In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the ancient art of spiritual direction, even in evangelical circles. There is a sense that this centuries-old practice can have a fresh relevance to the hungering hearts and minds of contemporary Christians.
Spiritual direction has been used in religious communities for generations: in the desert with the Ammas and Abbas of the 4th century, in medieval cloisters, in the homes of 17th century Puritans, and in modern-day offices where two people sit prayerfully seeking to live within God’s plans. While the ancient sensibility of spiritual direction can make some evangelicals nervous, there is ample biblical support for the idea of one believer mentoring another. Take, for example, Eli and Samuel. In 1 Samuel 3:1-10, we find Eli guiding his young initiate:
The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.
One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called Samuel.
Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
Again the LORD called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”
Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.
The LORD called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
In this passage, God is literally calling Samuel, but Samuel does not recognize God’s voice. It is Eli who, after numerous interruptions to his sleep, realizes this call is different. But Eli doesn’t pull rank on Samuel. He doesn’t say, “Let me handle this. You can watch as I take care of any incoming divine business for this household.” Instead, he simply instructs Samuel to await another call and give a reply. In doing so, Eli invites Samuel to open his heart and mind to the possibility that not only does God exist but that God also wants to bless and speak directly to him.
That is what spiritual direction is all about. It is pointing out God to someone who might not recognize God’s voice. It is creating openness in others so they can come to a deeper awareness of God’s presence and invitation to live in faith. It is shifting their ears to hear a melody that previously played only in the background of their lives.
There are many modern voices that have attempted to put words to the mystery of two souls journeying to God. Each has its own way of expressing the dimensions of direction. In Kenneth Leech’s seminal work on spiritual direction, Soul Friend, he defines direction as being “concerned with the mystery of the renewal of human souls.” He drew on the oft-quoted words of Augustine, who wrote, “No one can walk without a guide.”15 He likened the work of the director to one of discerning the motives of the person and being a shepherd offering healing and peace (in the tradition of Ezekiel 34). Leech defines the role as one of a confessor whose “purpose is forgiveness, not advice.”One of his emphases for direction is offering a cure to troubled places of the heart with discernment that allows directees to move toward God.
Eugene Peterson writes of direction as “curing souls.” He says, “The cure of souls is the Scripture-directed, prayer-shaped care that is devoted to persons singly or in groups, in settings sacred and profane.” Peterson reminds us of a call to remember the past, times when doctrine and spirituality were not so fractured and disconnected. There is a heritage of Christian spiritual formation that includes the care of soul—a solid foundation built by the voices of old who point to the need for developing a sense of spirituality. This foundation is based on the idea that we must have companions on the journey to keep the embers of faith smoldering.
Heather Parkinson Webb, Small Group Leadership as Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).