Drawing Closer to God

How a spiritual director can help you grow in your faith.

Her palms open heavenward, Helene sets them on the couch by her thighs and then starts with a prayer. On occasion, she rings a brass bell to separate the clamor from the quiet. Sometimes she lights a candle, as if to remind us that the Holy Spirit is with us, interceding on our behalf with words we don't even know how to find.

For the next two or three hours, Helene listens intently with me for God's voice. I pay her $30 for this priceless gift. We sit in her sunroom, chatting about my everydayness: the job, the migraines, the mother, the husband, the sex, the prayer life, the joys, the mistakes. Sometimes we read Scripture; in it we find people with the same concerns as mine. In it all, I slowly notice God beckoning.

Helene isn't a mystic or a saint. The title I use for her—spiritual director—isn't helpful, either. As any decent spiritual director is quick to say, the term's a misnomer. Helene doesn't tell me what to do or try to answer questions only God can answer. In her sunroom, we listen for—and sometimes hear—the Holy Ghost.

Once, as I and my biological clock neared 28, I came to her distraught over my feelings of inadequacy as mother material. "Have you talked to God about it?" Helene asked. "Not yet," I replied. "Why don't we ask him now what he thinks," she proposed. She prayed for guidance, and we sat in silence for about five minutes.

There was nothing I wanted more than to hear God's words of comfort. But as the minutes flew by, I felt—pardon the expression—spiritually constipated, unable to discern God's voice. I finally gave up trying. As soon as I did, a thought popped into my head: You can't make this happen! I suddenly realized that just as I couldn't make God answer my questions immediately, I couldn't resolve my feelings toward motherhood when I wanted to. Both require waiting—but would be resolved in time. When I conveyed this to Helene, she said, "See, there's your answer."

Like a growing number of evangelicals, I've turned to spiritual direction because I want to know God better. My life is so hurried and unexamined these days, I need someone older and wiser to accompany me.

David G. Benner, coeditor with Gary Moon of Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls: A Guide to Christian Approaches and Practices, sees the current interest in spiritual direction partly as fad and partly as the result of "a breath of God's Spirit." While the spike in evangelical curiosity may be temporary, spiritual direction is no novelty. It's a classic spiritual discipline various Christian traditions have practiced for centuries.

In the last few decades (with the most intense growth occurring in the last five years), a number of evangelical schools have begun to offer degrees in direction. Well-known Christian psychotherapist Larry Crabb decided spiritual direction was superior to psychotherapy because it probes the spiritual causes beneath psychological problems. A couple of years ago, he even opened a school of direction.

"Evangelicals already have experience with discipleship, Bible study, and teaching," says Jeannette Bakke, author of Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction. "Spiritual direction is different; it's an ordinary conversation whose purpose is to recognize God's presence and invitations even when speaking about the ordinary flow of life."

In a typical session, a director may start by asking you about your life, and then begin inquiring, "Where's God in this?" or "How have you prayed about it?" Direction can take place on the phone or by e-mail, and sometimes even in small groups of people who function alternatively as directors and directees.

Spiritual direction is not necessarily for everyone; many people have encounters with God without it. But if you're curious about how it might help in your faith journey, here are five points to consider.

Spiritual direction is not psychotherapy. People usually see a psychotherapist because they want to solve their problems. Once their crisis is remedied, they stop seeing the professional. Spiritual direction isn't designed to "fix" people or solve their troubles.

Thirteen years ago, Ruth Haley Barton, author of Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God's Transforming Presence, stumbled upon spiritual direction when, as a church leader, she went to see a Christian psychologist. The professional helped Ruth realize her questions weren't mainly psychological in nature; they had more to do with faith and God. The psychologist surprised her by suggesting they find out where God was in her struggles.

The psychologist-turned-director led Ruth into the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude. She remembers the director saying to her, "Ruth, you're like a jar of river water all shaken up. You need to sit still long enough so the sediment can settle and the water can become clear."

"She knew I was all riled up, so full of words, activities, theology, and dogma, that I hadn't had the courage to sit still long enough to hear my questions and find God in the midst of them," says Ruth, who today is a spiritual director and the cofounder of The Transforming Center, a spiritual formation ministry.

"I think we've gotten to the end of what psychology can offer," Ruth adds. "It cannot take us all the way to full spiritual transformation. We need a way to open ourselves to the work only God can do can to transform our deepest brokenness."

Like Ruth, good candidates for spiritual direction are people experiencing anxiety, change of identity, challenges to their faith, and a yearning for God. Some find direction helpful in steering them away from the kind of sin that tends to ensnare them.

Pick a spiritual director who's further down the spiritual path. Many of us are blessed to have informal spiritual directors: our parents, grandparents, teachers, prayer partners, and pastors. In a way, spiritual direction is something mature believers should give each other without setting out to do so.

Yet while it's true any believer can help another listen for God, the person seeking direction needs to look for someone from whom she can learn. Spiritual direction is different from spiritual friendship.

"There are questions we're afraid to ask until we have support to do so," says Ruth Haley Barton. "You choose someone who's better versed in the ways of the soul than you are, someone who has submitted herself to training."

Spiritual direction doesn't equal mentoring, either. "People seek mentoring when they desire to develop particular competencies," writes Jeannette Bakke in Holy Invitations. In a mentoring relationship, the mentor coaches the mentee, while the latter seeks to imitate the mentor or to learn skills from him. As such, mentoring often takes place between two professionals. In direction, the directee seeks to imitate Christ with the aid of the director's discernment and experience.

The director has to have "a detached, loving presence," adds Jeannette. "With family and friends, it's nearly impossible to be open and neutral because their decisions sometimes affect us." For this reason, she advises the director and directee not to become social friends.

Spiritual directors don't have more access to God than you do. Be suspicious of anyone who claims to receive the guidance God has for you. And ask yourself why you're seeking a director. If you find it hard to speak to God directly, it may be worth considering whether your search for a director is one more way in which you're avoiding God.

Leanne Payne, author of Listening Prayer: Learning to Hear God's Voice and Keep a Prayer Journal, says that while there are sound spiritual directors out there—ones "deeply immersed in Christian reality and truth"—she worries when "hurting, needy people would much rather bend toward us and learn through us than go to the Lord themselves. And the flip side is just as hazardous: Immature spiritual directors can gain carnal control over the lives they direct."

I like the way psychotherapist-turned-spiritual director Larry Crabb describes spiritual direction—listening to the Spirit on behalf of another. The director is there merely to accompany you through listening, questions, and prayer, as you notice the movement of God in your life.

Good spiritual directors should be hard to find. Author Leanne Payne, who is head of a pastoral care ministry, cautions that fine spiritual directors have been "few and far between" historically. There's good reason for that. She quotes 16th-century priest Frances De Sales' writings: "There are fewer men than we realize who are capable of this task. He must be full of charity, knowledge, and prudence, and if any one of these three qualities is lacking, there is danger. I tell you again, ask God for him, and having once found him, bless his Divine Majesty, stand firm, and do not look for another, but go forward with simplicity, humility, and confidence, for you will make a most prosperous journey."

Credentials from one of about 80 existing schools of spiritual direction aren't necessarily a good litmus test for a gifted director. Not all training centers are Christ-centered; some draw on New Age philosophy. Consequently, some credentials merely mean its bearers have been educated in "the current psychological syncretism rather than … the needed historical, theological, philosophical, and classical pastoral knowledge," Leanne says. She especially notes some directors are less trained in the orthodox teaching of Christianity than they are in Jungian psychotherapy (in which there's no acknowledgement of human sin and Christ's supremacy, and whose goal is self-realization).

Run from directors who: a) are more interested in your story than in where God is in your story; b) often give you advice; c) make you feel manipulated; d) quote more from Carl Jung than from the Bible.

Use your discretion regarding the gender of your director. I know of many edifying coed spiritual-direction relationships. God's best choice for some young women disappointed by men may be a grandfatherly priest. But I also know I wouldn't be able to discuss sex, hormones, or motherhood—all part of my life with God—in the same depth and detail with a man as I can with a woman. Plus, for some of us, the emotional intimacy this relationship fosters may be too close for comfort if it's with a man.

You don't have to get spiritual to participate in spiritual direction. Some people don't think of themselves as "spiritual." The good news is, Christ wants us to come to him anyway. You present yourself to God and to your director just as you are—even if it means hassled, depressed, stressed out, tired, or angry (I'd never go if it weren't the case!). A good director will help you find God's "holy invitations," to use Jeannette Bakke's words, "whether you are glad or sad, overwhelmed by life or savoring it."

Say that during your last session you decided to spend 40 minutes a day in prayer. It's been a month, and you failed. Instead of giving in to self-recrimination, talk to the director about the reasons why you weren't able to pray. They may hint at lessons God wants to teach you.

Well-known retreat director, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, and recovering alcoholic, Brennan Manning has found spiritual direction, among other things, aids in keeping him away from the lure of booze. In a recent interview, he told me, "Goodwill doesn't do it; lofty intellectual thoughts don't do it. I'm a very vulnerable man. There's no effective middle defense against the first drink. Similarly, in the spiritual life, there's no effective middle defense against the relapse of sin. It's a matter of pleading with God each day for the grace to stay faithful."

On the way home from Helene's sunroom, I'm encouraged to do just that. I sing praise songs in the car and usually even manage to take bad drivers in stride. The daily work of pleading with God for the grace to stay faithful in the midst of unanswered questions is still before me; no one will do it for me. But, thank God, a good, wise Christian is there to cheer me on.

Agnieszka Tennant is an associate editor of Christianity Today magazine.

Need Direction?


by Agnieszka Tennant

Make sure it's your cup of tea. Start by reading Jeannette Bakke's Holy Invitations. Check out Soul Talk: The Language God Longs for Us to Speak by Larry Crabb; Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction by David Benner; Holy Listening by Margaret Guenther; Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls by Gary Moon and David Benner; and The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William Barry and William Connolly.

Search the Web. For help in finding a director, Bakke recommends contacting Christian Formation and Direction Ministries (); Christos Center for Spiritual Formation (); and Larry Crabb's New Life Ministries ().

cfdm.org

christoscen ter.org

larrycrabb.com

More eclectic centers include Spiritual Directors International (); Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation (); and The Pathways Center for Spiritual Leadership ().

sdiworld.org

shalem.org

upperroom.org/pathways

Ask for recommendations. If you know of someone who has a gifted, Christ-centered director, ask for contact information. Even if the director can't take on any more directees, he or she may recommend someone else.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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