I feel I’m in a peculiar situation in life.
First, I’m a conservative evangelical Reformed pastor. I appreciate that tradition, mainly its focus on the knowledge and study of God’s Word in Scripture.
But I’m also trained spiritual director with two years of training. Most of the material in that study has Catholic writers, medieval mystics, and leaders in the Spiritual formation movement who emphasize spiritual discernment and God’s inner calling.
The difference between the two streams has caused me much inner conflict. But I believe God called me to study and practice both. If we can get through the differences, the two can complement each other well.
In Reformed circles, spiritual direction is practically unknown. If it is known, it is usually regarded with suspicion because of its focus on feelings and emotions. At the same time, Reformed theology often meets suspicion in spiritual direction circles because of its emphasis on the mind and doctrinal precision.
For my Reformed friends, here’s a straightforward definition of spiritual direction—it’s two people meeting together to discover what God is saying to one of them. A spiritual director meets with you and prays with you to find God’s guidance and direction. That’s pretty much all. They do not offer advice or counsel but are there to help you discern what God is saying to you directly, not to tell you what He says. They accompany you on your path to a deeper relationship with Him.
That path comes through God’s two instruments of revelation—His Word and the Holy Spirit. Spiritual directors focus on helping you discover the movement of the Spirit in your life, where pastors and teachers are there to help you find out the meaning of the Word. We can study and teach the Word, but the discernment of the Holy Spirit is more than just parsing Biblical texts. It has to do with recognizing God’s inner voice. The Bible can set parameters on who can be a pastor, but the Spirit calls you individually to a particular ministry. The word tells us to be evangelists, but the Spirit reveals who is called to which mission field. Both are important.
Jesus said, “God is a spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24, ESV)
The “truth” Jesus refers to is God’s Word. God’s Word exists outside of us. The “Spirit” is the awareness of The Holy Spirit, God’s inner presence. The outer witness of the Word and the inner witness of the Spirit are both involved in finding God having an ongoing relationship with Him.
Another way of saying this is to recognize both the objective and subjective voice of God.
God’s Objective voice comes to us through outside sources–voices outside our thoughts, feelings or experiences. God speaks to all of through Word and nature. That word does not change from person to person, but is a shared reality–what we usually mean when we say something is “real.”
A cook can’t make a recipe from a cookbook without an agreement on what is meant by “two cups of flour.” An orchestra cannot play together without agreeing on what is meant by a C note or quarter rest. Shared faith is impossible if we cannot agree on the meanings of “God,” “Trinity,” and “Incarnation.” We cannot discuss Biblical truth unless we can agree that the Bible actually means something concrete and specific. Objective truth unites us in a common ground of belief. Concrete allows us to hold each other mutually accountable for our thoughts and actions.
God’s Subjective voice speaks to our inner self. Since God is everywhere, He is capable of speaking to us directly inside our hearts personally and individually. The Word gives us the truth; the Spirit interprets those truths individually to us. Through the Spirit, God doesn’t just speak to us; He also speaks to me.
We seek the presence of those we love, not just their words. A soldier overseas reads letters from his girl abroad; but when he goes home, he wants to see her and be with her. Christians do not want just to read God’s Word; they want to meet God through the Spirit. The process of spiritual direction is a quest for Divine intimacy.
Here are a couple of Biblical examples:
Job was a righteous man who did all God commanded him. He must have been intimately familiar with God’s word as it was revealed in his time. Even so, a series of calamities left him alone and destitute. They messed up Job’s image of God as someone who rewarded the good and cursed the wicked. He felt alone and abandoned. But at the end of the book, he confesses, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:4-5, ESV) His calamities brought him to a place of intimacy where he experienced a face to face encounter with God.
Knowing God’s word wasn’t enough for Job. Through God revealing Himself in life experiences, he met God face to face.
Paul was a great student of the Bible. Like other scholars of his time, he had an encyclopedic knowledge. Despite all of his study, Paul did not know God face to face. Only when Jesus met him on the road to Damascus did he experience the transformation that came with knowing God. God’s word wasn’t enough to change him—he needed God’s presence inside him.
Objective truth is about transcendence–God above us; subjective truth is about immanence–God with us. Objective truth is universal; Subjective truth is personal. Objective truth comes through study and teaching; Subjective truth comes through sensing and inspiration. One cannot exist without the other.
The problem with solely relying on God’s objective voice is us–we can never be completely objective. Our feelings influence us more than we know, causing us to ignore some facts or give too much weight to others. As a Reformed pastor, I’ve often seen doctrinal correctness exalted, and our heart feelings dismissed as unimportant. But people are emotional beings, and we cannot ignore it.
Without emotional awareness, our messages will appeal only to those who see themselves as being intellectually elite. If any of us think that it is possible to be completely impartial, we are wrong. Our emotional and cultural biases always affect our ability to discern the truth.
Those who think that facts are all-important need to look carefully at Micah 6: 8 “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Notice Micah doesn’t mention “think correctly” as one of God’s requirements. Right theology doesn’t help us if our heart is wrong.
The problem with solely relying on God’s subjective voice is that we are never sure if it is God’s voice, instead of our own or someone else’s. Feelings can deceive even the holiest people into thinking that good is evil and sin is virtue. A lustful man in a may mistake desire for another woman to be God’s permission to seek a divorce, and an angry person may justify an impulse to violence to be “God’s justice.”
What the Bible says is right or wrong matters to us, whether we like it or not. God is concerned with what we do, not just what we feel. He cares if we cheat our spouses, practice premarital sex or infidelity, or lie on our taxes. It matters to Him whether we believe He exists, or whether Jesus rose from the dead. If we ignore what God says in the Word, then how do we tell the difference between His inner voice and ours?
How can we say “God loves you” without acknowledging two objective truths–that God is real and that He loves us? It matters whether God is real, not just whether we think He is real. Saying God loves me means a lot more than saying Gandalf loves me; because God exists and Gandalf doesn’t.
Without the objective voice of God, the Bible becomes a do-it-yourself theology kit which can be used to justify whatever we want. 2 Peter 1:20-21 says, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
We need two sets of ears–one to hear Gods outer voice and one to listen to His inner voice. We hear His external voice by observation, reason, and study; we hear His internal voice by learning to discern it from those of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. One is not complete without the other.