C+R: Increasing numbers of evangelical Christians are seeking out a Spiritual Director. When you speak about spiritual direction,what do you mean by the term?

SH: It is not a new idea. The practise of soul care is an ancient one. It goes back at least 4th and 5th century AD and the Desert fathers. Some would say it even goes back to John the Baptist.

It is not discipling - which implies accountability, where the disciple imbibes the words and spirit of the teacher. Neither is the spiritual director a mentor or an exhorter. The spiritual director is not saying “Thus says the Lord”. Nor is it a general discussion about spiritual things or advice about spiritual things. It is not counselling or a form of counselling.

Spiritual direction is about leading people on to a deeper relationship with God. Counselling fixes things, spiritual direction does not, but leads people to a deeper relationship with God.

The Anglican Vicar, Kenneth Leech says: “A comparison between spiritual direction and counselling needs to be made - counselling is a meeting between two human beings in the presence of God to pursue a human goal (better relations with self or others). Spiritual direction is a meeting between a person and God in the presence of another with a divine goal in mind.”

David G Benner, author of Sacred Companions, gives another definition. He writes: ‘Spiritual direction is a prayer process in which a person seeking help in cultivating a deeper personal relationship with God meets with another person for prayer and conversation that is focused on increasing awareness of God in the midst of life’s experiences and facilitating surrender to God’s will.’

So prayer plays a major part. In counselling building a relationship is key, but here, the spiritual director fades into the background. It is not about the theology of being with God, but the experience of it.

There is of course a conflict among some evangelicals who question the value of focussing on experience. I can remember a time when I would have said that we must focus on the Word and not experience. But the truth is that experience has been forgotten. We know God is there but we don’t experience him.

My own definition is: Spiritual direction is a ministry focussing on helping someone who already knows God to know him more deeply.

Why have you started teaching on spiritual direction at CWR?

There is a fresh new breeze blowing through Christianity with an increasing interest in spirituality.

In my 60 years as a believer, I don’t think I have ever known more people wanting to develop a closer relationship with God. The ‘soul’ is talked about both inside and outside the church. In the United States there are growing numbers of courses in spiritual direction in evangelical colleges. In the last few decades CWR have seen an explosion in interest in counselling. But, many others are drawn to counselling training, and may feel that they cannot help people grow. One of the reasons for CWR teaching on spiritual direction is to help these people make a contribution.

Secondly, spirituality is spoken of, but in vague terms. As someone has said, spirituality is a buzz word, but also a fuzz word. Non-Christians talk of spirituality and the soul because they are drawn to transcendence, but the language is not biblical, so we wanted to correct this.

We also see spiritual direction as the missing jewel in the evangelical crown. I was turned off by definitions of spiritual direction early in my life as a Minister. I am an evangelical non-conformist where scripture is the most important sacrament. But looking back I believe I threw the baby out with bath water.

Spiritual direction is something we missed, so just as 30 years ago CWR sought to lay down a biblical perspective for Christian counselling, now we aim to do the same with spiritual direction, teaching it from an evangelical perspective. This past summer 100 people who had pastoral positions of some sort in their churches, attended our summer school on spiritual direction.

Is the term ‘spiritual direction’ open to misunderstanding?

The trouble with the phrase is that it carries a lot of baggage. The word ‘director’ implies authority. And we need to aware of the danger that the person may passively respond to the spiritual director. But classically understood, spiritual direction is not replacing the divine author with a human one, but directing the person to the true director. So the spiritual director needs attentiveness to what the Spirit is saying.

Today there have been various words used to replace it: ‘guide’, ‘sacred companion’, ‘therapist’, ‘mentor’, ‘discipler’, ‘friend’, ‘usher’. None of these appeal to me so I keep the term as long as it is understood that the director is pointing people to the true Director, the Holy Spirit.

What ideas underpin spiritual direction?

I focus on three in the course:

Firstly ‘Life is a journey’. As evangelicals we tend to view salvation using legal language. We talk of being justified, or saved. In a sense the work has been done. But the danger is that we are always looking back and never to the present or future. Spiritual direction reminds us that we have never ‘arrived’. Evangelicals need to learn from this language.

Secondly ‘We are always in God’s presence’. We are not on the journey alone. In my course I spend a lot of time looking at Psalm 139, which includes verses underlining that God is present and with us always. So we are not to seek God’s presence or ask for it, but realise we are always in his presence.

When I was preparing the course, I was going through a rough time physically, yet had a wonderful sense of God. This focus on always being in God’s presence has a profound effect on us. Our thoughts affect our feelings and in turn affect our decisions. So this is very powerful stuff. Spiritual direction helps people understand Hebrews 13:5 which says, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’.

One thing I intend to add to the course is that God may lead us through a wilderness experience. Sometimes we do not experience God because we are ill - there are physical reasons and a medical check up is required. Other times God withdraws himself that we may grow deeper in our relationship with him. I have known this myself.

Thirdly ‘God is always at work in our lives’. This thought transformed my time in pastoral ministry. I remember asking myself whether pastoral visiting was worthwhile, given that I could be doing other things with my time. Then one day I was reading Matthew 28:6 where the angel says to the women at the tomb, ‘He (Jesus) is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him”.’

I realised that before I left my home to see Mrs Jones, Jesus had gone ahead. So I was anticipated! It was one of those transformational threshold experiences. I realised I was coming in on something God was already doing. Asking the question, “Lord what are doing in their life? How can I co-operate with you?” had a dramatic impact on my visiting as I discovered in conversation with the person, how I could work alongside what God was doing.

So the supreme gift that a spiritual director can give a person is to help them live life more aware of the person of Christ. Many will be aware of the book, ‘Practising the Presence of God’ by Brother Lawrence. He learned to sense God’s presence when washing the dishes, or doing the gardening, anywhere could be a place where we know God.

So how can we sense God’s presence in this way?

I suggest the following five strategies:

1) Begin and end each day by turning your thoughts towards him

When John Stott, swings his legs out of bed he says: “Good morning Father, Good morning Jesus, Good morning Holy Spirit.” This attitude creates a sense of expectancy of meeting God. It is the sentiment of Psalm 5:3 ‘In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.’

2) Focus on meeting with God through prayer and his word

In the course we look at the whole question of having a regular quiet time and the problems of legalism. Most people know my view that spending time with God every day is very important.

3) Order your day on the basis of a divine partnership

Talk as you would to a business partner. I picked this idea up from a Welsh Miner friend. He used to say: “Lord how would you like to handle this?” or “Lord, how should we handle this?”

4) Establish daily habits that affirm his presence

Dr Frank Laubach, a missionary to the Philippines, made a lifelong study of walking with Christ. Every day he made it a rule to think of the Lord being with him as he walked and even as he breathed. This intense focus may seem wrong to some evangelicals who are frightened or uncomfortable with the use of the imagination.

I remember hearing Dr Bruce Theilman, a Presbyterian minister in the USA tell of his visits with a woman who was in hospital dying. To help her he suggested that she imagined that Jesus was sitting in the chair by her bed. When he visited her next, she said how great it was to know Jesus with her. One day he visited and found that she had gone. He asked the nurse and she confirmed that she had passed away.

“Did she say anything? “No,” said the nurse, “but she did make a strange request?” “What was that?” “She asked that I bring the chair a bit closer to the bed.”

So using the imagination can be a great help providing it is controlled and used appropriately. I love the verse in Isaiah 26:3; ‘You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.’ This can also be translated; ‘You will keep him in perfect peace him whose imagination stops with you.’ So our imagination doesn’t go beyond God, worrying about things or imagining things outside of the limits of God’s Word. Evangelicals needn’t be afraid of the imagination.

5) Attend to God’s attention to you

This is where our focus on Psalm 139 is especially important. The Psalmist says: “Precious are your thoughts to me.” He is thinking of you now!
How do you write and teach about the development of the soul?

Classical literature talks about three areas in soul development: purgation, illumination and union. I look at these from an evangelical perspective. So instead of purgation we look at spiritual cleansing through confession of sin. I give an evangelical view on repentance. Repentance is a change of mind about where life is found. Here we look at some of the material we consider in the counselling course. Life in Christ gives us security, significance and self-worth. Instead of illumination we look at God’s purpose that we soak our minds in scripture. Then we look at Union with God, which is often rather fuzzy in much of the literature. In our understanding this is about us becoming like Jesus more and more, realising our true self in Christ.

What qualities and gifts are required to be a spiritual director?

  • A sense of being led to it.
  • A hunger and thirst for God - we can’t take people further than we have gone ourselves.
  • Self understanding - you need to really commit to a deeper knowledge of yourself. It was Calvin who said that a shallow knowledge of yourself leads to a shallow knowledge of God. This can be taken too far, but an understanding of your own dynamics is important. Why we do what we do?
  • A love for people.
  • Humility - willing to be directed yourself.
  • An ability to listen - this includes some degree of proficiency at dialogue so you ask good, but not too threatening questions. The idea is not to answer questions, but take them to God.
  • Prayerfulness
  • Curiosity
  • Being present – be prepared to be absent from yourself and give yourself to them.

Are there parts of the evangelical church that are more warm to these ideas?

It would be wrong to generalise, but the non-Charismatic churches seem to be more positive. Charismatic churches focus more on the immediate answers in prayer. And of course God does intervene. But they are less disposed to the spiritual direction approach.

Is spiritual direction a necessary part of a Pastor’s role?
It certainly should be. Many pastors don’t feel they are able to counsel but they should certainly do this. If I had my time again I would give as much to spiritual direction as I did to counselling.

As you look at the church today, what encourages and what concerns you?

I am encouraged by the rising interest in spirituality. Of course there are some in the spiritual doldrums, but as I have said, there is an unprecedented interest in growing spiritually. At the same time, I am concerned about the number of people not reading scriptures. It concerns me that there is such a great loss of confidence in the Bible. I still feel soaking your mind in the Bible is very powerful.

Just last week I was sharing my testimony to God’s faithfulness with some publishing colleagues. I talked about how I lost my wife and my two sons (one died from liver disease and the other from a heart attack). They asked me if I had asked God ‘Why?’

I said I never had.

They said, well you have good cause to. This started a train of thought. Why did I never ask why? My answer is that years of soaking in scripture means that I realise that the one whose hands were nailed to a cross for me would never allow anything to happen that he would not turn to my good. This is not to say I was free from pain. I wept copiously but through my tears I was able to pray, “God help me use my pain to help others who are hurting.

Show me how(italics) to do this?” I know to some this might sound unbelievable, perhaps even unnatural but the power of God’s Word lying on the heart can transform our perspectives. Humbly I testify to that fact.

I understand you are working on your autobiography. How would you like to be remembered?

‘He died climbing!’ When I visited Switzerland I saw these words on a gravestone of a buried climber, who had died while climbing. I want to continue learning, researching and growing all the time.

Spiritual Direction courses at Wavereley Abbey House, Farnham, Surrey, in 2004 – February 2nd-5th and November 1st to 4th. For full details phone: CWR on 01252 784700 or e-mail: training@cwr.org.uk