Teach me your way, Lord;
Lead me in a straight path. . .
I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
–Psalm 27:11, 13–14, NIV All Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™
01. A Gentle Whisper
It seems that often when we seek direction from the Lord, what we get instead is advice from others—pastors, friends, or counselors. The advice may actually be very good, but it is not what we are seeking and is not what we need. Instead, what we long to hear is what Elijah heard—the gentle whisper from the Lord that came after the great and powerful wind, after the earth-shattering earthquake and after the blazing fire (1 Kings 19:11–12).
Spiritual direction is listening for the gentle whisper of the Lord. Although the Lord is present in the earthquake and fire, we need assurance that God is also present in what seems like silence. Often, we experience this when we are on the edge of being burned out, running for our lives or hiding in our caves. At such times, we want to hear the Lord say to us, “Go out and stand on the mountain, in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11).
It is important to learn to tune in to the gentle voice of the Lord because the Lord often chooses to whisper to us after the wind, earthquake, and fire have subsided. But the problem is that often the gentle whisper of the Lord is drowned out by our own pounding heartbeats. Like Elijah, we can hear only ourselves repeating the words of fear and disillusionment.
Spiritual direction is spiritual attunement—discerning the voice of God amidst the noise, listening to his still, small voice in the hustle and bustle of life.
To listen to God is to listen to Scriptures because Scriptures are both the message from the Lord and the media by which he speaks to us. A spiritual director listens for the voice of the Lord with the directee. He or she helps the directee discern the gentle whisper of God and act upon it. The director should therefore speak less and listen more. He or she needs to listen for the spiritual yearnings beneath the murmurs of the directee, and then help the directee tune in to God. The Word of the Lord must not be drowned out by the words of the director.
02. A Conversation Begins
Let’s listen in on a recent spiritual direction conversation. The directee came to me seeking help in deciding whether to emigrate to Canada with his family in order to accept a new pastoral position there. He was also healing from a recent church conflict. Several conversations took place. This is how they began:
Directee: (Looks anxious) I am so confused. Should I go or should I stay?
Director: It looks like you are in a real dilemma.
Directee: That’s right! It is such a good opportunity, but at the same time, despite the past conflict, my ministry here is meaningful, too. But it would be good for my children to study in Canada. I have lost faith in the education system here in Hong Kong.
Director: So there are advantages and disadvantages either way. However, you seem to want to put the children’s interests first.
Directee: Yes, I want the children to get a good education and the whole family to be closer together. Life in Hong Kong is just too hectic. There should be more meaning to life than just work. The past conflict does not make it any easier. However, I am uncertain as to whether we will be paying too high a price if we go. We will have to say good-bye to all our relatives and church friends. We need their support too. I wish . . .
Director: You seem to be still hurting from your previous conflict. Also, I hear a yearning for a better life for yourself and the family, not just physically or materially, but spiritually.
Directee: You are right! I want to be more than a busy worker. WWJD! What would Jesus do? (Sighs)
Director: Well, I don’t know. I think he would want to follow his Father’s will. I also think that your decision should not be made based on past conflicts.
Directee: Yeah! But how can I know the Father’s will?
Director: As you know, and it almost sounds like a cliché, but I guess we could start with reading his Word. Would you like to do a meditation with me using the lectio divina approach? Maybe God can speak to us that way.
Directee: Sure! Where do we start?
The above conversation moved from how to make a decision at the crossroads of life to how to have a more meaningful spiritual life. I attempted to shift his focus from the anxiety, apprehension, and hurts to the underlying spiritual story and encouraged him to consider the Word of God as the source for direction he seeks. Too often, spiritual direction stays at the level of problem solving or confirmation of a direction that the directee is thinking of or wishing to take. A “back-to-the-Bible” approach shifts the focus back to God and the I-Thou relationship. It helps the directee go back to God with his petition, but at the same time invites him to review his motivation and inner desires.
After some quick thoughts, I sensed the leading of the Spirit to use Psalm 27 as the basis for the lectio divina. I then read the passage slowly twice, each time asking the directee to listen for a word from the Lord and meditate on it. I gave him space to dwell on the thought and then encouraged him to turn it into his prayer to the Lord. I waited with the directee in contemplation in the presence of the Lord, enjoying God’s warm embrace. The conversation continues:
04. Scriptures Coming Alive
Director: Well, has the Lord spoken a new word to you?
Directee: Yes, indeed. It felt good to hear his gentle whisper. It is so reassuring!
[In an opening prayer, I had alluded to the fact that God sometimes speaks to us in whispers.]
Director: What was the gentle whisper?
Directee: The word that keeps coming back to me is “hide.” I think the whole verse is, “He will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent” (Psalm 27:5).
Director: Why is the word “hide” so meaningful to you?
Directee: It feels good to have him hide me in the shelter of his tent. I feel so safe and protected. It is very reassuring. My heart is filled with peace, freedom, and hope. I know he is there for me.
Director: Yes, he is our hiding place. Do you remember the story of Corrie Ten Boom? What you said reminds me of that. It is wonderful to feel safe in the Lord. It seems that security in the Lord is something you need and have received from the Lord in this word. But is he hiding you, or are you hiding yourself?
Directee: (Looks a bit puzzled) What do you mean?
Director: I do not want to take away your sense of being safe in the Lord, but I am wondering whether you are feeling too safe— maybe wanting to continue to hide or escape.
Directee: Hmm . . . That is an interesting thought. How did you arrive at that?
Director: Well, I note that you stopped at the first part of the verse and did not dwell on the second part, which says “and set me high upon a rock.”
Directee: Wow! That is so powerful because what that tells me is that I am not only safe, but I am also put on a solid foundation.
Director: What does that mean to you in your life?
Directee: Does that mean I do not have to fear whatever lies ahead because the Lord is my foundation?
Director: Do you think that is true?
Directee: Yes, I believe that.
Director: How does it feel to believe that?
Directee: I feel not only safe; I feel reassured to move on. That does not mean I have decided to emigrate. It does mean I am thinking more in terms of what the Lord wants me to do, rather than the pros and cons of the situation. I want to do his will.
Director: It is so good to hear that from you. There is a quiet serenity when you say that, quite different from the anxious mood you came it with, I must say. The Lord has spoken through his word. Jesus is the Rock.
Directee: Yeah! I just want to be the donkey for Jesus.
Director: Can you fill me in? What do you mean by that?
Directee: When I first received the call from the Lord, I was touched by the story of the donkey for Jesus. (Matthew 21:1–11) For Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus chose a humble donkey. I told the Lord that I was just like a donkey. But if he was pleased to use me in his ministry, I was more than willing. This came back to me when I heard what you said just now.
Director: It is interesting that you say that. I believe that one of the most direct ways God speaks to us is through his Word. His Spirit causes us to remember his own words when we wait before him. You know what I mean.
Directee: Yes, I do.
Director: Back to the idea of being a donkey for the Lord. You have worked like a donkey all this while. (Chuckles) But seriously, how does that apply to you in your situation now?
Directee: You are right; it’s a donkey’s life! (Laughs) I guess it is realizing how ordinary I am, yet God can use me to do extraordinary things if I am willing to let him use me. There is tremendous potential in the job I have been offered in Canada because a lot of recent immigrants from Hong Kong are there. But there is a lot to be done here too. So it does not really matter whether we go or stay as long as we are doing God’s will. The important thing is that God is in control.
Director: Yes, indeed. God is here, and he is not silent. You have come a long way in this session. You might want to dwell upon that a bit more when you go home. Next time we talk, we will revisit these exciting thoughts. As a further meditation, I wonder if you might also want to meditate on Elijah’s story in 1 Kings 19:1–21. You can follow the lectio divina method that I just used. Can you do that?
Directee: I will definitely do that. Thank you.
Director: Good! Can you close in prayer?
The directee thanked the Lord for guiding him through his Word and asked for a spirit of submission as he turned his future path to the Lord.
05. The Word and the Spirit
Throughout this session, I was very conscious of the presence of the Spirit whispering God’s word. Because a director is not the one dispensing advice, I felt free myself to wait before the Lord with the directee. I was therefore able not only to respond with empathy, but also to notice what the Lord was saying through Scripture and share it with the directee. Furthermore, the focus on Scripture helped me avoid being either too directive or too open-ended. It allowed the Spirit to be the true Director.
The gentle confrontation involved in pointing out what the directee might have missed in Scripture allowed the directee to reexamine his own feelings and beliefs. In this case, the directee felt not only safe, but also challenged to venture out in faith and launch out into the deep. Instead of just looking at the options he has, he was challenged to a deeper life and greater commitment.
Because of the focus on Scripture, the directee is reminded of other Scripture that had been of pivotal importance to his own life and ministry, hence remembering the donkey for Jesus passage.
My responsibility as the director is to ask appropriate questions and help the directee delve into Scriptures to hear a new word from the Lord. The directee made good use of metaphors (Rock) and humor (the donkey analogy) to probe deeper into his inner desires, thereby helping him to rekindle his first love for the Lord.
The directee came back a week later. He was in a very different mood—more relaxed and with a smile on his face. This is the first part of that conversation.
Directee: I am happy to feel that the Lord is guiding me each step of the way. I do not have to worry about anything.
Director: How so?
Directee: When I first came to you, I was expecting some concrete advice, seeing that you lived and worked in Canada for many years. I was quite surprised that you did not speak from that perspective at all. When I went home and thought about it, I realized the critical factor is not where I live but whether I am in God’s perfect will. The verse that came to me was the prayer Paul had for the Colossians: “We have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives.” (Colossians 1:9).
Director: That is a nice verse to remember. That reminds me. Did you enjoy the passage I asked you to read?
Directee: Yes, indeed. It was a familiar passage, but it came alive for me again.
Director: What was the most important thing you got out of it?
Directee: Many things. But two things stood out for me. One was how not to be like Elijah, who thought he was the only faithful prophet left. The other was how Elijah chose Elisha to be his helper and successor.
Director: That is interesting. What do you think the Lord is saying to you?
Directee: As someone trained in the ministry, I was quite mindful of the fact that it would be wrong to use Scripture to justify my own desires and plans. But my mind kept going back to those two thoughts. What I hear the Lord saying to me is, “You are not alone! Empower others to serve with you!”
Director: That sounds very affirming.
Directee: You are right! I feel relieved and encouraged. I am no longer thinking of leaving or staying, but of how good it is to serve the Lord and how important it is to share the joy of service with others.
Director: I am happy to hear that.
This second session reminds me that when the spiritual director is open to the Lord, the Spirit takes what we offer and turns it into God’s own work of direction. The Scriptures are like rails, keeping both director and directee on track as together we seek God’s perfect will. We need not be anxious that we are leading the directee astray if we combine prayer with the proper use of God’s word in spiritual direction.
06. Jeannette Bakke in Conversation with the Author
JB: The use of Scripture in spiritual direction poses many interesting challenges, including prayerfully discerning whether or not God is inviting us to point toward Scripture in a particular instance. If so, should it be by offering something specific or by asking a directee whether any Scriptures come to mind as they reflect upon what they have been speaking about. The backgrounds of both director and directee will influence this decision. People’s experiences with Scripture range from (1) those who have been abused by leaders who interpreted Scripture in ways intended to control others, to (2) those who have not spent much time or intentionality in reading or prayerfully reflecting upon Scripture, to (3) those who have been happily immersed in Scripture for a long time. There are many variations of these backgrounds. What guidelines do you pay attention to in your use of Scripture in spiritual direction?
SYCL: My most general concern is to avoid simply dispensing scriptural answers and advice. I think this is particularly important in Hong Kong, where Chinese Christians show very high respect for someone who is a spiritual director. In this particular case, the directee was a pastor. So while I drew from passages I often use with people, I was glad to see that the directee went back to his own experience with God’s word.
JB: Although you were careful not to simply tell this person what to do, it seems to me that your style is more directive than would be common in North America. I wonder if your cultural context might contribute to this.
SYCL: I agree that in this situation I was quite directive. Part of this comes from my belief that the “faith comes from understanding.” But I suspect that the Scriptures are used more directively in the Asian context because, culturally, Asians (both directors and directees) tend to appeal to the authority of Scripture more. For myself, I tend to draw from Scripture quite a bit in order to avoid being too subjective. But directees also often come with the expectation that the director will point to Scripture that will be instructional.
JB: In North America, more prescriptive forms of spiritual companionship are commonly called “spiritual mentoring” or “discipling.” The term “spiritual direction” is usually reserved for a prayerful listening for the Spirit’s presence and invitations, and sensing when or if God is inviting conversation focused around Scripture. Are there times when you have intentionally chosen not to use Scripture in spiritual direction?
SYCL: Yes, there are times when I believe that a kataphatic approach (relying on the use of the imagination) would be too cognitive or directive, and I would use a more apophatic approach (emptying the mind of ideas and images), encouraging the directee to try simply to wait before Lord and be filled with awe for who God is. I do this when I feel that the directee is too cerebral in his or her approach to God.
JB: Another response to the material from your sessions that you have shared is that it makes the process look simpler than it is. Any thoughts about that?
SYCL: The dialogue included in the article was extracted from a much longer conversation, built on a long-term relationship with this man. A lot happened before, during, and after this dialogue, much more than this extract would suggest.
JB: Do you think there are potential dangers or difficulties in using Scripture in spiritual direction?
SYCL: I believe one of the greatest dangers is proof-texting— using Scripture to support the director’s own “personal” direction. Another danger would be to usurp the authority of the Scriptures (becoming authoritarian) in leading the person in a certain way. The main difficulty for the director is to follow Scripture, not neglecting its teaching or become timid in sharing it with the directee, but at the same time balancing that with not misusing it in the above ways. Of course, there is also the danger on the part of both the director and directee of misinterpreting and misunderstanding the Scriptures, or misapplying them. Finally, there is the danger of “scriptural idolatry,” which means turning to the Scriptures instead of turning to God.
JB: That is a good point. In John 5:39–40, Jesus addresses this concern when he says, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” From what you have said, it is clear we both desire that directees use Scripture as a means of coming to God, and we hope to deepen their appreciation of Scripture as it invites and supports them in their longing to love God with their whole mind, heart, and strength.
07. Further Readings
Pennington, M. Basil. Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures. (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998.)
Mulholland Jr., M. Robert. Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation. (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1985.)
DR. JEANNETTE A. BAKKE is the author of Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction. She teaches spiritual direction in seminaries, retreats, and training programs and is part of a cross-denominational group that is exploring the role of contemplative prayer in seminary education. Jeannette is a contributing editor of Conversations.