In the practice of spiritual direction, the question is often asked, “what is the difference of between spiritual direction and counseling?” People who have already experienced both spiritual direction and counseling are likely aware of some of the differences, but to a new person who is deciding where to invest their time in, a look at some of the differences up front will help. While there are differences, and times for which one may be better suited to engage in over the other, both disciplines can be viewed as complementary and in our view as gifts from God. Let’s take a brief look at some of these differences and highlight some examples when one may be beneficial over the other.
While counseling may be focussed on the resolution of personal, social, or psychological problems, spiritual direction is focused on becoming more attuned to discerning God’s voice in any situation. A problem in counseling may be anything that limits us in our capacity to cope with psychological forces within ourselves or from other people. Perhaps one needs, for example, some tools to help with relational issues when it comes to functioning with people at work, their spouse, or children. A counseling session may offer increased insight and learning to help solve these relational issues; whereas spiritual direction is an intentional effort to hear what God may have to say. Through scriptural interpretation and experiential mediation, God may also offer insights but an assurance that He is near and loves you often accompanies the experience. Just as counselor tends to be wellness oriented, providing for an increase insight or learning to overcome problems, a spiritual director can also be wellness oriented with the intention of keeping spiritual health in mind.
Contrasted with counseling, psychotherapy is another discipline worth mentioning. In psychotherapy, the problem becomes more physiological in nature. The patient may be suffering with a health issue such as depression, attention deficit disorder or some mental health issue which requires a trained medical practitioner. There is a science that goes along with psychotherapy that treats a specific disorder and treatment for it either focuses on symptom reduction, problem resolution or both. As it was contrasted with counseling, spiritual direction focuses on the development and maintenance of spiritual well-being. When it has been determined that the directee is dealing with a health issue, as noted above, it would be beneficial for them to see a psychotherapist. Inner healing can also happen in spiritual direction, but that is left up to the Holy Spirit and on His timing. Spiritual maturity is dependent on a relationship with God, and therefore directors are concerned with the movement of God in and out of the directee’s life.
To summarize, it may be the case that somebody could see a counselor, psychotherapist, and spiritual director simultaneously or at difference stages along their life, but it is important to note the differences. From gaining increased insight through counseling and addressing a mental health issue with psychotherapy to finding meaning with spiritual direction all help a person gain an overall healthy posture physically, mentally, and spiritually. As one therapist has so adamantly states, “spiritual direction is a superpower in the meaning-making.” A person may be suffering from depression, and given treatment for it, but to be able to discern what God may be telling you in it offers you another level of meaning, and a way to bring it before God and a soul friend to also share that burden with you.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”– Matthew 11:29