Today, the world lost one of the brightest lights and sharpest minds to ever bear the title “apologist” for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ravi Zacharias was widely regarded as one of the greatest defenders of the Christian faith. He impacted millions of believers and non-believers in every country on earth over a half-century of ministry. I was blessed to hear him speak in person a couple of years ago, and his writing, teaching, and passionate defense of the Gospel shaped my faith more than anyone except for the Apostle Paul and Jesus himself. Although I never had the privilege to meet him, I regard him as one of my spiritual fathers.
The idea of spiritual fatherhood dates back to the very beginnings of the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul wrote:
I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.1 Corinthians 4:14–17 ESV
Paul is not speaking of a biological relationship, for we know with certainty that Paul had no children. He is speaking figuratively about a relationship that is frequently more impactful than biological fatherhood because this relationship has the power to shape the eternal destiny of a human being. Spiritual fatherhood is not something that a person chooses—neither to be one nor to have one. It is a God-appointed relationship prompted by the Holy Spirit’s movement in the life of the spiritual father and the child. If you are a follower of Jesus and can’t answer the question, “Who is your spiritual father?” you should spend some time in prayer and ask the Holy Spirit to open your mind and heart. God has provided a spiritual father to all of his children.
So what does a spiritual father look like? A spiritual father should be able to recognize, validate, and affirm their spiritual son or daughter in light of their purpose on earth. Spiritual sons and daughters may not understand all that they possess as it concerns their gifts and the ability they have to function in Christ; however, spiritual fathers can recognize those things and cultivate them for the use of the Kingdom of God.
Spiritual fathers should ensure that their children are being fed with the Word of God accurately and that they are also being developed spiritually and naturally in the proper manner. As we grow in our faith, we can misunderstand difficult biblical teachings, become distracted by theological rabbit holes, or stray into dangerous doctrine. Having a spiritual father to guide and correct our misunderstandings is vital to our growth in the faith. A good biblical example of being corrected, taught, and humbly receiving is where Moses is being rebuked by his father-in-law, Jethro, for working too hard all alone (Exodus 18:18). Jethro told Moses to listen to him, and he would give him counsel (Exod. 18:19). Moses’ response was that he did all that Jethro had told him (Exod. 18:24) while not becoming defensive, resistant, or puffed up with pride.
I am blessed to have several men who fit the biblical definition of spiritual fatherhood throughout my 20 years as a Christian. I’ve had a spiritual father that helped correct some lousy theology that I held to, another who helped me cultivate a servant’s heart and introduced me to the mission field, and another who has shaped me as a husband, father, and businessman. The former has been by my side for the entire journey and has held me accountable for deep-rooted sin issues. He has challenged me to pray more deeply and with the right posture towards God. He taught me that pride is the root of almost every sin in my life. And he has loved me unconditionally and has never failed to be there for me in times of trial, sorrow, turmoil, or confusion.
Navigating the Christian life is not a solitary journey. It is by design meant to be in concert with other believers so that we can all learn and grow closer to Christ together. Take a moment to thank God for the spiritual father in your life, or if you are not sure that you have one, pray that God would reveal him to you. I suspect that he is closer than you might realize and just waiting for you to embrace the gift and get on with the journey ahead.
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