A soul which remains alone … is like a burning coal which is left by itself: It will grow colder rather than hotter.

—John of the Cross

Two are better than one.…

If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!

Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?

—Ecclesiastes 4:9–11 (NIV)

A friend once invited me to join him for a hike in a bird and wildlife sanctuary on the gulf coast of Texas. After an hour-and-a-half drive, we parked the car and walked the gravel road that crossed the flat marshland. I saw only clear sky, clumps of reeds, and a few waterfowl. It wasn’t very

My friend, however, knows birds. “Look—there!” he said as he pointed to the sweeping wings of a great blue heron in flight, or motioned toward soaring black-shouldered kites. Once he cocked his ear and had me listen for the rasping, eerie call of grackles perched nearby. And with the help of his sharp eyes and binoculars, I glimpsed a group of rosy spoonbills, with their broad beaks and bony legs, preening in the distance.

Merle identified and showed me every kind of goose and duck imaginable—more than I could name or now remember. With him to explain and point, a new world opened to my senses.

Experiences like this remind us that we cannot live well without help. All of us have had mentors or guides, people whose influence lives on inside us. Here or there a parent, aunt, schoolteacher, or friend has left an unmistakable imprint on who we are. Sometimes mentoring takes on a more formal aspect, such as in the centuries-old practice of apprenticing, where a budding artisan spends years under a master’s tutelage, or in the modern corporate world, where a high-level executive will “mentor” a junior colleague—critiquing the younger’s decisions and introducing him or her to key business contacts. When it comes to our growth in faith and character, our need for another’s guidance is even more pressing.

The role of a spiritual helper or mentor has a long history. In the New Testament, the 12 disciples’ common term for Jesus, Master, suggests their need to be directed and taught. Many people, from a rich young ruler to an outcast Samaritan woman, sought Jesus precisely because he was a wise teacher and guide. And when the apostle Paul calls his coworker Timothy his “true child in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2), it suggests the mentoring and modeling Paul must have done for his younger colleague.

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The practice continues throughout church history, especially in religious orders. The fourth-century church leader Basil told his readers to find someone “who may serve you as a very sure guide in the work of leading a holy life,” one who “knows the straight road to God.” And he warned that “to believe that one does not need counsel is great pride.” Augustine likewise emphasized that “no one can walk without a guide.”

Many terms identify this special relationship over the centuries: spiritual director, spiritual friend (or companion), soul friend (an old Irish tradition), or simply guide. Today, the practice often finds expression with terms like discipling and spiritual mentoring. Whatever the term, interest in the practice is growing wherever people are interested in cultivating their relationship with God and growing in self-understanding.

But, although we say we like the sound of not going it alone, few of us ever connect with a spiritual friend. Pollster Daniel Yankelovich found that 70 percent of Americans say they have many acquaintances but few close friends, and that they experience this as a void in their lives.

Why? Is it the increasing dislocation and mobility of our society? Is it the “culture of entertainment” that lures us away from relating to others? The answer is more basic: Few things frighten us more than exposing our inner selves. For Christians it is especially difficult since the church rewards us when we act as though we are “on top.” When we are around other believers, we are tempted, as a friend of mine says, to share only the “the highlights—and keep quiet about the ‘lowlights.’ ”

To cap it off, a frontier ethos of rugged individualism tells us that it is “weakness” to seek another’s help, and that if a person has problems, that individual should just try harder—on his or her own.

Such hesitancy has theological roots for Protestant evangelicals. We who have been schooled so well in the sufficiency of Christ’s great work on our behalf, who cherish the truth that we have one great high priest as our mediator, may fear that turning to others undercuts our dependence on God. We may nourish a subtle distrust of any human spiritual authority. The antisacerdotalism of the sixteenth century gets translated into a suspicion of baring one’s soul to anyone but God.

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But any careful look at Scripture and Christian history reveals that faith has never been a solitary spiritual exercise. The testimony of countless people is that the embarrassing, sometimes painful, act of baring our souls to another can lead to growth. With so much to be gained from this companionship, is it not the voice of pride or fear that isolates us? Indeed, the loneliness and painful isolation of not seeking a friend may propel us to a point of holy desperation. It may bring us to a place where we are willing to risk seeking the wisdom and support of a kindred spirit.

Once we decide to take the risk of finding a spiritual mentor, how can we expect him or her to help us?

First, we can expect to find immense support simply from another’s presence. Knowing I do not face the battles of daily life and spiritual growth alone matters a great deal.

A special friend, with whom I meet an hour a week, has no degree in spiritual direction and no license in counseling. But he has a willingness to listen to my struggles, spiritual and otherwise; and I do the same for him. Sometimes he offers insights born of prayer on an area I’m wrestling with; but more often than not, I simply feel I have been heard by a friend, who will include me specifically in his prayers.

Second, we can expect a spiritual guide to help us make sense of everyday life. I sometimes think my anxiety about paying my bills or being a good father to three children has little to do with more “lofty” concerns. But the spiritual friends I have had have usually resisted the temptation to talk only of “spiritual” things. At their best, they have realized that from the moment my morning alarm jars me awake until the house again grows quiet at night, God is at work in my life. My task is to pay attention. And the simple act of sharing the raw material of daily life with a spiritual mentor helps me see with another’s eye. A guide can help me spot God’s activity in the mundane, not by giving cheap advice, but by keeping my attention focused on my life’s events, and praying for my daily concerns.

Third, we can expect a guide to help us ground our spiritual life in something more solid than our own feelings. “Sin always tends to make us blind to our own faults,” writes James Houston of Regent College. “We need a friend to stop us from deceiving ourselves that what we are doing is not so bad after all. We need a friend to help us overcome our low self-image, inflated self-importance, selfishness, pride, our deceitful nature, our dangerous fantasies, and so much else.”

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How “spiritual” some of my ambitions sometimes seem—and how theologically “correct” my excuses for not doing good! Until, that is, a friend sees and identifies my mixed motives.

And when my schedule crowds out time for exercise, or prayer, or family relationships, I need someone to remind me that the tasks that seem so urgent may not be worth the compromise. A friend can help me balance competing demands and bring my choices into harmony with the life taught and modeled in Scripture.

Similarly, a friend can help me when I am tempted to give in to feelings of low self-esteem. When powerful inner voices or external critics condemn me, my friend reminds me that I am still cherished by God. He can rebuild my courage to base my life on something more profound than others’ approval.

What specifically, then, should we look for in a spiritual friend? First, we need someone who will encourage our honest sharing and growth in insight by providing a climate of listening. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, speaking of the ministry of listening, writes: “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen.… They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.… One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others.” To find someone who can listen long and patiently is like discovering a treasure.

Second, a spiritual mentor or friend can create an encouraging climate. Powerful change within us can be spurred on by affirmation, which often motivates more than criticism.

A former student of short-story writer Raymond Carver recalls his teacher’s belief in the power of encouragement: “One day,” the student wrote, “when I berated [Carver] for going easy on a [writing] student I thought was turning out poor work, he told me a story: he had recently been a judge in a prestigious fiction contest. The unanimous winner, whose work has since drawn much praise, turned out to be a former student of his, probably the worst, least promising student he’d had in twenty years. ‘What if I had discouraged him?’ he said.”

Centuries ago the Christian leader Basil the Great wrote that the spiritual guide “must care for weak souls with tenderness and humility of heart.… He must be compassionate and long-suffering with those who through inexperience fall short in duty. He should not pass over their sins in silence, but must bear gently with the sinner, applying remedies in all kindness and moderation.” It was with that sentiment in mind that spiritual writer Richard Foster once pinpointed our need: a good spiritual companion will be for us “unjudging and unshakable.”

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Third, while listening and encouraging are vital, the primary quality needed in a helper is a focus on Christ and Christlikeness. The center of spiritual direction is our relationship with God, our becoming more like Christ.

The apostle Paul captured the significance of this in a slightly different context. He prayed, “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Eph. 1:17, NIV). The focus of spiritual friendship should never be on personality or human ingenuity, but on coming to know God better.

One woman I know discovered this through an extremely helpful relationship with an older woman who was very much a spiritual mentor. But, my friend tells me, “She did not get me ‘hooked’ on her in a dependent relationship. I felt from her a deep respect and the belief that I can hear for myself what God might be saying or how he might be leading. She encouraged me time and time again to listen to what I was hearing, and be confident of that voice, God’s voice.”

There is, of course, more than one way to find spiritual companionship. Some of the best candidates around us may not be professionally trained. They may be of different ages. They may be peers, or more advanced than we in things spiritual. And we may find that looking to one person for all our spiritual needs may not be realistic. We need to be flexible and creative.

One source of spiritual friends is our daily contacts—spiritually committed colleagues at work, for example, or those who work with us on community school boards or church committees. These friends may have an experience to relate, a conviction to share, or encouragement to give.

We can also be flexible by involving more than one person in our spiritual growth. While spiritual mentoring usually assumes a one-to-one relationship, groups are sometimes helpful. When two people are inexperienced in giving spiritual guidance, for instance, the safeguards of a group’s collective wisdom are valuable.

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House-church meetings, Bible studies, Cursillo “reunion” groups, and special-interest groups allow the same personal sharing, feedback, and prayer for members’ special needs. While these groups may not allow the focus on individual growth that spiritual companionship does, they make a good alternative.

A couple of years ago, I began meeting with two other men from my church for an hour and a half every other Saturday morning. As we met, we talked about what God wanted us to be as spouses, fathers, church members, and employees. We shared questions about our progress in faithfulness, and Scripture verses that had helped us in the time since our last meeting. One of us would read a passage from the Bible, talk about it for about ten minutes, applying it to issues we were working on, and then we would go around the circle and talk about our lives. We ended with informal, spontaneous prayer for one another.

“It had been quite a while since I could share deeply with other people,” Steve remembers of the group. “But it meant so much to have a close enough relationship to let down the masks and be known at a deep level.”

A spiritual friend’s consistent presence can be the catalyst for significant discoveries in our growth in prayer and faithfulness. The repeated experience of praying with a director for ten minutes of a meeting may do as much to mold our prayer as an hour of talking about prayer. Time spent with someone who has weathered tough and testing moments can itself lend us new insight or courage. Sometimes what we need to learn comes in ways beyond words.

Three persons visited the third-century Egyptian hermit Anthony every year, the story goes. Two of them would question him about growth in sanctity and fellowship with God. The third, however, remained completely silent. After a long while, Anthony finally said to him, “You have been coming to me all this time, yet you never ask me anything.” The other replied, “Father, it is enough for me just to see you.”

Observing a mentor or friend can leave us changed if we stay open, eager, and committed to becoming who God intends us to be. Another’s helping presence, if we are willing to invite him or her into the risky, rewarding process of spiritual growth, can be a catalyst for far more than we could have done on our own.

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