Over the last twenty years, I’ve had several great fathers in the faith. These men of God reached down to invest in me, and were far enough ahead of me that they could guide, challenge, and spur me on.
When I was a teenager, my Young Life leader Kevin Jamison helped me begin following Jesus and make the Christian faith my own. Bryan Lopina, who was a couple grades ahead of me, taught me, even then, how to invest in men younger than me. He also taught me that sexual sin was serious and would ruin me.
Then, when I was in my twenties, Tom Steller taught me how to read the Bible for myself, to see more than I’d seen before. Dieudonné Tamfu taught me to consecrate my time, my attention, my whole life more fully to Christ. Dan Holst taught me how to love a family, and then fold younger men into that family. Mike Meloch taught me how to know and pursue a wife and how to be a witness in the workplace.
And all along the way, my dad — my biological father and father in the faith — taught me how to work hard “as unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:23 ASV), how to love a woman like Christ loves the church, how to give generously to bless and support others, how to navigate difficult and tense situations with a calm and confident strength in God.
I’ve had wonderful fathers in Christ. Some of them have been in my life over decades; others for only a few years. Some have been much older than me (sometimes 30 or 40 years older); others have been just a few years ahead. Some came and found me; others I sought out myself. They’ve all, however, shaped and counseled and cheered me on in Christ. And they’ve each played different roles in fathering me. It really hasn’t been one man, but a village of good men.
Because I’ve tasted the fruit of such fatherhood, and because I see this kind of fathering again and again in Scripture, I want to encourage you to do what you can to find the spiritual fathers that you need.
Where do we see these kinds of fathers in the Bible? Again, we could go to a number of texts, but I was drawn to the book of Proverbs, a whole book written by a father, for a son.
Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head
and pendants for your neck.
My son, if sinners entice you,
do not consent. (Proverbs 1:8–10)
Proverbs isn’t just a catalog of wise sayings. It’s a letter from a good dad to his boy. “My son . . . My son . . . My son . . .” — 23 times in 31 chapters. The book models the kind of fatherly counsel that young men need to navigate life. The book shows us (among other things):
- How to make hard decisions (Proverbs 11:14; 12:15; 15:22),
- What to eat and drink (and what not to eat or drink, or at least in moderation) (Proverbs 20:1; 23:20–21),
- What kinds of friends to keep (and avoid) (Proverbs 27:10; 1:10; 13:20; 14:7),
- The kind of woman to marry (and avoid) (Proverbs 18:22; 31:10; 5:3–5; 21:19),
- How to love a wife and children (Proverbs 22:6; 31:11, 28–29),
- How to make and spend money (Proverbs 30:7–9; 3:9–10; 14:21, 31),
- When to speak up, and when to keep quiet (Proverbs 18:21; 12:13; 15:2),
- How to become humble (Proverbs 3:5; 11:2).
Proverbs then, as a book, gives us a portrait of a good father. In it, Solomon applies wisdom to all the spheres of life, trying (in many practical, earthy details) to prepare his son to live well as a man of God.
So, you might think, Well, if this is the God-breathed counsel of a spiritual father, do I really need to find another father? Why not just memorize Proverbs? Well, that certainly wouldn’t hurt. Men who internalize and apply the 31 chapters of Proverbs would be in better shape than many. But we really need more than words (we all know this instinctively). Every young man needs men who can guide, teach, and train us. We need flesh-and-blood, life-on-life fathers.
Everyday Masculine Faithfulness
We see this kind of fathering all over the New Testament. For instance, why did Jesus spend most of his ministry on twelve men? He could have just hit the preaching circuit and wrote bestsellers, but he chose to focus his three short years of ministry on Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, another James, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas. Think about that. Some vans hold more than twelve people, and yet that was his focus. Why?
Well, in part, because he knew his disciples needed more than a few great messages or books. For them to really get it, for them to live like God wanted them to live, they needed to see his life. They needed to see what masculine faithfulness looked like in real time — real situations, in a real place, among real people and challenges and temptations. They needed to see him when he was tired, when he was sick, when he was hungry, when he was distracted and interrupted. They needed to see him care for his family members, and talk to strangers, and make tough decisions in the moment. They needed to see him not get to everything he wanted to get done in a day. They needed to see him pray in secret.
And they needed to be seen by him. They needed to see his life, and they needed him to see theirs — up close and consistently. He knew these men well enough to correct and train them, to comfort and rebuke them — and specifically, not vaguely, like a good father.
Or look at the apostle Paul, and the many men he discipled from church to church, city to city — Timothy, Titus, Silas, Barnabas, Epaphroditus, Aquila, and more. Christianity gets passed from fathers to sons, who become fathers to more sons, who become fathers to more sons. That hasn’t changed because there’s two billion professing Christians in the world. God still says to spiritual fathers, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2) — father to son, father to son, father to son. From some men to you, and then from you to other men.
First Steps Toward Fathers
Finding good fathers in Christ can be hard, so I want to end with some practical advice. If you know you need a spiritual dad, but don’t have one, what can you actually do? Do you just wait for an older, wiser man in the church to notice you and put his arm around you?
No, in my experience, the younger man will often need to identify and go after the older man. You’ll probably need to ask to be fathered. It’s not always this way (and it really shouldn’t be this way), but it’s often still this way. So, what can we do as younger men in need of fathers?
First, identify the godly, older men around you. You can’t pursue a father in Christ if you can’t name him. Start studying the older men God has put around you. And what are you looking for in these men? You’re looking, first, for mature Christianity, someone who has followed Jesus faithfully for longer than you have.
As a guide, you could look at the elder qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:1–7 or Titus 1:6–9. These men don’t have to be pastors or elders or even deacons to be a spiritual father, but those two passages sketch out dimensions of Christian maturity — Is he a faithful husband? Is he sober-minded and self-controlled? Is he gentle? How does he handle his money? How does he handle the Bible? Apart from competency in public teaching, every other qualification is something God expects of all believers. They’re traits he expects of you. Men don’t have to be spiritual superheroes to be good spiritual fathers. They only need to be far enough ahead in wisdom and faithfulness to stretch you to grow and mature.
In addition to maturity, look for overlap. It’s not enough for them to be more mature than you and for you to see them briefly on Sunday mornings and at a midweek gathering. You need to have actual access to their life — and, ideally, somewhat consistent access. Meaningful discipleship doesn’t happen in one-off conversations here and there. It requires time and space, and it requires regularity.
You need to see faithful men when they’re not dressed up for church and serving up front. You want to see them when they’re in their Saturday clothes and on the couch, when they’re disagreeing with their wife and when they’re watching football. To be a true son, we need some meaningful overlap.
Once you’ve identified the mature men around you, then try to initiate intentional time together. Again, don’t wait for a father to come find you. Go and ask them for wisdom, for counsel, for time, for fathering. And then as you start meeting more regularly, look for ways to come alongside them and help them in the ordinary rhythms of their lives. This isn’t just for their sake (who couldn’t use another set of hands?), but it’s also for your sake. Again, you want to see them doing ordinary things — yard work, grocery store runs, home repair, making dinner, watching kids — because real Christlikeness is often clearest in ordinary things. So, join them in those everyday, easily overlooked rhythms. Make it as easy as possible for them to spend time with you.
Lastly, listen carefully. Ask lots of questions. It’s actually a way to honor older, wiser men. We can sometimes be afraid we’re going to look a certain way if we start asking dumb questions, but questions about how to follow Christ — even the smallest, most random ones — are never dumb. And truly godly men, men worth following and imitating, won’t think they’re dumb. They’re going to be encouraged by your questions, honored by your questions — and they’re going to encourage you to keep asking them.
So, brothers, identify mature men to imitate, men who can teach you, challenge you, encourage you, and shape you. Initiate regular time with them (make it easy for them to spend time with you). And then ask lots and lots of questions. Listen well to what they say and observe carefully how they live, and then imitate their faith.