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What to Look for in a Spiritual Mentor


“To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” – Chinese Proverb


 

Homer’s The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus, the valiant warrior who left his family to fight in the Trojan War. After the fall of Troy at the end of the war, Odysseus begins the long journey home to his family, where he’s been assumed dead after ten years of fighting.

Before he arrives home, the goddess Athena appears to his son, Telemachus, in the form of their trusted advisor and family friend, Mentor. Telemachus is floundering without his father’s direction – he assumes his father’s been killed in battle, and suitors have already moved in and attempted to seduce his mother into marriage. He’s angry, lost, and confused. He knows he needs to do something to protect his family, but he doesn’t know what to do. So through Mentor, Athena offers guidance and support to young Telemachus, helping him successfully navigate through his difficult circumstances. Classicist Gregory Nagy describes their relationship:


“At the council of the gods, Athena indicates that she will put menos into Telemachus. It’s a Greek word that’s usually translated as “heroic strength.” But really, menos is not just strength of any kind—it is mental strength. And by that, I mean the kind of surge of power you feel in being able to put things into action. You can see the connection between menos and “mentor.” Menos is mental strength, and a mentor is someone who gives mental strength to someone else.”


Over time, this concept of offering guidance and direction came to be known as “mentoring,” named after Homer’s aforementioned character. And today mentoring is known as a form of development in which one person invests wisdom, life experience, and know-how into another person for their benefit and growth.

No matter what stage of life you’re in, you can probably identify with Telemachus to some degree. Life has a way of disorienting us, and it often takes the advice of someone older and wiser to provide clarity and get us back on track. And spiritually it’s no different – we desperately need the godly advice of mature believers to help us navigate through the chaos and confusion of life in a way that glorifies God.

Mentor and Telemachus

But unlike Homer’s Mentor, most mentors today won’t walk up to us and present themselves as a resource – we have to intentionally seek them out. And with so many people to choose from, what specifically should we look for when choosing a mentor?

History provides several examples of mentoring relationships, including Socrates and Plato, Haydn and Beethoven, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. And we can find profound examples of mentoring in the movies from fictional characters like Yoda and Luke Skywalker, Dumbledore and Harry Potter, or my personal favorites, Mickey Goldmill and Rocky Balboa – all of which help us form an idea of what mentoring should look like. But to capture the true essence of mentoring – and to know what to look for in a mentor – we need to go further back than any of these relationships – further back than even Homer’s Odyssey.


Life has a way of disorienting us, and it often takes the advice of someone older and wiser to provide clarity and get us back on track. Click To Tweet


The earliest mentoring relationships can be traced far into the Old Testament with examples like Moses and Joshua, Naomi and Ruth, and Elijah and Elisha. And in the New Testament, we read of the greatest Mentor of all and His interactions with His twelve disciples. All throughout Scripture, mentoring – or discipleship – plays a vital role in the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the Christian.

During a study of 2 Timothy, I found eleven traits of a great spiritual mentor from the example of Paul and his son in the faith, Timothy (there were more, but for brevity’s sake I whittled down the list by pairing some of them up). If you’re in a need of a spiritual mentor, this list will show you what to look for.

And if you are a spiritual mentor, thank you for making the time to invest in others. Let me encourage you to use this list as a measuring stick to examine your own effectiveness as a spiritual mentor and identify key areas for improvement. But I’ll warn you in advance – Paul sets the bar pretty high.

 

Eleven Traits of a Great Spiritual Mentor

Before we look at the list, I want to clarify that few spiritual mentors will exhibit all of these traits, and that’s ok. After all, even your spiritual mentor will be a flawed human being. This list is designed to act as a guide – to give you an idea of what to look for – not to help you critique the older Christians in your life. So if you can find a mentor who exhibits at least 7 or 8 of these traits, you’ll be in good hands. Below are eleven traits of a great spiritual mentor.

 

1. They love you sincerely


“To Timothy my beloved son: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1:2)


World renowned leadership expert John Maxwell teaches that the first two questions we ask of any mentor – often without realizing it – are “Do you care about me?” and “Can I trust you?”

Why?

Because no one wants to be guided by a mentor who doesn’t have their best interest at heart. Great spiritual mentors are genuine, caring, and unselfish. Rather than using you for their purposes, they work with you to draw out your strengths and unlock the potential God has given you. So when searching for a spiritual mentor, begin by looking for someone who genuinely cares about people and has a track record of investing in others.

 

2. They serve God faithfully

“I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did…” (1:3)


We become like the people we spend time with, and your spiritual mentor will be no exception. So look for the person who most embodies the life you want to lead, the relationship with God you want to have, and the habits of faithfulness you’re longing to cultivate. After all, your mentor won’t be able to take you further spiritually than where they’ve gone themselves.

So examine their life critically – though not judgmentally – and ask yourself, “Do I want to become like this person?” “If I follow their example will I also be following Christ?” “Can I learn from them how to serve God with a clear conscience?” If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it’s probably wise to keep looking.

 

3. They pray for you consistently

“…as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day.” (1:3)


I firmly believe that the most important thing a spiritual mentor can do for you is pray for you every day by name. Rather than trying to mold you in their image, wise spiritual mentors plead with God to make you more like Christ. So when you find a spiritual mentor, I’d encourage you to make this your very first request of them, and it’d be a great idea for you to pray for them every day also.


Rather than trying to mold you in their image, wise spiritual mentors plead with God to make you more like Christ. Click To Tweet


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4. They enjoy spending time with you


“Longing to see you…so that I may be filled with joy.” (1:4)


This is common sense, right? You wouldn’t want a mentor who is constantly checking their watch, just waiting to tell you that it’s time for them to leave. And at the same time, no mentor wants to invest in someone who would rather be elsewhere or is unwilling to listen to their advice.

An important truth to remember is that the more you enjoy spending time with someone, the more easily you will learn from them. Think about your favorite teacher in school, for example. Most likely they were your favorite teacher because you enjoyed your interactions with them more than any of your other teachers. And as a natural byproduct of that, you learned a great deal from them, whether their subject came naturally to you or not.

And the reverse is also true – the more your mentor enjoys spending time with you, the easier it will be for them to impart their wisdom. However, if they find it difficult to carry on a simple conversation with you, then their focus will be on making it through your time together without uneasiness or awkward silences, rather than sharing their wisdom – and that’s not productive for either of you.

The best mentoring relationships provide mutual joy and fulfillment. It’s a relationship where sharing advice and godly counsel comes naturally for your mentor and where learning is an exciting and engaging experience for you. While your relationship may start out rather formally, as you get to know your mentor and build a rapport with them your interactions should start to feel more natural. Over time, your relationship will likely develop into more of a friendship where you not only enjoy each other’s company, but also find it easy to share knowledge and ideas.

 

5. They cultivate your strengths

“For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you…for this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you…” (1:5-6)


Because most of us are unable to discover our strengths without outside help, it often takes an assessment, parent, or personal mentor to objectively spot the unique set of talents and abilities we bring to the table. While shoring up our weaknesses is important (more on that in the next point), a good spiritual mentor will focus primarily on your strengths, knowing that your potential lies in your ability cultivate them and use them for God’s glory. Paul did this with Timothy, and a wise mentor will do this with you also.

 

6. They exhort you in areas of weakness

“You, therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” (2:1)


This concept links back to the first trait of sincere love. Great mentors know that you’ll never go further in life than your character will allow, and as a result, they will intentionally work to identify your weaknesses and blind spots, so they can lovingly draw your attention to them. These corrections may be difficult for you to hear and accept at first, but it’s a natural and healthy part of the mentoring process.

Using the example of the verse above, over 25 times in the books of 1st and 2nd Timothy, Paul urges his son in the faith to be strong in one way or another. This was a weakness of Timothy’s, as he often came across as being rather timid and afraid – someone who would back down to those with more dominant personalities. But as a key leader in the Christian movement among the Gentiles, Timothy needed to stand up for the truth of the Gospel and fight for the souls that were entrusted to his care. So like a faithful mentor, Paul kept drawing his attention to this issue that if left unchecked, would undermine his effectiveness in the ministry.

Remember, a mentor who only tells you what you want to hear isn’t really mentoring you, and they don’t have your best interest at heart. So find a mentor who will tell you the truth – even if it hurts.


Great mentors know you'll never go further in life than your character will allow. Click To Tweet


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7. They encourage you to pass on what you’ve learned to others

“The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2:2)


When you find a spiritual mentor, most likely their time will be limited because they’re already serving God in other areas while also fulfilling commitments to their families, jobs, etc. So if they’re going to commit to mentoring you, they’ll likely ask you to commit to mentoring someone also. This gives them the opportunity to expand their influence and mentor others through you.

After all, this is the whole point of spiritual mentorship. The truth was never meant to stop with you and I, so when we learn from our mentors, we have a spiritual duty to pass on what we’ve learned to others who will then pass the truth on to even more people, and so on. And the ripple effects of this are huge – so once you’ve found a mentor, enlist their help as you begin looking for someone to mentor, also.

The ripple effects of effective spiritual mentoring

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8. They inspire you to be willing to suffer for Christ

“Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2:3)


The Christian life is hard, and if you’ve chosen a mentor worth their salt, they’ll be familiar with many of the difficulties and hardships you’re likely to encounter on your spiritual journey. As a result, they’ll be prepared to warn of you of the pitfalls that lie ahead and equipped to guide you through times of pain and suffering.

Paul often used the concept of a soldier in battle to describe the arduous struggles and harsh realities of the Christian life. In the next few verses of chapter 2, he also uses the analogies of the farmer and the athlete to remind his protégé that the Christian life is characterized by hardship and difficulty – not comfort and luxury. Paul could say this because he had lived it – but while preparing Timothy for the reality of suffering, Paul also took pains to remind him that the joy of knowing Christ is worth it. A great spiritual mentor will do the same with you also.

 

9. They urge you to study the Bible with diligence

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” (2:15)


An ancient Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” At the heart of this proverb is the concept of giving others independence. Rather than having a man depend on you to give him a fish every day, it is better to teach him how to fish for himself, so that he no longer needs to rely on you for his survival.

In the same way, a great spiritual mentor will teach you to be spiritually independent. They will feed you spiritually for a lifetime by showing you how to feast on the Word of God for yourself. They’ll walk you through how to study, interpret, and apply the Bible on your own, so that you can nourish your soul with the truth at any time without needing them to be there with you. Other than praying for you every day by name, I believe this is the most important thing a spiritual mentor can do for you.

 

10. They call you to maturity in the faith

“Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” (2:22)


This verse, perhaps more than any other verse in 2 Timothy, captures the essence of spiritual mentorship. Notice Paul’s two challenges here: first Timothy is to “flee from youthful lusts.” Translated literally, he’s telling Timothy to “run from your juvenile longings until they’ve vanished from sight.” Paul realized that juvenile longings lead to juvenile behaviors, which in turn lead to juvenile habits that would stunt Timothy’s spiritual growth. To make sure he gets his point across loud and clear, he uses some pretty strong wording – and it’s about to get even stronger.

Paul also urges Timothy to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace.” The Greek word for “pursue” here comes from the same root word that’s translated as “persecuted” later on in chapter 3 verse 12. It refers to “relentlessly hounding someone with such persistence that they are put to flight.”

Don’t miss the gravity of what’s happening here – like a spiritual father, Paul is calling his son in the faith to spiritual adulthood. He’s urging Timothy to relentlessly pursue maturity in the faith while running for his life from the juvenile longings of his flesh because it’s time for him to grow up and become the man God made him to be (you’ll see why in the next point). And in their own way, a wise spiritual mentor will urge you on to spiritual maturity also.


A mentor who only tells you what you want to hear isn’t really mentoring you, and they don’t have your best interest at heart. Click To Tweet


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11. They prepare you for life without them

“But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering and the time of my departure has come.” (4:5-6)


A wise mentor realizes that they aren’t going to be in your life forever. Life situations – like marriage or a new job – could cause one of you to move away. Or in the case of Paul, they may realize that their death is imminent. No matter what the cause of separation may be, a wise mentor will prepare you for life without them.

When Paul mentions that he’s being “poured out as a drink offering,” he’s referring back to the Old Testament sacrificial system. When God explained the sacrificial system to the children of Israel in Numbers 15, the last part of each sacrifice was the drink offering. So Paul’s saying that he’s reached the “drink offering” stage of his life – the last part of his time on earth. Thus, the time of his departure had come.

For Paul, preparing Timothy for his departure meant writing a letter that urged him be strong and press on to maturity in the faith. Your mentor may approach this differently. But in their own way, a great spiritual mentor will prepare you to flourish as a Christ-follower in their absence because that’s what great spiritual mentors do.

 

 

Recommended Resources:

A Game Plan for Life: The Power of Mentoring – John Wooden

The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People and Teams that Win Consistently – Tony Dungy

One Minute Mentoring: How to Find and Work with a Mentor – and Why You’ll Benefit from Being One – Ken Blanchard and Claire Diaz-Ortiz

Mentoring 101 – John Maxwell

15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential – John Maxwell

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