Well Directed — Lessons Learned
from Saint Paul

The Importance of Spiritual Direction in the Ministry and Mission of Evangelization in Light of the Life and Ministry of the Apostle Paul

We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about
in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus
may also be manifested in our body.
– 2 Cor 4:7.

As I was reflecting on the person and writings of the great apostle and evangelist Paul of Tarsus, I was given pause to consider my own approach to the incorporation of Scripture in spiritual direction. I think often within the contemporary context of spiritual direction in the Catholic community there is a tendency to favor the tools of psychology, perhaps over the tools of Scripture. Subsequent to the development of the cognitive school of psychology most notably by Aaron Beck in the early and mid-sixties, the techniques of psychology have been made readily accessible to spiritual directors in their professional training.Above that there is so much emphasis placed on the value and efficacy of psychology in our culture, that spiritual directors may be inclined defer to these theories as the operational basis for working with the directee regardless of the issues brought forth. It can be argued that every person approaching a spiritual director has core beliefs about himself and the world. And that her thoughts, feelings and behaviors are shaped by a variety of factors to include: genetics; early environment; culture; personal experience; and physiology. At the same time, no Christocentric understanding of the human person can be reduced to cognitive behavioral theoretical constructs. It should not be concluded that the application of psycho-therapeutic techniques is why a person seeks spiritual direction nor should it be. Clearly, in shared experience many of these understandings and techniques are useful in assisting the individual to grow spiritually and personally but never at the expense of the working of the Holy Spirit who is ultimately the only true spiritual director.

In contrast to a more “psychological” approach to spiritual direction is what is described as “biblical counseling.” Biblical counseling is generally understood as the giving of advice based upon the principles and practices articulated in the Scriptures for Christian living. This would be the approach taken traditionally by pastors, pastoral counselors, and pastoral ministers especially of the Reformed and fundamentalist communions. It is based in the understanding the Scriptures are the inspired word of God and contain in them everything that would be needed for giving advice on virtually any area of life. Often the approach would be for the minister to hear the directee’s history and presentation and would offer prayer and then a scriptural reading and interpretation of how that reading applies in this particular circumstance. On one hand, this can prove to be most effective in specific cases; in others, a broader perspective is indicated. If it is the practice of the minister to apply a literal interpretation to Scripture in the counseling setting, it may be found to be quite limited as an exclusive modality. Another risk to the use of Scripture in spiritual direction is the technique of proof-texting or eisegesis. Proof-texting is for one to select a Scripture passage that may address the immediate situation but is taken totally out of context. And like it, eisegesis is to read meaning into a Scripture passage and to apply that incorrect meaning of the passage that was not intended by the author. Today, many proponents of biblical counseling may be using this approach because it is intrinsic to their own theology, or it may be all or in part a reaction against the “scientific” or “psychological” principles used in contemporary spiritual direction. Recently, until the advent of the “integrated” or Christocentric approach to psychology, many of the theoretical constructs were clearly atheistic or at best hostile to the notion of a religious perspective. With the wider acceptance of religion in the application of the principles of psychology, the disciplines of spiritual direction and Christian counseling are not at odds with the discipline of psychology as they have been in the past.

In my practice of spiritual direction, I have found the integration of Scripture an invaluable component to the process. At the very least, I will open the session with Scripture or scriptural prayer. At the risk of being accused of “proof-texting,” often I will offer a quotation from Psalms or Proverbs as a springboard to conversation; or as a means to focus more clearly on the theology of the issue presented. It is my experience that incorporating Scripture, especially the writings of Paul, will bring a freshness of perspective, an energy of shared and lived experience, and a balance to spiritual direction that is most useful.

I think there is great wisdom and efficacy in approaching contemporary spiritual direction from a more balanced and integrated perspective, albeit a traditional one: That it must begin with an understanding and anthropology that is at the same time Christocentric and incarnational, like the one that Paul articulates so well in his corpus (Col 1:15–17). That it must be firmly rooted in a Catholic spiritual tradition that spans some two-thousand years. It may be the tendency of some to rely more upon the writings of Jung and Buber than on those of Paul, Teresa of Avila, and Ignatius of Loyola, which in my view is a mistake. As easily as a spiritual director my call upon a cognitive-behavioral skill set, should he not first call upon Scripture whose origin is the same Holy Spirit who will be leading the client into deeper union with Christ, the goal of all spiritual direction?

In addition to the efficacy of the use of particular Scripture passages to address particular concerns, there is also the value of using the human author of it as a model of Christian living, growth, and development. Perhaps, second only to Jesus, the person of Paul can be so well known and understood, and therefore used so well as a source of grace, joy, hope, and comfort across a wide range of human experience. As one becomes more and more acquainted with Paul, the richness of his faith experience reveals itself in a most moving and edifying way. For centuries, Paul the person has been the source study, speculation, and controversy. And yet he remains a central figure in the revelation of God the Father through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Regardless of the particular exegetical lens through which one looks at Paul, he still has much to teach. Paul as a person and the content of the corpus of his writings have been found to have a universal appeal that transcends time, culture, and circumstance.

In this article, I would like to briefly address two of the most common issues that a spiritual director will experience in his ministry. Then, I will illustrate how Paul and his writings form an excellent and effective resource in assisting the soul to move from a more self-centered faith perspective to a more Christ centered one.


I think one of the most significant issues facing many Christians today, and one that will eventually present in spiritual direction, is the conflict of faith and culture. Classically, one can frame this within the constructs of Ignatius’s understanding of discernment and the “four voices” (God, the self, the world, the evil one). The voice of the world, the voice of one’s culture, weighs heavily upon the totality of the person, especially in the realm of relationship — both human and divine. If we agree that one of the functions of culture is the transmission of values, then we have to conclude that the culture profoundly shapes the person. Paul’s approach is countercultural throughout his writings (Phil 3:17—4:1). He was a Jew and a Pharisee and an Apostle of Jesus Christ living under Roman domination in the first century AD. His Judaism and his Christianity would have immediately put him at odds with the greater Jewish community, the Roman Empire, and many gentile Christians (Rom 1:3). In the same moment (generally) the Jewish community would have acknowledged YAHWEH alone as God, discounting Jesus as messiah. The Roman Empire would have acknowledged the Emperor and a pantheon of gods discounting YAHWEH and Jesus; and the Christian community would have struggled with the Jewish concept of religion (the Law) and would have rejected the Roman one altogether. Yet despite these apparent contradictions within his cultural context, interiorly and as an evangelist he was well integrated and at peace (Rom 5:1). His intention is that “Christ culture” is intended to enculturate the dominant culture and not vice versa (as is so often the case).

Within the context of American culture today there is a prevalent current of moral formation that is based more upon “group-think” than any other parameter that I can see. Simply for the dominant group to agree to accept a thing or a behavior, regardless of its intrinsic goodness or values, is contrary to the Christian ethos as articulated though the New Testament and throughout Catholic tradition. It is clear in the contemporary Western context that the voice of the world and the voice of the evil one as Ignatius understood them can be closely related, because the motives may be similar. On one level, it would be expected that an individual would be a product of her culture. That is because in the process of gradual enculturation one would assimilate and assent to the mores to which one has been exposed. On another level one may assent to the values of contemporary culture as a means of gaining the approval of the group or to acquire the sense of belonging. Not to mention, the exigencies of assimilation like the benefit of employment in an institution that promotes values clearly contrary to the Gospel. Obviously this points in a large degree to the spiritual but, more importantly, to the emotional maturity and development of the individual. A significant feature in true and authentic Christian living is an affective and psycho-social maturity that would afford one the ability of stand apart and at times against the prevalent culture. Paul is unabashedly centered on the voice of God and not that of the world (Rom 1 and following). He proves to be such a beautiful witness and model of Christian life and integrity in the face of the fiercest opposition by the dominant cultures. I can only conclude that his depth of conviction and determinate resilience can only be rooted in a profound and all-encompassing love relationship with Christ. To engender such love, conviction, and resilience in the practice of spiritual direction can be accomplished by effectively drawing upon the lived experiences of Paul found in Scripture (Acts 9:20–22).

Another common but often serious issue that is brought to the arena of spiritual direction is that of discouragement. It may be in the day-to-day living of the Gospels as experienced by a Christian lay person, or in the milieu of professional ministry; the antecedent causes and the outcomes are often similar. Discouragement is often of greater intensity for a professional minister, and the consequences in life as well, because of the impact her discouragement has on the lives of those she is expected to uplift. On the horizon of contemporary ministry, there are many sources of discouragement, and they may include: the unreasonable demands or expectations of others, the lack of gratitude and appreciation one may receive on a regular basis, increasing needs in relation to decreasing resources, a cultural framework that is hostile to religion — to name a few.

I think much of discouragement experienced in ministry is based upon how we view ourselves, God, and others; and upon this perspective Paul illustrates the optimum (2 Tim 4:6–7). And so often that is colored by the content of what one hears from others as spoken in the form of criticism or of complaint. Likewise the tendency is to internalize the negative commentary and then to take it personally. A more insightful and mature approach is to take the negative commentary and filter it by the person and the context, as Paul did. This is to refocus the content and to interpret the communication as an expression of what the other is experiencing rather than an accurate assessment of the minister’s performance. This can be appreciated so well in the life of Paul. One can clearly see that Paul’s life and the circumstances of his life were very different in his experience and living. One can fairly infer that his relationship with Jesus and the imperative to evangelize was at the center of Paul’s life. And that he did not allow any amount of negative feedback to dissuade him from preaching the Gospel of the Lord he loved. Not to mention his ultimate martyrdom, shipwrecks, floggings, stoning, and numerous outright public humiliations (2 Cor 11:25). Few of us have experienced anywhere near what Paul did, even if these events were translated into a contemporary cultural context. And yet, it prompts the question, is one, and am I, open to the sufferings, rejections, and sacrifices that are a natural part in the life of an evangelist? This is an important question, because, again referring the context of contemporary Western culture, the notions of suffering, rejection, and sacrifice are antithetical to the mainstream, but essential to the Christian.

The spiritual director can readily call upon the life and experience of Paul to illustrate and normalize the experience of discouragement. Furthermore, discouragement is a common experience and it can be debilitating personally and professionally in one’s relationship with Jesus. But then, it may be concluded that when such discouragement is internalized it is more about the person than about Jesus and the mission. Paul would continuously refocus the circumstances of his life and would reject the notion of selfcenteredness for selflessness. Many may never personally experience such a mature and pervasive faith; and yet Paul offers an excellent model of this on every level of his ministry (Acts 9:29; 13:50; 14:5; 16:22; et al.).

Both of these presentations in spiritual direction lead one to the heart of the matter of spiritual direction, of Christian growth and development, and the life of Paul. They all coalesce in humility and are clearly demonstrated in the life of Paul (1 Cor 15:9; Eph 3:8; 1 Tim 1:15; et al.). The virtue embodied perfectly in God the Son to humble himself to become a frail human and endure every form of humiliation for our salvation. The vulnerability of being human that allowed the intimacy with the human race, the ultimate and unimaginable humility of God (Rom 5:6–10; Phil 2:8). This humility was taken up so beautifully in the life and ministry of Paul, and one that illuminates the path for all who would follow Christ. Bernard of Clairvaux understood humility as being “truth.” That is seeing God, self, and others as they are in reality, or as much as one is able in the case of God, who is ineffable.

For Paul, life is real and the utter honesty of his life and writings bring that to bear. Also, the fact that he did not allow himself to become deluded about anything, most especially about himself and the person of Christ. He clearly appreciated the perfection of God and his own frailty. But as aware as he was of his limitations, he did not allow them to circumvent his attention and his energy away from what was most important, namely Christ and others. Another understanding of humility that is popular today is that humility consists in “not to think less about one’s self, but to think of about one’s self less.” It is precisely that ability in Paul that made his life such a powerful witness and conduit of grace for the world. In other words, no suffering, nor sacrifice, nor humiliation was too great for Jesus and to bring others into union with him (Phil 3:6).

It is truly daunting to imagine ourselves in the place of Jesus or his dear friend Paul and to embody the degree of humility that they lived. And yet, it is only through humility, that truth, that radical human experience that we can truly know God, or know ourselves, or know one another. Sadly, pride, self-centeredness, and spiritual blindness remain a constant problem in human experience in all of our lives. Unlike Paul, most all of us lack that unicity of character, that radical openness to grace, that allows a continual fearless self-awareness necessary for true humility. The unbound willingness of the individual to subject everything to Christ and living his Gospel is found in a very rare person, and certainly not in the present author. Yet, Paul in his humility, in his imitation of the humility of Christ, gives each of us a goal for which to constantly strive. A desire for true self-understanding that leads one to appreciate the gift that she is in Christ.

In conclusion, looking at the life of Paul we see in so many ways the paradigm for Christian life and ministry. In Paul we can see a spiritual director embodied — not in an office but, like Christ, a living example for his disciples. We can appreciate him as friend and mentor and as one who experienced many of the same challenges that Christians experience today. Although many of the circumstances have changed, and always will continue to change, what is essential in Christian life has not: That Christian life depends upon a deep, enduring, and vital love of Christ and his people. That it requires a deep and lived conviction. That spiritual friends, mentors, and, yes, the community of faith is essential in the life of the individual and the whole.

And so within the context of spiritual direction particularly, or Christian life as a whole, the life of Paul demands that we answer some questions as individuals and as a community. And like the people of his day, are we willing to experience Paul’s his life not only as an example, but as an invitation to more, to deeper, to better? And so to answer each one of us who provide spiritual direction and those who seek it, must be willing to answer these most challenging, and yet essential questions: Am I as a disciple of Jesus Christ willing to endure the struggles and sufferings and to make the sacrifices necessary for the spread of the Gospel? Am I willing to step out of myself, as Paul did, and live my life for Christ and others? Am I open to be radically reformed day-by-day, not only by the loving hand of God, but also by the not-so-loving requirements of Christian life lived in an environment that is at fundamentally hostile to it? Until we are able to answer these questions, as Paul did, I don’t think we can fully appreciate his life and ministry, and therefore cannot fully experience what it is to be a Christian.

Fr. William Dillard About Fr. William Dillard

Fr. William Dillard is a priest of the Diocese of San Diego and an Oblate of Mount Angel Abbey. Ordained in 1998, Fr. Dillard has served in parishes in the Diocese of San Diego and the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. He is currently the Director of Spiritual Formation at Mount Angel Seminary.


  1. Avatar Rhina Morán de Ferrer says:

    I can’t understand the doctrinal contradictions , in that letters .