“I wish I had never met you.”

A person never wants to hear that from a friend. But I heard that on more than one occasion from two separate friends. Not only were these two guys my friends, but I was also discipling them — after a fashion. I’m sorry, I can’t say ‘discipling’ or ‘mentoring’ without squirming a bit. One reason is that I am only a few years older than these guys, and second, the amount of spiritual abuse and patriarchy that is loaded into those terms makes them difficult for me to use.

I was discipling two guys who felt a call to ministry, a call they didn’t particularly want to heed. My job was to goad them into it. They had gifts that needed stewarded. Their gifts would help the body — and we need all the help we can get! Ephesians 4:12:

to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ

Looking back, I’m not sure why I went ahead with it. Maybe it was a way of responding to a call of my own. There was nothing that particularly qualified me for the job. I wasn’t in vocational ministry, I had no sweet networking contacts, I couldn’t provide any financial aid. I had no theological education. Even better, they came along during one of the worst seasons of my life. When I think about it, I’m not sure why they stuck around at all!

The books on discipling and spiritual direction don’t really prepare you to wade into the murky waters of projection, transference, condescension, whining, and my favorite, forgetting that you exist when the sailing is smooth. Nor did those same books assist me in wrestling through the existential pickle of ostensibly helping two gifted and circumstantially advantaged people find their dream jobs. Other than my constant nagging, I just couldn’t see how they benefited from it. On more than one occasion I tried to quit, and for some reason, I never seemed to be allowed to.

As they struggled with joblessness, or worse, unhappy employment, I struggled along with them. Too many nights, I would wake up from a dead sleep with an urge to pray for them. I would agonize about the areas of faith and trust they were wrestling with. If they were going through a season of suffering, I would turn into the Kierkegaardian Abraham from Fear and Trembling:

He (Abraham) believed the absurd. If Abraham had doubted — then he would have done something else, something great and glorious; […] He would have marched out to the mountain in Moriah, chopped the firewood, set light to the fire, drawn the knife — he would have cried out to God; ‘Do not scorn this sacrifice, it is not the best I possess, that well I know; for what is an old man compared with the child of promise, but it is the best I can give.’

Looking back, I realized, during those times they wished they had never met me, the love I felt for them never wavered. I knew my job was being less concerned with their circumstantial happiness, and instead, drawing their attention to areas where sanctification seemed to be happening. Before you get scared that I’m going to go all MacArthur on you, sanctification can be usefully described as Gerhard Forde does:

“Sanctification is thus simply the art of getting used to justification.”

Discipleship and stewardship, as you can see from my story, are closely linked in my mind. There is a weight of responsibility to discipleship and mentoring that often caused me to fear vomit if I spent more than five seconds thinking about it. Yet, despite the stress, I could sometimes see a glimmer of why I was put in that bizarre position. Being given two talents to steward during a season of your life where you are the least qualified to do it produces a kind of sanctification where you can say, right along with Paul:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst. – 1 Timothy 1:15

The reaction to that grace at work in me produced a love for others that I couldn’t have mustered up myself, certainly one I couldn’t have sustained for nearly a decade with those two guys. I’m just too way too neurotic. The weight of responsibility also starts to become less, uh, vomit-inducing in light of that grace. Robert Farrar Capon gets at that relief when he writes about the Parable of the Talents in The Mystery of Christ:

It’s because Jesus only cares about whether people are someplace where trust alone can get them, not about whether they can claim to have worked their way there by noble efforts. So in his stories he goes out of his way to reward those whose only virtue consists of trusting enough to be in the right place at the right time (like the tax collector in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican) — and he usually gives them shabby reasons for being there, just to make sure you won’t have any stray virtues to keep track of. And that’s because the Gospel is not some self-improvement scheme devised by a God who holds back on us till he sees improvements.

So a decade later, I learned, thankfully, that I am the chief of sinners, and Jesus came to save me. Much of that education came through discipling two guys I was unqualified to disciple. I came out the winner on that one. Oh, and those two guys? Both are currently serving in ministry dream jobs — as in, jobs most pastors would commit a felony to get. Is there a moral here? Nope. Far from it.