow but radiant path of obedience to our Father’s ways.
Ersatz masculine and false images of spiritual fathering
In chapter 5 of Crisis in Masculinity Leanne explains how Christian maturity requires that the natural masculine drive be tempered by God’s own masculine will. If a man does not find himself in union with God, he will continue to seek affirmation, self-acceptance, and identity in what he can accomplish. And in chapter 4 of The Healing Presence Leanne writes about how natural masculine giftedness becomes perverted by the Fall: “[the] power to initiate can turn into a raw drive toward power” (p. 66). In this important chapter she illuminates the dangers for both the church and family when the ersatz masculine supplants the real. It is not difficult to see how Christian leaders would misuse positions of authority to serve their own ego and trespass against those they are called to serve if they do not remain centered in Christ. Jesus explained this inevitability to His followers: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Matthew 20:25 NRSV). He went on to explain how it is in His Kingdom: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” To offer spiritual fathering is to serve — to serve our Father’s will in the life of the one seeking fathering. As Bishop Ware puts it, “The abba is… a fellow-servant of the living God; not a tyrant, but a guide and companion on the way. The only true ‘spiritual director,’ in the fullest sense of the word, is the Holy Spirit” (Inner Kingdom, p. 144).
Spiritual fathering is not about being recognized as superior or being given a special title or position. In Matthew 23 we have the record of Jesus cautioning His disciples about this very temptation. He knew better than anyone how hierarchical inequality is “evil in the world of selfishness and necessity” but “good in the world of love and understanding” (C. S. Lewis, Miracles, printed in Complete Signature Classics, p. 276). If we are “loving” the way identifying as a spiritual mother or father strokes our ego or props up our false self, we leave the Vine and fail to love truly. As Lewis said, “It is indeed only love that makes the difference” (p. 276). As Leanne wrote in chapter 9 of Restoring the Christian Soul, spiritual maturity requires that we know the “bad guy” within. Those who are called to spiritual fathering must become especially well acquainted with Christ’s warning here: there is bad guy in every one of us who schemes to win special standing, seeks a distinguished title, and craves recognition as especially admirable. For those in positions of authority or leadership, the question is not, “Do I struggle with pride?” but rather, “How did pride tempt me today?” Jesus gives His beloved followers the antidote to this weakness: “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11 KJV). C. S. Lewis articulated this key principle of spiritual fathering in Miracles: “To be high or central means to abdicate continually: to be low means to be raised: all good masters are servants: God washed the feet of men” (Lewis, p. 278 in Complete Signature Classics).
At times the Body of Christ suffers under ersatz spiritual fathering that is formalized into a program or institutional structure. This occurred with what became known as the Shepherding Movement that developed in charismatic circles during the 1970s. (For those who aren’t familiar with this movement, the emphasis was on creating structures in the local church that would provide accountability for each believer in submission to a “shepherd,” a designated spiritual authority figure who “covered” each member under him.) Believers who have been injured through distorted teaching and practices regarding authority and obedience continue to receive healing through the cross of Christ to this day. True spiritual fathering is never coercive, and even in instances where spiritual fathers or mothers call the ones they are serving to obedience, influence is never sought through threats or force. Bishop Ware speaks most plainly on this issue: “Do not force people’s free will. The task of our spiritual father is not to destroy our freedom, but to assist us to see the truth for ourselves; not to suppress our personality, but to enable us to discover our own true self, to grow to full maturity and become what we really are” (p. 145). As is always God’s merciful way when the Church is afflicted with dangerous errors, leaders of the Shepherding Movement were called to repentance. This statement of apology from one of those leaders, Bob Mumford, models the humility required of true spiritual fathers while confessing to the great harm caused by those moving in the ersatz masculine:
Accountability, personal training under the guidance of another and effective pastoral care are needed biblical concepts… However, to my personal pain and chagrin, these particular emphases very easily lent themselves to an unhealthy submission resulting in perverse and unbiblical obedience to human leaders. Many of these abuses occurred within the spheres of my own responsibility. For the injury and shame caused to people, families, and the larger body of Christ, I repent with sorrow and ask for your forgiveness (Mumford’s statement of apology published in Shepherding Movement by S. David Moore, p. 173).
I would suggest that we are more prone to the ersatz masculine when we have a low view of God that fails to appreciate the awesome power of Incarnational Reality. A leader who lacks faith in God’s great secret – “Christ in you, your hope of glory” – is more likely to place faith in his own methods of training others or rely on the control of legalism or coercion. One who offers true spiritual fathering depends wholly on the real spiritual director, the Holy Spirit, and invites the one being served into personal relationship. As Bishop Ware explains, “This personal contact protects the disciple against rigid legalism, against slavish submission to the letter of the law. He learns the way, not through external conformity to written rules, but through seeing a human face and hearing a living voice. In this way the spiritual mother or father is the guardian of evangelical freedom” (p. 146). It is also worth mentioning here that the commitment of spiritual mothers or fathers to the ones they are serving can also tempt some to the practice of substitution. Leanne writes of this confusion that can harm spiritual leaders who over-identify in sympathy or concern with those they care for (see chapter 13 of The Healing Presence). With all due respect to Bishop Ware, I would humbly caution readers regarding his suggestion that spiritual fathers and mothers “make others’ suffering their own” (Inner Kingdom, p. 138). Just as the Holy Spirit is the real spiritual director, Christ is the only redeemer, and the proper work of spiritual mothers and fathers is to point to Him as the source of all life and hope.
The true masculine and godly authority
We live in a day that is impoverished of true masculinity, and therefore of godly authority. This poverty has devastating consequences for the structures essential to human life – most obviously our families and churches. Leanne was compelled to write Crisis in Masculinity to teach the church to pray for healing for this cultural epidemic. I believe one reason Leanne’s ministry continues to grow in its reach even beyond her lifetime is that God moves through MPC to restore the divine masculine to His body, and to clergy and ministry leaders in particular. To put it simply, the Church cannot serve the world in her full power without the operation of godly authority. As Leanne wrote in Heaven’s Calling, “There is no greater need today than for knowledgeable and noble men in authority everywhere, capable of courageously speaking the truth both in the church and in the public square” (p. 292). In her memoir Leanne described her personal wrestling with this deficit in the Church as she sought covering for the work God had called her to do.
Even priests such as Fr. Winkler, were they to be found, were having great difficulty going forward due to problems at higher levels of the institutional church. I was searching for godly authority, which is what hierarchy is supposed to provide, and like Fr. Winkler, could not find it. Increasingly, faulty seminary training together with political correctness had robbed even the better clergy and bishops from the ability to rightly name sin, confront it, hear confessions, and minister into the lives of penitents – the basis of all healing prayer rites and that which brings into our midst the power of God to heal (Heaven’s Calling, p. 233).
Spiritual mothers and fathers must love the truth and love those they are serving enough to speak the truth. Serving God’s will requires us to become men and women who can wield authority rightly to correct sin and extract good from evil in the world around us. We learn to pray for the healing of the will: Descend into me, divine, masculine, eternal will! As C. S. Lewis writes, “A father half apologetic for having brought his son into the world, afraid to restrain him lest he should create inhibitions or even to instruct him lest he should interfere with his independence of mind, is a most misleading symbol of the Divine Fatherhood” (Problem of Pain, p. 387 in Complete Signature Classics). It is Christ’s own living presence within that enables spiritual mothers and fathers to transcend the fear and weakness of human inadequacy for the sake of God’s begetting purposes. Bishop Ware writes of the mysterious power of the saint who abides in Christ: “Such is the pattern of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood. Establish yourself in God; then you can bring others to His presence. Each must learn to be alone, and so in the stillness of their own heart they will begin to hear the wordless speech of the Spirit, thus discovering the truth about themselves and about God. Then their word to others will be a word of power, because it is a word out of silence” (Inner Kingdom, p. 133). As small as we know ourselves to be, we also know that the Holy Spirit delights to come as counselor and helper, moving through us with His mighty presence. In the end, becoming a spiritual father or mother happens in the same manner as all becoming: we listen for the voice of our Beloved and obey all that we hear Him say.
Chambers, Oswald. My Utmost for His Highest. Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour, 2000. Print.
Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: HarperOne, 1949. Print.
Lewis, C. S. The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. San Francisco: Harper, 2002. Print.
_____. The Problem of Pain. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Print.
Moore, S. David. The Shepherding Movement: Controversy and Charismatic Ecclesiology. London: T & T Clark International, 2003. Print.
Payne, Leanne. Crisis in Masculinity. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1985. Print.
_____. Heaven’s Calling: A Memoir of One Soul’s Steep Ascent. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2008. Print.
_____. The Healing Presence: Curing the Soul through Union with Christ. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1995. Print.
_____. Listening Prayer: Learning to Hear God’s Voice and Keep a Prayer Journal. Paperback ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1999. Print.
Questions & Answers on Sponsorship. New York, N.Y.: A.A. Grapevine, 1976. Print.
Ware, Bishop Kallistos. The Inner Kingdom. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2000. Print.
Photo of Leanne Payne and Manfred Schmidt courtesy of Jean Holt.
“Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn derivative work: carulmare [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
“David” (Michelangelo) by Korido (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live.
(C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory, p. 170)
In my meditations on perseverance I was stopped short by a phrase in The Imitation of Christ. A’Kempis describes the posture Christ desires from those who would follow Him: disciples are to await the bidding not only of Christ Himself, but also of “him whom God has placed as father over you” (Book III, chapter 32, italics mine). Similarly, in his Rule St. Benedict described our need to walk “by another’s judgment and command,” (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 5, “On Obedience”). Spiritual fathering has been a fundamental of Christian formation in both Eastern and Western Christian tradition. Yet I suspect that for many Western Christians today this picture of Christ placing a father over us is foreign or perhaps even alarming. You may feel provoked by this suggestion — to have a father over you, to accept the authoritative care of a leader, a teacher, a man.
I believe we will do well to consider our need, if we are to progress in becoming, to seek out and do the bidding of the godly authority He would place over us. Let’s consider what it means to receive spiritual fathering, and why it might be especially valuable in our current climate of extreme autonomy to have fathers over us. The verb to father describes a profoundly creative action. Spiritual fathering is a begetting of new life, the guiding and directing of one’s becoming in Christ.
What is Spiritual Fathering?
The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are filled with symbols of fathering and of men and women becoming through obedience to God the Father’s will. Christ Himself is the ultimate exemplar of this begetting. The Scriptures declare that Christ’s personality was made full through His total yielding of self to do the bidding of His Father, even to death on the cross. In The Cruciality of the Cross Forsyth helps us understand the profound, identity-begetting process Christ experienced as He followed His Father’s guidance all the way to the cross: “In His death He Himself found Himself fully. And His expiring groan was also the relieved sigh of self-realisation [sic]” (Forsyth, Cruciality of the Cross, p. 141). Jesus personally testified to His continual following of His Father’s direction: “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38, NIV). He exercised continual obedience through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thomas Smail, the Scottish theologian who authored The Forgotten Father, describes this divine Father-Son relationship: “There operates in the life of Jesus a secret, commanding and continuous personal guidance that shapes his decisions at every point” (The Forgotten Father, p. 80). God the Father was over Christ, loving Him by providing this perfect guidance. He stands poised and eager to do the same for us.
Anthropology proceeds from theology, and clearly this dynamic of begetting through fathering is knit into us as image-bearers. Jesus teaches us to address God in prayer, “Our Father,” Abba, in His heart-language of Aramaic. He also teaches that it is through keeping His commandments that we become (John 15:10-11). Relating to God as Father means doing His will from a heart yielded in obedience. Smail writes, “Abba is the intimate word of a family circle where that obedient reverence was at the heart of the relationship” (The Forgotten Father, p. 39). How might we become such reverently obedient sons and daughters? I believe God has generous provisions by which He intends to draw us into true relationship with Himself as our Father. First, by giving His only Son for us, we can now celebrate, “Another lives in me.” Christ’s own indwelling presence is at work within, transforming our character into His likeness. But in addition, I am suggesting that He desires to place godly human spiritual fathers over us to facilitate this reverent relationship of obedience with our Father. We humans mature as both this inner (mystical) and outer (relational) fathering hold us in The Way.
For many of you, Leanne was one of the important authorities God put in place to guide your becoming. I will remind us that, while human fathers are male, I am speaking here of the spiritual function of fathering that is provided within the Church by both men andwomen. In his chapter “The Spiritual Guide,” Bishop Kallistos Ware notes that throughout Christian tradition we have had both abbas and ammas — “there are spiritual mothers as well as spiritual fathers” (The Inner Kingdom, p. 129). In this essay I deliberately use the word fathering because it evokes a deep and powerful symbol that our souls need. Indeed, relationship with the Father is the motive for and result of all true spiritual progress. Sometimes the church today uses demythologized words such as “mentoring” or “accountability” when our great need truly is for fathering. These other words may feel less threatening, but they settle for describing a sterilized function without acknowledging the generative relationship. And it is relationship that we are called to — relationship with God Himself that is fostered by relationship with spiritual fathers. Fathering is a word that evokes the creative reality of a seed planted, a begetting of new life. Thus I will continue to use the word fathering intentionally and deliberately and hope to see us through the resistance and anxieties this symbol provokes.
It is possible for both men and women to provide spiritual fathering because God has gifted men and women with the masculine and feminine virtues. In chapter 5 ofCrisis in Masculinity Leanne writes about God’s design of the polarity and complementarity of the sexes. In this year of her passing into glory we have heard magnificent testimonies of the way Leanne’s books and pastoral care schools have provided salvific direction to your becoming. In writing on remedial suffering, Leanne describes how she helped her dear friend Patsy stand in the cross and suffer rightly, thus turning her wounds into healing power (see chapter 13 of The Healing Presence). This is one small but powerful example of the fathering function in our process of becoming. Patsy allowed Leanne’s wisdom and compassion to guide her healing in a storm of overwhelming emotion. Surely in the process of becoming we encounter tricky and overwhelming passages that we won’t find our way through without spiritual fathering.
Perhaps you are warming to the possibility of having a spiritual father over you. Certainly monks and nuns have fathers and mothers appointed over them. But where is spiritual fathering extended and received outside the walls of monasteries? God’s intent is for every church to be a body in which spiritual fathering begets new life. Throughout Heaven‘s Calling Leanne wrote of her need and desire to be under godly authority: “My desire to work under godly, divinely appointed masculine authority stemmed from the fact that the church has always taught that regardless of the gifts and calling God has bestowed on someone, these should be exercised under the oversight of proper spiritual authority” (Heaven‘s Calling, p. 220). Many churches formally support spiritual fathering via pastoral care, cell groups and counseling. Wise believers also cultivate prayer partnerships as Leanne exhorts us to do in chapter 12 of Restoring the Christian Soul. Spiritual directors and Christian counselors offer fathering relationships for those seeking healing and spiritual formation. And 12-step fellowships follow a formal practice of sponsorship that serves as an essential form of fathering. Anyone seeking sobriety can have personal, daily guidance from a sponsor who provides oversight for the sternly magnificent work of recovery. We can see that the Church provides spiritual fathering in many ways, but we must also consider our resistance to engaging in this form of relationship.
Obstacles to Spiritual Fathering
Despite the opportunity for spiritual fathering in many formal and informal structures, my suspicion is that most Christians lack spiritual fathers who function in positions of authority to guide their becoming. I believe we receive little spiritual fathering because it is optional. The urge for autonomy exists in us all — theologians call it our sin nature. We reject God’s authority in a perverse wish to remove ourselves to a corner of the universe where we can be our own masters. As Father Reardon has penned, “More deeply than it is comfortable to think, we are all rebels against God” (Christ in the Psalms, p. 69). We don’t have spiritual fathers because we don’t want them. The tempter relentlessly attacks our understanding of authority and freedom. Under sin, we imitate Satan’s own rebellion, rejecting God’s desire to give us “secret, commanding, and continuous personal guidance” (Smail, p. 80). We exchange the truth for a lie as though structure, law, and authority are the enemies of freedom. In truth, freedom is the release from bondage — a release that is only granted through a repentant return to our Father’s authority.
When human rebellion builds its camp in the illusory realm of autonomy, we make ourselves easy prey to the wages of sin and death. Under the vice of acedia, the will serves the purpose of resistance (I won’t become who God made me to be). And thus we find that we are in a state of rebellion. Add to this universal sinful inclination the particular toxicity of our time. We live in an age that idolizes an absence of authoritative oversight, misconstruing a poverty of fathering as freedom. The individualism and prizing of autonomy of our day are dangerous to human becoming.
A man I knew was beginning to work with a sponsor in a 12-step program, and his sponsor told him that he wouldn’t be able to continue overseeing his recovery if he did not attend meetings, study his recovery materials, and check in with him daily. The man found these requirements difficult and complained, “I was hoping for a little more grace.” He was misconstruing grace as a freedom from authority. In accepting the fathering that his sponsor was offering, he had the opportunity to use his freedom for formation, healing, maturity, and obedience.I believe this is grace — this clear expectation based on what the sponsor believes will enable this man to stand in his battle with the demon of alcohol addiction. We need courage and humility to step into guiding relationships that offer spiritual fathering.
Unforgiveness fuels our resistance to spiritual fathering. When we have failed to forgive authority figures, we resist acknowledging godly authority. Unforgiveness will also cause us to resist submission and obedience to any human authority. Those carrying resentment from past sins of leaders often “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” joining the world’s cynicism toward authority figures. The vice of acedia plays a wicked role here, luring us to hunker down in resentful resistance to much-needed fathering from both God and the men and women He would place over us. It is a costly fault (spawned by unforgiveness) to reject the structures of authority that God provides for our help.
Perhaps you’ve heard an embittered Christian reject the direction of any pastor based on the sins of some spiritual authority in his past or present. As C. S. Lewis challenges us, “the misuse of authority may provoke resentment; in this sin both parties share” (italics mine, Christian Reflections, p. 119-120). Adding our own sins of unforgiveness and self-righteousness to the damage inflicted by leaders who have sinned is a grievous response indeed. Christ-followers bear responsibility to acknowledge sins and forgive sinners-in-authority who have wounded us. For some, such forgiveness will remove a key barrier to progressing in personal maturity. Those of us most deeply wounded by parents, pastors, or other key spiritual leaders are also most in need of spiritual fathering from fellow humans in order to forgive, receive resymbolization of fathering, and restore right relationship with authority. Repenting from unforgiveness can open new receptivity to spiritual fathering that will powerfully serve our becoming.
I think I’ve made clear by now that the Father calls His sons and daughters to receive some of His direction through human spiritual fathers. But we also have fears and resistance to such relationships, in part because we misunderstand what God is asking of us. Receiving spiritual fathering is not bentness. Leanne wrote about the many spiritual fathers — both authors and personal mentors — whom God used to guide her ministry. In fact she made it clear that this receptivity does not supplant our receptivity to Christ, but rather enhances it. As Leanne wrote, “To be a disciple of a disciple is to be pale indeed. I do not want to be a pale Christian” (Restoring the Christian Soul, p. 54). Like the fading we’d see if we made a copy of a copy of a copy of a photograph, bentness instead of fathering would quickly produce such paleness. While submission and obedience are channels through which we receive fathering, it’s not that we imitate our spiritual fathers and erase ourselves in the process. To the contrary, under the begetting influence of spiritual fathering, one’s true self actually becomes more vibrant. Leanne was no disciple of Lewis or Sanford, and their fathering caused her to become more fully the true Leanne. And you are no disciple of Leanne, your pastor, or any other saint through whom God fathers you.
We must not project a Godlike quality of being onto our spiritual fathers. We remember that they are men and women with feet of clay, small ones who have heard the call to serve us, and we trust God to work through both their inadequacy and ours. A practice that keeps one erect even as you accept a spiritual father’s authority is to add those “over” you to your intercessory prayer list. Pray for your pastor, counselor, spiritual director, sponsor, manager, trainer, landlord, husband, parents — all those God has appointed to bear authority in your life, through whom God works to guide you. By praying for them you take an active, mature position in the relationship that allows you to receive their judgment without bending into it.
Spiritual fathering is also not coercion or punishment. The abbas of our wealthy Christian heritage never arrived on a believer’s doorstep saying, “Christ has placed me over you — come now and do my bidding.” Those who were spiritually fathered in the Egyptian desert or in St. Benedict’s monastery chose to place themselves in these fathering relationships. To seek out those whom Christ would appoint as father over us is an act of the will that connotes great dignity. Those who choose to follow the command of spiritual fathers demonstrate an awareness of the infinite riches God desires for His children.
Accepting spiritual fathering also does not permit us to displace responsibility for our becoming onto others. It is a temptation of immaturity to passively depend on human authority. It is also a temptation, at least in America, to adopt a consumer mentality that projects responsibility for our spiritual progress onto the programs the church offers or the charisma of those in leadership. When I stand before Christ on that great day, I very much doubt that He will allow me to speak about the actions of my spiritual fathers as an excuse for my failures in discipleship. We need to eat in order to remain alive, but we do not make the crops and weather responsible for our survival. It is possible to accept our genuine need for spiritual fathering, seek it out, and receive from those He appoints over us while yet remaining fully responsible before God.
The Good Fruit of Spiritual Fathering
God desires to provide us with good spiritual fathering to beget more of His life in us. One hugely transforming fruit of spiritual fathering is that it answers our fallen condition: what Leanne calls our crisis in separation. God never intended us to make this steep ascent alone. He does not agree with the inner voice that is disappointed when one is too weak to keep on track without help. He does not agree with the sense of self-loathing when one discovers that he or she is genuinely dependent on the encouragement and correction of spiritual fathers. Many of us are plagued with a wrong soul-symbol of a “strong” human who cleans up his or her inner mess alone with the Lord. Often we try to engage in healing and transformation in isolation because shame tells us we are not worthy of the attention and care of another who would be over us. We dread exposing our needs, our feelings, and our smallness to another. But these “by myself” attempts at wholeness are untrue and unbiblical, and usually yield disastrous results.
The entire arc of Scripture tells the story of God’s commands, hope, and guidance coming to us through men and women He appoints to minister to His people. God offers each one of us a unique place in this story and desires to set us into the body of Christ. Yet pride and shame seduce us into isolation and lock us in a vicious cycle. “By myself” attempts at becoming inevitably fail, inciting further shame and self-hatred and filling the soul with evil words: “I am pathetic; I should have more faith; I should just be able to do it.” Godly spiritual fathering stands with us against these lies and gives us the truth in their place. Perhaps a loving spiritual father has given you such a drink of living water: “Of course you can’t do this alone. Let me help you.”
Rescue from Subjectivism
I learned from the opening of Dallas Willard’s wonderful book The Divine Conspiracy that a pilot can be flying a plane upside down while her own senses tell her that she is right-side up. We see the same danger when an individual tries to pilot her own soul — she is likely to be self-abusive where she needs gentle mercy, and self-pitying where she needs stern truth. If we reject fathering in favor of the illusion of autonomy, we are left defenseless against our worst inclinations and caught in the subjectivism the world preaches: “Listen to your heart,” “Find your own path,” as though the fallen self can serve as its own guide.
In wonderful contrast, spiritual fathering offers us a guide who is other-yet-with-us. A spiritual father or mother stands outside the cloud of the soul’s emotions, perceptions and habits and brings divine objectivity to the process of becoming. Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation,” or as Eugene Peterson has paraphrased, “Keep us safe from ourselves” (Matt. 5:13a, NIV and MSG). I am convinced that spiritual fathering is God’s answer to this prayer as He offers us relational, human help with the inner temptations of the wounded human soul. St. Teresa of Avila addresses this vulnerability to temptation in her masterpiece, Interior Castle, and expresses her own wish that all Christ-followers would be spiritually fathered: “Even though they be not in a religious Order, it would be a great thing for them to have someone to whom they could go, as many people do, so that they might not be following their own will in anything, for it is in this way that we usually do ourselves harm” (Interior Castle, p. 44, italics mine).
It’s interesting to me that American culture, the champion of personal autonomy, does grasp the need for fathering when it comes to physical fitness. Americans spend $10 billion annually for personal fitness training. Many of these dollars are paid by people who will only reach their fitness goals with the assistance of a trainer. Imagine what might happen if Christians would make this level of investment in seeking out spiritual fathering for the fitness of their souls. For those alone in subjectivism, “I don’t feel like it,” soon becomes our boss. It can be painful to face our sin and weakness, and persevering with daily spiritual practices isn’t constantly gratifying. But fleeing discomfort will not bring consolation, and we will not find life by seeking our own way. Loving spiritual fathering urges us to obey even when it hurts, and we will receive our Father’s blessings and affirmations to sustain us. By doing another’s bidding over time, we are able to internalize the firm, clear, and wise guidance of a spiritual father. Good spiritual fathering not only holds us in the place where God is at work, but over time also begets wholesome structures within our souls. We come to know the goodness of the extravagant Father: “all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31b, ESV).
Mortifying the Flesh and Healing the Will
“Walking by another’s judgment” also offers the vital, albeit painful benefit of mortifying the old man. As C. S. Lewis describes our fallen state, “human nature . . . wants to keep well away from anything better or stronger or higher than itself” (from Mere Christianity, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, p. 97). I have shared at MPC schools about my transforming experience of mortification when I sought out a 12-step fellowship. In taking my seat in the circle, I added my voice to the profession of faith: “we came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; and made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God” (from the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous). But perhaps even more important than this declaration was the admission that I needed authoritative fellowship in order to abide in that decision. In joining their circle I crucified the old man who refused to need, to depend, to receive. Week after week I drew on Christ’s own strength and put to death my wish to keep well away from anything higher than my self. The fathering of that group guided me into fellowship with that which is better and stronger and higher than my rebellious aloneness.
Healing of the will is one of those wonderful Christian paradoxes: by finally using the will to submit to fathering, our sacred power to choose can become healthy and strong. “It is when we try to make our will conform with God’s that we begin to use it rightly. To all of us, this was a most wonderful revelation” (AA Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 40). As a good friend recently wrote to me about those of us who have trespassed into addiction and codependency, “The real truth is that we have always possessed plenty of willpower; we just mis-used our will so long that we crossed over some spiritual boundary into slavery.” Through the act of confessing our need, of asking for help, and of setting ourselves to follow direction, we are choosing this day whom we will serve. Refusing to serve the old man, we reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Through this turn from death to life the human will is strengthened and healed, thanks be unto God!
Setting Us into the Body: Return to Inequality
The final benefit of spiritual fathering that I will call attention to is what C. S. Lewis calls the “return to inequality.” His essay “Membership” considers our call, “not to individualism but to membership in the mystical body” of Christ (Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, p. 163). In this wonderful sermon (which I highly encourage you to read), Lewis reminds us that even the word membership has lost its Christian roots and meaning. Always the consummate apologist, Lewis contrasts life in the body of Christ with the harsh conditions of this sin-ruined world. Lewis clarifies that, although equality is needed medicine for sin-sick humankind, it is not food. Equality then is a protective concept, needed in this fallen world. Because sin has mis-created the possibility of exploitation and oppression, “equality under the law” is a principle that serves the virtue of justice, giving each person his or her due. But while assertion of equality is needed in the world of sin and death, it has no power to usher us into the kingdom of God.
God created humanity for something more dynamic and brilliant than a monotonous sameness. We catch a hint of the richness God has in mind by looking at the human family. The various members are different kinds of persons, not at all interchangeable, who together form a rich unity. The life of the family would be in no way enlivened by an insistence that the family’s members are symmetrical, interchangeable, the same. To properly understand the body of Christ and find our place in it, we need a return to inequality. Like members of a family, members of the body of Christ are “essentially different from, and complementary to, one another . . . differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity” (p. 163-164). In this essay we are focusing on one aspect of this complementarity, which is the blessed inequality of spiritual fathering.
“In the Church [when]we strip off [the disguise of artificial equality], we recover our real inequalities, and are thereby refreshed and quickened” (Weight of Glory, p. 168). The inequality within the body of Christ is a haven from the strife of the world that is continually bogged down in the muck of sin and grievous responses to sin. Christian inequality creates a haven where we can lay down the defenses that relentlessly strive to assert, “I am as good as you. ” “It is like turning from a march to a dance. It is like taking off our clothes. We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct. It delights me that there should be moments in the services of my own Church when the priest stands and I kneel” (p. 171). By putting ourselves in the care of spiritual fathers, we choose to accept their offer of service as priest, mentor, pastor, counselor, or sponsor and open ourselves to the immeasurable benefits of obedience to our Father.
In current parlance, to say that someone “put me in my place” has a shaming connotation. But in the context of our life in Christ, we hear this differently. It is Good News that there is a place for each one. As Lewis makes clear, being put in our place by God Himself is the only real deliverance from shame and into healthy identity: “We shall then first be true persons when we have suffered ourselves to be fitted into our places” (p. 173). God has made a way for every man and woman to belong in the body of Christ, and His begetting aims to fit each into his or her particular place. I would suggest that we experience the blessing of this return to inequality when we take our place in relation to those God has appointed over us. No matter who you are, what your talents or station in life are, you were made for some relationships with spiritual fathers God appoints over you. Receiving the ministration of a spiritual father is a most beautiful choice made by a free man or woman, restoring us to an inequality our souls need and long for. The soul that chooses to be fathered has won a battle against its own fleshly fear and resistance, gaining a sanctified will in the bargain. Our Father calls His sons and daughters to return to inequality for the sake of becoming, for there is more begetting He yet desires in and through each one.
We latch onto egalitarian models because we are trying to stop bad leaders from hurting people. We say, “I am as good as you” and “every person has equal value” as a way to draw ourselves up, “stand up for ourselves.” This is necessary at times, to say, “I don’t have to take that from you.” In these moments we are asserting the concept of equality as a way to push out wrong uses of authority that try to name us destructively or control us for purposes that serve the ego of the leader. The concept of equality then serves a needed remedial purpose in our sin-torn world. But we must not stop there.
My concern is that, even in popular Christian thinking, we have embraced the concept of equality as an absolute good and made it our model for relationships, which is a costly mistake. When we make equality an absolute good, we end up with an assertion of sameness that then goes on to erase differences. This leads to bizarre assertions such as the fruit we are now seeing of the sexual revolution — feminism asserting that there are no real differences between men and women but only damaging cultural inventions about gender, or the growing movement to promote all sexual “orientations” as equally valid that has even begun to legitimize pedophilia. Equality has remedial value in this fallen world but makes for a perverse religion. Equality is no guide to eternal life and does not usher us in as living members of a body with Christ as its head.
God gives us much richer symbols for relationship: a family, a body, a vine. God’s symbols of His people allow for the startling variety, the infinite uniqueness He is capable of, and delights in, as Creator. An important aspect of finding our wholeness in Christ is to confess the refreshing truth that I am not just the same as you or even just as good as you. The body of Christ offers us relationships that affirm a holy inequality. You may serve me as confessor, for I am the penitent. You may serve me as celebrant, for I need the Bread of Heaven. You may serve me as father, for I am a child of God. One of the mysteries of the body is that even our fathers are not only fathers — they too are sons and brothers. All of us need relationships in which we kneel while another stands, in which we trust another to be taller, to see further, to extend wisdom to us, because God has appointed and anointed them to do so. Jesus did not consider equality something to be grasped. Christ is formed in our midst as His members take their places. Somehow, as I assent to be just one member — the unique and particular member I am — the body of Christ becomes, and I take my place in it. I am not all things but just one thing, one small and priceless member of the perfect, eternal, infinite body of Christ. May God grant us this refreshing return to inequality, this receptivity to fathering, for the health of His body and bride.
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