We often hear many inspirational, self-help, and even some so-called religious speakers talk about “becoming the best version of yourself.” That seems so empowering, positive, and affirmative, but there are some serious dangers that could hide behind the hype-based and humanistic tagline. I am not a theologian so I would like to share with you how I approach this subject from the spiritual direction aspect, helping people to understand their identity and, step by step, to become what God desires of them. It is not always an easy journey, and it takes a long time, but this is an adventure that each and every one of us will have to take as we grow, mature, and discern what is good for our souls in order to take the journey back to God‘s own love for us.
First, spiritual direction is not life coaching. It is not the spiritual director’s job to give us a new image, identity, mission, purpose, or path. It is his or her job to identify, see, challenge, invite, and/or help us see the common thread, unperceived obstacles, hidden signs, or God‘s invitation in our own lives. Second, it is very important that the spiritual director does not immediately tell us what to do (unless it is morally wrong and grave), but to invite the individual to bring matters of the heart to prayer. No matter how good the plan or guidance can be, until we recognize, internalize, and personalize the message, it will never become an integral part of our journey! Furthermore, it is important for those who come to spiritual direction to learn to bring all things to prayer with how they listen, reflect, acknowledge, and discern the will of God. The ultimate job and skill that a spiritual director can teach us are how to identify His will, especially His unique presence and voice in our very own lives. If one cannot teach us that, that person simply makes us dependent on him or her instead of empowering us to grow and mature in what the Almighty wants us to be.
If we spend our whole life trying to listen to every voice except God‘s then we have listened to nothing else but shallow, toxic, and irrelevant matters that are not conducive to our eternal life or journey toward the Heavenly Kingdom. We can spend a whole lifetime trying to be everything for everyone, but if we do not know who we are in the eyes of God, we really do not know anything at all, especially to be loved by the One who formed us out of love and for love.
The greatest listening skill is to know how to listen to God‘s voice when He speaks, to allow ourselves enough time to calm down, shut out other voices, and learn to use our spiritual senses to recognize and be still in His loving presence. It seems to be something so simple but this is one of the hardest lessons to learn and re-learn over and over again. Our ego, worldly noises, and typical distractions keep pulling us everywhere because they do not teach us enough patience and humility to spend time with the One who loves us.
Just like an old couple who can sit for hours with each other without talking much, our relationship with God needs to “grow old” in our ability to be present to Him without having to say much. Just like we can sense someone and understand a person without him or her speaking much, we will be able to sense God‘s silent and still presence without many words if we truly tune our hearts to His own loving heart. Simply put, when we know who we are, who we love, and who we belong to, we can contemplate, be present, and receive love without the typical agitation, noisiness, short-tempered impatience, expectations, or demands because we know Him as He knows us. Only in this loving exchange can we come to know who we truly are as God‘s own beloved sons and daughters.
Therefore, when a spiritual director asks a person to love himself or herself. It means that we are called to learn how to love our true self, made in the image and likeness of God, worthy of love because He wills and loves us into being. Oftentimes, we like to hide our brokenness, especially what was given, imposed, perverted, or picked up along the way by this world. This brokenness is complex and it is different for each person, but it is often the result of humanistic, social, manmade lies, perversion, manipulation, hurt, and the like. As a matter of fact, too many of us do not think that we are lovable, and we try so hard to hide it! Our fragile ego has a sneaky way to pervert it, by hiding our brokenness behind all of the false facades and security layers that it has built up for itself in order to be more liked, accepted, or in control. Nonetheless, spiritual freedom comes when we are able to love ourselves in all its blessings and brokenness so we can truly receive in fullness the love God has for us.
To be able to love ourselves as we truly are, in all its “ugliness” — the things we do not like about ourselves — is extremely hard! It is easier to love ourselves as we like to be but it is only cathartic when we are able to love ourselves as we are deep from within. It is hard to understand that we do not have to put on a false self in order to receive God‘s love. We do not need to look outside of ourselves for other things or people to receive His love. When we are frustrated, angry, or resentful at life and others, it oftentimes results from our decisions to put unrealistic conditions on God, others, or ourselves. We talk much about how divine love is unconditional, but too many times, we have allowed ourselves to put too many expectations, demands, or conditions on His unconditional love. We want things in this or that particular way and we are not happy to simply receive His infinite, eternal, and everlasting love.
The first and foremost knowledge and understanding is the ability to know that we can only receive God as we are able. There are no magical pills or formulas or activities to fix our faith problems nor can they lead us to become whoever we think we like to be! If we are not seeing, understand, and pray with what we have as human beings, we will create obstacles to fully receiving divine love. If we do not deal with our humanity, to see which voices are talking to us, divine grace cannot fully transform us deep from within because we have put or allowed obtrusive conditions to dictate and control our relationship with God. The baggage that we have, our past hurts and conditions, current pressures, manipulations, and immediate or apparent desires do affect how we look at Him and who we are, and these things often become obstacles and perversions in our prayers and spiritual journey.
Please remember that we are created both body and soul, our relationship with the Almighty is both horizontal and vertical, transcendental and in the moment, supernatural and spiritual as well as personally and humanly speaking. Therefore, our prayers, spiritual journey, and faith life need to be holistic and integral so that in recognizing who and where we are, we are able to receive His grace as we are able in the present moment with all its blessings and challenges. The greatest spiritual freedom is found in recognizing how repeated patterns and past hurts can come back and manifest themselves in different ways. Spiritual maturity, hence, comes when we are able to lift our hearts to God above these matters and embrace the creative tensions that might present themselves along the way. Self-awareness is so crucial and necessary in our spiritual journey! We have to learn to embrace ourselves as we are, but not to let these matters dictate, condition, or obstruct us from what God wants from us and for us.
The amount of grace that can be received depends on how much one is willing to be honest and humble to receive. It is important to remember that God gives to each person differently and appropriately, so it is proper not to be demanding and get frustrated with what could have been, should have been, or would have been for us. If God gives, we give thanks. If God does not give as we hope, we trust in knowing that His gift for us is appropriate at this time and that His love is more than enough.
The end goal of spiritual direction is not to be able to get what we wanted or hoped for but to be content, abide, and trust in the essential and life-giving relationship that the Lord has and willed for us. In order for that to happen, we have to peel off all the things that we had built for ourselves in order to see ourselves as we truly are deep from within. It then leads to the healing and cathartic step of loving one’s self in all its brokenness and imperfections as God loves us. The journey will lead us to, then, better discern, reflect, and pray about what is going on in our own lives to live a childlike faith that trusts and loves instead of being childish with demanding or selfish expectations.
We all begin small, but with perseverance, courage, and humility — as well as time and patience, God is able to bring into fulfillment what He has begun in us if we trust in Him. We will definitely go through many blessings and struggles, trials and hardships as well as moments of loving grace, but God is always with us. Just as we need to train ourselves physically to tone and strengthen our muscles, our soul and its spirit have to be holistically exercised in conjunction with our humanity in order to truly mature and be rounded with what He wants us to be. We have to be willing, yet patient, to activate the gifts and understand the lessons that God has for us at each stage of the journey in order to overcome the obstacles that are present or had presented themselves to us.
We can all begin with prayer. We are all called to pray! Therefore, do not be afraid to take the time to silence yourselves, open your hearts up to God, lift up your souls, and listen to what He has to say. Little by little, we can all learn to be more apt, prepared, disposed, and ready to receive greater things from the Lord. Just like athletes who have to prepare, challenge, stretch, and push themselves each day for the end goal, we have to do the same spiritually by fortifying, deepening, and expanding our souls to receive what God has prepared for us in grace.
If you feel that He is challenging you to grow deeper in His love, reach out and spend the effort to find a spiritual director who can journey and help you to better sense, acknowledge, receive, and respond to His loving presence. The spiritual journey might be long and hard at times, but it is filled with many adventures and blessings. Therefore, do not be afraid to embark on the journey of loving God and allow Him to help you see who you and I truly are as His beloved sons and daughters.