Guidance—seeking discernment and the wisdom of God through interaction with others in the Christian community.
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these requirements…”
“Anyone without a soul friend is a body without a head.”
Have you ever been lost in the woods or in an unfamiliar city? It is easy to go miles and miles without getting any closer to your destination. Sometimes we are oblivious, but often there is a sense of disorientation and concern. Yet for some of us, it takes a long time before we are ready to ask for directions. When someone comes along who is familiar with the territory, the way suddenly becomes clear and we are able to move forward with relief and a sense of confidence.
We all need guides in our life. We seek them out in many areas. We find good doctors to give us medical advice. We spend time with academic advisors as we plot out our coursework. Coaches and athletic trainers help us set goals and work toward meeting them. Some seek the service of financial planners to ensure a secure portfolio. In the spiritual life God provides guides in the form of spiritual friendships, Spiritual Direction relationships and guidance from the Christian community. We need to seek out and receive those divine gifts otherwise we will eventually find ourselves walking in circles and making little or no progress in our relationship with God.
The tradition of spiritual guidance goes back to the earliest times. People have always sought out mentors who are further along on the journey. We see many examples in the Hebrew Scriptures. Joseph advised Pharaoh about the meaning of his dreams (Genesis 41:1-40) and Jethro offered wise counsel to Moses (Exodus 18). Samuel, judge and prophet of Israel, grew up in the temple under the tutelage of Eli (1 Samuel 1-3). Daniel was called upon to advise the King and offer dream interpretation while he lived in exile in Babylon (Daniel 4-5).
In the New Testament the Apostle Paul mentored Timothy and others, empowered them to live the life they were called to live. Paul gave spiritual guidance to many of the churches that he started along the way and we can now benefit from his direction as we read his letters of Spiritual Direction in the New Testament. Jesus, of course, demonstrates true Spiritual friendship and guidance throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries, women and men who moved to the desert to live solitary lives of prayer and devotion to Christ found that thousands of people were coming to learn from them, to receive direction and spiritual counsel. Soon intentional Christian Communities started forming with the more spiritually mature men and women giving spiritual direction to the younger, newer, and less experienced members. The Christian tradition of formal Spiritual Direction began with these Mothers and Fathers of the faith. Many of their letters and writings survive to this day and through them we can still learn from these extraordinary teachers.
Guidance can come in many different forms. Spiritual friendships or soul friends are intentional, mutual relationships. Two or more people who care about each others’ spiritual progress can serve each other in this capacity. (A beautiful spiritual friendship is witnessed in the story of David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel). Typically the friends meet on a regular basis and share their struggles, desires and victories. Their purpose is to help each other notice the work of God in each others lives.
Individual Spiritual Direction
The term Spiritual Direction is one firmly attached to historical Christianity and is becoming more and more common today in Protestant communities, though it has always been a strong part of many facets of the Christian tradition. “Spiritual Direction is a covenant relationship in which one Christian assists another or others in the discernment of God’s presence and the contemplative living out of God’s call.”
A Spiritual Director is a “holy listener” and a “sacred companion” who, in prayerful knowledge of the Holy Spirit’s presence, helps the other attend to the movements and work of God in that person’s life. Like Eli, the Spiritual Director listens to the story and helps the other identify God’s activity. It is different than mentoring or discipling, in which the mentor/discipler takes charge and leads the other through a curriculum or a predetermined set of readings or experiences. Rather, the Spiritual Director and the Directee (the accepted term for the one being “directed”) come together and take cues from the Spirit (the actual “Director”). This kind of Spiritual companioning is a priceless treasure for those who seek it out.
Another type of Spiritual Guidance is corporate guidance. We live out our calling always in the context of Christian community. There is no true call to Christ without a call to the community that is his Body. That Body to which we belong and of which we are unique members, belongs to Christ and to one another and so, our individual decisions have corporate significance. What we do matters and sends ripples of benefit or destruction through the community of Christ, so it makes sense that the Body of Christ would assist its people as they discern.
One wonderful way that we can help each other make Spirit-led decisions is through the use of a Clearness Committee. This is a tradition dating back to the 1600’s when the Quakers, who didn’t have clergy, would gather prayerful folks to listen to someone who had a decision to make. Today people make use of a similar process and find courage and strength as they discern in the embrace of a caring community. (See link below for specifics of the Clearness Committee.)
When we are feeling lost or stranded, a guide is a necessity. But to have a friend who is there to help you see God moment by moment, in the clarity and the confusion of life, is a divine gift.
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If they fall down,
They can help each other up.
But pity those who fall
And have no one to help them up!
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
Two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Don’t venture alone. Find that friend who will watch and pray with you. Be that kind of friend to someone else and glimpse the Kingdom.
“…direction does not mean one person telling another what to do,
even after seeing, listening, naming and celebrating. The ‘direction’ of Spiritual Direction refers simply to the seeker’s orientation. Thus, “direction” is the goal of this interpersonal relationship, not its means. Spiritual Direction facilitates the seeker’s process of finding her or his own direction, path, process and integrity in dynamic relationship to the person and call of God.”
Elizabeth Leibert, SFTS
 Definition of Spiritual Direction from the Diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction; San Francisco Theological Seminary.