5 Lessons on Mentorship from the Middle Ages

A few weeks ago, on October 31, we celebrated a holiday. And no – I’m not talking about Halloween. While it is often forgotten about, Reformation Day marks an important date in the life of Protestants. Now for those of you who might have slept through your world history classes in high school, let’s refresh:

For much of the middle ages (500 A.D. to 1500 A.D.), the Catholic Church dominated both the religious and political life in Europe. It wielded incredible amounts of power, money, and influence, and as what often happens with unchecked power, corruption set in. Eventually, the church turned to selling indulgences (pieces of paper promising that your loved one would be guaranteed entrance to heaven) as a sort of fundraising racket. On October 31, 1517, an incensed German monk named Martin Luther responded by nailing 95 objections to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in an attempt to reform the corrupt practices and doctrines that had become prevalent in the Catholic Church.

What’s important about Reformation Day is not the man, or the fact that his actions were instrumental in spawning the Protestant faith. What matters is that God used Martin Luther in incredible ways to help His people rediscover His Word, and to help His church return to true, biblical Christianity. However, it is not Reformation Day (or even Martin Luther for that matter) that I want to focus on, but Luther’s lesser known mentor, Johann von Staupitz. 

Martin was born to Hans and Margaret Luther in 1483. Hans was a miner by trade and, wanting to spare his son of the same life, encouraged Martin to enter law school. By all accounts, Martin disliked law school and had a natural bent for theology and philosophy, but he nevertheless obliged his father. One day, while on a trip back home, the young Martin was caught in a thunderstorm and was nearly struck by lightning. Terrified that he might die and go to hell, he made a promise that he would become a monk. So in 1505, Martin left everything behind and went to a monastery in Erfurt, Germany to do just that.

It was in Erfurt where Martin Luther met one of the most influential persons of his life – his mentor Johann von Staupitz. Not much is known about Staupitz, but he served as an overseer and superior to young, aspiring monks – including the young Martin Luther. Even though Martin was going through the process to become a monk, it is clear from his own admission that he was still unconverted when he first came to the monastery. Martin was constantly plagued by a guilty conscience and fear of hell. To alleviate his conscience, he frequently made pilgrimages, fasted, prayed, and spent hours in confession.

“If ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I was that monk. And yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.’ The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak, and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more I daily found it more uncertain, weaker, and more troubled.” -Martin Luther

For much of Luther’s time in “seminary”, Staupitz faithfully mentored and counseled the troubled young man. Seeing Luther’s obsession with his own sin, Staupitz frequently counseled him to look away from his own sin, and towards Christ who was able to forgive sin and grant a change of heart. It was because of Staupitz’s advice, as well as being washed by the scripture, that Martin Luther was finally converted and tasted grace.

Luther had a great respect and fondness for his mentor. By his own admission, Luther said of Staupitz: “If it had not been for him, I should have sunk in hell.”  It was nothing other than the stirring of the Holy Spirit that saved Martin Luther. Nevertheless, Staupitz’s godly advice, mentorship, and personal investment into a young troubled soul made a critical difference – not only for Martin, but eventually for all of Christendom. Even though history remembers Martin Luther, let us not forget that we are benefactors of Staupitz’s faithful, behind-the-scenes mentorship. That said, what can we take away from their examples?

1. Awareness of our sin is a gift of God

Ephesians clearly states our salvation is a gift from God, and that no one has any grounds to boast. Likewise, an awareness of sin – which is necessary for repentance that leads to salvation – is also a gift of God. Luther, for much of his life, saw the deadly reality of his own sin, but he didn’t know what to do with it. He, like many still do today, turned to doing religious things in order to gain favor with God. But, as Ephesians says, there is no way that man can gain favor with God by doing good things. We must be aware of our sins, repent of them, trust that Christ’s death is the only means for God’s forgiveness, and subsequently lead a life of submitting to the Holy Spirit.

What should I do if – like Luther – I am suffering from conviction and an awareness of my sins? First, recognize that God is showing you mercy. God is opening your eyes and ears and granting you godly sorrow that leads to repentance. Secondly, know that although sorrow and fear from conviction are necessary, they do not comprise repentance and faith. As Jesus said to a number of would-be disciples, you are close to the Kingdom of Heaven, but you have not found it yet. Thirdly, and most importantly, because God is convicting you He is giving you the opportunity to repent and believe. Therefore, in light of His mercy, use the opportunity he is giving you to repent and trust in Christ’s death as the atonement for your sins.(After all, there is no guarantee that you’ll get another such opportunity. Only by repenting and trusting Christ do you find the Kingdom of Heaven.)

2. Wallowing in conviction can become an idol

As I said before, Luther was clearly under conviction of his sin for many years of his life.

Instead of turning to Christ, Luther turned to doing empty (albeit good) religious things such as making pilgrimages, fasting, praying, and confessing as a tool to gain favor with God and make atonement for his own sins – an impossible task.

Religious activity is good. God indeed wants us to pray, to confess, to seek Him, and to do good works. However, when they are used as tools to tray to gain favor with God – without trusting and valuing Christ – they too become empty human traditions.

Therefore, don’t repeat Luther’s mistakes. Do not let wallowing in your despair and punishing yourself become an idol to you. Don’t focus so intently on your own faults and sins that they become an insurmountable burden. Don’t try to make atonement for your own sins. Your sins are indeed grievous to a holy God. However, He is also loving and desires to give you only what He can give you: repentance and a new heart that values Him above all else.

3. Being religious is not the same as being converted

A problem that affects every human heart is that we want to be made much of. For many, that involves giving others the illusion that we are more spiritual and  religious than we actually are. We may even genuinely do religious things, like what I have listed previously. However, such “worship” does not honor God. God frequently addresses humanity’s false religiosity. It is a stench to Him. In Isaiah He says that, “they honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Likewise, Jesus frequently rebuked the Pharisees (religious leaders of the Israelites) for being “white washed tombs” – having the appearance of being religious on the outside, but on the inside they are spiritually dead.

What is more important than attending church and fasting and praying is having a converted heart that now values God above everything else, and that trusts in Christ’s death as the appeasement for its sins. And as far as doing religious things? “You should have practiced the latter [religious actions], without neglecting the former [conversion].” (Matt. 23:23)

4. Mentorship matters

People often like to make separate little boxes. One for evangelism, one for discipleship, one for mentorship, and so on. The truth is, regardless of what you call it, they are all part of the same scale. The activity and the end-goal is one in the same: to get people to become more like Christ. And so, if the person you are mentoring is unconverted – we happen to call it evangelism. If the person you are mentoring is saved – we happen to call it discipleship.

Mentorship is incredibly important work. The stakes are high, as it is the difference between eternal life and eternal death. We must be serious about grabbing as many lives as we can – unconverted and saved alike – and faithfully help them to treasure Christ. As you mentor people, you are not affecting just one life, but the thousands and millions of lives that would have been touched by that one life. Little did Staupitz know the effect he would eventually have on the course of history by mentoring that young, nervous, German monk.

5. Behind-the-scenes ministry is not meaningless

Generally speaking, mentoring is a ministry that often goes unnoticed and unthanked. There is no spotlight or adoring audiences – as you might find with the preaching and teaching ministries. Instead, it is often a day-to-day, one-on-one kind of work. But just because there isn’t a spotlight, doesn’t mean that there isn’t joy in it or that the work is meaningless.

Not all ministries and gifts are the same. But all are useful for building up the body. So regardless of what ministry you are involved with – please know that your work is not meaningless. 

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Total Realignment of the Heart (Part I)

What things bring you joy when you think about them? What are the things you just can’t seem to step away from? What things do you lie awake in bed thinking about?

For some, they can’t help but think that life is “all about the Benjamins”, and fretting about how to grow their bank account. For some, they value time at home with their spouse and their children. For more than a few college-aged persons, it’s all about maximizing fun-time between (and sometimes instead of) classes.

None of those things I listed are inherently bad: that is, money, sex, family, possessions, or even intangible things like love or fun. In fact, when they are enjoyed in such a way that shows that God is more valuable to us than those things, they are blessings.

However, even for a people whose entire faith hinges on the promise of the resurrection because of the substitutionary death of Christ, I am convinced that we spend far too little time thinking about (read: dwelling on) the new heavens, the new earth, and the glorious God who will govern both. The reason is that we are so prone to becoming bogged down by other concerns – some of which are sinful, and some of which are legitimate. Kids need to eat. The mortgage needs to be paid. You know, stuff like that.

If we are going to live fruitful Christian lives, we must rise above our sinful, idolatrous addictions, and we must rise above our tendency to settle for the here-and-now. How do we go about doing that? Hebrews reminds us to, “lay aside every weight and sin which so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1b-2).

We notice at least three admonitions from the author of Hebrews: First, lay aside sin. Seems obvious, right? Second, lay aside other stuff (even good stuff) that prevents you from seeking and obeying God. Thirdly, realign your heart to treasure Christ. This third admonition from Hebrews really is the key to unlocking the first two. By fixing our eyes on Jesus – his glory, his goodness, his loving sacrifice, among his other manifold qualities – the things of this world “grow strangely dim.” In other words, not only are we to lay down one set of passions, but we are also to pick up a better passion – namely, God.

 

Our Lord sets the very same example for us when “for the joy set before Him he endured the cross.” What joy is the author referring to? The joy of ascending to heaven, the joy of being returned to his rightful place at the Father’s right hand, the joy of redeeming a people for himself, and the joy of conquering sin and death (just to name a few) were more valuable to Him, and motivated Him to obey the will of the Father.

No doubt this world offers many things that capture our desires and attention. Falling out of love with the world is a hard thing to do. Nay, it is impossible to do on our own. We are creatures that are naturally inclined to seek joy and fulfillment – which is not wrong! What is wrong, is where we choose to fulfill those desires. When we were unconverted, we were dead to God and had no other choice than to seek fulfillment in sin and in the here-and-now. But once God gives us the gift of conversion, Christ frees us from our absolute enslavement to sin. Even though we still have a sinful nature inherited from the fall, Christ now gives us the freedom to tell our sinful natures, “no,” and to seek fulfillment in Him.

We must, therefore, for God’s glory and our joy, realign our hearts to treasure Christ. It is the only thing that will help us – for the long run – to live lives that are pleasing to God. Recognizing that it’s easy to spout platitudes, part two of this blog will provide some practical advice on how to realign our hearts. In other words, what does the process look like? Stay tuned for part two.

Our Desperate Need for A New Heart

A Fatal Flaw

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah17:9)

Let me tell you a story:

It’s a cool, cloudy spring afternoon. Rain drizzles outside as the grey light seeps in through window blinds. The fluorescent flicker of the exam room heightens the nervous tension in the room, as a young couple – perhaps in their early thirties – wait anxiously in the corner. At long last, the medical technician breaks the silence, “It’s another boy.”

No, this isn’t a story about Planned Parenthood; nor is this a story about abortion. This is a story about my life.

The excited and anxious young couple are my parents. And at 3:00 pm, on April 6, 1990, they welcomed their second son (me) into the world. Unfortunately, instead of being able to enjoy the moment, their excitement and joy would soon give way to heartache and fear. Something is gravely wrong with their son: his heart has a fatal flaw.

With no time to waste, doctors whisk the young couple’s newborn infant away. More doctors come and go, while shouts and orders echo through the hallway. In the midst of the chaos, the couple is all but forgotten. Finally, a kind, grave-faced doctor enters the room, shuts the door behind him, and sits down across from the young couple. The solemnity of his expression seems to communicate everything long before he even has a chance to speak. Nevertheless, he takes them by the hand and delivers the frightening news:

“Mr. and Mrs. Romine, your son has a very serious heart condition. The major arteries of his heart have developed in the wrong place.”

All sense of time and space seem to warp around the young couple as panic rises in their chests – they can’t think. Pushing through the mental haze, and with tears welling up in their eyes, they manage to ask, “What are you saying? What does that even mean?”

“If we do not act now, your son will surely die . . .”

The Day Their Hearts Stopped Beating

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)

Truth be told, our diagnosis is not so different. All of us were born with a fatal heart condition. Our sick hearts are pitifully and wretchedly bent to “exchange the truth of God for a lie, and worship and serve the created, rather than the Creator.” (Rom. 1:25)

We weren’t supposed to have sick hearts. We were made for something greater: to be eternal beings that magnify and delight in an infinite, all-satisfying God. That day in the garden changed our fate forever. That day we chose to “become like God” and magnify and delight in ourselves. That day we waged cosmic treason against our Creator. That day we chose death.

By declaring war against our Creator – whose breath is our very life and sustenance – we opened Pandora’s box. Since that day, we’ve been exploring every filthy, cavernous recess we can imagine. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, [and] slander.” (Matt. 15:19) All around us we see the tragic consequences of our natural state: families and lives are broken; we are slaves to an endless list of addictions; children are routinely neglected and abused; we lie, cheat, and steal; our hate has produced an astounding, piling body count.

Sadly, even in the face of incredible brokenness, we still often choose to suppress the truth because we cherish our sin. It’s that simple. It feels so good … at least for a while. Much like the ancient Israelites, we choose broken cisterns and dirty mud puddles over a fountain of fresh, living water.

We are pitiful, wretched creatures indeed.

A New Heart

“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and them a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 11:19)

In case you couldn’t tell, I didn’t die that day. Gifted surgeons spent hours in the operating room, with my chest splayed open, grafting and cutting and correcting the fatal flaws of my tiny, quarter-sized heart. I still had a long road of recovery ahead of me, but I had new life breathed into my dying body.

Like my own heart, our only hope is radical, invasive surgery; without a new heart, our prognosis is certain death.

However, in His wisdom, God knew that we were both unwilling and unable to initiate peace.  He knows that our hearts are mutinous to the core, and no amount of “doing better” or “right living” can ever fix them – or, for that matter, atone for our crimes. Therefore, out the richness of his love, and in spite of our treason, God took compassion on his enemies. For His glory and our joy He purchased peace with the shedding of His own blood, and thus gave us ‘hearts of flesh.’

On account of the heavy cost of securing for us hearts that are now at peace with God, we must not cheapen the gift by allowing our faith to devolve into shallow, passionless obedience which ultimately has no power to help us to live pleasing lives for God. God rightly demands and desires so much more from us. He desires that we fulfill the greatest commandment: “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all of your mind.” (Luke 10:27)

We must not be guilty of being superficial about God. Superficial love – affections without obedience – does not glorify God, for “if you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) Likewise, superficial obedience – obedience without affection – does not glorify God, for even demons believe and obey Him.

Instead, let us seek to savor, to magnify, to exult, and to delight in everything God is. Let us cultivate deep, rich affection towards God that naturally results in our glad obedience to Him.

C.S. Lewis aptly said, concerning our desires, that, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

The Christian life, then, is not marked by a single heart transplant (which is undeniably necessary). Instead, it is marked by our humble and persistent confession that even though we are now a people set apart for God, our mutinous hearts are still quick to usurp the throne. To that end, let us entreat God to deepen our desires for him and to give us the only thing that will cure us: new, undivided hearts.

Thank God that there is no shortage of new hearts in God’s kingdom.