Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation





Alex Tang



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Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation

Dr. Alex Tang


I.                   Introduction

We live in a consumer-orientated society. Every service can be purchased and we demand that this service be of a certain standard. We also live in a performance-orientated society and to achieve, we have many resources and technologies available. We have our own personal trainers at the gym to sculpture our bodies and to keep us trim and fit. We have our own personal physicians to keep us healthy so that we live to a ripe old age. We have our own accountants to look after our monies and to deal with the taxman. We have our own financial asset managers to make sure our assets increase and have enough for our old age. We have our own lawyers to make sure our rights are not being infringed upon. We enroll in courses to upgrade our working skills and follow the teachings of the management gurus so that we retain our cutting edge in our business and professional careers. We have 5 years, 10 years and even Lifetime plans for ourselves, our careers and our children. Yet in such a society, how many of us who profess to be Christians have a plan for our spiritual growth? A spiritual program for the care of our souls? 

Most if not all of us leave the growth of our souls to our churches and our pastors. In attending church services, listening to sermons, attending home cell group meetings, fellowshipping with fellow Christians and in our own Quiet Time, we hope to grow. Is it not surprising that we, who would not consider home schooling as an adequate education system for our children, would allow our own spiritual growth and development in such a haphazard direction?  We can argue that as Christians, the Holy Spirit is in us and He will oversee our spiritual growth. It is true that the Holy Spirit will oversee our spiritual growth or sanctification. It is also true that the Holy Spirit always seek to work through His people. One good example, which shows God prefers to teach people through other people, is in the case of Saul. Instead of teaching him directly  on the road, Jesus instructed Saul to go into the city where he would be told what to do.


II.                Spiritual Growth Programs in Churches

1.                  Church programs

If we look at the condition of most churches today, we are involved in an endless cycle of activities. The objectives of most programs are praiseworthy. The programs are for disciplemaking and we seek to teach the Christians both new and old the essentials of a Christian life. Yet, if we look carefully at these Christians, we notice that what they have acquired is mainly spiritual skills. As a Church, we have become expert in teaching the ‘how-to’ of a Christian Life but not the ‘what’ of a Christian Life. We know the 5 different forms of prayers, we can read the bible and do accurate historical-grammatical exegesis of the verses, we can share the four-spiritual laws with confidence and we know low to lead a group discussion. Insidiously, these activities have replaced spiritual growth and soon our souls become arid. We become tired and discouraged. We are often told that as Christians we should not be tired and discouraged, we throw ourselves into more activities in our churches. Yet our souls do not grow. Thomas Merton writes, ‘ inside of yourself, you shouldn’t be running all the time’. In our churches today, there are many who are giants in their church in terms of contributions and commitment, yet remain infants in their souls.


2.                  Seeking God?

The core to the care of the soul or spiritual growth is not what we do but what God does. It is grace and only grace. It is God who seeks us and draws us close to Him. It is God who reveals Himself to us and makes us His children. It is God who gives the Holy Spirit to us. Our role in all this is passive. Spiritual growth or development of our soul is never active. It is never to be our role to take active action, to seize the initiative and arrange a program. Our role is to pray, listen and obey and let God works in our lives. Luci Shaw concurs, ‘You cannot, by pure discipline, renew your spirit. This is God’s responsibility. Yours is to be still, to listen, to relax. God is at work and will refresh and recreate as you give Him time and attention.’

That is why it is so tough for us. All our lives, we have been taught to be pro-active. To take action. It is our natural self to act rather than to be passive. We have coined the phrase ‘fight or flight’ in reaction to any crisis. Both fight and flight are action verbs. It is against our nature to be passive and let God work. That is why it is so hard for us to grow spiritually. That is why it is necessary for us to receive guidance in spiritual growth.


III.             The Tradition of Spiritual Guidance or Soul Care.

The church has a long tradition of spiritual guidance or soul care. Only in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century did the word ‘soul care’ fall out of favor but the concept of the care of a young spiritual baby and helping him or her to grow, remains one of the foundational purpose of the church.

Richard Foster in his book, Streams of Living Water,  lists 6 great traditions of the church: The Contemplative Tradition (Discovering the Prayer-Filled Life), the Holiness Tradition (Discovering the Virtuous Life), the Charismatic Tradition (Discovering the Spirit-Empowered Life), the Social Justice Tradition (Discovering the Compassionate Life), the Evangelical Tradition (Discovering the Word-centered Life) and the Incarnational Tradition (Discovering the Sacramental Life).

Foster noted that in all these great Tradition, the concept of soul care is present but is best developed under the Holiness Tradition. He explains, ‘the Holiness Tradition constantly holds before us the ultimate goal of the Christian life: an ever deeper formation of the inner personality so as to reflect the glory and goodness of God; a new more radiant conformity to the life and faith and desires and habits of Jesus; an utter transformation of our creatureliness into whole and perfect sons and daughters of God.’ It is in this Tradition that we come across the concept of spiritual formation and spiritual direction. Spiritual formation is the road we have to journey and spiritual directors the companions and mentors to provide us with counsel, encouragement and accountability. A relationship in which it is natural to ask, “How is it with your soul?” without embarrassment and expect an honest evaluation.


IV.              Spiritual Direction 

1.                  What is Spiritual Direction

Physicist-theologian James O’Reilly writes, ‘The Minister is one to whom his/her people come at those junctures of life when they have to come face to face with the unsolvable, those moments when they meet with the limits of creaturely power, when they experience darkness or have intimations of mortality. At such moments, people have need to draw near to one who while able like other men and women to swim in the waters of life and stay afloat in them, is not averse to drowning graciously in them, able to overcome. People need one who has entered deeply into the paschal mystery of Jesus, rejoicing in life but at ease with death.’

What O’Reilly has written so eloquently is that the Christian life is not a ‘Lone Ranger’ affair. No one can go it alone. We need other people, people who are mature in the faith to help us and guide us during our journey. These people may not necessarily be the pastor. They are named spiritual directors and what they do is give spiritual direction. St. John of the Cross insisted that spiritual directors must be learned, sensitive and discreet and have experience in the life of prayer. He emphasized Jesus as the center of spiritual life and of spiritual direction.

The amount of time the spiritual director spends with the directee is not important. What is important is the accountability of both in their spiritual lives. The spiritual director’s role to pray and to guide from his or her experience with God. The directee to learn to develop the spiritual disciplines, including prayer as a means to get to know God and to practice the presence of God in his or her daily life. The spiritual director can help to give perspective to the directee’ spiritual problems

2.                  Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Counselling

Spiritual direction deals with one’s relationship with God and a life of prayer while a pastoral counselor deals with emotional problems and adjustment difficulties like marriage problems, family problems, work related stress, depression and mid-life crisis. Julie Douglas, a spiritual director, notes  ‘Spiritual direction attempts to help the directee listen to the Lord who is working within him or her, especially in the life of prayer. Pastoral counseling tries to aid the counselee in finding viable (if possible, Christian) solutions to problems dealt with in everyday life…the two overlap, yet are different in their approach and emphasis’. It is important to differentiate between the two because a lot of confusion may arise as expectations for each is different.

3.                  Spiritual Direction and Friendship

Simon Chan, lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore writes, ‘There is a significant difference between friendship and direction. Although there is an element of friendship in spiritual direction, the main focus is on helping another person grow. While the director and directee are fellow pilgrims, spiritual direction presupposes that one of them has travelled farther along the road and can serve as a guide to the newcomer. This is why a spiritual director must have certain qualifications, training (formal and informal) and experience. Direction is by nature a relationship involving unequal partners’. Fellowship in church is not considered to be spiritual direction.


V.                 Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation

In the nineties, there has been a resurgent of interest in spirituality including Christian Spirituality. The classic works of spirituality such as Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ received renewed interest. 

Richard Peace, Professor of Evangelism and Spiritual Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary, USA, writes, ‘ Suddenly “spiritual formation” became the term of preference in many circles. By this what people have in mind was a kind of spirituality that was rooted in the practice of spiritual disciplines, guided by a spiritual director, nurtured by regular retreats (the silent variety, not the typical evangelical activist word-filled retreat), and concerned with the growth of the inner life.’

An important question now arises: Can spiritual direction and spiritual formation be carried out in the Malaysian churches?  Are the Malaysian church structures suitable for this form of ministry? Unfortunately no. The Malaysian church structures are geared mainly for the pulpit ministry and even within those with Cell Church structures, it is not for individual one-to-one type of ministry. It will need a radical reengineering of the church structure to make spiritual direction and formation a major part of the church structure.

A small group within a church may succeed instead. It may start with a spiritual director who will guide one or two directees to maturity. They in turn will give spiritual direction to others. Brother Lawrence notes, ‘Those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward, even in sleep.’

VI.              Conclusion

‘The Christian spiritual tradition has often employed the image of mountain climbing, since the spiritual life is a life of toil and progress that includes struggles, dangers and joy,’ Simon Chan concludes in his book, Spiritual Theology, ‘..the new climber needs a guide, an experienced climber who can lead the way, point out the dangers, suggest the best equipment and offer a helping hand. The challenge seems less formidable in the reassuring presence of an experienced guide, who is the spiritual director – parent and companion.’

We are not to journey alone. There are experienced and matured Christians around who will help us on the journey. Who can teach us to be more Christ-like. To help us in our decision-making so that we can grow in our spiritual journey. To teach us to listen and obey the Voice of God. To hold us accountable in the external life that we show to the world and the inner life that we live with. It is up to us to look for them.


                                                                                                                                                                         Soli Deo Gloria



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