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A Word to Mentors and Mentees

In Revise Us Again, I dedicate an entire chapter to a phenomenon I call “being captured by the same spirit you oppose.” This is something that all of us are susceptible to.

One of the characteristics of those who are captured by the same spirit is the tendency to impute the motives of one’s own heart onto those we find threatening or those we just don’t like.

Christian leaders who have inflated egos or deep insecurities are easily threatened by others. As a result, they will unwittingly read their own heart motives into the hearts of other people. Psychologists call this “projection.” I can’t face my own shortcomings and defects so I unconsciously project them onto other people. I accuse others of the very same dark things that are lurking deep within my own heart.

I’ve watched some Christians engage in projection when they came into contact with those who were just as (or more) gifted than they were. The root is often jealousy. You can call it a “Saul complex,” if you will.

Herein lies a great lesson: Those who judge the motives of others are simply revealing what’s in their own hearts. In Matthew 7:1-4, Jesus points out that those with defective eyesight are all too willing to perform eye surgery on others. Yet within this text, the Lord makes this chilling assessment: If you impute an evil motive onto someone else, you’re simply making known what your motives are.

To put it another way, the piece of sawdust we see in our brother’s eye is simply a small chip off the two-by-four that lies within our own. And a piece of wood will always distort our vision. When people cannot face the reality of what’s in their own hearts, they project it onto others—particularly those who they find threatening to their egos.

One of the most profound influences in my life was a talk radio show host from many years back. When this man first broke into the talk radio business, he sat at the feet of a man whom he idolized. He was this talk radio show host’s mentor. We’ll call the mentor “Nelson” since I don’t wish to disclose his name.

When Nelson discovered that the man who he had mentored began to surpass him in popularity, all hell broke loose. Nelson’s monstrous ego began to flicker, and he was loaded for bear. He launched the first salvo, and the two men waged an on-the-air radio slap fight that marched off the map of dignity.

Pointed insults were swapped. Disparaging remarks were cast. Both men drew blood from one another, and the listeners got caught up in the carnage. It turned out to devolve into something quite vicious, and the exchange deeply hurt my radio friend.

Unfortunately, no one could reel in the egos or squash the infighting. It turned into bad blood. Nelson was radioactive for quite some time, and the two men didn’t speak a civil word to each other for many years.

What happened to these two men is not an isolated incident. I’ve watched it occur numerous times since I’ve been a Christian.

King Saul is not the only gifted man who has been threatened by a younger David. What was at the root of that painful period in David’s life? Jealousy and envy in the heart of Saul and the threatening feeling (as well as the irrational paranoia) that comes with them.

As they danced, they sang: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” (1 Sam. 18:7-8).

Incidentally, jealousy and envy are what provoked the religious leaders of our Lord’s day to put Him to death. Tragically, this same drama has played out since Cain slew his younger brother out of jealousy.

I’m no fan of Sigmund Freud nor of his theory of the Oedipus complex. (Please reread that last sentence.) But what led Freud to construct his oedipal theory was a legitimate observation about human nature. Namely, Freud observed that some fathers and some father figures become threatened by their own sons. That is, they fear being supplanted by their sons, and so they grow to hate them.

This only happens when there’s an excessive root of pride and insecurity in the father figure’s heart. The absence of such pride and insecurity is what separates those spiritual fathers who become proud of their sons from those who grow to despise them.

Regrettably, some mentors suffer from both an inferiority complex and a superiority complex at the same time. Their shaky sense of identity cuts in both directions. In such cases, they become masters at the fine art of denial.

Caution: If you’re a person who will one day mentor others, I have a sobering warning. If your ego hasn’t been annihilated by the cross of Jesus Christ, you will end up becoming a Saul in the lives of those who are just as (or more) gifted than you are. And when God begins to elevate them in His service, you will go insane.

You’ll become another sad example of lions eating their young. And as with every modern Saul, God’s favor and anointing will leave you and be given to another. As Peter said, God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5, NKJV).

Saint John of the Cross warned Christians to be very careful whom they chose to be their mentors, for, in his words, “as the master so is the disciple; as the father so the child.”

To my mind, one cannot show genuine respect for one’s mentor by perpetuating his or her shortcomings and flaws. Every spiritual father should be extremely proud of the son who surpasses him (the same with mothers and their spiritual daughters). True mentors freely give what they have to their spiritual sons and daughters and hope that their sons and daughters will exceed them. False mentors use their sons and daughters to increase their fame and carry on their legacies, and they become infuriated whenever their sons and daughters share their glory.

The Lord give us abundant grace so that we will not be captured by the same spirit we oppose.

This post is an excerpt from Revise Us Again (David C. Cook, April 2011) and was originally published in The Next Wave.