A few years ago, the latest thing in physical fitness was to hire a personal trainer. Now the latest thing in spiritual fitness is to meet with a spiritual director.
Both the Wall Street Journal and USA Today have recently reported on this phenomenon. Look up “spiritual guide” on the Internet and you will find hundreds of places to go for everything from a priest to a swami. An organization called Spiritual Directors International and based in California (where else?) boasts more than 3,000 members.
The current fascination with spiritual directors is a sign of spiritual hunger. Yet they pose a number of dangers. Obviously, not all spiritual directors are Christians. Going to a non-Christian for spiritual guidance is like asking your bartender to help you stay sober. Instead of helping you get closer to God, the wrong director will take you farther away. There was a good example in the news this week, when 100,000 people gathered on Nancy Fowler’s farm to hear a message supposedly from the Virgin Mary.
But even Christian guides pose a potential danger. A spiritual director can easily become a mediator between you and God. There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5). Yet many people engage a spiritual director in the hope that they can gain better access to God. What is unfortunate about this is that God has already given us all the access to him we need through Jesus Christ.
What is right about the desire to have a spiritual director is that we need companions on our spiritual journey. Recently I have been re-reading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I had forgotten how frightening the early part of Christian’s journey is.
After he leaves the City of Destruction and sets out for the Celestial City, Christian is attacked by enemies. He is scorched by flames from the hill of Morality. He narrowly escapes the arrows of Beelzebub. He is attacked by the monster Apollyon, who pelts him with fiery darts.
Just when one wonders whether Christian is going to make it to the end of the road, he meets Faithful. Faithful is a friend for Christian’s journey. He is not so much a spiritual director as a spiritual companion. Christian and Faithful walk side by side as they travel to the Celestial City.
God does not intend for us to follow him on our own. He has given us friends to help us along the way. Every David has a Jonathan to rescue him from danger. Every Paul has a Barnabas to encourage him when his spirits are low.
This is part of what we mean when we say we believe in the communion of the saints. When it comes to following God, there is strength in numbers:
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:
If one falls down,
his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls
and has no one to help him up! (Eccles. 4:9-10).
What we really need in the spiritual life is some good friends.
The Bible does have a special name for a spiritual director. He is called a pastor. God has given the teaching and ruling elders of the church the responsibility to provide spiritual care. By teaching the Word of God, they guide the people of God with knowledge and understanding (see Jer. 3:15).
Yet there is also a place for other kinds of spiritual direction. Often, a mature Christian will teach a younger Christian how to follow Christ. This is the kind of guidance we get in the Sunday School, and which fathers and mothers give to their children. The Bible also teaches that mature Christian women are to train younger women in the church (Titus 2:3-5).
Christians usually call all of this “discipleship.” A disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is simply learning how to follow him more closely. One of the best ways to learn how to follow Christ is to spend time with someone who already knows how to follow him.
Here are some signs of a healthy discipling relationship:
1. The relationship is focused on Jesus Christ. This is the most important thing of all. A good spiritual mentor says what Paul said to the Corinthians: Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). If the goal of discipleship is to become a better disciple, then the primary result of a healthy spiritual relationship is intimacy with Christ. Whatever intimacy develops between the human beings involved is secondary.
2. The relationship is grounded in the Bible. The Word of God is the tool the Holy Spirit has provided for our spiritual direction. Discipleship involves more than just giving and getting good advice. Good advice is always helpful, but it is not discipleship. Discipleship applies biblical principles to the decisions and difficulties of daily life.
3. The relationship is not exclusive. One of the characteristics of cults and many other false religions is that spiritual authority is located in a single human being. That is not how the church operates. Not every Christian needs to be in a special discipling relationship. God intends for us to grow through a variety of friendships. The problem with exclusive discipleship is that it sets up a mediator between God and the Christian. There are no groupies in the kingdom of God (see 1 Cor. 1:11-12).
4. The relationship is usually temporary. True, sometimes a discipling relationship lasts a long time. But as a newer Christian matures, the nature of the relationship changes. Meetings become less frequent, or even cease altogether, and this is healthy.
The last thing to say is that if you feel like you need more spiritual direction than you are getting, the elders of the church would be happy to help you. It is our job, after all.
© 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org