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How to be a Spiritual Father (or Mother)

  • Dr. Roger Barrier Preach It, Teach It
  • 2012 6 Jun
  • COMMENTS
How to be a Spiritual Father (or Mother)

Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at roger@preachitteachit.org.

This article is Part Two of a four-part series. You can read Part One here.

This well-known story comes from the annals of World War II. It took place over fifty years ago, however, it is as relevant this morning. Near the end of the war an American soldier was killed. Five of his comrades set out to bury him. They saw a little church down the road and asked to bury their friend in that little church graveyard.

The priest asked, “Was your friend a Catholic?”

“No.”

“I'm really sorry, but this is a Catholic church and this is a Catholic graveyard.”

Downhearted, they stepped just outside the fence, dug a grave, and laid their friend to rest.

The next morning, they received orders to leave the area. They returned to the church for one parting farewell. But, they couldn't find the grave. Finally, they knocked on the door and said to the priest, “We know we buried our buddy over here outside the fence, but we can't find his grave. Can you help us?”

The priest replied, “I sat up the first part of the night feeling sorry for what I said to you. I spent the second part of the night moving the fence.”

Spiritual mothers and fathers have a marvelous way of moving the fences, and making us one.

There is no secret to becoming a spiritual mother or father.

When new Christians ask what comes next, we often answer, “Well, you need to go to church, read your Bible, and pray.” That sounds so trite, but it’s not! In prayer, we talk to God. In the Bible, God speaks to us. In church, we interact with God’s people. Spiritual fatherhood and motherhood can only flourish with a balanced dose of all three.

In addition, we must have one desire that transcends all others.

A.W. Tozer wrote, “Every man or woman is just as spiritual as he or she wants to be.” No one becomes a spiritual father or mother by osmosis or accident.

“Dear Father, I want to become a spiritual father or mother at any price.” That is one prayer God guarantees He will answer.

Lest we think too highly of ourselves, we must understand that other stages come first. We are reborn as infants, grow into childhood, survive spiritual adolescence and finally become spiritual fathers and mothers.

In my experience (with several exceptions), maturing as a spiritual father or mother takes at least twenty to twenty-five years.

(For those so inclined, I have listed some of the characteristics of each of the first three spiritual levels at the end of this teaching).

Now is the time to grow up. Let me share from a biblical perspective just what father and motherhood looks like.

Spiritual Parents Partner with Jesus in the Care and Nurturing of Others

Jesus used many metaphors to describe Himself. But, He loved best to think of Himself as a shepherd. The crowds in Galilee reminded Him of sheep without a shepherd. He was sent to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He pictured Himself one day separating sheep from goats. He said, “I know every sheep by name.” He declared, “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Jesus chose to give this same title of “shepherd” to Peter when He commissioned him to establish the church: “Feed my lambs... Tend my sheep... Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). The history of the Christian church began with Jesus saying to the leader who was to head up the work of disciplining the nations: “I am a shepherd, you be a shepherd, too.” As we spiritually mature, we join with Jesus in shepherding those already under our care and in searching for the lost sheep who aren’t.

Mothers and fathers feed children the Word of God. We teach them basic Christian doctrines. We teach morals and values and character development. We model how to pray, fast, worship, study the Bible, and confess sins. We help our spiritual children discover their spiritual gifts. We help them discern the will of God. 

Spiritual mothers and fathers prepare their children for spiritual life. If the job is done right, spiritual parents soon have spiritual grandchildren!

Paul wrote: “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).

Not only do spiritual parents care for spiritual children, they open up and share their lives as well. You see, if all we do is share the Word, then we share only one-half of the message.

Spiritual Mothers and Fathers Guide Lost Sheep to Salvation. This is the Essence of Evangelism

By definition, mothers and fathers are those who have given birth to children. This is evangelism. Spiritual fathers and mothers lead people to Christ. In addition, some find Christ by reading the Bible. Some surrender after hearing the gospel on the radio or television—or from a friend who has recently found Christ. Sadly, too many are abandoned by those who lead them to Christ. These orphans need adoption. Who better to adopt than spiritual mothers and fathers.

Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard is an allegory of spiritual maturity about a young girl named Much Afraid, who lived in the Valley of Humiliation with her family, the Fearings. She wanted to travel to the spiritual High Places and to experience the true love of the Shepherd.

Unfortunately, she had crooked feet and a twisted mouth. Her chances of a successful journey were small. Besides, her cousins Craven Fear, Bitterness, Spiteful, Gloomy, and even her Aunt Dismal Forebodings had their hearts set on preventing her journey. However, the call of the Shepherd was strong. In a moment of supreme courage, aided by other Christ-followers, she ran to find the Shepherd.

Because of her twisted, crippled feet, the Shepherd provided two companions to help her over the rough spots. First, the Shepherd introduced her to Suffering. Much Afraid touched Suffering’s hand. It was cold, and she pulled back, saying, “I don’t want her.”

“The other companion I have selected for you is Sorrow,”

Much Afraid reached out and touched the hand of Sorrow. It was also cold. She pulled back again and said, “I don’t want her either!”

The Shepherd replied, “Suffering and Sorrow are the guides best able to lead you to the High Places.” So, with their help, Much Afraid began her journey.

When she finally reached the High Places, her twisted mouth was straightened and her crippled feet were straightened. She leapt like a hind—a deer—through the spiritual High Places with Christ. Sorrow was transformed into Joy; Suffering was transformed into Peace. Much Afraid was transformed into Grace and Glory.

Near the end of the book, Grace and Glory looked down at the Valley of Humiliation far below. She thought about her family living in misery. They needed the Shepherd too! She began to weep, asking Joy and Peace, “What about my family? What will become of them? Who will go and help them?”

Joy replied, “If the Shepherd can turn Sorrow into Joy, Suffering into Peace, and Much Afraid into Grace and Glory, then the Shepherd can transform Dismal Foreboding into Praise and Thanksgiving. He can do a marvelous work with Craven Fear, Spiteful, Gloomy, and all the other cousins you have down there.”

“But who will go? Who is going to tell them?”

Immediately, the Shepherd was at her side. She turned to the Shepherd and began to plead, “Can’t you send somebody? Who will help my family?”

A smile creased the Shepherd’s face. He looked deep into her eyes and said, “Why, that is your job. That is why I brought you here. Now, go back down to the valley below and lead your family to me.”

The story of her descent is told in Hurnard’s sequel, Mountains of Spices. I was sitting on an airplane at the end of runway eleven, waiting to take off from Tucson International Airport, when I finished the sequel. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. Finally, the passenger next to me asked, “Are you all right?”

“Yes, it’s just a great book.”

This is the essence of the spiritual growth cycle. We start out as children; mature as spiritual young men and women; and finally grow in to mothers and fathers. Then we descend back down into the valley and help others on their journey to the High Places.

Spiritual Mothers and Fathers Experience the Depths of an Infinite-Personal Relationship with God the Father

In describing spiritual levels John twice repeats: “You have known Him who is from the beginning” (1 John 2:13-14). Experiencing intimacy with the eternal God who traces back to the universe must be really important for John to say it twice.

In 1 John 2:12-14 the Apostle John not only enunciated a progression in spiritual growth, he revealed a progression in our love with Jesus.

Julie and I have been married for a long time. She came into my life on a summer Sunday morning in church. She was late—arriving just in time to run to the piano to play and sing before I got up to preach. It was love at first solo. If someone had said to me in those first few weeks, “Do you know Julie Tacker?” I might have responded, “Certainly, I know her.” The Greek word oida refers to an introductory knowledge of something or a cursory relationship with someone.

Multiple years later, I not only know her, I experience her. The Greek word ginosko works quite well to describe our intimate relationship today: I’m thinking her thoughts. I’m reading her mind. She’s thinking my thoughts. She’s reading my mind. I know what makes her laugh. I know what makes her cry. I know her hopes; I know her hurts. Her needs, her strengths, and her weaknesses are as open books to me. I intimately know Julie Tacker Barrier. She shares my life. She shares my name. As for Julie, she probably knows me even better.

One afternoon, one of my sons-in-law and I went out to lunch. “Where do you want to go?” he asked me.

“I really ought to have a salad.”

“Oh, come on. Let’s eat somewhere the girls never want to go. How about Cici’s All You Can Eat Pizza Buffet? It’s a man’s place.”

Sure enough, fifty men were there, gorging on pizza. Only one woman was in the restaurant. Trying to be good, I began with a salad. But soon, I stepped up to the pizza buffet.

Later we told Julie where we had eaten. “I had a salad,” I said.

“You also had six pieces of pizza,” she said.

“How did you know I had six pieces?” 

“I know you.”

(They were small pieces).

While no one will exhaust the fathomless depths of God’s heart, spiritual mothers and fathers know Him like few others. They have invested years walking closely with Him—experiencing His life, feeling His feelings, and even hurting for Him when He hurts.

I tell my students that one of the marks of growing to maturity is that we can say after twenty or thirty years of being a Christian, “I think I am finally beginning to know the heart of God.”

Spiritual Mothers and Fathers View Life and Experiences From God’s Perspective

Can you imagine that life looks differently from the resurrection side of the cross than it does from the children’s side? The view from the mountaintops is quite different from the view from the valley.

During His ministry, Jesus often told His followers that He was going to Jerusalem where He would die and return to life. They never did figure it out. But after they witnessed the cross and resurrection, everything looked different. On Easter Sunday morning, the events of the past three days suddenly made sense.

In most difficult situations spiritual children ask: “What’s God’s will?” “What’s going on?” “What should I do?” “Why did God do this?” “Why did God allow that?” “What He is doing makes no sense.”

Spiritual mothers and fathers respond differently. When we encounter the same situations, we talk it over with God and begin to get His perspective from the resurrection side. Now, things begin to make eternal sense.

I remember the far-reaching perception of a young father I once led to Christ. One Thursday evening his four-year-old son, Nathan said, “Daddy, my head hurts real bad.” On Saturday, I sat with mom and dad in the I.C.U. as Nathan was removed from the respirator. It took about thirty minutes.

Several days later I was talking to dad. He’d done a lot of reflective soul searching when he said to me, “Roger, I think that maybe God is going to make me a spiritual father instead of just an earthly one.” I couldn’t believe my ears. But, I wasn’t surprised; he was looking from the resurrection side of the cross.

Spiritual Mothers and Fathers Refuse to be Dogmatic Because of Their Growing Understanding of the Infiniteness of God

Spiritual children often have a rather rigid, narrow, arrogant mindset regarding God and the Bible: “I know what the Bible says. I’ve read it. If you haven’t experienced it like I have or see it like I see it, then you are wrong.”

In Romans 11:33 Paul wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” 

As we climb the mountains of maturity, we discover that there are more mountain peaks to scale than we ever imagined. No one can exhaust the infinite depths of God.

The people who delude themselves into thinking that they have a monopoly on understanding God are like the man who waded out into the surf off the California coast, looked up and down the coastline, tasted the water, felt the waves, and cried out gleefully, “I know what the Pacific Ocean is like.” At the same time, a man in China waded out three or four yards into the Pacific, made the same observations, and declared, “I know what the Pacific Ocean is like.”

The Pacific is a vast, unfathomable place. Neither of them “knows” anything about the Pacific. For them to start arguing over who knows it best is ridiculous! They are both ignorant as to the depths and secrets of the ocean.

In the same way, God is higher, greater, and infinitely more complex than any human mind can comprehend.

A nearby pastor discovered that some in his congregation were coming to our church for our Sunday night worship service. He asked them not to go because he was afraid that we would confuse them. His church placed a lot more emphasis on utilizing the spiritual gift of tongues than we did.

One morning, I met him walking to his car after dropping off his daughter at our Christian school. We began to discuss his recent edict. Finally, I said, “You know, one day we may both be on trial for following Jesus and standing before a firing squad. Neither one of us will care about who speaks in tongues and who doesn’t.”

We are now close friends.

How many times have we seen spiritual children argue over their limited experiences with God? Spiritual mothers and fathers seldom join in the fray.

Spiritual Mothers and Fathers Empathize with Christ in His Pains

In Philippians 3:10, Paul wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings.” I want to talk with you about the holiness of entering into Christ’s sufferings.

In the opening verses of John 9, Jesus was filled with compassion at the sight of a man who was born blind. The disciples, on the other hand, only seemed interested in figuring out whose sin brought on this affliction. The disciples were seeking to judge. Christ was seeking to love and heal the hurting man. As we become more intimate with Christ we mature beyond asking, “Who sinned?” Instead, like Jesus, we develop deep compassion for those who are broken by sin.

The trembling man shaking hands with me after church was hiding something. He asked for an appointment, and I agreed to meet with him. Later that afternoon, we shook hands again, and I noticed how wet and sweaty his palms were. He soon revealed that the AIDS virus was coursing through his body. Immediately, I stopped thinking about him. All I could think about was my hand. These were the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The medical community was still sorting out how the virus was transmitted. Sex could do it; that was already proven. How about kissing? Or sweat? Those two avenues were still under investigation.

I was strangely unmoved as he poured out his heart, confessing his illicit sexual lifestyle, wondering if God could ever forgive him and bring healing to his body. All I could think about was getting to the restroom to wash his sweat off of my hand. I held my fingers stiffly apart, not wanting to risk pressing any of his sweat into my skin.

I perfunctorily said the things a pastor is supposed to say as I planned to end the session as quickly as possible and avoid shaking his hand again. The instant he left, I ran to the sink. I am not proud of my behavior. I had little or no compassion for him. All I wanted to do was wash my hands.

Several years later I was thinking about Jesus. I wondered how He was feeling about the HIV-positive man and how I’d treated Him. I got to thinking about Philippians 3:10 and the “fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings.”

It dawned on me that the sufferings of Jesus didn’t end at the Cross. He is still grieving today for those who are hurt and in pain. For one of the few times in life I found myself hurting for Jesus because of His pain. So, I told him, “I am so sorry that you were hurting that day. It must have broken your heart to see the pain and anxiety and fear in the heart of that man with HIV. And, I am sorry that I didn’t join with You in the fellowship of your sufferings."

My heart now aches for people I never thought to ache for before. As I look into the confused, hopeless, hurting eyes of men, women, and children facing the fight of their lives, I begin to sense how Christ feels about their sufferings. He grieves for them just as He grieved over the blind man in John chapter nine. At times my heart breaks and I want to comfort the hurting people. On a deeper level, I want to comfort Christ as He grieves over those souls and broken lives that are filled with pain.

As we enter into what Paul called the “fellowship of His sufferings,” we feel what Jesus feels. We hurt for others just like Jesus hurts for others!

Think about it, the people who know us best are those know us in our pains.

Consider the extrapolation: Spiritual mothers and fathers know “Him who is from the beginning” (twice repeated by John).

Who is better equipped to share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings than those who know Him best?

“Entering into the fellowship of His sufferings” opens the door for true compassion.

Spiritual Fathers and Mothers Refuse to Quit No Matter How Difficult Following Christ May Become

Only once have I really gotten angry with God over a set of circumstances He allowed to happen that I thought about giving up on Him.

I have prayed since my junior year in college to be a spiritual man at any price. He has used a number of tools to answer my prayers. Here is a list of several: mistaken open-heart surgery; an ileostomy; back surgery; knee surgery (3); electrical heart failures; three ablations; cyclothymia; depression; anxiety disorder; a wife and two children with bi-polar disorder; the death of a child; and the rape of another. On the basis of Hebrews 4 I was able to see the hand of God in each of the above. I was looking from the resurrection side.

Then, less than a year ago, one of my daughters experienced back-to-back two of the greatest tragedies of life. I was so angry at God! I said to Him: “That is enough. When will it stop?” I said, “If this is the best You can do for my family, I’m through following You.” I quit Christianity on the spot—that lasted for about three days.

I thought about the profession of Peter when Jesus thought that the Disciples would desert him like the rest of the crowds were doing. Jesus asked them, “You’re going to go away, too, aren’t you?” Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the Words of Life.”

I suppose that one of the best markers of spiritual mother and fatherhood is when we have no place else to go except to Jesus.

The Bible details several other characteristics of spiritual mothers and fathers that I don’t have space to expound upon.

Let me just share a few of those:

  • Spiritual mothers and fathers manifest the Galatians 5:22-23.
  • Spiritual mothers and fathers are clothed with humility and grace. They remind others of what Jesus is like.
  • Spiritual mothers and fathers are more likely to live above difficult circumstances. They live the victorious Christian life.
  • Spiritual mothers and fathers long ago waded through the questions, struggles, doubts, self-reliance, self-centeredness, and self-condemnation that cause so many to stumble or turn back from the journey.
  • Mothers and fathers long to experience the resurrected life of Christ at any price.

The process of growth outlined in the Bible implies a long-term commitment. Nothing less than wholehearted devotion will suffice. The process is not for the faint of heart. However, along the way, we will increasingly experience the deepening love and resurrection power of Christ. Over time (like twenty-five years or so) we can’t help but develop an irresistible urge to become like Christ at any price.

For the sake of completeness, I want to list some of the characteristics of each of the first three levels.

Spiritual infants:

  • tend to fight and argue among themselves (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)
  • sometimes drop out early because they can’t handle the persecution that comes with following Christ.
  • sometimes drop out early because earthly distractions are so alluring. 
  • are often spiritually lazy and neglectful
  • are many times so full of themselves that they rarely seek the Father’s guidance
  • often imagine that whatever they don’t already know and experience is not really necessary.”
  • usually fail to mature because the cost is too high

Spiritual Children:

  • experience God as little more than an acquaintance or at most a casual friend
  • know that their sins are forgiven and that God is their father
  • are refocusing their eyes from Earth to Heaven
  • often show signs of immaturity--like hypocrisy
  • are dependent on others for their care and feeding
  • are still learning how to apply the Bible to their lives
  • struggle with commitment
  • understand little about biblical beliefs and doctrines
  • tend to be fearful and insecure

Spiritual Young Men And Women:

  • exercise their spiritual muscles by constantly utilizing the spiritual disciplines
  • experience the “Word of God” (both Jesus and the Bible)
  • fight Satan on his own territory and win
  • have an “others-centered” mentality
  • develop generous hearts that excel in the grace of giving.
  • know the truth of who they are in Christ

 

Ask RogerDr. Roger Barrier recently retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.

Publication date: June 13, 2012