In spiritual direction, one question directors sometimes ask is “describe your prayer.” They learn something about your spiritual life that way, and about the state of your soul, and then they can give you advice that is informed (and hopefully helpful!).

Case studies are a useful tool in learning to practice whatever theory you are learning, to apply what you know to real life. You are presented with an imaginary scenario, in this case a scenario of spiritual direction, and you are asked how you would respond. Pause, reflect. Decide what advice you would give. Then scroll down and read the discussion. There will be several such cases.

The hope of course is that by studying these cases and practicing discernment, we will be better able to see what is going on inside ourselves as well.

So imagine you are a spiritual director. You are meeting with a directee, Jan, who is a Christian, who is seeking God, who has gone so far as to seek out a spiritual director. You ask Jan to describe his prayer, and he responds as described. Think about:

  • What is motivating this prayer? What does Jan desire?
  • What kind of soul-formation is this prayer likely to bring about?
  • What advice do you give?

Case 1

When I pray, I think about all the people I know who are hurting. One has cancer. Another just lost his job. Another lost her faith because of the poor behavior of other Christians. I pray that God would give them what they need. I pray for myself, too—that God would give me what I need for the day. Sometimes I get a little bit mad at God for all the suffering he allows in the world. It doesn’t seem fair.

Pause, consider.

  • What is this person seeking in prayer?
  • How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
  • What advice would you give?



Case studies are artificial. You are given one short paragraph. You can’t get to know a person very well through such a small glimpse. In real life, you would have a more extensive conversation. You’d see the directee’s mannerisms: whether they are timid or bold, peaceful or agitated, full of desires or free. You would know the directee through love, and here there is little opportunity for love. You’d pray for discernment. Here, your mind will fill in various missing details. Thus, two different people giving the same short description of their prayer might warrant two very different bits of advice. Nevertheless, although we must make these assumptions and fill in missing details, perhaps the exercise can still be useful.

In this case, what strikes you about the prayer? What is it that Jan is seeking?

Jan’s main desires seem to center on the problems and challenges he and others face in life. He wants God to take away these problems and to make life smooth and easy and happy for those he loves. His prayer seemed more centered on himself and others and their needs and desires than on God.

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much real engagement with God, except as solver of problems and giver of gifts. Jan seems not to be aware of the way God uses challenges and tests in life to help us grow. Even his being “a little” mad at God seems not very engaged. How well does he know God?

How is this prayer likely to form the soul?

Jesus tells us to ask for what we need and to persist in prayer, so this prayer is pleasing to God. Bringing our needs and desires into God’s presence helps us to see them clearly and to think about whether they are appropriate and how they should be met. It also reminds us that God cares for us and brings his help. It builds faith and knowledge. Over time, as God answers prayer, it will build acceptance of God’s will, and trust, and love.

However, Jan’s prayer does focus more on self and other people and on getting things from God than it does on God himself—loving him, serving him, knowing him, worshiping him. It might be helpful to focus more on God, to attempt to build the relationship in depth and intensity and knowledge and love.


A little mad? If you think God is being unfair, you should be having a big fight with him. Give him a solid kick in the shin. Wrestle with him. He can take it. You may be injured, but you will be changed. And you will be given a new name, Israel.

As to your prayer, I would suggest adding some meditation on the life of Jesus. Every day, read a passage from a gospel. Think about Jesus’ life. What is motivating him? What is he seeking? Was life fair to him? Think about how you could put more of that same spirit into your own life.

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and