It has become popular in modern society to be “spiritual, but not religious.” “Spiritual” usually means that a person is in touch with his or her own spirit, the spirits of others, and some (personal or impersonal) Higher Power or Spirit that inhabits (and perhaps empowers) the universe. To do this, one does not need to be part of an organized religion or believe any specific doctrines about God, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, or Jesus. In fact, doctrine will probably only limit one’s spirituality since God (who- or whatever He, She, or It may be) is undoubtedly bigger than religious categories. Religion separates us, goes the common thinking; spirituality brings us together.
According to Liz Budd Ellmann, former Executive Director of Spiritual Directors International (as quoted on the Spiritual Direction website), “Spiritual direction explores a deeper relationship with the spiritual aspect of being human. Simply put, spiritual direction is helping people tell their sacred stories everyday [sic].
“Spiritual direction has emerged in many contexts using language specific to particular cultural and spiritual traditions. Describing spiritual direction requires putting words to a process of fostering a transcendent experience that lies beyond all names and yet the experience longs to be articulated and made concrete in everyday living. It is easier to describe what spiritual direction does than what spiritual direction is. Our role is not to define spiritual direction, but to describe the experience.
“Spiritual direction helps us learn how to live in peace, with compassion, promoting justice, as humble servants of that which lies beyond all names.”
For those who are steeped in a particular religion, there are spiritual directors who are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, etc. These spiritual directors will operate within the context of a particular religion but focus on the more mystical and personal interactions with the Divine. Spiritual direction in a Christian context can be either Protestant or Catholic and will most likely focus on prayer, meditation, and the more mystical aspects of Christianity.
Spiritual direction focuses on people communicating their spiritual experiences to other people for the purpose of awakening to the mystery within and the wonder without. Spiritual direction offered by spiritual directors can happen in a weekly setting (individual or group) or in a retreat setting.
There is nothing wrong with the concept of spiritual direction, per se. All of us need help developing spiritually, and, if we are developing in the right direction, based on the Word of God, it is a good thing. The main problem with spiritual direction as a “movement” is that the personal experience of the individual, not the Word of God, is the final authority. While anything spiritual may sound better than the current focus on materialism and consumerism in American culture, spiritual direction is really just consumerism on the spiritual level. In spiritual direction, the spiritual explorer simply picks and chooses the experiences and the interpretation of the experiences that he or she finds most meaningful. Spiritual direction is really mysticism seeking a spiritual experience minus the doctrinal content.
The Bible teaches that our most basic need is not first and foremost that of spiritual direction or of getting in touch with our “spiritual self” but that we are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1) and in need of spiritual life that can only come from God. The God who gives spiritual life is the God who created the world and entered the human race as Jesus Christ. Spiritual life is only available to those who are raised to new life in Christ through faith in Him (Ephesians 2:6–7). Those who are “raised with Christ” are born again into new spiritual life and are indwelled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the Ultimate Spiritual Director (Romans 8:14). And He will always glorify Jesus (John 16:14) and direct us to become more like Christ (Ephesians 4:15).
The Bible does call for “spiritual directors” of a sort to help Christians find “spiritual direction.” Some of these “spiritual directors” are called pastors (shepherds), elders, or overseers who must meet specific qualifications (see 1 Peter 5:2–4, Titus 1:5–9, and 1 Timothy 3:1–7). All believers are to help each other move in the right spiritual direction. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24–25). “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). The fellowship of the local church is the context for spiritual direction and spiritual growth.
Those who are seeking spiritual direction should get involved in a local church where the Bible is clearly taught and obeyed and where people help each other to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3). The Bible gives us the direction that we should be moving spiritually (Psalm 119:105), and the propositional truth in the Bible should take priority over mystical or personal experiences.