St Paul instructed the Galatians, ‘Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor’ (Galatians 5.6 NIV). Paul is writing here about the ministry of Spiritual Direction; he is describing the exchange of gifts that takes place in ‘ghostly counsel’ which the prayer book describes as being exercised by a ‘learned minister of God’s Word’. The instructor or director offers instruction that arises out of his own experience of seeking a sustainable and fruitful pattern of life that arises out of obedience to God’s word. He is able to do this only if the directee is willing to share all good things with him; these good things are the fruits of prayer and of faith-full living; they can be insights into the meaning of scripture; they can be the resolution of a long standing problem; they can be answers to prayer of intercession or the healing of memory.
It is one of the great joys of the ministry of Spiritual Direction that the director hears the gospel afresh and witnesses its power and glory in and through those he is given to help. There is then in the relationship an exchange of gifts that is the cause of building up the faith and discipleship of both. St Paul in the concluding chapter of Galatians is keen to underline both the necessity of ‘bearing one another’s burdens to fulfil the law of Christ’ and that each individual should be vigilant and ‘test his own actions.’ The ministry of spiritual direction recognizes the call of Christ to each person ‘to work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ but also that there is a vital need to share the burden. Thus it is that the Lord provides in every community those able to act as a sounding board – a person of discernment who can recognize the movement of the Spirit and where it is being resisted.
It is not the case that all priests are spiritual directors, but it is the case that many congregations contain lay people who by long schooling in worship, private prayer and immersion in scripture are well qualified to be ‘learned ministers of God’s Word’. Indeed, it is the case, that many clergy – including myself – have in the past sought guidance from laymen and women. It was Gordon Jeff, who in the 1980s wrote about ‘spiritual direction for every Christian’. His book described the process of nurture and restoration that takes place when an individual makes a relationship within the church which provides a listening and discerning ear that is rooted and grounded in Christ.
In this season of Epiphany – a time for revelation – it may be that the Lord will reveal someone in the midst of your own life that can provide a relationship that enables an exchange of gifts. It is within such a relationship that healing and hope is found for both; for within it, each is Christ for the other. Caution is required. Experience has shown that it is necessary to have the authority of a priest as a resource available for all involved. Sometimes a word about forgiveness is not sufficient, what is needed is the proclamation of absolution. A learned minister with authority is sometimes needed to provide instruction, for, as Paul reminds us, ‘God cannot be deceived.’