Divine Guidance and Spiritual Direction

Part 17 of series:
How Does God Guide Us?

In my opinion, spiritual direction can be a valuable means through which God can guide us. Allow me to explain what I mean and why I think this way.

For most Protestant and/or evangelical Christians, the phrase “spiritual direction” is an unfamiliar one. The title of “spiritual director” conveys very little and can in fact be misleading. Those who lack understanding of what a spiritual director does might be apt to misunderstand the role because of what the term “director” conveys. We might picture a spiritual director as somebody who “directs” our spiritual lives, giving orders, telling us what to do, and so on. We might even envision the kind of authoritarian discipleship that was popular while I was in college, but has been rejected by most Christians as unbiblical and unhealthy. This is not what spiritual direction is all about.

The first book in Howatch's Starbridge series of novels featuring the Anglican church. I recommend this book, though it is R-rated in spots.

Folks in the Catholic and higher-church Anglican traditions, as well as a growing number of Protestants, would be much more familiar with the notion of spiritual direction, whether or not they have personally experienced it. I first became familiar with the whole idea of spiritual direction through the novels of Susan Howatch. In her Church of England Series, sometimes called the Starbridge Series, her characters, who are Anglican Christians in some sort of crisis, are “in spiritual direction,” that is, they are regularly seeing a spiritual director. The chief task of the director is to help them discern God’s presence and guidance, both of which they need quite desperately. (Who doesn’t?)

Howatch’s portrayal of spiritual direction is sometimes more animated than reality, but she basically hits the nail on the head. The spiritual director’s job is not to give directions so much as to help someone pay attention to God’s directions. Thus, spiritual direction is a process that helps people to discern and follow the direction of the Holy Spirit.

In general, spiritual directors are wise, experienced, spiritually-sensitive Christians. They may or may not be ordained ministers, though most spiritual directors have been specifically trained and credentialed. Their training may include reading lots of spiritual classics, taking extended time for personal spiritual growth, seeing a spiritual director, being in a group with fellow trainees, and doing spiritual direction as a supervised intern.

In the last thirty years or so, Christians outside of the Catholic (or Anglo-Catholic) tradition have become more familiar with spiritual directions. This may be a result of the lowering of the wall between the Protestant and Catholic traditions. It may also be the result, in particular, of the popularity of the writings of Henri Nouwen (a Roman Catholic priest) and Susan Howatch (an Anglican novelist). For basic information on Catholic spiritual direction, visit Catholic Spiritual Direction. For a Protestant/Reformed perspective, see this informative discussion by the Rev. Kenton Smith.

I began seeing a spiritual director in 2006. I did so because it seemed like a good way for me to grow in my relationship with God. My expectations were more than realized, as I  had the privilege of a wise companion in my spiritual pilgrimage. It was good to have a place to sort out my joys and frustrations as a Christian, and to have help in discovering God’s presence in my life. Though I did not begin spiritual direction with the thought that I’d be changing jobs, my spiritual director was invaluable when I was trying to figure out if God was guiding me to leave Irvine Presbyterian Church and join the team at Laity Lodge in Texas.

My experience confirms the fact that spiritual direction is not the same as counseling or therapy, even if both counselor and counselee are Christians. Though some of the methods are the same, honest sharing and sensitive listening, a counselor focuses on the individual and his or her needs, experiences, hurts, etc. In most counseling, there is quite a bit of emphasis on discovering historical and psychological causes for current feelings and behaviors. So, if I’m feeling lots of anger towards a colleague at work, for example, a counselor might help me see that this colleague reminds me of my father, and therefore my anger may be more about my relationship with my father than my relationship with my colleague. A good counselor would take me a step further, helping me to see my colleague more clearly and relate to him more fairly. A spiritual director might also be interested in the roots of my anger. But his or her focus wouldn’t be in the past, or even in my feelings and behaviors. Rather, a spiritual director would help me to discover God’s presence in my current experience. This might include finding God’s power to be less angry, or to communicate my anger more appropriately. But a spiritual director would want me to consider what God might be saying to me in my anger, and how I might experience God’s peace in a way that helps me deal with my anger in a healthy, even a godly way.

Given what I have experienced in spiritual direction, and given what I’m seeing in the Protestant/evangelical/Reformed world in which I spend most of my time as a Christian, I expect that the popularity of spiritual direction will greatly increase among folks in my tradition. There is a longing in people for spiritual growth and spiritual guidance. Spiritual direction can help satisfy this longing, and it is surely one way in which God can direct us through the Spirit. Moreover, though you can’t find the title of “spiritual director” in Scripture, the notion of discerning God’s guidance in relationship with other Christians is central to the New Testament understanding of the Christian life. The best spiritual directors both reflect this biblical understand and use Scripture in the direction process.

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  • Evan


    You yourself note that the term “spiritual director” may not be the “best” description because of the implications it suggests, so let me say that I am in the position of wanting to learn more about all of this.

    The first question that arises is like that of determining whether or not a pastor is a “good” one and “doing their job properly.” There could be a lot of subjectivity in there. Further, unless one is counseling with a pastor, the implications of them doing their job poorly are not as potentially catastrophic. Over the years, I have had encounters in both situations. It was far easier to call the one pastor on their “creative” use of Biblical Greek to support their extremely dubious Scriptural contention in their preaching than to clear up the wreckage caused by another pastor on a counselling point regarding our teenager. Put another way, it is really bad news to find out you hired a bad mechanic by having your transmission fall out on the freeway. How can you evaluate a spiritual director before you get in very deeply?

    My second question probably has several answers with varying degrees of nuance: If an investured pastor with fifteen-some-odd years of experience and a doctorate found the need for a spiritual director, what chance do the lay folks have? This is one of those tricky times in which the written word might sound harsh when it is not intended. Speaking as a layman, we want folks as pastors who are more skilled than us in hearing and discerning spiritual matters, even though we are still supposed to be doing that as well before God. The pastorate is supposed to be comprised of the folks that are the most adept at it, so they can lead and guide others. If the pastor, who is being looked to for guidance, finds that THEY need help in getting that guidance, what are the implications for the lay people?

    This all arises in the context that what I know about a spiritual director is only what I have read here. My questions should be viewed as desires for more information rather than some sort of commentary.


  • J.L. Schafer

    Hi Mark.
    Thanks again for another thought-provoking post. The idea of a spiritual director (not the best name for it, it seems) is intriguing. As the pastor of a small congregation, Evan’s comment really made me think. I have two reactions to it.
    (1) Ideally, a pastor should be able to give excellent mentorship to members of his congregation. The fact that it often doesn’t work out so well suggests that perhaps the pastor doesn’t always have the best interests of the members at heart. The pastor may have a vision and agenda for his congregation that may conflict with their spiritual and emotional health and pursuit of God’s calling in their individual lives. (I know I did.) Portions of The Pastor by Eugene Peterson really hit home in this regard.
    (2) Pastors, perhaps even more than laypeople, need friendship and mentorship and support (and often counseling) to help them discern and follow God’s leading and deal with the stress and difficulties of their lives and vocations. Ideally, a church organization or denomination should be able to provide such support. But in practice, I have seen how the organization may have an agenda that creates a conflict of interest, putting the institutional goals ahead of the individual.
    I’m sorry to say that, in many cases, spiritual direction is best discerned by developing relationships with and talking in confidence to sincere Christians outside of one’s own church, because they are more likely to have the impartiality necessary to gain clarity. And that’s a sad, sad thing, because one’s own church community is supposed to be the primary lifeline of support.

  • Anonymous

    Evan: Good questions. Finding a good spiritual director is not all that different from finding a good church, a good doctor, a good mechanic, etc. Personal recommendations are crucial. In many cases, a pastor would be the one to recommend a spiritual director. Or, a pastor could be a spiritual director. Many are. The problem is that even full-time spiritual directors don’t see more than maybe 30 people a month. So a pastor of a large church couldn’t do too much of it.

    I think all pastors should be in something like spiritual direction. This could take the form of a highly committed small group. Pastors need to be pastored. They need a place where they can be truly honest. They need a context in which to get help discerning God’s guidance. Sadly, most pastors don’t have this sort of thing, and it shows.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. I responded to Evan before I read yours. This is a wise refinement of what I have written. Thanks.

    Most pastors can be quasi-spiritual directors. But they simply do not have the time to do all that is required of them and be spiritual directors as well, expect with a very few people.

    Spiritual direction can certainly happen in the contest of a church. In fact, it should happen in this context, in many (most?) cases. The spiritual directors will tend to be mature Christians who have been trained to help others discern God’s leading in their lives.

  • If one’s spritual director is someone who can help him or her discern God’s will and presence, how is spiritual director different from a teacher of the Bible? Is she or he a psychologist? A guidance counselor? A life-coach?

    And if one seeks to discover “God’s presence in [one’s] experience”, what, exactly, does that discovery look like?  Why not just sit down with the Bible and actually experience God’s revelations, and hence His presence, personally?

    In my own experience, I have a number of devout, quite pietistic friends who, for lack of a better phrase, “expect a sign”. Usually, this sign is some sort of inner voice, or a Gyro Gearloose lightbulb moment.  But, if one seeks to hear such voices or experience the lightbulb — to find one’s “spiritual direction” —  the only way, I believe, (prophets notwithstanding) is to immerse oneself in Holy Scripture — especially with a good teacher. God’s presence is surely found in the Bible and that ought to be where Christians turn when puzzled about life and their place in God’s will.

    I am not, here, referring to real, legitimate psychological pathologies such as manifest depression. There are many conditions for which medicine and psychology and other non-spiritual remedies are authoritative and they should never be denied by pinning one’s hope on proper guidance from God.

    At the end of the day, that portion of God’s will meant for humankind can be found in the Holy Scriptures and that maybe we need to study more and wish less.



  • J.L. Schafer

    Yes, I agree that spiritual direction can and should happen in the context of the local church. That is the ideal. I agree that pastors don’t have enough time, and the burden (blessing) ought to be shared. We all need spiritual mentorship and mature friends who can be honest with us and tell it like it is. In my experience, that has been key. I am now in the process of making some major life changes, and these would not have been possible if God had not placed a few spiritual directors into my life.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your contribution to this discussion.

  • Anonymous

    Spiritual directors come in all sorts of forms, with different strengths and gifts. But, as a rule, spiritual directors are not in the “expect a sign” category. The best ones, in my opinion and experience, are deeply biblical in their theology and methodology. But they are not Bible teachers in the usual sense, though they are often involved in helping individuals understand and apply Scripture in a deep, personal way.

    I’m 100% supportive of sitting down with the Bible and experiencing God’s revelations personally. That would be an essential element of spiritual direction, by the way. But we must also be in community with other believers if we are to discern God’s truth accurately. There must be teaching, gifts of wisdom, and accountability. We are not meant to discern God’s guidance alone.