Imagine you are a spiritual director. You are meeting with a directee, John, who is a Christian, who is seeking God, who has gone so far as to seek out a spiritual director. You ask John to describe his prayer, and he responds thus:

Case 7

I try to pray, but I don’t feel like I’m very good at it. At my church, the most spiritual people speak in tongues, but that doesn’t happen to me yet. I guess I’m still waiting for the baptism of the Spirit.

Pause, consider. What is this person seeking in prayer?
How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
What advice would you give?


What strikes you about the prayer? What is it that John is seeking?

John seems to be seeking God, but he feels that his prayer isn’t going well. He doesn’t know how he should be praying. And apparently at his church there is a spirit of competition, with members desiring to be seen as ‘spiritual’ and with particular manifestations of ‘spirituality.’

John seems to be seeking God, but he also seems to be seeking to speak in tongues, or to experience a ‘baptism of the Spirit’, or to be viewed as ‘spiritual’, or to be accepted and to feel as though he belongs in his Church.

How is this prayer likely to form the soul?

All healthy churches are alike, but every pathological church has its own unique combination of pathologies. (Sorry, Leo.) Of course there are common pathologies—Paul addresses a similar pathology in 1 Corinthians 12—14. The desire to appear a certain way (here as being spiritual), could also be considered the “yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” The Pharisees wanted to be seen as particularly observant or holy, and this desire causes hypocrisy to flourish. Beware.

In fact, imagine the opposite. Suppose everyone wanted people to know the bad things about them, to know their sins and temptations, to think of others more highly. They would confess sin freely and openly. They would dress not to impress but to express. They would let their true personalities be seen, even if somewhat odd. They would wear sensible shoes. They would take off their masks. They would demonstrate simplicity. That would be weird.

But I digress. The key issue for John is what it is that he desires. How can he be turned from desiring to please other people, and being accepted by them, to desiring to please God? And that gets to the root of his desires. At a deep level, he wants to be known and loved, and that desire is never fully satisfied until we know that we are loved by God. And we cannot fully realize that love until we fully turn our desire toward him.

What to say? I think what is needed here is not just discernment but to be led by the Spirit. Does John need a gentle reassurance of God’s love or a bit of a shock to the system? Give me the right words, O Lord.


Dear John, you seek to know God, and that is good. There is only one thing you lack: sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then go and follow Jesus.

Harry Plantinga

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