A Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Direction
- The Biblical Roots of Spiritual Direction
- Defining Spiritual Direction & Its Purposes
- How Spiritual Direction Differs from Christian Counseling
- My Own Experience with Spiritual Direction
- How to Find a Spiritual Director
- A Blessing for Those Longing for More
Since beginning this series on Christian spiritual practices, one of the top spiritual practices that readers have been longing to know more about is spiritual direction.
I want to do my best today to answer all of your questions while at the same time giving you an accurate representation of what spiritual direction is. We could take hours upon hours diving into the depths of this topic but for the sake of time, we’re just going to be covering:
- The biblical roots of spiritual direction
- What spiritual direction is and its purposes
- How spiritual direction differs from Christian counseling
- My own personal experience with spiritual direction
- How to find your own spiritual director
Today’s post is going to be an overview that I hope leads to deep reflection, questions answered, and maybe some arrows pointing you to your next right thing when it comes to pulling back the curtain on your spiritual walk with God.
The Biblical Roots of Spiritual Direction
I know that the term ‘spiritual direction’ may sound a bit wonky and new age to some. It did to me when I was first learning about this practice and it’s ok to have your reservations. My prayer is that you would bring those reservations to the table today, along with your questions, and be open to what the Holy Spirit may say to you regarding this Christian spiritual practice.
While it may sound like an odd term, spiritual direction spans centuries, and we can see it being practiced in the Old and New Testaments in the Bible.
It’s illustrated in the Old Testament in Exodus where we find Moses guiding the Israelites through the desert as they trek towards their freedom. We see it in the relationship between Eli and Samuel in 1 Samuel 3 as Eli helps Samuel discern the voice of God in his life.
It’s also embedded in the New Testament as we observe the life of John the Baptist. In his humility, He pointed to Christ as the Son of God and as the One who brings the presence of God into the world.
And, of course, we see spiritual direction demonstrated ultimately in the life and ministry of Jesus in the New Testament as He cared for, tended to, and guided lost and hurting souls into the loving presence of God.
Spiritual direction has biblical, Christian roots, and since that time it has bled into our own Christian churches and into the Catholic church.
Defining Spiritual Direction & Its Purposes
I have my own definition of what spiritual direction means to me, but I find it helpful to pull from the words of others in order to give you a more well-rounded definition of this practice. I want to take a look at how a few different voices describe the purpose of spiritual direction.
There are a plethora of purposes and benefits of spiritual direction, but today, we’re going to take a look at three main purposes of this practice in order to get a simple overview of what it looks like on a practical level.
Spiritual Direction as Soul Care
First, let’s take a look at the words of Dahlia Fraser, who is a spiritual director and holds her Masters of Theological Studies in Spiritual Formation. Dahlia describes spiritual direction as,
“A spiritual discipline which has been a source of nurture for Christians for centuries. It is a form of soul care which offers an individual the opportunity to meet with another Christian for the purpose of examining his/her relationship with God.”
I love Dahlia’s interpretation of spiritual direction as a form of soul care. When doing my own research, I noticed that the term ‘soul care’ was often associated with the explanation and definition of spiritual direction.
In their book, Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls, Gary W. Moon, and David G. Benner agree that soul care is an important part of this sacred practice,
“The species of which spiritual direction is one important representation is soul care. The English phrase “care of souls” has its origins in the Latin cura animarum. While cura is most commonly translated “care”, it actually contains the idea of both care and cure. Care refers to actions designed to support the well-being of something or someone. Cure refers to actions designed to restore well-being that has been lost.”
This might lead you to ask, what in the world is soul care? Soul care, as I understand the term, is the act of paying attention to and caring for your inner life. It’s not about producing, striving, meeting deadlines or expectations.
Soul care is about taking time to tend to your inner life by silencing the noisy distractions of the outside world and engaging in activities that refresh and renew your soul and spirit. Spiritual direction is one beneficial way to practice soul care.
Spiritual Direction Offers Guidance & Discernment
Spiritual direction can also offer guidance and discernment. In her book, The Art of Spiritual Guidance, spiritual director, Carolyn Gratton, uses the following story to illustrate how guidance is offered in spiritual direction.
“It seems that there once were some fish who spent their days swimming around in search of water. Anxiously looking for their destination, they shared their worries and confusion with each other as they swam. One day they met a wise fish and asked him the question that had preoccupied them for so long: “Where is the sea?” The wise fish answered: “If you stop swimming so busily and struggling so anxiously, you would discover that you are already in the sea. You need to look further than where you already are.”
As someone who has been engaging in the practice of spiritual direction for over a year now, I can tell you that there have been many times when I’ve brought my questions and laid them out honestly before my spiritual director.
My spiritual director doesn’t always have answers for me, and that’s really not the point of having a spiritual director. Rather than offering me a solution, she often points me inward. She acts as a companion and a guide to help me discern the voice of the Holy Spirit living within me.
Proverbs 16:9 says,
“A man’s mind plans his way [as he journeys through life], But the Lord directs his steps and establishes them.” (AMP)
One of the many things a spiritual director does is hold safe space for you; your questions, your feelings, your wrestlings, and your longings and then point you towards the Holy Spirit and what He may be saying about your next right step.
Spiritual direction is a wonderful way to discern and familiarize yourself with the voice of God in your life.
Spiritual Direction Points to the Presence of God
One of my favorite things about spiritual direction is that it teaches awareness of God’s presence with you.
Writer and spiritual director, Kari Bartkus, defines spiritual direction as such,
“Spiritual direction gives us a sacred space to look for Him (God) together. To listen for what He might have to say. To see signs of His presence in our lives. I liken it to being in a room with someone. They may not be speaking words out loud, but they are still communicating something to us. What is God saying, even if He appears silent? What is God doing, even if we can't see Him plainly?”
Spiritual direction is one way in which you can slow down, seek still moments, and behold God’s presence with you in the everyday.
In their book, Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls, Gary W. Moon, and David G. Benner explain that,
“Concisely put, it (spiritual direction) involves an experiential awareness of God’s presence that leads to conversation, communion and ultimately authentic transformation of the entire person by an internal yielding to His will.”
Spiritual direction, if done correctly and in a healthy space, always leads to a deeper relationship with God and a transformed and renewed spirit. It teaches you how to notice God’s presence with you in the everyday mundane and how to recognize His voice amidst the noise.
Emily P. Freeman, in episode 167 of The Next Right Thing podcast, shares this beautiful definition of what spiritual direction is,
“In its simplest form, a spiritual director is a person who holds prayerful space for someone else. The task of the spiritual director is not to literally direct a person, which is often a misconception about spiritual direction, but to remain attentive to the spirit of God on behalf of someone else. God is the director, and the process of spiritual direction is a practice of helping people become aware of what God is up to in their lives."
Spiritual direction encourages a slower, more still way of being and living in the world and a richer way of relating to and being with the Holy Spirit.
How Spiritual Direction Differs from Christian Counseling
Spiritual direction and Christian counseling do have some similarities, but overall, they are very different.
They are similar in that they both care for the whole person; body, mind, and spirit. Both spiritual direction and Christian counseling create spaces where you can share your struggles, questions, or longings and then have the spiritual director or counselor point toward your inner life.
But the main difference between the two is that spiritual direction points more toward the Spirit of God. It’s not only about the inner life when it comes to spiritual direction, as it mostly is with Christian counseling, but it’s about focusing on the activity of the Holy Spirit in each and every circumstance.
In a Christian counseling setting, the counselor may offer solutions or coping strategies for things such as depression or anxiety. The counselor is there to offer advice and help you problem-solve whatever you’re facing.
And while a spiritual director may offer wisdom when needed, they act as more of a companion to guide you deeper into God’s presence so that He can tend to your soul and spirit and provide what you need.
Spiritual direction can certainly help with anxiety or depression, but the main goal is not centered around your mental health. The main goal is to draw you into closer communion with God.
Both spiritual direction and Christian counseling are needed, and one is not superior to the other. There is a time and place for each, and it’s really up to you to discern what your needs are in this season and if a counselor or spiritual director would be more or less beneficial.
My Own Experience with Spiritual Direction
I can’t speak for everyone’s experience with the practice of spiritual direction, but I can share with you my own experience with this sacred practice.
I first heard about spiritual direction a little over a year ago from Emily P. Freeman, when she released a podcast episode titled “Spiritual Direction for Beginners”. The way she described spiritual direction as a way of becoming more aware of God in our lives spoke to my own deep longing of wanting to behold more of God in my everyday life.
I was feeling spiritually dry and knew that I wanted to go deeper with God, but I just didn’t know how. After listening to Emily’s podcast, I started researching spiritual directors in my area and after much searching and prayer, I got connected with Deb – my spiritual director.
Before my husband and I moved to Greenwood, Indiana, from Warsaw, Indiana I used to travel up to Goshen to see her in person, and our first session together holds a special place in my heart.
I was nervous, as anyone would be walking into unfamiliar territory. Deb has an office at a church in Goshen where she holds her spiritual direction sessions, and as I walked into her space I immediately felt the overwhelming love of God’s presence in that room.
On Deb’s walls were written the all too familiar words of Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” Those were the exact words God had given me in that season, and seeing them written on Deb’s walls just further confirmed that I was right where I needed to be.
Those words accurately described what I was about to experience.
I sat in a comfy chair, and Deb sat on the couch across from me. She held a notepad, a pen, and a kind smile. Before we began our first session, she explained that her purpose in my Christian spiritual journey is to act as a companion and a guide.
She then pointed to an empty chair that was sitting in close range to both of us and said,
“I keep that chair empty as a physical reminder to both of us that the Holy Spirit is in this space and it’s He who is the ultimate Director here.”
I immediately felt at ease and it was then that I understood that Deb’s role as my spiritual director was to listen to me but to also listen for and point to the Holy Spirit as a way to guide our sessions together and grow me in my spiritual journey.
Since that time over a year ago I have moved from Warsaw, Indiana to Greenwood and I now meet with Deb via Zoom for an hour, once a month. I was a bit nervous that losing the in-person aspect of our sessions would somehow diminish the power, clarity, rest, and refreshment that I always gained from our in-person sessions together.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Our Zoom sessions have been just as powerful and life-giving as our in-person sessions were and it was a reminder to me that the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and power can’t be diminished by time or place.
Deb has become one of the most cherished people in my spiritual journey, and I have experienced soul care and rest, guidance and discernment, and an awareness of God’s presence on a level that I didn’t have before I started spiritual direction.
I can see the fruit and the visible growth in myself that has come from engaging in spiritual direction and I can safely say that it’s one of my favorite Christian spiritual practices. And I believe that it’s one that all can benefit immensely from.
How to Find a Spiritual Director
Now that we’re nearing the end of this beginner’s guide to spiritual direction, you may be wondering how to find a spiritual director! Which is amazing, because that means you’re feeling called to this Christian spiritual practice and that makes me so excited for you!
There is an online directory called Stillpoint that can help you find a spiritual director near you. They have you fill out a Google Form with your religious preferences and where you’re located and then they promise to reach out to you within 10 business days.
I found Deb, my spiritual director, on a website very similar to this one. I simply began Googling and researching Christian spiritual directors near me and eventually got connected to the right person for me.
It may also be helpful to inquire about spiritual direction at churches that are near you. Not every church offers spiritual direction, but some do, and it might be worth calling around for.
I’ve also gotten connected to a few spiritual director friends over social media! Most of these connections have been organic. But if you have Instagram, you can hit the search icon at the bottom of your screen and then type in “spiritual director” in the search bar, then click on “Accounts”, and it will populate some IG accounts that contain the term spiritual director.
And of course, pray about this, friend!
Finding a spiritual director, in my opinion, is a task that shouldn’t be taken lightly. You want to make sure you’re connected with someone whose personality, core values, religious background, and beliefs you connect well with.
Including God in the process of finding a spiritual director is just as essential as meeting with one!
A Blessing for Those Longing for More
Spiritual director and writer, Kari Bartkus, shared that spiritual direction is often a safe space to be introduced to various spiritual practices that bring us closer to God,
“Many believers are limited in their view of ways they can connect with Him (God), having been taught only about Bible study and prayer, but there are so many ways we can approach God, that we can sit in His presence and be with Him. And we can find spiritual practices that support our personality and season of life… A spiritual director can help you discern that.”
Spiritual direction can open the door to so many other life-giving ways to connect with God in a deeply relational way. It fosters communion with the Creator while creating space for you to slowly and beautifully transform more into the image of Christ.
On this journey of longing for more, may you run right into more of God.
I pray that through exploring these different Christian spiritual practices with the Lord, your thirsty soul would be quenched by His divine power and love.
May you begin to look more like Him as you take the road less traveled, the narrow way of living and being with God.
And may you remember that grace carries you, always.
If you’re new here, welcome! Or if you haven’t been over in a while, welcome back 💛 we’re beginning a new blog series that centers around Christian spiritual practices. This article is #3 in the series! If you want to catch up on the two previous articles, check out the links below: