Wednesday, January 25

Jesus the Spiritual Director

I'm doing a series of studies for a spiritual direction course I'm taking. Each one reflects on the life of a biblical character through the lens of spiritual direction. It's slightly long for a blog, but here are my reflections on Jesus from the book of Mark. If you like it, leave a comment or email me and I'll post reflections on other characters.

What does the life of Jesus, as recorded in the book of Mark, teach us about spiritual direction?

Jesus’ Empowerment: The Holy Spirit Power, The Father’s Love and Pleasure
Immediately upon Jesus’ baptism, he received “the Spirit descending upon him like a dove” (1:10). It becomes clear that this Spirit is not an unclean spirit, empowering people for destruction of self and others, but for a powerful ministry of preaching, love and healing. At the same time, “a voice came from heaven saying, ‘You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased’” (1:11, italics mine, of course). Jesus started his ministry from a profound place of the Father’s love and affirmation—nay, pleasure in him. Jesus’ ministry of leading other people to God begins with his own experience of God—the two other persons of the Trinity. Clearly, anyone would be foolhardy to undertake a Kingdom task, such as spiritual direction, without a personal experience of God’s love and empowerment.

Jesus’ Preparation: The Wilderness and Satan
“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness,” where he was tempted by Satan (1:12-13). I’m struck by Jesus’ quick response to the Spirit’s guidance. Spiritual directors need to become sensitive and responsive to the Spirit in order to lead others into hearing and following God themselves.

Jesus’ Core Message: Availability of God’s Kingdom, Repent and Believe
The great news Jesus announced is that God and his reign is now within our reach (1:15). Fundamentally, I think people need constant encouragement that God is near, available, and welcoming. Anyone can grasp the steps into the Kingdom Jesus gives: turn around or rethink your way of life, and live a life of dependence (trust or faith) on God. Throughout Mark, Jesus leads people through those steps: the fisherman drop their nets—their way of life and their job security—to follow Jesus, Levi leaves his tax business, Bartimaeus throws away his cloak—his begging apparatus and blanket—the rich young man is invited to sell all he has. Though simple to grasp, these steps are not easy, and not everyone responds.

Those who do, however, Jesus leads through the same steps in cycles of increasing depth. He takes his disciples on a journey that involves continually letting go of their old ways of thinking and casting themselves more fully on God’s grace:
• going out to preach and heal with no money or bread,
• choosing to feed the five thousand with inadequate resources,
• rowing in a life-threatening storm,
• making the choice to feed the four thousand—Gentiles, this time,
• following Jesus into Jerusalem and to his death.
Spiritual directors can help people hear God’s invitation to enter his Kingdom more fully, and repent and believe in the Good News. What are their old ways of thinking? How is God inviting them into more dependence upon his direct action and love?

Jesus’ Style: Parables
Jesus began to teach in parables (4:1-35). Why? Mark says, “he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything” (4:34). Again, why? Evidently, the individual’s response was critical to Jesus. He gave them the freedom to ignore his teaching by couching it in parables—stories whose meaning is not necessarily clear on the surface. A spiritual director would do well to respect the freedom of the human will like Jesus did.

Not everyone pursued the meaning of the parables, but those who did were given more (4:10, 24-25). We often miss the parables in our lives. A good spiritual director can help people see the parables, and can prod them to search beyond the surface for the deeper meaning. As the disciples needed help interpreting, so do we, and a spiritual director may be able to help bring interpretation.

Ultimately, when understood, each parable gave a challenge. Each one painted a way to repent and believe, challenging old paradigms and calling for a new way of life. If someone wants more of God and his Kingdom, a spiritual director ought to help them hear the challenges God is giving.

Jesus’ Posture: The Unexpected Word
Jesus continually scandalized the religious folks by welcoming sinners and eating with them (2:16-17). He demonstrated the unconditional love of the Father to any who felt scorned, outcast, worthless, or unworthy by his acceptance, welcome, and hospitality. A spiritual director has the opportunity to minister great grace through a posture of welcome, acceptance and hospitality to those they care for. Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sins with the warm words, “My son, your sins are forgiven” (2:5). Many times we’re trapped in sin with no hope or expectation of forgiveness. A spiritual director can minister grace through the unexpected word of Jesus’ forgiveness.

The religious people experienced Jesus’ unconditional love quite differently. He unrelentingly rebuked and confronted their hardness of heart (for example, 11:15-18 and 11:27-12:44). Few responded well—though some did, like Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Sanhedrin (15:43-46).

Those who expected rebuke or scorn received welcome and forgiveness. Those who expected praise and respect received warnings and rebukes. I expect that often the Spirit will follow that pattern, and give a spiritual director the unexpected word for a directee.

Jesus’ Encouragement: Faith
What does Jesus praise and affirm? He was by no means a flatterer, rarely speaking words of praise and respect in Mark, as most of us are accustomed to doing. His words of praise stand out starkly: “My daughter,” he told the woman with the flow of blood, “your faith has made you well” (5:34). He affirms Bartimaeus likewise: “Your faith has made you well” (10:52). He healed the paralytic in response to his friends’ faith (2:5). In his hometown, “he marveled because of their unbelief” (6:6). He chided the disciples in the boat, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (4:40). He encouraged the father of the demonized boy, “Do not fear, only believe” (5:36).

My conclusion is that Jesus was constantly looking for faith; wherever he saw faith, he affirmed it; where he saw potential faith, he drew it out; when he saw a lack of faith, he named it and challenged it. Perhaps a spiritual director should always be on the lookout for faith, in order to affirm it, to draw it out, and to challenge unbelief.

Jesus’ Pattern of Relating: No Formulas
Though I have observed these patterns in Jesus’ interactions, I am struck at how differently Jesus interacted with each individual. He had no Bridge Diagram or Four Spiritual Laws to use in each evangelistic conversation. I can discern no formula in his interactions. Each interaction was personal and unique. Jesus always interacted personally, and he always gave a call to repent and believe in the Good News, but that call was hand-tailored for each individual and group.

This gives me a clear sense that spiritual directors need to learn to interact on a very personal level, to listen to God and the directee in order to respond personally. In this way the director embodies the Kingdom of God, by relating personally to each individual and caring for them in a unique, special way. What a joy it is to join Jesus in this creative process of soul care, and what an unspeakable privilege it is that he should invite us into this partnership with him!