Discipleship Matrix

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Spiritual Direction

Spiritual DirectionThe ministry of spiritual direction is integral to what it means to be a pastor.   I know this and you know this, don't you?   In what Mark Buchanan calls "a perfectly cut gem of a book" Gordon T. Smith, in his latest book Spiritual Direction, stresses the importance of and gives practical advice on what for many pastors has become a peripheral work:  the ministry of spiritual direction.   He writes:   "One of the deep commitments of each pastor should be that parishioner grows increasingly in her or his own capacity to know God, respond to the call of Christ on her or his life and walk in the Spirit, the very Spirit that dwells in each one." (70)   I say peripheral, for today most pastors spend an inordinate amount of time in administration and meetings, and a proportionate little time in giving spiritual direction. 

In the church circles where I worship, serve, and am engaged in employed ministry we talk a lot about the importance of growing and making disciples.   We have developed a useful tool we call The Discipleship Matrix.   All of this is geared toward helping people grow in their understanding of and commitment to our Triune God.   This is not unlike to what Smith calls the 'ancient ministry' of spiritual direction. Discipling is really about giving spiritual direction to people as they explore the claims of Christ, respond in faith, grow in maturity, and multiply disciples themselves.   But there is much to learn about the art of giving and receiving spiritual direction.   This is where Smith's book is really insightful.

First of all,  a lot of Christian training in churches, whether from the pulpit or in the classroom, focuses on gaining knowledge.    We learn a bunch of facts about God, the Bible, salvation, and eternal things.   And knowledge is important, but it must not end there.   Smith writes this book from the theological perspective that the Christian life is about an experience of God.   "This means that the Christian, in real time, encounters the crucified, risen and ascended Lord." (24-25)   Spiritual direction involves guiding people "to foster our capacity, through our prayers, to know Christ, to meet Christ, to hear Christ and feel the force of ... the presence of the risen and ascended Christ." (25)   "The essence of spiritual direction is to foster this capacity for transformation." (26)  While knowledge is important, "it is the experience of Christ that transforms." (26)   The focus is not just on the head but also the heart. Referring to the great revival preachers of the eighteenth century, including John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, "religion was for them a matter of the heart:  the ordering of desire, the cultivation of emotional resilience and the fostering of joy." (27)   It has to do with our "affections".   I found this perspective helpful as I think about those I disciple, mentor, and/or coach.

Second, Smith stresses that giving spiritual direction is not about telling people what to do.  Spiritual directors do not speak for God.   Instead they assist directees to "grow in the capacity to hear God themselves."  (45)   At times Christians can create a spiritual co-dependency with those they disciple.   Rather than helping people learn to hear God speak to them through His Word and Spirit, and through prayer, those we disciple keep asking us for direction in life.  Increasingly in my own coaching ministry, for example, with those I disciple, rather than telling people what the Bible teaches, or what God might be saying to them, I keep asking, "What do you think God is saying to you in this passage?"   It is about helping poeple become self-aware and to be able to ask, "What's happening here, in my own heart and mind?   What am I feeling?   What does it mean?   What am I learning?  And most of all, where is God in all of this?"  (49)   As Smith points out: "Directors plant seeds.   They water seeds.  But the Spirit gives the growth.   They trust God to do God's work in God's time and accept the limits of what they can offer in this conversation at this time and at this place.   A spiritual director is not a hero or a miracle worker, but merely one who listens and, as appropriate, speaks what will be an apt word in season.   They leave the fruit of their work to the hands of God.  And  to the timing of God." (47-48)  

One other insight in Smith's book that I found helpful is his insistence that "spiritual direction is about fostering the capacity of this person to pray." (52)   Smith points out that when we give spiritual direction we "properly seek to encourage these elements:  (1) that in prayer, the directee is growing in gratitude .... (2) that in prayer, the directee has the capacity for confession and repentance, for turning from sin and embracing the righteous call of God on their life.... (3) that in prayer, the Scriptures are playing a dynamic role in the renewing the directee's mind, the shaping of conscience and the formation of a Christian imagination.... [and] finally, (4) that the directors will be attentive to whether directees have the capacity to discern how God is providing guidance and direction." (54-55)  This simply stresses that "the most fundamental relationship in our spiritual lives is not with the director but with God." (58)   This insistence is a good reminder to me that those I disciple must be growing and maturing in their prayer life, in their capacity to be attentive to Christ's leading and guiding.

If you looking for someone to give guidance to or receive guidance from there are two chapters give helpful, practical suggestions describing the qualities and character of both a director and a directee.  I also appreciated Smith's discussion of the relationship between evangelism and spiritual direction.    Long before a person commits their heart and life to Christ God is already at work by his Word and Spirit to draw them to himself.   Giving spiritual direction is not just for the converted, but any person no matter where they are along their spiritual journey.   The final chapter puts everything into perspective:   "In the end there is really only one director of the spiritual life, and this is the Spirit of God .... The ministry of direction comes down to this:  fostering our capacity to attend to the work and movement of the Spirit in our lives." (93)   Whether we give or receive spiritual direction, we need to always remember that the maturing of our faith is God's work in our life and the lives of others.   As the apostle Paul reminds us:   "For it is from God alone that you have your life through Christ Jesus. He showed us God’s plan of salvation; he was the one who made us acceptable to God; he made us pure and holy and gave himself to purchase our salvation.  As it says in the Scriptures, "If anyone is going to boast, let him boast only of what the Lord has done." 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 (TLB)

All pastors, and I should add, all Christians ought to be engaged in the giving and receiving of spiritual direction.   It begins in the home as parents assist their children to be attentive to the work and movement of God in their lives and in our world.   And it continues thoughout our lives as we continue to mature into the full measure of the fulness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).   And Smith's book is filled with practical wisdom how as Christians we can engage in the ministry of spiritual direction -- with others and also for ourselves. 

A book review by Jack De Vries

Spiritual Direction, A Guide to Giving and Receiving Direction (IVP Books, Downers Grove, Illinois: 2014)

About the author:  Gordon T. Smith is president and professor of systematic and spiritual theology at Ambrose University College and Seminary in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.   He is the author of many books, including Beginning Well, Called to be Saints, and Courage and Calling.

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