Holding On

Written by: Joseph Koh (Photo by: Zann Lee)

Lessons as a Mentor

When a lanky, bespectacled 17-year-old first approached me to mentor him when I was still in National Service, little did I expect for this relationship to last for so long. I can be a quitter — there have been numerous things in life I’ve picked up and put down. I’ve never completed a bible reading plan despite valiant attempts; reams of books lay unruffled and unread on my shelf; I’ve had a penchant to start projects and gradually pass it on to the next person.

It still marvels me that I’ve followed through with a mentee for seven years. Daniel (or Dan) today has a full-time job and could very well get married before I do.

While this mentorship journey has been rewarding, it has (unsurprisingly) been challenging for me on multiple occasions.

I can still distinctly recall moments with Dan where I was rendered speechless; there was nothing I could say that could possibly improve his life situation, apart from offering a feeble, earnest prayer. Other times, Dan was like a sealed envelope — he would put on a blank face even though there were many things left to say on the inside. There were glimpses where I felt like walking away because I was sick of living in the hazy half-light.

Mentorship is hard. Humans (including myself) are broken and fallible, which only mean that with each day, we are in dire need of grace from God and from others. I stopped mentoring Dan for a year for two reasons: I was headed to Copenhagen for an exchange programme, but more crucially, Dan felt that he had gotten too uncomfortable with his walls torn down. We simply got worn down in-between.

He sent me an email sometime during this period detailing his internal conflict: “I struggled a lot with being that exposed with someone, and the whole concept of accountability was something I had a strong love-hate relationship with. I hated how I had to be held responsible for my actions, and…I honestly wanted things to go my way. I didn’t like to be ‘checked on’ or ‘kept in the light.’”

During this period away, it made me think deeply and hard about what mentorship means to me personally and whether I thought it was a significant endeavour I should pour my time and effort into. If I can be transparent, there have been seasons where I’ve felt under-appreciated or taken for granted; yet, at these arid and bleak junctures, I have discovered my motivations and convictions. Was I working for man or God (Colossians 3:23)? Have I adequately grasped the shepherd’s heart (Jeremiah 23:4)?

In an unexpected turn of events, God spoke to me about mentoring Dan again. I shrugged it off the first time it happened mostly because of the groundswell of pride and fear in my heart: given that this was something that Dan didn’t see a need for in his life, why should I entertain the possibility of rejection? My mind was a sandstorm of inadequacy and self-doubt.

Yet, the nudging would not stop. I also came to realise that my heart’s burden for Dan to walk fully into his destiny had not wavered through the year. This propelled me to obey God’s voice, so I decided to drop him a WhatsApp message. As I penned my thoughts within the text box, I remember my fingers retracting time and time again as my mind hesitated like a stuttering car engine.

“…I do recognise that you’re not in the best of places now. I would love to help you tide through this period. Do pray/think about it and let me know yeah? No pressure ah.” I was still skittish about the plausibility of being turned away, hence I crafted the message in an almost non-committal manner. Thankfully, I had heard God accurately.

In the beauty of retrospect, the most crucial ingredient that has kept me going is an unflinching belief in Dan. He is indubitably made for greater things and all I needed to do was really offer him my shoulders to stand upon. It is even unfathomable that God would choose me to play a tiny part in getting Dan where he needs to be. He’s going to places I can only dream of, yet I could actually be that lighthouse during this time. I tell him that everything I have learnt in life, love, and loss; I share it with him, with the hope that it would someday come in handy.

If I were to focus on myself (i.e. my needs, my emotions, my schedule) when it comes to mentorship, I would have given up ages ago. There is really nothing I can attain in return. There have been times where I would meet him in a flurried state as I had skidded out of the office and a million issues continue to rattle in my mind. I learn to make time, even when I feel like the sky is about to break and fall upon me.

Taking on this mandate as a mentor has continually pushed me to live a life that transcends self-ambition and self-indulgence — I have truly learnt what it means to love others beyond myself (Philippians 2:3). If God has moulded a burden in your heart for specific persons in your community, may you find the courage and faith to take them under your wing. You can be a fortress, arresting the devil when you come to their defense. You can give strength even when all their heart is fenced.


JOSEPH thinks that Nasi Lemak ought to be Singapore's national dish. He is passionate in discovering how faith can collide beautifully with urban culture, and believes in mentoring the next generation. He also wishes that a singular Singaporean accent will emerge in his lifetime. Follow him @firesandtimbers.

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