Six Lessons on Love and Listening From a Spiritual Director
Spiritual Direction is often both intriguing and scary to us as Christians. We like the idea of serious spiritual formation and deep spiritual friendship and community, but we mistrust the human tendency to control and abuse. We find ourselves wondering, Is spiritual direction something I can trust? What does it offer for my personal spiritual growth, and how can it inform the way I minister in the context of my life and calling?
Although there is no single, agreed upon definition for spiritual direction, there are key characteristics that define the relationship it implies.
“We define Christian spiritual direction...as help given by one believer to another that enables the latter to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.” (William A. Barry and William J. Connolly The Practice of Spiritual Direction. New York: Seabury, 1982, p. 8.)
“The ministry of spiritual direction can be understood as the meeting of two or more people whose desire is to prayerfully listen for the movements of the Holy Spirit in all areas of a person’s life.” (Tilden Edwards, Spiritual Director, Spiritual Companion: Guide to Tending the Soul. New York: Paulist Press, 2001, pp. 2-3, 107.)
However you define it, “spiritual direction” is actually a misnomer, for it is the least directive of any form of helping ministry. Instead it turns and asks us, “What if we could learn to intentionally be with each other in a way that helps us discover how we can be more aware and responsive to God’s presence, invitation, work, and calling in our lives, so that we might know and love God more fully, and so fulfill our God-given callings?”
During the most recent CRM Worldwide Conference for staff and friends, a colleague and I presented a “learning space” on spiritual direction. We expressed together a dissatisfaction with spiritual direction being “professionalized” when its skills and values should influence all of Christian life, and especially ministry to one another.
We then shared six skills or values of spiritual direction that can be applied to all of our relationships:
1. Recognize and respect personal process and journey. We are often so caught up with results that we forget that we never actually arrive. We pass thresholds into new places and seasons, hopefully of greater intimacy with God. Any “step” a person takes happens when they are motivated and ready to take it themselves.
2. Practice parallel listening. David Augsberger wrote, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.” Applying good listening skills in our relationships is incredibly loving. In spiritual direction we learn to not only listen to the person in front of us for themes, desires, wounds, and lies, but also to listen to the Holy Spirit for what he might highlight in us and our companions. We must learn to listen for his guidance in sharing insight as well, so that all things unfold in his time. Prayer permeates direction.
3 Ask questions. It is easy to want to prescribe and fix other’s lives for them. But when we ask questions, we invite the other person to take responsibility for their own growth and their own relationship with God. At most you may tell someone what you “notice” in what you’re hearing them say, but don’t tell or suggest. Instead turn what you notice into a question: “Do you agree? What do you think that means?”
4. Focus on God. Everything in our spiritual life focuses on and flows out of our love relationship with God. It is a great gift to help someone notice where and how they are experiencing God. Often we do not see the forest for the trees—we are so close to our own lives and need someone else to help us see where God’s presence, invitation, work, and calling have become evident. Here again, prayer is the constant element of each aspect of direction, submitted to and empowered by God, “who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).
5. The key question: “What do you want?” This was Jesus’ question to blind Bartimaeus and is the classic direction question. Accessing the true desires of our hearts is a key to unlocking our true selves, which were created and are being formed in the image of Christ.
6. The critical question: “How do you want to respond to God?” While mentors may have ready answers and suggestions, spiritual directors help us discover and express our own response to God. The responsibility for our walk with God is always our own. This question is usually followed by one of readiness: “Are you ready to do that?” or “What is keeping you from doing that?”
These values, attitudes, postures, and skills can be applied to our ministry relationships, our team relationships, our family relationships, and even to evangelistic relationships. Often genuine curiosity and care is what leads others to trust us and open up about their lives. It is, after all, the way Jesus did it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill O’Byrne and his wife, Priscilla, live and serve in Saint Petersburg, Russia along with their four children. Bill has taught Spiritual Formation and Biblical Studies at Saint Petersburg Christian University and authored A Lenten Journey.
Pictured: Missionary Dave Everitt coaches a local leader on site in Cambodia.