Gordon T. Smith
Spiritual Direction, Pastoral Care and Friendship
One of the critical means by which we live in genuine accountability within the community of faith is by entering into conversation with others about the character of our experience. This is not an abstract discussion— about the spiritual ideals or principles of the spiritual life. Nor is it the retelling of experiences we may have had in the past. Rather, the conversation that is most beneficial occurs when we speak of our joys and our sorrows, the challenges, hopes and dreams we have, and the temptations and trials that currently shape our experience.
Indeed one of our deepest needs is to have people in our lives who are in a position to ask us the hard questions when we think we know the voice of Jesus. They are individuals who will not flatter us. They are not afraid of our emotional ups and downs, nor fearful that they will hurt our feelings, and they will tell it like it is when they think we have veered off the rails. A true friend listens. Further, true friends recognize that we have to know for ourselves the voice of Jesus. They cannot listen for us; they cannot be the word of God to us. We have to hear for ourselves, and they are committed to helping us know that word. But they are also more than prepared to challenge us when they think that our inflated ego or our fears or our anger is undermining our capacity to hear God. How sad then it must be for those who are alone, who do not have the joy of this kind of friendship! However, we must acknowledge that some do not have it because they have not sought it. They have preferred to walk their own path without the counsel and admonition of true friends.
True friendship, pastoral care and spiritual community include the joy of freeing and empowering others to know with greater confidence what God is saying to them. It is one thing to tell others that God loves them; it is quite another when they know, through the witness in their own hearts, that God loves them. And to the degree that we can empower others to hear more clearly the voice of Jesus, we have given one of the most extraordinary gifts possible.
However, we do not grant this gift by telling others what God is saying; rather, we give this gift only as we are able to free them to hear for themselves. This is surely part of what it means to be a friend to another. And we all long for the genuine friendship that frees us to be who God has called us to be. All of this assumes a particular understanding of the human being in community and of the relationship between the community and individual.
THE INDIVIDUAL IN COMMUNITY
In this regard, there are two errors we need to avoid. The first is the error of the West, which assumes the autonomy of the individual. The other is the error of the East, which subsumes the individual within the collective. Neither is true community. Neither presents a biblical view of the human being.
In contrast to both West and East, the biblical perspective on the human being and community highlights a dynamic interplay between the individual and the collective. Our human identity is never found in isolation from community, in a kind of unrestricted self-determination. Yet neither is it found in community per se, if this means that we become an undistinguishable part of a collective. Individuals have a distinctive and personal identity in their own right.
The community too has an identity as a collective. But in true community a corporate identity never denies the individuality of its members, and individual identity is always found in healthy interplay within community. The community, then, while essential to our individual identity, is also a threat to that identity. We do not find ourselves in isolation from the community and we do not find ourselves if we are subsumed within the community. When it comes to discernment, we realize that we do not know the voice of Jesus and the witness of the Spirit if we are lost within the community. The collective can become so strong that we cannot hear what God is saying to us. We must be alone. We must remain “other” from the community and not be absorbed into its powerful collective identity.
However, the community—the others in our world—are an essential means by which we hear the voice of Jesus, experience the assurance that we are loved and know the call of God to respond with courage to the challenges before us. Discernment requires a healthy measure of self-distrust, and it is the community that helps us to see ourselves truthfully. The community is to us a kind of mirror, not in the sense that we see ourselves reflected in the community, but that we cannot see ourselves except when we are in relationship.
The danger, of course, is that the community would presume to hear God for us. Often religious leaders and pastors fall prey to this error, assuming that they know what is best for others (rather than freeing the others to know and respond to God in a manner congruent with their own conscience). When this happens, we lose the power and grace of the individual, that capacity of each person to hear God for himself or herself. The individual’s ability to live deeply conscious of both the love of God and the call of God is undermined, and so is the person’s ability to respond with courage to his or her world. When this happens, the greatest loss is to the community itself. Our common life is enriched and sustained not by monotony and uniformity but by our diversity and the collective strength of the community as a combination of individuals. But if the individuals are no longer individuals, the community is no longer genuine community.
If we demand uniformity, if we are uncomfortable with the idea that all persons can and must follow their own conscience (Rom 14), then we unwittingly deny not only the individual but also the community. True pastoral care does not have an agenda for others, but rather, in large measure it has no intent other than to free others to know, in their own hearts, the witness of the Spirit. This form of pastoral care actually fosters genuine community.
It is here that, in many respects, we have an opportunity to learn from the classic ministry of spiritual direction.1 Of course, while some may have the opportunity to receive the formal ministry of spiritual direction, not all do. Yet all will have the opportunity to respond in friendship to another, and all those who are called into pastoral ministry have opportunity to provide some measure of direction.2 And all of us, as we seek to live in genuine community with one another, have something to learn from this ancient practice. We are regularly in situations in which we can ask, what do you think God is saying to you in this situation? And how do you know that this is the witness of the Spirit to your heart? Further, as I will emphasize more fully below, this ancient practice can give us insight into the character of true friendship.
THE MINISTRY OF SPIRITUAL DIRECTION
Spiritual direction is often compared to both counseling and mentoring. Understandably so, for as often as not all three of these occur in conversation between two individuals, usually in private, confidential settings. But spiritual direction is different from both counseling and mentoring, and the distinction on both fronts is an important one. The difference essentially lies in the agenda for the conversation and how this agenda is set.
In counseling, the agenda is set by the emotional needs of the one being counseled. While mentoring and spiritual direction may well include discussion about these kinds of issues, they are addressed along the way, not as the main focus of discussion. And both spiritual directors and other mentors know that when it comes to emotional pathologies, they are well advised to refer others to a trained counselor.
In mentoring, the agenda is set by the one who mentors. That’s because, in a sense, mentoring is a form of teaching. One has a set of skills and trains the other in those skills. A person may want to be a pastor or an artist, and so he or she spends time with a senior pastor or master artist who mentors the person in those professions. Again, it is not that counseling and spiritual direction will not have a teaching element or component; it is, rather, that in mentoring, the primary agenda is one of training and teaching, enabling a person to know a craft or to learn a mode of behavior or being.
Spiritual direction is different yet. The agenda is not so much emotional needs, nor is it a program of teaching. Instead the witness of the Spirit determines the course of the conversation. The fundamental posture taken in spiritual direction is one of being with the other, usually in conversation, in a manner that would enhance the capacity of the other to know how God is speaking. As often as not, the focus of spiritual direction is on enabling Christians to mature in faith, hope and love. But the agenda for this maturation is set by the Spirit, not by a formal program of formation, teaching or discipleship. These other programs may be good in themselves, but they are not to be confused with the ministry of direction.
Eugene Peterson has suggested that three basic assumptions lie behind this ministry.3 First, we can be certain of God’s gracious initiative. God is present and at work in each person’s life. Second, we can assume that a wealth of spiritual wisdom exists on which we can draw as we seek to respond to the work of God. And third, every person is different. We cannot work with a predetermined outcome or model in spiritual direction for the simple reason that each situation is unique.
The bottom line remains the same: spiritual direction is the ministry of a fellow traveler (perhaps one who is older and more experienced) that enables another to respond to the initiative of the Spirit. And the one who provides this ministry cannot, and does not, know what the Spirit is saying for the other. Indeed we can never presume to know what the Spirit is saying to another. All we can do, through conversation with the other, is to foster an openness of heart and mind and suggest ways in which the person might come to clarity about the witness of the Spirit.
Spiritual direction, then, is not a ministry of giving counsel about decisions. Of course, it may be quite appropriate for a person to seek counsel in the midst of making a difficult decision. However, in spiritual direction, one of the most effective ways in which we can serve the other is by probing to see how the other can choose well, in intentional response to God.
JOHN OF THE CROSS ON SPIRITUAL DIRECTION
Here is where we see the relevance of one of the great classic commentaries on the ministry of spiritual direction, that of St. John of the Cross. In his classic of spiritual devotion, Living Flame of Love, John included an extended section on spiritual direction.4 What is noteworthy is that he had relatively little to say about good spiritual direction but pages and pages on poor direction. Thomas H. Green has suggested that this is good reason to pause and realize our potential for doing harm as much as good when we enter into a conversation with another about his or her spiritual life.5
From John of the Cross we learn about the ministry of spiritual direction by looking at the dark side of this role, one might say, and its potential for abuse. John observed that there are two approaches that spiritual directors might take that would be injurious. The first is to presume to determine how others should live their lives. This usually means, of course, that the directors expect those they are directing to live according to the directors’ expectations. And second, spiritual direction is flawed when the directors assume that others will experience God in the same way that the directors have.
Often, of course, these two go together: the expectations the directors have for those they are directing correspond to the directors’ own experience. Yet sometimes they are not the same. Spiritual directors may try to call forth in others a pattern of life or behavior that they themselves had hoped to have, and now the directors seek to live vicariously through the others. On both accounts, the problem is that directors assume they know best. They have an agenda largely because they overvalue their own experience of God and assume it will be replicated in others.
Obviously, we need to be >The Voice of Jesus by Gordon T. Smith, an IVP: Formatio book
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