We don’t realise the extent to which we are shaped by historical influences. Somewhere around two hundred years ago the stereotype of a hero radically shifted. Gone were the days of viewing the hero as embedded in the tribe, as depended upon a traditional code of behaviour, and as looking to external guidance for help in completing a quest. A new model was introduced: one of the lone individual relying upon internal strength in order to complete the task before him. Most action films are built on this model. James Bond doesn’t need any friends. His innate wisdom and instincts are enough to make sure that mission impossible is mission accomplished.
As Christians, we need to appreciate the extent to which pop culture influences our lives. While our moral compasses may be more fine-tuned than that of Mr. Bond, our attitudes toward life are often dangerously similar to that of 007. Too many of us think that we can get through life just fine on our own. We may indeed attend prayer meetings and small groups with clocklike regularity. Nonetheless, a lot of us have mastered the art of editing out all self-disclosure from prayer requests. Our poker-faces are impenetrable.
Such an I-can-cope-on-my-own attitude is a grave spiritual liability. The truth is that each one of us needs other people in our lives who can help us in the dangerous journey of life. Tolkien knew what he was doing in The Lord of the Rings. The true model for living a heroic life is not a him,but a them. We all need be in a fellowship of diverse gifting if we are going to overcome the challenges and obstacles that are the inevitable path of Christian discipleship.
Now, in order to escape the individualist mindset, one type of relationship we ought to pursue in life is that of mentorship. Mentorship is a unique type of friendship that is based on wisdom rather than pleasure or affection. Whereas most friendships are based on a kind of symmetry of status, mentorship is intentionally asymmetrical. A mentor is not like a mentee. There is an important gap of experience and wisdom which makes the one a suitable guide and counsellor for the other. If the one is a wise and seasoned Paul, the other is a youthful and uncertain Timothy.
There are several benefits that come to both a mentor and a mentee in such a relationship. On the side of the mentee, three benefits, in particular, stand out.
One is the opportunity to avoid unnecessary pain. The fact is that a lot of stumbling blocks in life can be avoided if we just take some time to talk to people who have travelled more extensively in life than we have. No small part of sharing wisdom is being honest about past foolishness. To hear the testimony of a prodigal son is a good way to avoid the detour of eating in a pigsty.
Another benefit on the side of the mentee is the exposure of confirmation bias. This bias is the innate human tendency to look for confirmation of what we have already decided is good or true. It’s important to know that a good mentor is not present to affirm so much as to advise. The whole point of the relationship is to distil wisdom, not to recycle opinion. Mentors are there to help filter foolishness out of the decision-making process.
A third benefit for mentees is the ability an adept mentor has in drawing forth deep counsels of the heart. Proverbs tell us that the springs of life flow from the human heart (c.f. 4:23). Now, extracting these subterranean waters is no easy task. Often, it takes a skilled friend who is proficient at asking questions to bring forth thoughts and desires that an individual could not tap into by themselves.
Yet, it’s important to note that the benefits of mentorship are not one-sided. If the relationship is healthy, the mentor can be just as blessed through the friendship as the mentee.
How is this? Here are two points to consider. First, mentorship is a way of redeeming past mistakes. Rather than be frustrated by choices that cannot be undone, mentorship allows a person to use their experience – the triumphs and the tragedies – in order to help another person who is at an earlier stage of life. By becoming a companion in the unfolding journey of another, a mentor is able to glean life-lessons and use them to help encourage a needy soul.
In this way, mentorship is an act of love. Just as love might lead a wealthy person to give money to the poor, love equally prompts a mature person to share wisdom with someone else who is struggling to find a path through life.
Finally, with mentorship, there is the joy of intergenerational friendship. In life, it’s easy to get stuck in a silo of contemporaries. The young keep to the young, and the old, to the old. It shouldn’t be this way. There is a special joy that comes from the mixing of generations. Such mixing reminds us that age is less significant than we often think. Although we each start the journey of life at a different time, the final destination of all Christians is the same. We are all headed to the banquet of the Lamb. Mentorship is good way to remind ourselves that we are on one great pilgrimage together.
By Joe Barnard