Discipleship: dealing with my spiritual father can be rough.

Q: I’m having difficulty knowing how to deal with my spiritual father. I don’t know how to balance my freedom with restrictions that he’s putting on me and I’m having trouble understanding what our relationship should look like. What am I supposed to do? I just feel like he doesn’t get how difficult what I’m going through is with a particular thing that I’m doing and I think that’s what is causing my frustration.


Let’s go back to the concept of the role of a spiritual father first. When people attach themselves to a spiritual father, there’s one of two things that they are usually doing. For most, it’s because they want spiritual guidance, for others, it’s strictly about absolution. Both are acceptable.

In the case of the latter, if you’re sorry for something, he can simply absolve you. If you’re not sorry, you carry on by yourself until you want to be healed from it.

In the case of the former, roles need to be discussed.

Choosing the Coach
When you choose someone as a spiritual guide, you are first and foremost making a choice. Yes, thank you captain obvious. You are making an active choice to submit yourself to another person because you trust that that person can guide you towards a goal that you want. If you don’t like the father or feel he’s compatible with you, then you don’t choose him. Or, more importantly, if you’re not convinced by the goal, then you may be wasting your time (though it’s also possible you may get lured more in!).

Compare it to choosing for yourself an athletic coach. First, you decide that there’s something toward which you want to be trained. That’s the most important, if you don’t want the goal, you won’t be into the training, nor will you give it your all, consequently, you will not progress. So you’re correct, you have the freedom to do whatever you want, but the question should be “is what I’m doing compatible with what I really want?” I may want to lose weight, but eating a few Big Macs everyday is not compatible with that desire.

Roles and Expectations
After you decide you want training, you look for a trainer/coach. Typically people look for someone who is of repute, has success stories, has a history that makes him credible … all sorts of things. Some people will choose at random as well. That’s all fine. When a person has chosen the coach, however, he is voluntarily submitting himself to that coach and his program. That means that what the coach prescribes for progress, the trainee should try and follow.

A coach may tell a person that he needs to lose some weight to be a faster swimmer, and that person will accept that. He accepts it because he knows that the coach is simply helping him toward his goal, and that the coach isn’t doing it for his own gain. He might tell him that he needs to do a bunch of drills in one thing, even though you want to drill something else. He might see things that you don’t, but you’re trusting this person and you’re listening to him.

If the coach asks you to diet, for example, but you refuse to diet and you eat junk food everyday, well, it’s very difficult for the coach to help you. How can he help you toward your goal if you do not show respect for the plan or the intention of the plan? There’s an expectation that because the athlete has chosen to train, that he will actually care about what the trainer says.

Being human and possible perceptions
On the flip side, the coach must acknowledge the humanity of the athlete. The coach has to be understanding that the athlete can fall off the wagon here and there. He must understand that sometimes the will of the athlete may waver. He acknowledges that working on someone’s weakness may bring out strong reactions and may be painful and uncomfortable depending on the person. The coach ought not to judge the athlete for any weaknesses or failings, but he also has to push the athlete to his full potential always. Sometimes the athlete may perceive this as severe, other times he may appreciate it, but if all is done with mutual love and respect, there should be no doubt as to the intentions of either party.

Some things you should try and understand about your spiritual father
Sometimes a spiritual father can see danger ahead. You, the son/daughter may feel that you can see some of it, too. However, it is more likely when you want something, even if it’s bad for you, that you’re muting yourself a little bit to the danger by playing with fire. This self-will and desire often makes a person act like the father doesn’t exist, or acts in spite of it. It can be very dangerous because you have not yet been trained enough in warfare to understand all your enemy (the devil)’s traps and tricks. Your enemy is not looking for you to fall once, he wants you eternally.

Your honesty, and when sometimes there’s a particular thing you want
In the beginning (and even later) in spiritual life, you chose and continue choose to walk a particular path. Nobody is coercing you. It’s always your choice. God respects freewill and so ought your spiritual father.

You have tasted something sweet in Christ, and started feeling His presence and love more. It is important to recognise, though, that you’re just starting on the path. Very often a person is oblivious to many of his own weaknesses or their effects and consequences, but you may overly amplify or be very cognizant of the ones that you think are big. Then, when the devil mounts a huge attack against you, your response may be to unwittingly walk right back into danger! You don’t realise that sometimes you have gone to the store and bought yourself the matches with which you’re going to light your house on fire! Sometimes you don’t know that you have bought yourself the offending agent and told yourself, “Well, I don’t need to use it”… but you bought it!

If you buy it and put it near you, do you really think that you’re going to have power over yourself? The act of ignoring your father’s advice puts “willful intent” into the picture.

It’s one thing to fall, it’s another thing to set yourself up and walk straight into danger. It’s yet another thing to not care about the coaching.

Back to the roles
But it’s also possible that you’re not interested in swimming anymore. If that’s the case, that’s your choice, the coach can’t force you to want to keep swimming. He can encourage you, he can challenge you on your reasons for stopping, he can sympathize with the hardness of the initial training…but he can’t force you to want to swim.

What you’re doing is like someone who has been in jail (sin) for a really long time. I’ve read about how a person who has been in jail actually gets comfortable with jail. They find it extremely difficult to integrate into society afterwards, even though they know it’s better not to be in jail! In jail they had a system, a routine, they knew what they were doing within those confines, so they actually get anxious about release. Often, after release, dealing with warfare is hard, because the devil attacks you for simply wanting to change.

In other words, you were in jail, you’re uncomfortable with society and adjustment, even though you had some really good experiences, you may find yourself walking toward handcuffs again because you’re scared of the battle, you’re scared of this new life, and you’re overwhelmed by the challenges.

Balancing paternal love and respect for freedom
This is why sometimes the spiritual father sees himself saying, “he doesn’t know what he’s being set up for!” It’s pure love. The role of the father is to warn you, even if he respects your decisions to do whatever you want. The father must balance his role as father and friend. The father in the guide has to reprove and correct, even if he would rather just tub-tub, give you a hug and cry with you. The father is alert to dangers that his son is walking into, and is moved only with love and compassion, and for that reason cares enough to make noise and be responsible for you. Sometimes the coach is saying “I get it, I really do, but be careful, it’s not a helpful path!”

When you understand your roles as well as having an agreed goal, the most important thing underneath everything is communication. You have to express how you feel about things. If you’re overwhelmed, communicate it. If you’re not able to handle a lecture at the time, say so. It doesn’t mean that you’re always right in wanting that, but you should communicate it, that’s how you grow in your relationship with one another. Over time each understand the other more – how they deal with ups and downs, when a person needs to back off and when a person needs to push in spite of resistance. This can only come with healthy communication, because once again, there’s an underlying assumption that there’s love and respect between the confessor and the confessee.

When you disagree
There’s also an assumption, as discussed, that if you are with a coach, you want the end result, and you need to have that in the back of your mind when you are disagreeing. You have to balance the knowledge that you chose him to train you (and not the opposite), with your own limitations and convictions, and you trust that he knows what he is doing. If you do not believe the latter, then he’s not a good starting point as a guide (unless you have a huge pride issue – but that’s another topic).

When you disagree, respectfully convey your disagreement, do not hide it, because nobody is helped by that. You will neither advance, nor will the coach be able to guide you, and the only one gaining is your enemy. At the same time, your coach should be a good listener and he should be trying to understand you as a human being, not see you only as an inanimate object that he is trying to sculpt.

When you disagree, try and accept that in spite of your disagreement, it is possible that you are still wrong. The father, on the other hand, must also be listening to see if he’s misunderstanding something, or if information that you’re giving changes the circumstances or his view of the proper next steps.

Do not confuse disagreement for lack of love. People love one another but they do not have to agree on everything. Having a disagreement is healthy and leads to growth when the two really truly love and trust one another’s intentions. The father knows that you don’t have to confess, and you should realise that the father does not have anything to gain in popularity by disagreeing with you.

At the end of the day, your spiritual father wants you to fight the good fight and not submit to your enemy just because times are rough or because you want to carry out some particular vice. It’s the hard times that make us spiritual warriors. Spiritual life is not for the faint-hearted, it’s a life of battle.

The Kingdom of heaven suffers violence…and the violent take it by force.