Generation to Generation

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Throughout July we’re taking an in-depth look at Proverbs, the Bible’s one-of-a-kind book about our never-ending need for wisdom.

Author Ben Patterson describes an experience that has been common to many Westerners, especially missionaries, when they arrive at the edge of dense Amazon rain forests and ask for directions.

“I have a compass, a map, and some coordinates,” they will say.  Inevitably a villager will respond, “Let me take you there.”  The visitor will then say, “No, just tell me how to get where I need to go.  All I need are good directions.”

“No,” says the villager, “I will take you there myself.  You must follow me.”

Most people who grow up in Western cultures appreciate the self-guiding blessings of our technological age.  We savor handbooks, GPS, and Google Maps – “Guidance for Dummies.”  After all, as long as the compass is in the palm of my hand, I’m still in control of the trip. 

But God has made us in such a way that virtually everything worth knowing in this world can be discovered only by means of relationships with other people. 

We don’t so much need a set of directions to make our way through life.  We need a guide

The Bible is sometimes treated as a kind of Homo Sapiens owner’s manual, akin to the 350-page instruction book that typically comes with your new computer (also known as the least-read book in North America).  Yes, there are a few special people who actually enjoy exploring every page of their computer’s specifications.  But most of us yearn for a digitally savvy friend to sit beside us and say, “Here’s the power switch.  Now let’s look together at your screen.”    

Most people acquainted with the Old and New Testaments would say that Proverbs comes closest to having the look and feel of an “instruction manual” for daily spiritual living.  It presents itself as a curriculum for the training of future leaders – royal sons in particular. 

But we must not overlook the essential way in which the life lessons of this book are imparted.  They are mentored.    

“My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding— indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” (Proverbs 2:1-5)

This is a dad telling one of his children, “It’s a jungle out there.  If you try to cut through those vines all by yourself, you’re going to get lost.  I know where the secret paths are.  Walk with me.” 

From beginning to end, Scripture upholds the value of passing the torch from one spiritual generation to another.  Moses mentors Joshua.  Elijah walks with Elisha.  Elizabeth bestows the gift of friendship and encouragement on Mary.  The apostle Paul reproduces his own commitment to Christ in the lives of Epaphras, Titus, Phoebe, Silas, Epaphroditus, Priscilla, and dozens of other men and women that we know from his various letters.

How do you become a wise person?  Hang out with a wise person.  How do you become a disciple of Jesus?  Keep company with at least one other disciple of Jesus.

This doesn’t happen through a program.  We don’t need Reverend So-and-So’s Seven Steps to Spiritual Success.  Francis de Sales, one of Christianity’s most notable teachers of the last 500 years, wrote, “Do you seriously wish to travel the road to devotion?  If so, look for a good [person] to guide and lead you.  This is the most important of all words of advice.”  

What makes a great mentor?

We don’t have to be experts, gurus, therapists, or theologians.  All we have to be is friends who are serious about helping each other know the Lord. 

Here’s where turning to the New Testament can help shine light on Proverbs.  One sentence from Paul’s hand, more than any other, helps us comprehend what’s at stake in one-on-one spiritual mentoring.  In 2 Timothy 2:2 he writes:  “And what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.”  If we look closely at these words, we can see five discipling generations.

First, there’s Timothy.  He’s the “you” in this sentence.  We know that Timothy was initially a raw, painfully shy recruit, but that he gradually grew into the role of Paul’s prime helper. 

Second, there’s Paul himself:  “What you have heard from me.” Timothy didn’t learn how to follow Jesus by taking a course at a local community college and then memorizing his notes.  He grew up in his life with God by walking alongside Paul.

But where did Paul pick up the life lessons of spiritual wisdom that he passed along?  That heritage was received from “many witnesses” who had taken the time to invest in Paul.  That’s the third generation (although chronically it came first).  Theologically we do not re-invent the wheel.  Helping others grow means guiding them along the pathways of previous generations.  Good news always reaches us from someone else…on its way to yet another someone…and we are accountable for making sure the whole message is passed along intact. 

Fourth, Paul tells Timothy he needs to entrust these teachings to faithful people.  In Greek the word “entrust” means making a secure run to the bank to deposit a treasure.   Discipling another person is not doing a “data dump” into an unusually receptive brain.  Disciples are not widgets.  Paul knew Timothy and he loved him, and Timothy was now to invest in the same kind of relationships with others.

That brings us, fifth, to the truly decisive phrase in 2 Timothy 2:2: who will be able to teach others also.  Paul, who has been resourced by faithful witnesses, pours into Timothy, who’s doing the same thing with a few others – with the key proviso that Timothy must find a way to carry out this mission so that the chain will not be broken – to ensure that the fourth generation will know how to raise up a fifth generation.

Proverbs is a book about passing the precious cargo of wisdom from parents to children, from teachers to students, from friends to friends, from neighbor to neighbor.

When the Holy Spirit supervises that process, the lessons often go deep into our hearts.

For two years during college, Mary Sue and I were under the influence of a man named Charlie Greene.  Charlie never grew tired of asking a particular question.   No matter what the circumstances – no matter what joys or disappointments or mid-course corrections had come into our lives – he would always ask, “What have you learned from it?”  Charlie cultivated the attitude that God is always at work, and that every situation is an opportunity to trust him more deeply. 

We haven’t seen or talked with Charlie Greene since the spring of 1974, but that question is still bearing fruit in our lives.  And for almost five decades we’ve had the chance to share it with others.

That’s the power of mentoring.

Who are you walking with today who’s teaching you how to live?

And who is learning how to live today simply because they’re walking alongside you