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How To Be A Soul Friend

August 15, 2012


The Apostle Paul offers many clues in his writings regarding the nature of spiritual direction. He knows what it means to be a soul friend to others and he models it for all of us to see.

A primary text that provides insight for those who desire to be a “soul friend” (or spiritual director) to others is found in Galatians 4:19. Paul writes, “My dear children, for who I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.”

As we take a closer look at the phrases that make up this statement, we find Paul delineating the components he felt necessary in spiritual direction.

“Dear children” – Spiritual direction is relational in nature.

In recent years the church finds itself trapped in a highly structured and even mechanistic approach to how we foster spiritual growth. Relational ministry (as exemplified by Christ and Paul) has given way to pragmatic, goal oriented strategies. Churches have reduced most things to a cause-and-effect paradigm, believing that information and programming are the key to transformation. As a result, we have allowed secondary strategies to eclipse a fundamental theological truth embedded in the word of God – the kingdom is relational. Paul knows this and his writing breathes relationship, intimacy, compassion, and concern. The guidance he offers his close companions and even those who cross his path briefly, comes from a deep passion to know and be known.

If we are to be involved in spiritual direction there must be a sense of the parental concern that Paul shows. Leaders so easily see their colleagues and other individuals as a means to an end. Without realizing it, we participate in the “commodification of people” – we concern ourselves with what they can offer the organization before we see them as image bearers of God’s nature. Spiritual direction recovers the relational nature of ministry – “my dear children.”

“The pains of childbirth” – Spiritual direction involves suffering.
Paul understood that engaging in relational ministry would also involve pain. He is simply saying that, on this side of heaven, we will agonize with others in their spiritual journey. The falleness of people greatly complicates the work of the leader – change does not come easily.

Paul is well aware of the hard work and, at times, the deep disillusionment that come with relationships in ministry. Formation is all about suffering, not only for Paul, but also for the individuals he longs to see formed. Is not part of the leader’s pain the vicarious angst he or she feels while watching others suffer through sickness, addictive behavior, broken relationships and death? As we enter the desert of shared pain we find that God is able to do his greatest work.

Birthing a child is probably the most intimate metaphor Paul could use to describe the kind of work he was in and calls us to. At times, being a soul friend feels like spiritual “birth labor.” There are times when tears have streamed down my cheeks as I listened to the journey of another person. I ached as they wrestled to find hope.

“Until Christ” – Spiritual direction is Christo-centric.
Jesus Christ is the one and only person we call people to be like when we engage in the forming process. There are no other primary models, only secondary ones. Paul says, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

The purpose of spiritual direction is to lead others to become attached to a Person – not a philosophy, a program, or a church. Karl Rahner writes, “… a personal entering into this life of Jesus of Nazareth is a participation in the inner life of God; then the gaze into the face of Jesus of Nazareth is changed into the face-to-face vision of God…” Paul is passionate about creating a context where the individual encounters Christ in such deep and personal ways.

One of the great temptations in spiritual conversations is to drift toward secondary things. In the end, everything matters and Christ is a part of each experience – the ecstatic and the mundane. Good directors know how to stay Christo-centric. Without forcing the process, their goal is to help the directee find Christ in all that life offers.

“Formed in you” – Spiritual direction is process oriented
The word “formed” is rich with meaning in the scriptures coming from the Greek word, “morphoo,” from which we get our word “morph.” John Ortberg states, “morphoo means ‘the inward and real transformation of the essential nature of a person. It was the term used to describe the formation and growth of an embryo in a mother’s body.” At the heart of Pauline spiritual formation is the concept of “forming” – he is committed to intentional work in the lives of individuals with a view to transformation over the long haul.

Central to spiritual direction is the belief that growth is occurring; spiritual life is being formed, but only as we take the time necessary to work at it together. When Paul talks about Christ being formed in us he knows it involves relationships plus time. In our program-centric approach to ministry we have lost our grip on the necessity of time in the process of formational work. If we hope to see Christ formed in others we have to be willing to stay in it over the long haul.

This realization that spiritual “morphing” involves relationships plus time hit home for me recently. I received a long distance call from a man (now in his late 40s) who was a teenager when I led Youth for Christ. Tim was kind of an odd guy, always looking for the fun and never seeming to take things seriously. I never really saw much change in his life. But the commitment to relational ministry was a core value in Youth For Christ. So we hung in there.

Thirty years have passed since I said good-bye to Tim. He graduated and we left the city. I would never have expected to hear from him again. Apparently, he found me online and then called…

“Are you Morris Dirks – the guy who used to lead Youth for Christ?” I confirmed that he found the right person. He said, “I’m Tim – do you remember me?” I confirmed again (how could I forget… he used to throw eggs at me!) And then came these words that took me by surprise: “I am with some men and we are thinking back to the persons who had significant impact on our lives. I just want you to know that I would never have made it through high school without you.” Christ was “morphing” in Tim’s life all along. Relationships plus time lead to spiritual transformation.

Paul has offered one short verse: “My dear children, for who I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” In it we have a wealth of implications to process when it comes to the importance of soul friendships with others.

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  1. asecondtaste permalink

    Thanks for the thought provoking words…I love this truth, “Relational ministry has given way to pragmatic, goal oriented strategies.” Sadly I perpetuate it at times, though I long to stay focused on the transformational walking with people so we might walk with Jesus.

  2. Candice permalink

    The Kingdom is relational!! YES!! Thanks Morris for yet again another Spirit filled blog.

  3. A great description of spiritual direction. Thanks for your clear simplicity.

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