As disciples of Christ, we desire to follow him in everything. At first glance, spiritual direction can seem less focused on reproducing Christ in me, and more on self-discovery or self-improvement. Let me put these fears to rest and show you how spiritual direction is a deeply helpful part of not only following Jesus, but abiding with him.
In Jesus’s day the cultural structures were such that only certain young men, of a certain lineage and achievement, would literally go sit at the feet of rabbis (teachers), living and eating with them, serving them, and traveling with them, in order to gain their education. A saying of the times encouraged disciples to “cover yourself with the dust of your rabbi’s feet!” Debate, discussion and story were important aspects of their learning, but so was absorbing their way of life in the mundane day-to-day activities. Only the elite, like Paul, had access to becoming a teacher, philosopher, and rabbi through the discipling process.
Today we use the word discipling to mean becoming Christ-like: first learning who he was, how he lived, and what he taught as the right way to live. In American church discipling (especially Evangelical and Protestant churches) there is an emphasis on reproduction of Christ’s character empowered by the Holy Spirit in the individual’s or group’s life. There tends to be a focus on right attitudes or behaviors to enact as we “put on the new self” (Eph 4:22-24). In some places this is found in programs and classes, in others it is through Bible studies in homes, in most it is a mix. Personal devotions is an important part of engaging at a personal level with our discipler. Usually, our discipling is focused on study and behavior—important aspects of discipleship—but often lacking the experiential dimension of living with the teacher. It is this neglected aspect of discipleship that spiritual direction attends.
Spiritual direction is part of the larger picture of being a disciple of Jesus, but its focus is less “putting on” the new self as it is embodying Christ within. Directors host the space that fosters one’s direct discipling by the Lord. So much of our discipling in churches is mediated via another’s expectations or understandings that we can be formed, for good or ill, into clones rather than into the free and honored child of God that we each are. Rather than being empowered by the Holy Spirit to go and make disciples as we continue to be a disciple, we pull on a uniformed mentality to show we belong to this team. When we put on the uniform of discipleship, we are acting a role and are asleep to the liveliness of “Christ within us to will and act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil 2:13) When we abide in Christ, he makes his home in us, and we bear fruit: it is a natural process, but frequently discipling can feel, and sometimes be, an enforced way of being that is anything but natural.
Spiritual direction does result in self-discovery, but as a result of following Christ into the deeper places of our being. As we become more aware of Christ in us and our experiences, he leads us into greater awareness of ourselves. As we encounter Christ in us and around us in new ways, he leads us into greater love and involvement with humanity. This awareness and encounter leads to formation and transformation into deeper Christlikeness. Thomas Merton wrote “He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others.” Jesus came to save, redeem and restore our selves into life! Thus direction is especially good for those who are facing deconstruction of their way of life, their faith, even what feels like themselves because God is there, working in what feels like mess and confusion. Direction is also deeply helpful for those who have reached a point in their discipling of wondering if there is more to life with Jesus, who are restless, bored, and longing for more.
If this post resonates with you, I encourage you to try spiritual direction. In my next post I will share more on how to find and select a director. For more information about spiritual direction, I invite you to read my other posts on:
I pray peace and grace attend you in your every day,