How Spiritual Direction Is Different From Therapy and Coaching

Spiritual direction is concerned with finding and responding to God in the midst of pain or disorder as well as in the rest of life. Problem/issue solving is not the primary focus of spiritual direction. (from the Larger Story website, founded by Larry Crabb)

Spiritual direction may be a new idea to you (as it was to me not long ago!), but it’s been around for centuries in the church. As I began to experience it, I had a hard time putting words to what was so unique about it. I was especially challenged to explain how this was different than other well-known forms of help, such as therapy or life coaching. Here was something God was repeatedly using to etch His truth and presence into me. Yet when I was asked, “So what exactly is spiritual direction?” I stumbled over my words.

Then when I became a spiritual director, I saw the same thing happen over and over. Men were experiencing God’s presence in profound and marking ways. This happened so many times that a number of these men (at least a dozen) decided to become spiritual directors themselves! Listen to one of these men describe exactly what happened to him:

It’s different from therapy

Now that you’ve heard from Greg, let me describe spiritual direction by distinguishing it from therapy. We are all familiar with counseling and the work of therapists. Probably many of you have seen a therapist. I have seen several at various points in my life. You come in with an issue and focus on where you need help. Then there are lots of questions from the therapist as well as observations made. There are all different types of therapy, but the key in this work is the connection built between you and the therapist.

Spiritual direction can look from the outside like therapy. You meet one-on-one, and the spiritual director will ask lots of questions and make observations. But the whole process moves along an entirely different plane. The connection between you and the spiritual director is always secondary. The connection built between you and God during the spiritual direction session is primary. This is why each session starts with prayer and then silence. It’s a physical cue that there is a third party involved in the conversation — and the most important one!

One of my therapist friends who is very familiar with spiritual direction describes it this way: it’s couples’ counseling with God. When he does marital counseling and hears one of them complain about some issue in their relationship, he invites them to talk about it right there while he just listens. The same move happens in spiritual direction. Wherever the conversation may go, there is always a pause so that you can talk to God about whatever you have been discussing in the session.

It’s different from coaching

Spiritual direction is also very different from coaching. There are all sorts of coaching out there, life coaching being one of the most popular. And there are a lot of benefits from seeing a life coach, often helping you set goals and detailing practical steps to get there. Spiritual direction can sound like this. After all, the name implies that you are going to receive lots of direction and advice. And it’s one-on-one work like most coaching.

This is an unfortunate case of misnaming. The term spiritual direction is an ancient one with a long tradition, so we keep the nomenclature. Yet is has little to do with giving direction. One of the cardinal rules of spiritual direction is never give advice about a decision or problem. That’s because I want men to to develop a relationship with God where they can experience His personal guidance and advice in their lives. Trust me, God is always trying to initiate that type of relationship with us.

It’s different from other helps in the faith

There are so many ways that we grow in Christ. The preaching of the Word, the community of believers, the grace of prayer, Scripture reading, being discipled and mentored by older believers, service to others, sharing our faith — to name but a few.

Spiritual direction offers something different from all of these by creating direct space for a person to be with God as a part of each session. As a spiritual director, I accompany another man in his own personal journey with God, noting the clues given to me in conversation and by the Spirit. I am a detective, so to speak, dusting for God’s fingerprints on a man’s life. They are always there, but sometimes we just need help to see them.

Want to learn more about spiritual direction? You can always contact me via email or a phone call. I would be happy to share more with you about this unique way men can grow strong in the faith.


Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

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