Conversatio Divina

Part 3 of 19

Spiritual Direction: Entering the Battle That’s Already Been Won

Larry Crabb

In December 1985, seven thousand therapists gathered in Phoenix, Arizona, to hear more than twenty of the leading theorists and practitioners of psychotherapy in the world come together in a serious attempt at dialogue, clarity, and cross-fertilization. Recognized experts such as Bruno Bettelheim, Carl Rogers, Virginia Satir, and Aaron Beck represented fourteen of the more than three hundred distinguishable schools of therapy: Behavioral, Cognitive, Ericksonian, Existential, Family (including six distinct approaches to family therapy), Gestalt, Humanistic, Jungian, Multimodal, Psychoanalytic, Rational-Emotive, Psychodrama, Rogerian, and Transactional Analysis. Most would agree these were the most prominent of the modern approaches to therapy in the 1980s.

Dialogue and clarity were achieved goals. Cross-fertilization was not. Dr. Jeffrey Zeig, an Ericksonian therapist of note and organizer of the conference, reflected back on the conference (called, by the way, “The Evolution of Psychotherapy”) in these words: “There is no general reconciliation in sight for psychotherapy. Little convergence can be expected in the immediate future. This is unfortunate because patients would benefit most from interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. The field will probably continue to lumber along in elephantine theories and soar into a fogbank of techniques.”Jeffrey Zeig, ed., The Evolution of Psychotherapy (New York: Brunner/Mazel, Inc., 1987) xxv.

I just reread the book that was introduced by Zeig’s reaction; twenty-seven presentations, each with reaction and counterreaction, made up the twenty-seven chapters. It got me thinking. What would happen if all the notables in the field of spiritual direction were to detail their understanding of conversations and practices that spiritually form people into the image of Christ? If such a conference were held, I would plant myself in the front row with the excitement of a child staring at a toy store window before Christmas. I feel like a neophyte in the art of spiritual direction, and I’m eager to learn.

In the comics section of today’s newspaper (December 16, 2006), Dennis the Menace is sitting on Santa’s lap and saying, “First, we need to talk about what you forgot on last year’s list.” I wonder if I’d leave my front row seat at the end of the spiritual direction conference feeling, like Dennis and Dr. Zeig, disappointed in what I’d received. Or would I leave alive with hope, stirred with new ideas and a fresh sense of adventure, impassioned to think more, read more, pray more, and enter more fully into the high calling of following God’s Spirit as he forms people to resemble God’s Son more closely?

This issue of Conversations is a little like that imagined conference, and different in important ways from the psychotherapy conference. Something more basic unites the contributors to this journal than united the living legends of therapy. We all believe in Christian spiritual formation, the miraculous movement of Jesus Christ by his Spirit in the deepest recesses of the human heart, actually changing our hearts so we want to be like Jesus more than we want anything else. And the change the Spirit accomplishes empowers us, little by little, to satisfy that desire substantially (though in this life never completely).

God does the work. We cooperate. And we do so for the pleasure of the Father, not to accommodate our flesh-driven demand for fulfillment of our world-shaped understanding of what is best for us. I think we all agree: whatever change in us best pleases the Father is best for us.

That agreement on our vision and mission as spiritual directors provides a foundation that has no counterpart in secular psychotherapy. I am, therefore, optimistic that a conversation about spiritual direction can indeed promote dialogue, clarity, and cross-fertilization.

So, with that optimism energizing me, in this article I want to offer where I am today in my understanding of spiritual direction. I write not as a notable in the field who has any claim to an audience, but as a neophyte who is hungry for God and longs to know how better to live a life worthy of my Savior and encourage others to do the same. I suspect, if the truth were known, that we are all making our way through elementary school, learning the ABCs of spiritual direction even as we stand on the shoulders of godly men and women from past centuries who perhaps made it into college. No one graduates in this life. We graduate by entering the next life.


01.  Five Assumptions

Five assumptions serve as foundation and framework for the model I’ve developed (and am developing):

First, spiritual direction consists of setting relational conditions for the further release of the divine life already implanted in followers of Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

Under the terms of the New Covenant, the Spirit creates a new heart in every person who knows Christ as Redeemer. That new heart is defined by a new disposition toward God and self and life that competes with the old, anti-God disposition that came along with conception. The new heart consists of an appetite for God, a longing to know him, a yearning to enjoy him, a desire to please him, a passion to reveal him to others, and a willingness to surrender to his providential care and purpose in every circumstance of life.

I met with a close friend this morning whose life right now is very difficult. He is physically exhausted and spiritually depleted. A few days ago, an underlying anger burst out in ugly ways. My prayer as we chatted was that I would relate to him in a way that would let him get more in touch with the hope-filled life within his new heart that nothing can destroy, a beautiful life that competes with his ugly anger.

The spiritual director enters every conversation with confident hope and clear vision: there is life within the directee that is good and is pressing for release. In relationships in which the heart and wisdom of God are even faintly reflected, that life rises to the surface from deep inner depths and dribbles out. Sometimes it gushes.

One core task of the spiritual director, therefore, is to discern spiritually whether his interior world of passions and motives lines up well with God’s interior world of passions and motives. The degree to which it does is the degree to which spiritual direction will have spiritual power.


Second, spiritual direction may occur best in a setting of solitude and retreat, but it realistically addresses the directee’s relationship with God in the middle of the noise and complexities of life in this world.

Relational tensions, money problems, and emotional troubles are wonderful opportunities for spiritual direction. The point is to discover the divine life beneath every trial that is self-denying and self-giving, not self-obsessed.

I heard Dr. Roberta Hestenes deliver a timely warning to an audience interested in spiritual direction. She gently but firmly told us that if our practice of disciplines and our efforts at spiritual direction do not lead to a self-sacrificing concern for the poor, whatever occurs that we might call spiritual formation is an illusion, a deceptive counterfeit.

Point taken. And, with blushing face, I would add that if spiritual direction does not release the radically other-centered and compassionate, nonjudgmental life of Christ into difficult marriages and tense working relationships, into the midst of health scares and parenting heartbreak, then we need to review our understanding of spiritual direction to see what is lacking.

Third, spiritual direction not only releases the life of Christ within us; it also faces the obstacle to its release by entering the battle in every God-inclined soul between the terror-driven spirit of entitlement (idolatry) and the grace-energized spirit of selflessness (worship).

An awakening model of spiritual direction is not sufficient. The healing of wounds by an experience of love is wonderful, but not enough. Not only must the divine life within us be awakened from its slumber; it must also be liberated from its prison. The prison that holds us in bondage is the “justified” self-obsession that comes so naturally to our terrified souls: if we don’t look out for ourselves, who will? We pray and trust and practice disciplines, and we still hurt. Self-protection seems not only necessary but also moral. God’s record of protecting us from harm and relieving our internal pain is spotty at best. That’s how we see things apart from the Spirit’s enlightening.

God’s “failure” to keep us safe from abusive parents and financial disasters and relational hurt feeds the anti-God virus that invaded our hearts at conception, a legacy from our fallen parents. Indwelling sin, that “reasonable” urge to hate God and turn away from him that is in us all till heaven, must be exposed in spiritual direction. Deep hurt is not our core problem. Deep hate is.

We blame God for how lonely and empty we feel, and then feel quite justified and clever in adopting whatever relational strategies build our self-esteem and relieve some of the pain. Psychologists call them defensive patterns. Spiritual directors call them heart idolatries, where supreme value is placed on feeling safe and satisfied and doing whatever promotes that sense of well-being.

In my view, training in spiritual direction must help trainees to understand and to discern gracefully and expose the hidden battle between self-obsession and God-obsession. The battle is most visible in relational encounters that violate love but feel legitimate to the violator. Awakening new life is not enough. Repenting of self-protection identified in an examination of relationships is also needed. Repentance releases awakened life.

Fourth, spiritual direction should not promise the experience of a fully satisfying relationship with God in this life. That experience defines heaven. The hope of that experience, which sustains faith and love as we live now, grows in the sweet experience of unsatisfied desires that points ahead.

The Colossian Christians were being seduced by false teachers who promised an experience of union with God that eliminated the pain of living in this world. Paul countered by stressing that the indwelling Christ was the hope, not the experience, of glory. He prayed they would be filled not with the satisfaction of desire, but with the knowledge of God’s will. That knowledge, won through spiritual wisdom and understanding, would result in 1) a life worthy of the Lord, 2) a life that pleases God in every way, and 3) the fruit of good works—loving others—that would deepen their knowledge of God. God’s power was available to give them endurance and patience in unsatisfying and disheartening times until they fully and forever shared in the inheritance of the saints. (See Colossians 1:9-14.)

Paul’s focus is consistently on hope, not fulfillment. This hope produces a life of virtue that, in classical definition, is a life of happiness—not always pleasure, but happiness—centered in the joy of hope and gratitude for what’s ahead. Spiritual direction, therefore, aims at a union with God that releases the life of Christ through a Christian’s life, whether that life is pleasurably satisfying or not. The joy comes in knowing that we are pleasing the Father and enjoying the opportunity to do so until we see his Son.

Fifth, spiritual direction will honor the mystery of the Spirit’s sovereign timing and movement by resisting the director’s natural urge to make something happen.

The flesh, our natural anti-God spirit of autonomy, seeks to control others through any effective form of intimidation or persuasion. The Spirit-empowered human spirit woos with non-impositional love. In the mystery of God’s character, he sovereignly moves in our lives without denying us freedom.

Good spiritual direction follows the directions suggested by spiritual wisdom with no agenda other than faithfulness to God and dependence on God, and, like a water skier following a boat, it follows the discerned movement of the Holy Spirit in every relational moment.

02.  Model of Spiritual Direction

Now, with these five assumptions in mind, let me briefly sketch the model of spiritual direction that I teach at the one-week School of Spiritual Direction offered four times per year to thirty students each time.

The activity of spiritual direction begins not with journaling or meditation, but with meeting the directee in his or her journeying reality. Where is this person right now on his spiritual journey? As tourists wandering into an unfamiliar mall locate themselves by finding the “You are here” red dot on the mall directory, spiritual directees move ahead on their spiritual journeys from where they are, from their spiritual red dot, from their journeying reality.

My focus in spiritual direction begins with the radical present and its surrounding circumstances, both present and historical. My desire is to be radically present to the directee’s radical present. To do so requires discernment into the directee’s relational pull and into my interior world.

I must identify and disentangle myself from what the directee is “pulling” from me in the moment, whether I am pulled toward sympathizing, agreeing, remaining on the surface, getting “spiritual” right away, or rebuking him to relieve his guilt.

I must offer what comes out of me at the Spirit’s prompting, not what the directee is trying to pull out of me. Only in so doing will I be free to follow the Spirit’s rhythm. I may say nothing when the directee wants me to talk. I may say many words when the directee would prefer silence. It is wrong to discount or ride roughshod over a directee’s desires, but it is also wrong to be controlled by them.

To resist pull and attend to the journeying reality, I must be comfortable in facing my own interior world of feelings and motives as I engage with the directee. Am I feeling worthy of notice because I am a spiritual director? Is the directee annoying me with her need for approval, and is my irritation providing me pleasure as I resist her pull?

I recall one woman whose wide smile, which never left her face, felt annoyingly syrupy. I could feel the urge to disrupt her just to replace her annoying smile with a frown. Recognizing that impulse in my interior world took me into the battle between my flesh and God’s Spirit and freed me to represent and release what was spiritually alive in me (at great cost, I might add, to fleshly pleasure).

As I attend to the directee’s journeying reality and pull, and as I enter the always present battle with the flesh in my interior world, the release of spiritual energy carries me toward imagining a spiritual vision for the person, a beginning picture of what the directee might look like if the Spirit did his work.

I let myself dream, with hope. It really could happen. It will happen fully in heaven. And I might be privileged to play a part in the Spirit’s work now. How would this dad feel towards his surly, disrespectful son if he (the father) were more spiritually formed? How would this attractive, recently divorced woman respond to a sexually harassing colleague if she were maturing in Christ?

That vision excites me and arouses my spiritual energy and incites me to pray. I sometimes begin writing a “vision letter” to my directee after the first meeting, and later read the letter or give it to the person. As a vision of my directee’s “real but as yet unreleased self” takes shape, I can look at what’s getting in the way of that vision without losing hope or feeling cynical. A growing vision of what the Spirit longs to do allows me to face my directee’s flesh dynamics without a spirit of angry judgment. I explore the self-dependent, terror-driven, world-shaped, demon-influenced ideas about life that so powerfully compete with a God-dependent, hope-driven, biblically shaped, Spirit-revealed understanding of a life well lived.

That requires a look, sometimes a long one, at background events, both traumatic and pleasurable, not to interpret psychological dynamics, but to identify and surface flesh dynamics. The difference is real. Psychological dynamics consist of the affective forces that necessarily develop in a person’s interior world in response to life’s events. Flesh dynamics include but do not focus on the emotional response to life’s events. Flesh dynamics consist of the definitions of life and death that our anti-God disposition comes up with as we experience life’s events, and the “justified” strategies we adopt to avoid death experiences and to enjoy life experiences. In a word, flesh dynamics equal narcissism or, as Augustine put it, a nature “curved in on itself.”


To provide an extreme example, sexual abuse may be viewed as the horrible event it is, but one that does nothing more in its innocent victim than cause damage to his or her identity that needs healing. In my view, a spiritual director will, of course, see sexual abuse as heinous and damaging, and as a trauma from which recovery is needed, but will see its spiritual effects as well. A spiritual director will be sensitive to how the victim has wrongly equated the pain she experienced with death and has culpably turned from God by giving priority to ways of relating that will keep her from more experiences that feel like death. The effect will be culpable narcissism, flesh-driven relating, and sinful self-protection that require forgiveness and repentance before deep healing is possible.

Recognized flesh dynamics stir brokenness over sin, not only hurting over wounds. It is a brokenness that releases the momentum of joyful, hope-filled repentance. Brokenness followed by repentance penetrates the thick crust of a hard heart to reach the glory of spirit dynamics within.

I believe New Covenant realities—a heart disposed to want God, to know him, please him, and sacrifice for him—are lodged deeper in the soul of a Jesus-follower than are the self-obsessed inclinations of the flesh. Christians live in the often unrecognized and underappreciated reality of complete forgiveness. Becoming aware of the extent of God’s grace brings awareness of our identity as God’s children. That identity, seen and embraced, arouses the taste buds of our lust for God, our yearning to be found by him, held by him, sung over by him, and used by him in his glorious purposes. Those are spirit dynamics.

The more flesh dynamics are painfully exposed, the more we abandon ourselves to the mercy and care of God. And the more we are disturbed by the presence and power of our flesh, the more we become excited and empowered by the deeper presence and greater power of the Spirit. And that releases the Spirit’s power to change the way we relate, the way we think, and the way we feel in the middle of any life circumstance. Good circumstances are no longer regarded as life. Bad ones don’t count as death. We are free to love God and love others in all circumstances.

And that is spiritual formation. We will not feel the fullness of satisfied desire; emotional and circumstantial struggles will continue, but we will be filled with the firm hope that one day every desire will be satisfied. Shalom will come, in us and around us and beneath us and above us. That hope will free us from demanding satisfaction now or despairing over felt emptiness, and it will slowly generate a deep, intractable sense of well-being now that survives and even thrives in the midst of painful emptiness.

To promote spiritual formation as I’ve just described it, spiritual direction must enter a bloody battle that has already been won. And the victory is felt now most deeply in the hope that sustains us in the reality of unsatisfied desire. Hope develops in the soil of emptiness. Faith that is the substance, not the present experience, of things hoped for can then also develop—as can love. Love in its purest form is released when we respond to felt emptiness, which presses for relief, with the hope that frees us from self-concern and frees us to be other-centered, like Jesus.

Spiritual direction tracks people through long seasons of Ecclesiastes-like emptiness into bouts of Job-like suffering. And it maintains the hope of Song of Solomon-like moments of rapture that God sovereignly provides as a taste of what’s ahead.

Perhaps as you read this issue of Conversations, you’ll recognize more clearly the narrow road to a life filled with hope and faithfulness and love, a road that will lead all who travel on it closer to the heart’s true home. And I trust that this brief, condensed version of my understanding of spiritual direction will contribute, along with every other article, to your hope of knowing Christ well enough to resemble him more in this world until we see him in the next. As you read this entire issue, written by neophytes (at least one) and notables on spiritual direction, may you be encouraged to dialogue, may you see a few things more clearly, and may cross-fertilization solidify in your mind the essentials of “mere” spiritual direction.

Note: for more information on the School of Spiritual Direction led by Dr. Larry Crabb and presented by NewWay Ministries, check online at


Larry Crabb is a psychologist, author, spiritual director, and founder of NewWay Ministries. He currently serves as distinguished scholar in residence at Colorado Christian University and spiritual director for the American Association of Christian Counselors. Among his more than twenty books are Inside Out, Shattered Dreams, The Pressure’s Off, Soul Talk, and The PAPA Prayer.