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.
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.
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.