Where are the Sons?
I am fully persuaded that this is one of the most profound questions of our day. “Where are the sons?”
It seems that in almost every culture on this war-torn planet, the role of the father is smudged, ridiculed, distorted or even erased from society. An orphan spirit of epic proportions lies at the decayed core of every culture, breeding another confused, insecure generation unable to tap into their God-given potential or fulfil their God-given destiny.
While many decry their lack of fathering, embittered in self-pity, only to perpetrate the same crimes on the next generation; others are awaking to the astonishing revelation that they can break the cycle of rot. That is, the healing of our soul and restoration of our planet begins, not in having a perfect human father, but in being a faithful son.
Continue reading as we unpack this so that the full weight of this statement arrests your heart. (I know, it sounds way too simple. I missed it for the longest time too).
So, where are the sons?
Paul reminded us that the fifth commandment is a command with a promise: “honour your father and mother … that it will be well with you and you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:1-3 c. Exodus 20:12)1.
This amazing promise concerning quality of life through honouring parenthood is powerfully validated over and over again through studies and surveys conducted on parent-child relationships, regardless of culture, language or time. The quality of our life—one’s personal-worth, determined by a sense of security and significance—is directly related to our relationship with our parents, specifically our father.
And while this directly refers to the necessity of honouring our natural parents there is undoubtedly a principle here relating to spiritual parenthood too. And here it is, whether one has one’s natural or spiritual parents in mind:
The blessing of fatherhood lies in being a good and faithful son not in finding a perfect and doting father-figure.
First, there are no perfect fathers. I have fantastic spiritual fathers in my life, but I don’t expect them to be perfect. They will let me down at some point giving me the opportunity to be a good, faithful son not a shattered, disappointed fan. Second, if we’re looking for a doting teddy-bear figure in our life we will not only become quickly dependent on them, seeking to either please or appease them, but we will never march into our Kingdom destiny.
Let me state this again so that you don’t miss it.
The blessing of fatherhood lies in being a good and faithful son.
Regardless of how imperfect my human and spiritual fathers might be, the blessing of fatherhood—healing for my own soul and power to restore others—is unlocked when I choose to be the best son I can be (in the grace only Father God provides).
Yes, you may quickly point out that we need to find forgiveness and healing in God alone. Absolutely! Without discovering my identity and affirming my relationship as a child of Father God2, I won’t get out of the starting blocks of life. If I look to a man to do what only an intimate relationship with God should do, I end up worshipping the man. I can only be a good and faithful son to others if I know essentially whose I am and remain secure in who I am. For the record then: God is my Father—the answer to the “whose I am” question. And I am His son—the answer to the “who I am” question.
The generation that Jesus entered was likewise beset by an orphan spirit, vexed by the twin horrors of religious confusion and pagan chaos. Jesus declared: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you … At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:18, 20). The phrase “at that day” presumably referred to Pentecost morning, when the resurrected Christ indwelt them with the Father’s Spirit (Acts 1:4, 5, 8 c. 2:1ff).
From that moment, the disciples—who had argued over who was the greatest on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion, who had fled in fear at His arrest and who had even returned to their previous occupations after His resurrection—were utterly transformed from whimsical mice into fearless lions for God. They were delivered from their orphan spirit and enthused with the Father-heart of God. Every child is empowered by the Presence of their Father3. Amen!
However, a “just God and me” philosophy holds no water in Scripture. The premise of John’s entire first epistle, for example, is that unless we flesh out our vertical relationship with God into horizontal relationships on earth we’re not just barking up the wrong tree, we’re in the wrong forest altogether.
How did John, in his subtle as a brick-in-the-head manner, put it? He said that such a person does not have the truth in him (1 John 2:4), remains “in darkness” (1 John 2:9), does not have “eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15) and “is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Amen or O-me? Point taken.
The point then is: Am I a good and faithful son?
How do I translate my vital vertical relationship with Father God into a life-giving horizontal relationship with spiritual parents?
The choice is mine. The proverbial ball is in my court and game, set and match lies within my next move.
The principle of spiritual sonship is probably one of the most important values under-girding the Word of God, yet without a Hebrew understanding many fail to grasp its significance—or perhaps merely give mental ascent to it4.
To the Hebrew mindset, spiritual maturity unfolded through three stages of growth paralleled by natural human development. This is brilliantly seen in John’s first epistle as he addresses these three stages of spiritual maturity. He addresses “children”, sons or “young men” and “fathers”; not literal age groups but phases of spiritual growth.
“Children” are to know and enjoy the grace of God as they taste God’s forgiveness and mercy, finding their identity as children of God in the completed work of Christ (1 John 2:12, 13).
“Young men” are to know and enjoy the Word of God as they appropriate Christ’s victory personally in their lives, overcoming the works of darkness (1 John 2:13, 14).
“Fathers” are to know and enjoy the heart of God as they share God’s pleasure in parenting others, imparting His life and wisdom (1 John 2:13, 14).
This is a principle than runs throughout Scripture. Another profound example is found in Isaiah’s famous messianic prophecy of Jesus: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given … And His name will be called … Everlasting Father” (Isaiah 9:6).
Although we may struggle to think of Jesus as a father Himself, Isaiah’s Hebrew roots meant that for him it was a non-issue. The Gospels are careful to refer to Him beautifully as “the Child Jesus” (Luke 2:27) and “the Boy Jesus” (Luke 2:43) who “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men” (Luke 2:52). God the Son, almost inconceivably, submitted Himself to grow through spiritual childhood.
When Jesus was baptised with water and the Spirit, Father God spoke out the Hebrew father’s blessing upon Him: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16, 17). This was a “come-of-age” blessing conferred upon a mature son. The writer of the Book of Hebrews explains that as a son, Jesus “learned obedience” and was thus “perfected” (Hebrews 5:8, 9)5. This is breath-taking stuff and classic Hebrew thought. God the Son, most incredibly, submitted Himself to grow through spiritual sonship.
Then in a moment of profound delight, the resurrected Jesus tenderly restored His disciples—complete with a seaside meal—and called them His “children” (John 21:5). Beautiful! Jesus was a “child born”, a “son given” and became a spiritual “father” to these precious but doubting men.
In the same way, we enter spiritual childhood through the miracle of the new birth: we’re a “child born”. We then need to submit ourselves to God’s shaping process – though a spiritual family – to become a mature son: to be a “son given”. And it is from faithful sons that fruitful fathers emerge.
Notice, we do nothing in the new birth experience other than receive His free gift through repentance and faith. We also do very little in being released as a spiritual father; God again does this, through the witness of others6. Both childhood and fatherhood are His domain and responsibility; being a good and faithful son is our domain and responsibility.
Sonship involves experiencing life in a spiritual family of fathers and brothers, mothers and sisters; submitting to spiritual fathers who parent us in the ways of God7. A Hebrew child learnt obedience as a child and then, into adolescence, was inducted into apprenticeship. Through apprenticeship, and the mentoring he received from his father, his character was perfected and thus he became entrusted with the family legacy. Likewise, as we experience the fullness of the love of God in spiritual family—both affirmation and admonishment—we learn and begin to reveal God’s character (1 Corinthians 13:4-8; Galatians 5:22, 23). In this way, the desire to parent-lead others is purified, proven and ultimately released by spiritual fathers (Proverbs 18:16; Luke 6:40).
From the Old Testament through the New, the backbone in advancing God’s Kingdom cause was the strength of “father and son” relationships; such as Moses and Joshua, Naomi and Ruth, Samuel and David, Elijah and Elisha and the backbone of the early church: Jesus → Peter → Barnabas → Paul → Timothy. Of course, Paul then urged Timothy to continue this legacy (2 Timothy 2:2).
Let’s consider just two of these examples:
Elijah and Elisha (see 1 Kings 18, 19; 2 Kings 2, 3)
The prophet Elijah parented a young prophet Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21). At a very crucial point in their relationship, Elijah tested the young man – who was known merely as the servant who washed Elijah’s clothing (2 Kings 3:11)—by saying, in essence: “Leave me. Go do your own thing” (2 Kings 2:2). But Elisha replied, “I will not leave you!” He was a faithful son to Elijah, and when Elijah left airborne in the fiery chariot, Elisha’s cry was “my father, my father” (2 Kings 2:12)—not “my prophet, my prophet”.
As great a prophet as Elijah was—he had called fire down from heaven in the showdown on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18)—he never defeated the wicked queen Jezebel. So when Elisha asked Elijah for “a double portion”, he was not just seeking some charismatic thrill; he was requesting the impartation of his spiritual father (2 Kings 2:9). Elisha knew that Elijah failed to defeat Jezebel, and realised that unless he had the father’s blessing – “a double portion of the spirit” of his father – he would never be able to defeat Jezebel. It was this same principle that Jesus referred to in John 14:12, “the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do”.
The father’s blessing enables the son to build on the foundation of the father and exceed the achievements of the father. It was indeed Elisha who laid hands on Jehu and commissioned him to destroy Jezebel, which he did with absolute ease (see 2 Kings 9:1-10; 30-37). Why did Elijah not just do it himself? The anointing and power was released through the impartation of “fathering” to accomplish the work.
Paul and Timothy (see Acts 16:1-3; Philippians 2:19-22; 2 Timothy 1:2-5, 3:10-17)
Paul met a young Timothy in Lystra and, after receiving a good report from his local community, a father-son relationship was birthed (Acts 16:1-3; 1 Timothy 4:14). Timothy served as a son to Paul carefully following his “doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions and afflictions” (2 Timothy 3:10, 11).
It was Timothy’s faithfulness as a son that perfected his character and released him into his Kingdom destiny. To the Philippian church, Paul writes: “For I have no one like-minded who sincerely care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus. But you know his proven character, that as a son with his father he served with me in the gospel” (Philippians 2:20-22).
The wisdom writer explained: “A man’s gift makes room for him” (Proverbs 18:16). As a young man I would quote this often expecting my gifts to blaze a trail for my own ego and ambition. But Solomon didn’t end his sage advice there. A man’s gift makes room for him “and brings him before great men”.
Yes, this verse may have other connotations too but there is a powerful principle here, seen in the life of Timothy. Our God-given gifts bring us before “great men”—spiritual fathers—and as we seek their perspective and invite their counsel, this process tempers us bringing Kingdom release.
Guidelines for those who desire to be fathered…
Be realistic in your expectations.
Let’s first be clear on what we’re not looking for. We’re not looking for someone to wipe our spiritual noses and make decisions for us. We’re not looking for someone who tells us what we want to hear; whose goal it is to make us feel happy.
We’re looking for someone committed to us in love for excellence; who we invite to tell us what we need to hear when we need to hear it; who provokes us to righteousness and good works expecting us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). We’re looking for someone who genuinely knows how to help “bear our burdens” but who urges us to “bear our own load” (Galatians 6:2, 5); who stirs in us an iron-resolve to be more like Christ and to harness a backbone like a crowbar in wholehearted reliance on Christ alone. A true father stirs us to be holy, not just happy.
Therefore, setting our expectations right is crucial.
Your spiritual father will no doubt lead an active, busy life. To expect them to be at our beck-and-call is not only unfair on them, but would be a terribly selfish and childish expectation. We should rather prize every moment we do have with them, looking to learn from them whenever we can, ensuring that we are a blessing, not a burden, to them (Hebrews 13:17). A good son takes pleasure in making their father’s load lighter, rather than adding to the father’s load with demands and expectations.
In this sense, we speak of the need for a son to pursue the father even as Elisha pursued Elijah. Of course, both the father and son ought to pursue each other in a mutually edifying relationship. But the onus is on the son to seek out the perspective of the father instead of expecting the father to dote on him. The son’s aim is to be a mature son not a needy child.
Your spiritual father will not … surprise, surprise … be perfect. Yes, respect is vital in a fathering relationship and wrong-doing will undermine respect in a heart-beat. But I am not here referring to casual or blatant unrighteousness.
A godly father will seek to be real with those they parent, not try to impress them. In this, a good father will honestly open up his own heart in a desire to be authentic and in order to empathise with those they mentor. Rather than right off the father as, “Oh, so you’re not as strong as I thought you were,” we should honour their courage and vulnerability. The truth is that the greatest lessons you will learn from your imperfect father is how they handle failure, overcome their weaknesses and endure hardships.
Your spiritual father will at some point let you down. This is the reality, and test, of all true relationships. At some point, in their active schedule and in their imperfections, they will give you the opportunity to feel let down and even be offended. This is a good thing!
Firstly, it will remind you again that they are not perfect … yet; reminding you to continue to reaffirm your dependence in Christ and Him alone. And secondly, the relationship will become stronger, less artificial, if you can easily, yet thoroughly, forgive them. No relationship can grow until it’s tested. In fact, good sons cover their father’s nakedness, rather than seeking opportunity to undermine them (Genesis 9:21-27).
Start by honouring the spiritual fathers already in your midst.
When we talk about spiritual fathering, many often start by scouring the Christian celebrity circuit to handpick a “mentor”. This is certainly not the way forward unless you want an empty dose of “groupie fatigue” or “fan despair”. The first step is to affirm which spiritual community God has already placed you in; and then, to identify the spiritual fathers already in this spiritual family8.
God is, in His essence, a Father and a Son enjoying fellowship with and in the Spirit. Thus, church is essentially fathers and sons enjoying fellowship with and in the Spirit. Yes, we tend to make it more complicated than this but if we get back to basics we uncover the rich resources hidden in our midst.
To be clear then, start by affirming and honouring the spiritual parents in the spiritual community God has already placed you in. (It goes without saying, if you’re not in a spiritual community ask Father God to lead you into one).
Purpose to be transparent and teachable.
As good as a spiritual father might be; his parenting will be ineffective with you unless you develop two vital attitudes: transparency—to open your life—and teach-ability—to humble your heart. Here is a sobering thought: life flows in spiritual fathering only because the person being parented allows it to! The effectiveness of fathering is in direct correlation to your desire for truth. Don’t miss this. Remember, the blessing of fatherhood lies in being a good and faithful son.
There is absolutely no point, if you desire to be fathered, in keeping your cards close to your chest. It requires that we be transparent; that we open up our life (perhaps in stages) to the person we entrust with this task. The power of all sin lies in its secrecy; the first step to freedom is to jump into the light. “But if we walk in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Being honest in the “safe place” of a parenting relationship helps us step into the light and thus into the power of God. Yes, true forgiveness is found as we confess our sins to God; yet full healing is found as we confess our struggles to another. “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
Opening our life to another may take a super-human effort on our part. We have all, through painful experience, learnt to build up walls to protect ourselves, not realising that these very walls only end up imprisoning us. We need to fall heavily into the grace of the Lord as we use the sledge-hammer of conviction to dismantle these walls of bondage, and allow another in.
Opening our life up to another—warts and all—is not being weak; it takes great courage to do so. Actually to not do so is stupidity! “Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1).
We all have blind-spots and we will all, even the best man among us, lose perspective when the storms of life blow over. It is only wise—and courageous—to invest in a relationship of trust where we can learn to appreciate both sincere affirmation and honest admonishment from someone who’s committed to us, in love, for excellence. A true father stabs you in the front, because you have asked them to! “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6).
As we purpose to become lovers of Truth, we need to first start by facing the truth about ourselves. True freedom and self-discovery comes first by allowing God’s light to penetrate our soul, and in so doing, allowing it to expose the darkness. For those of us who have allowed this healing beam of intense love to do just this; we can only joyfully urge others to likewise walk this path of wise courage.
Then as we begin to build a life centred on Truth, we not only allow another in but we also make ourselves accountable to the Truth revealed in this “safe relationship”. Nothing is more frustrating, or dishonouring, to a father who invests both prayer and time into another, when the person they parent does not follow through on what God has revealed. Speaking from personal experience, I implore you to value and honour your spiritual parents by being sober and diligent. To be teachable is not about nodding your head in agreement, it is about applying your faith to life.
Where are the sons?
Regardless of your age, in the confidence you have as a son of God, resolve to be a good and faithful son in the spiritual family you are part of.
Remember, fruitful fathers stem from faithful sons.
1 We tend to separate the Ten Commandments into two groups; the first four relating to our relationship with God and the second six to our relationship with others. In contrast, the ancient Hebrews viewed the first five as relating to God and the second five as relating to others. Why? The importance of honouring one’s parents was less about the parents per se and more about worship to God; gratitude to Him for giving us life through our parents. This is not to undermine our relationships with our parents to any degree, rather it enriches it as we realise the honour we give them, regardless of their performance (or lack of it) as a parent, is received by God as worship—and a means He uses to bless us. And yes, let’s not be afraid to stress Father God’s desire to bless us (which I sadly find myself doing, at times, to avoid the error of making myself the centre of the Gospel). Paul himself reminded us that this commandment came with a specific promise of blessing.
2 To be complete: “through”, “by” and “to”. “Through Christ we have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). Through God the Son, by God the Spirit, to God the Father … lest you think I’m neglecting any beautiful Person of the Trinity.
3 You can download our article, The Father-heart of God (PDF) here.
4 In a related article—“What are Hebrew values?” <My Big Fat Greek mentality>—we discovered that Biblically “church” is essentially “spiritual family” (not an organisation) and “leadership” is essentially “spiritual parenthood” (not directorship).
5 This has nothing to do with being perfected from sin but has everything to do with being perfected as a mature son. The writer had already explained that Jesus was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
6 It is my opinion that spiritual fatherhood is something that should be witnessed by others; that is, a true father does not have to endorse himself, others affirm his mature parenthood. Certainly in the case of parent-elders, God has designed a check-and-balance principle to avoid self-promotion; that is, Biblically, apostles appoint elders (Acts 14:21 c. 1 Timothy 1:3; 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). In this, and in my opinion in every case, there ought to be a three-fold witness. There should be a witness in the spiritual family itself of its parent-leaders; true fathers aren’t hired or assigned from ‘head-office’. Outside others, who aren’t subjective, should witness this is true; in the case of elders, apostolic counsel provides this measure of objectivity. And, of course, the person himself should witness this in his own heart; no person should be cajoled into parent-leadership.
7 It behoves us to heed the counsel of Christ and avoid corrupting this precious relationship by turning it into a position or title (Matthew 23:8-10). In this passage, Jesus confronted the religious system of His day, rebuking them for turning relationships and gifts, which are filled with character and grace, into hierarchical positions and titles, so void of character and grace.
8 Paul explained to the Corinthian church, “though you might have ten thousand instructors … you do not have many fathers” (1 Corinthians 4:15). He used the plural word “fathers”. It is both reasonable and healthy to have a few fathers in our lives rather than merely seeking some exclusive relationship. Having said this, I also think it is wise and respectful to have a few fathers instead of many. One can only walk with integrity with a select number of people in father-son relationships.