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Spiritual Direction: An Invitation

Updated: Jun 3, 2023

The following is an overview of Spiritual Direction by guest blogger and one of our own Spiritual Directors, Patti Thomas.

I first heard the term “Spiritual Direction" when I attended my Spiritual Formation training program at Moody Bible Institute in 2015. When I was invited to train to become a Spiritual Director, I knew almost immediately that it was an invitation from Jesus and that it was what He put me on this earth at this time to do. And yet, when I went home from Chicago to Lincoln, Nebraska, I didn’t personally know anyone else who knew what I was talking about. I would stumble through trying to explain what it was while trying to make a weird and unfamiliar name sound more palatable so people wouldn’t think I’d gone off the deep end.

Spiritual Direction is becoming more popular among Evangelicals, but it is still relatively new. There are a lot of questions about it and even skepticism. I’d love to address that and introduce you to a beautiful tool on the pathway to a deeper, richer life with God.

So where did the name Spiritual Direction come from anyway and what does it mean? Susan Phillips, the author of my favorite Spiritual Direction book Candlelight, describes on a podcast that the Greek word for director is kubernétés. The Apostle Paul uses the word in Acts 27:11 to describe the pilot of a ship. The idea is that it is a person who stands next to the Captain who is actually steering the ship and advises them through challenging areas of the sea by drawing attention to weather, currents, tides, and water depths. That sits so right with me as I think about sitting with someone who is facing into internal and external challenges. The Spiritual Director doesn’t steer, we simply draw the directee’s attention to certain things, including their internal world and where God is and what He is doing, so they can make their own choices.

Even though the term is new to many of us, the concept and practice are ancient. Spiritual Director, Anne Solomon, points out that if we define Spiritual Direction as “one person offering another spiritual guidance and counsel,” we can see this played out in the way Moses directed the Israelites in the wilderness or the way Eli taught Samuel how to answer when God called to him in the night.

Spiritual Direction can also be traced back as far as the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Centuries to the Desert Mothers and Fathers who left the urban areas to live in the Egyptian desert. Some fled because of persecution, some to get away from distractions and temptations, and some to remove themselves from what they considered corruption within the church after Constantine came to power, ended persecution of Christians, united church and state for the Roman Empire, and made himself the head of the church.

In the 16th Century Martin Luther and others led the Reformation, breaking away from the Catholic church and starting Protestantism. The Reformers objected to the ways they felt the church had gotten away from Scriptural instructions through papal authority, selling indulgences (paying to reduce one’s punishment for sins), and confessing to priests, among other things. They established the Five Solas: God’s Word alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.

In their passion to separate themselves out from the Catholic Church and to live their convictions, they left behind anything that had been used to earn salvation or partially pay for sins, including many spiritual practices and anything having to do with monastic living, including Spiritual Direction.

The move away from contemplative practices that came with the Reformation in the 16th Century as well as the emphasis on reason and education that came with the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, of the 18th Century, influenced the Protestant church’s view of discipleship (learning how to be a follower of Christ) toward education by imparting knowledge and teaching doctrine.

So when and how and why did Spiritual Direction get reintroduced into Evangelicalism? In her thesis and dissertation, Margie Van Duser gives credit to Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message, and Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic Priest and professor. Much credit also goes to Dallas Willard, a Philosophy professor, and his one time pastor, friend, and founder of Renovaré, Richard Foster. In 1978 Foster published the book Celebration of Discipline, reintroducing spiritual practices, that was widely read in Evangelical churches.

Dallas Willard wrote and spoke extensively about observing that real transformation wasn’t happening in the pews of the Evangelical church. He emphasized the difference between head knowledge and what the words for knowledge in the Bible implied. The Hebrew word yada and Greek word ginóskó actually encompass a personal, experiential knowing. He advocated for not stopping at learning facts about God and the Bible, but becoming an apprentice of Jesus, cooperating with the Holy Spirit and engaging in spiritual practices that will lead to Christ being formed in us so that we begin to think, feel, and act like Jesus (Galatians 4:19).

I learned this concept in my Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Direction training program and it has brought so much life to me. Oh, the difference between knowing about God and actually knowing God in a personal, experiential way. Scripture is powerful, but when we face life’s most shaking challenges, we need more than God’s words, we need God Himself. Jesus said in John 5:39, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!”

Trauma-informed Spiritual Direction seeks to address the whole self (mind, heart, body, and spirit) toward the Shalom wholeness, integration, flourishing, and peace God intended for us and our world. God created us in bodies and designed all of our parts to work in harmony with each other. When spiritual care disconnects or ignores the body, much harm can come. God beautifully designed our bodies to hold memories and send us messages about what is true that can’t be controlled and manipulated the way we can talk our minds and hearts out of uncomfortable realities.

A Spiritual Director is trained to make space to invite Jesus into your hardest, darkest, scariest, most painful places to bring what Jesus brings: healing, peace, comfort, light, restoration, and safety. You can move from living merely for God to living in Christ and with Christ. We focus on inner healing and transformation that will then overflow into words and actions that allow us to be ambassadors for Christ in the world.

If you are interested in a safe space to experience Jesus in more transformative ways with a guide who will welcome your doubts, your questions, your pain, and your longings, The Broken and Beautiful has three trauma informed Spiritual Directors. We were all trained through the same program, but we bring our unique wiring into our Direction styles. To find the best fit for you, you can read our bios here and schedule a consult. It would be our joy to journey with you.

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