The discipline of Spiritual direction is defined by the classic work, The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun as follows: “to give caring attention to my relationship with God, accompanied by the prayerful presence of someone who helps me listen well to God” (Calhoun, 2015, p. 16).
Essentially the practice of Spiritual Direction is one person receiving Christian guidance from another person. This example is quite common in the pages of the Bible. We see John the Baptist teaching his disciples and helping the lost to prepare themselves for the coming of Jesus Christ. We see Paul calling himself the spiritual father of his young mentee Timothy. We see it in the Old Testament relationships like those between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro, where one seeks spiritual advice from the other. We see relationships like those between Elijah and Elisha, Samuel and David, Jonathan and David, Ruth and Naomi, Moses and Aaron, Abraham and Lot, and Paul and Philemon just to name a few. Of course the greatest example we see in the Bible in the practice of spiritual direction, comes from Jesus himself who actively mentors and advises his twelve disciples.
One powerful example from the gospels is the example of Jesus as spiritual director to Peter. Jesus tells Peter that when he falls into the hands of sinners, and is betrayed and arrested, Peter will deny him three times. But he encourages Peter, and tells him that he has prayed for him, and reminds him to encourage the other brothers and sisters after this happens (Luke 22:31-62 NIV). Jesus instructs Peter spiritually, by reminding him that though he will deny his savior, he will “turn again” and then will encourage the others. The conclusion of this saga comes when Jesus is resurrected and talks with Peter, asking him three times: “Peter, do you love me?” (John 21:15-25 NIV). Jesus gently guided Peter back into right standing, encouraging his repentance through three declarations of faith and love for his savior, cancelling out his three denials. This is the epitome and greatest expression of spiritual direction. If only we could all be so lucky as to have Jesus himself as our personal teacher and spiritual director.
The timeless classic, the Pilgrim’s Progress seems to picture the character “evangelist” as a sort of spiritual director helping guide Christian toward the fullness of God, along the pathway to the eternal city. Bunyan wrote in his classic, “Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, Do you see yonder Wicket Gate? The man said, No. Then said the other, Do you see yonder Shining Light? He said, I think I do. Then said Evangelist, Keep that Light in your eye, and go directly thereto, so shalt thou see the Gate; at which thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.” Christian could not quite see beyond the wicked gate, but evangelist pointed Christian toward the prize. He didn’t point to himself, or take any sort of direct authority, but simply pointed and guided Christian in the right direction. That is the true task of the spiritual director, to guide the directee closer to the honest fullness of God.
“A spiritual director listens with one ear to God, and the other to the directee, always encouraging the directee to recognize where God can be found throughout the journey” (Calhoun, 2015, p. 133). The idea is to help guide the individual seeking God even closer to God, and to be one whom the Spirit of God speaks through to help guide the individual. This is one of the reasons Christians are commanded to be engaged together in regular fellowship. One person can and does help another to grow closer to God, through various intentional practices. As the scriptures say, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverb 27:17 NIV). It’s interesting that in the pattern for church discipline described in Matthew chapter eighteen the first step is to go to the person directly, one on one, and seek the repentance of the individual in question. Of course the spiritual director must be a mature Christian who is experienced in guiding Christians closer to God. But it shouldn’t be understood as something that only a priest or trained lay leader is capable of doing. All Christians can and should partake in spiritual direction. Calhoun (2015) indicates the true and clear purpose of spiritual direction; the goal is to longingly drink from the waters of the river of life (Jesus Christ) and to partake in a deeper intimacy with the Trinity (p. 133). Spiritual direction as a spiritual practice is quite popular in Catholic circles, though it has gained some popularity in protestant circles as well (Calhoun, 2015, p. 133).
Historically the practice of spiritual direction goes back to the middle ages. It was seen as highly important and necessary to Christian faith and practice. “…not even the greatest saints attempted the depths of the inward journey without the help of a spiritual director” (Foster, 2018, p. 185). Spiritual direction goes all the way back to the desert church fathers, many of whom were sought by travelers in the wilderness, just to receive a few words of truth or “words of salvation” as it known then (Foster, 2018, p. 185). The Apophthegmata Patrum is one printed discourse illustrating some of the sayings of these monastic desert fathers (Foster, 2018, p. 185). The practice of spiritual direction was also practiced by twelfth century English Cistercian laybrothers who were well known for their ability to help read and guide souls (Foster, 2018, p. 185). The 17th century Benedictine mystic Dom Augustine Baker wrote that the purpose of the spiritual director was to be God’s usher, leading souls in ‘God’s ways’ (Foster, 2018, p. 185).
The practice of spiritual direction can be as simple as meeting with someone weekly or monthly and sitting down in prayer, discussion, and listening that helps foster a union that draws both to deeper closeness with God. It involves expanding one’s prayer and spiritual life to another person for the purpose of receiving help from the director to discern the voice of God and the will of God. When meeting the two individuals involved should examine the life of the directee and help them to see where God is at work in their life. They should pray together and ask for God to reveal His will for the directee. The director should not set the direction of the discussion; both the director and the directee should seek to allow the Spirit to direct and control the discussion. The director often will act as a voice that helps the directee to correctly interpret the experiences he or she is having, and how God is speaking through those experiences. This practice of spiritual direction can help the directee pay greater attention to the experience of God in their life, discerning the voice of God, mending any splits between the head and the heart, growth in prayer, finding closeness with God in the dark times, and in experiencing deep inner healing from past hurts and troubles (Calhoun, 2015, p. 132).
Today the practice of spiritual direction might be seen in some limited expressions within evangelical Protestantism. One could point to the practice of accountability partners who hold each other accountable in areas of sin and holiness. Usually accountability partners will meet together regularly, or attend groups together, working to hold one another accountable before God. This is not really a full expression of spiritual direction, but in a limited sense it does represent spiritual direction in some areas, like sin and holiness. Another expression might be in the practice of pastoral care and pastoral counseling one on one. Often times individuals in the church will meet one on one with the pastor to discuss important spiritual concerns. Often times we’ll see mentoring relationships develop in a more organic way between younger and older Christians who seek to help each other grow and develop in their faith. But the truest historical expression of spiritual direction between a spiritual director and directee, prayerfully meeting together, and helping the directee to carefully discern the direction God is leading them in their life, and give words of prophecy/discernment, and prayer for the directee as they grow in their faith walk, has little expression in modern day Protestantism, though it does find some expressions in modern Roman catholic monasticism. In these times when it is often difficult to discern the will of God, and live holy and free from sin, and find quiet time to draw closer to God, one can easily see how a renewed emphasis on spiritual direction could be a great and mighty blessing for present day protestant and catholic Christian communities.
Bunyan, J. (1678). The Pilgrims Progress. Boston: Judson Press.
Calhoun, A. A. (2015). Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.
Evans, J. (2015). Experience and Convergence in Spiritual Direction. Journal of Religion and Health, 54(1), 264-278. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24485255
Foster, R. J. (2018). Celebration of discipline: The path to spiritual growth. San Francisco: HarperOne.