They were in my office again. Quickly it became the classic case of he said/she said. But now the anger and pain was far more intense than any time before in our spiritual direction sessions over the past nine months. We were all sad. Here they were, a couple serving in full-time Christian ministry with young children facing what felt like the end of their marriage. How did things get so dark? How could we find a way into God’s presence for some measure of peace?
For some reason, in the middle of our time together, I remembered my days coaching my son’s little league baseball teams. Many times the same mistakes cost us games. After a particularly dreadful losing stretch I started the next practice by holding up a ball and saying, “This is a baseball!” I felt I had to start at Square One (maybe it was ‘Round One’!) in order to remind them of what they knew.
I had the same feeling with the dear couple in front of me. They knew the truth. They had ‘played the game’ well in the past. But now the unforced errors were taking a huge toll. None of us doubted they were losing their marriage. Could they find a different way to be with God and each other? Could they get back to Square One and build from that?
But what is Square One in Christian spiritual direction? I did my best to remind them of what they knew. From the day of our birth (and I believe even before) we have only two categories for our experiences. Either they are ‘good’ or they are ‘bad’. When a baby is hungry the child emotionally knows things are ‘bad’. When looking into the smiling eyes of her mother the child knows things are ‘good’. And though we develop many descriptive words around our emotional responses as we grow into adulthood, we still have deeply within our soul the same two categories—‘good’ and ‘bad’.
The good news about ‘good’ emotional experiences is they make us ‘receptive’. The bad news about ‘bad’ emotional experiences is they make us ‘reactive’. The general rule of the soul is that communion and community require a receptive state of heart and mind. Little good seems to come from a reactive stance.
Clearly the couple was in a reactive state toward each other. And nothing good was coming from it. In fact, we had to stop talking about the incident. Toxic reactivity was poisoning everything. Instead we worked to find a couple of practical ways to find a neutral place in the next few weeks. I pray that they will be able to do that. I pray that they will be able to find a way to be receptive toward each other in the future. I believe that would prove to be Square One for them.
Later in the day I reflected on what had transpired in our session. Spiritual direction seeks to hear God with another. But to truly hear one must be in a receptive state. I began to wonder how often my direction (and indeed my life) is operating from an emotionally implicit reactive state of heart and mind toward God? Yes, I cognitively know that God loves me, that God sent Jesus into the world to reveal His love for me and to reconcile me, that God has given me the Spirit to lead and empower me. Thankfully, my doctrine declares those realities to be true. But I (along with every other baby) figured out good and bad before I had a capacity for doctrinal declarations. Has my experience of God truly and deeply penetrated my soul so that I am emotionally convinced that God belongs in the ‘good’ category? In short, how well am I able to truly hear what God is saying to me and to those with whom I quietly wait in God’s presence?
Many people experience difficulties which could easily push them into a reactive state toward God. Some resist this impulse and stay receptive toward God. Their receptivity opens them to a rich relationship with their Lord. Unfortunately, some become reactive toward God and the relationship devolves into a ‘God said/I said’ clash where spiritual separation, if not divorce, seems inevitable.
For me, Square One in Christian spiritual direction is summarized in Romans 8:31-39. God is for us. God is for you. God is for me. That falls into the ‘good’ category! Since that is true we can be and in fact will be receptive in our heart of hearts. We don’t have to react with compensatory defenses around our fear, shame, and anger. Instead we can hear and respond to the small, still voice that says, “I am the loving God who is for you.”