Spiritual Direction as an Uncontrolling Practice that Reveals an Uncontrolling God

by Douglas S. Hardy

Spiritual direction provides a relational space in which a person can experience an uncontrolling process that introduces them to an uncontrolling God.

One of the ways that I participate in the uncontrolling love of God is through my work in spiritual direction. Spiritual direction is a practice that has a lot of similarities to and resonances with the practices of counseling and psychotherapy. They all draw from psychological insight into the human condition and involve a one-to-one (or in some cases, group) relationship with the goal of providing help through careful listening. A key difference, however, is in the orienting purpose of each practice; for spiritual direction, the purpose is to help people become more aware of and responsive to God (the Divine) in their lives and world. A spiritual director (or guide) does this by meeting with a directee (or seeker) for listening and conversation that focuses on the directee’s experience and reflection on that experience.

Both directees and directors engage this work out of their own relationship with God, that is, from their growing awareness of and responsiveness to God’s presence and influence in their lives and world. As a Christian spiritual director in particular, I do my best to not only make God the focus of spiritual direction conversations, but also to reflect God in the process of relating to the directee. So, for example, because God is compassionate, I want to be compassionate; because God welcomes all as they are, I want to welcome all as they are; and because God is uncontrolling, I want to be uncontrolling.

Given the growing popularity of spiritual direction in recent decades and the reality that increasing numbers of people are looking for spiritual directors, it is important to clarify that this is an uncontrolling practice. The word “direction” could imply that a spiritual director tells a person what to do in a very pointed way, just another expression of what often happens in religious settings, viz., an authority carefully controls the content and outcomes of programming. Although this has occurred and can occur in some settings and historical periods under the auspices of spiritual direction, it is not the norm, nor the best practice. To the contrary, it robs directees of their freedom and agency. Further, it can be a setup for abuse and trauma. All of this violates the nature of a healthy relational engagement with God based on invitation and response.

People seek out spiritual directors for a variety of reasons. Some need to make a major life choice and want someone to help them discern a good decision. Some feel a deep longing for God, a stirring of desire within that they are not sure how to respond to. Some have difficulty connecting with God, perhaps experiencing God as distant or absent, and this provides a crisis of faith. Some spiritual seekers grew up in or had significant exposure to very controlling religious communities, but eventually rejected them. A damaging consequence for these seekers can be a fear of God as One who only wants to tell them what to do i.e., control their lives, often in ways that go directly against what they are learning is good for their well-being. They know deep inside that this is wrong, and wonder if there might be another way forward for them that honors their spiritual desire. Spiritual direction can be an incredibly important ministry to these spiritual seekers (sometimes referred to as “spiritual-but-not-religious” or “recovering fundamentalists” or “survivors of toxic religiosity”) because it provides a relational space in which a person can experience an uncontrolling process that introduces them to (or, in some cases re-acquaints them with) an uncontrolling God. It can open up a vision for and willingness to engage God in a whole new way—not in fear or for conformity but as a loving companion who grants freedom, honors desire, and seeks to co-create.

Regardless of what initially brings a person to spiritual direction, at their core they need to discover, know, and live into God’s love for them, a love that is unconditional, uncontrolling, and which invites them into a partnering relationship. Spiritual directors can model this, help a directee to experience it in a session, and guide directees into practices that help the directee more habitually keep that relational space open.

Because of the vulnerability required for spiritual direction work, many spiritual directors who write about their work emphasize how important it is to not take advantage of their position of authority or power, but rather to be uncontrolling in how they relate to their directees. Here are some of the disciplines (practices) a director can employ to embody this:

Looking to the directee to set the agenda and priorities. Within the broad frame of listening for God with the directee, a spiritual director does not determine the focus of the relationship or a particular session. Controlling the agenda of a session can lead to the director’s agenda interfering with what God and the directee need to work on.

Asking open-ended questions. These questions give maximum freedom for the directee to choose how to respond, and what and when to articulate. Over time, these questions encourage the imagination of the directee, modeling the evocative imagination and creativity of God.

Allowing for as much silence (not-talking) as the directee needs. This both keeps the director from dominating and provides space and time for the directee to govern the pace of the session.

Regularly checking in with the directee for consent. The temptation to control can re-emerge unexpectedly and a director may not know in the moment to what degree they might be imposing on a directee in a controlling way. Checking in and asking for consent reminds both participants in this practice that the healthy way forward is uncontrolling.

Letting go of a need for a particular outcome in any given session and stretch of sessions. Because God is uncontrolling of the directee, exhibiting patience and gentleness, directors can be patient with the “progress” of their directees and choose to be gentle when feeling frustration with the pace. Forcing an issue when it has not yet been discerned as something the seeker in their relationship with God owns as important or timely shifts the dynamics of the spiritual direction work toward the power of the director and “seeking to please” on the part of the directee.

An uncontrolling posture is not the same thing as being passive or laissez-faire. The disciplines of a director require constant attentiveness to God, the directee, and the director’s own interior life. Further, directors know they influence their directees through the creation and cultivation of hospitable space, and through positing questions or sharing observations with intentionality. Spiritual direction is a ministry of guidance and, as such, directors function as guides. In this way they reflect the nature of God as a Guide who influences us, offers direction, and invites us into life-giving paths, sometimes by pointing out things in ourselves or in our world that we were not seeing clearly or willing to engage.

Similarly, a directee cannot benefit from spiritual direction if they bring to it an overcontrolling posture. While honoring their own freedom and agency, directees need to help create and discover that uncontrolling space along with their directors (and God) such that they are open to being influenced, guided, directed. Surrounding this relational matrix is the Spirit of God who enables both director and directee to live into the love that makes uncontrolling responsiveness possible.

My favorite Scripture example of a spiritual direction relationship is found in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke (verse 39 and following) which tells the story of a pregnant Mary visiting her also-pregnant cousin Elizabeth. It presents a beautiful picture of companionship in which an older, more experienced person of faith (Elizabeth) provides hospitable space and spiritual direction to a younger, less experienced person of faith (Mary). Mary no doubt had many questions about her pregnancy, the child within her womb, and her identity going forward, but Elizabeth did not respond in a controlling way. Rather, she welcomed Mary into her home, greeted her (acknowledging her as a unique person), and tuned into the Spirit of God. Inspired by that Spirit, Elizabeth affirmed all that God was already doing in Mary—forming and birthing God through Christ in her—in a spirit of amazement and curiosity. The outcome was wonderfully responsive and ­relational—fetuses and the mothers carrying them were moved to joy, and Mary, the seeker, turned her whole being toward God in love.

God is already with us, within us. But this presence is almost always hidden, unrecognized, not forceful; rather, it is lovingly invitational. God’s uncontrolling love is expressed as an invitation to us but also as a response of invitation from us—we ask of God in return, out of our agency, our spirit resonating with God’s Spirit. Spiritual direction reveals and helps give expression to this amazing, freeing work.

Douglas S. Hardy has been on a lifelong journey of learning to relate to others in uncontrolling ways, while welcoming the uncontrolling love of God to guide his life with his wife and three children, and his work as a professor of spiritual formation at Nazarene Theological Seminary, a spiritual director, and a leader of retreats and pilgrimages.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love