We long for soul talk with a friend that helps us experience God’s presence. You can facilitate these life-giving spiritual conversations. I’ve been doing this for many years, not only in my ministry as a Psychologist and Spiritual Director, but also in my marriage and friendships. I love to elevate conversations into experiences of soul care that cultivate intimacy with Jesus.
In this short article I help you get started in deepening the conversations that you have with your friends or in your small group. This material comes from a class I first taught to church lay counselors in 2006.
The Third Person in Soul Talk
Perhaps my favorite quote from a book other than the Bible are these words from Aelred of Rievaulx in the 12th Century: ”Here we are you and I and I hope that Christ makes a third.”
When you’re talking with a friend if each of you welcome God’s presence with you then the conversation of two becomes a conversation of three. Soul Talk is spiritual conversation; it’s when talk becomes prayer.
In this kind of spiritual conversation you may not pray together formally, but you probably will and perhaps more than once. In any case, as you’re talking you’ll be silently prayerful in that you’ll pay attention to the fact that the risen Christ is present with you and you’ll listen for his guidance. You may even sense the burning of his Spirit within your heart! – as was the case for the two disciples as they walked the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-32).
We’re talking about developing Deep-Spirited Friendships. This is how it’s described in the Bible:
If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. (Philippians 2:1, MSG)
Deep-spirited conversations are the heart of Soul Shepherding. It’s what we do for pastors, ministry leaders, and others in counseling, spiritual mentoring, groups, seminars, and retreats.
The Goal of Soul Talk
Spiritual conversation starts with good conversation. The one sharing is honest, vulnerable from the heart, and authentic about personal life needs and struggles. The one listening is warm, empathic, asks pertinent questions, and offers genuine compassion without judgment, advice, or empty reassurance.
The joy of soul talk among disciples of Jesus is that God “shows up.” Of course, he was present all along! but in spiritual conversation we are better able to appreciate God’s loving presence and wise guidance. Don’t you long for more heart-to-heart conversation with a soul friend? Of course you do! “The heart is the wellspring of life” and “a person of understanding draws it out” (Proverbs 4:23 and 20:25, paraphrased). We grow in our aliveness as we share deeply and honestly with a friend.
Sadly, my observation is that most Christians today don’t have a true soul friend or spiritual mentor. Many rarely if ever share their heart with someone else. Fewer still know how to engage in a genuine Christ-centered, Spirit-led conversation.
The goal of Soul Talk is helping the one sharing to draw closer to God and his purposes. As the listener you are a facilitator or mediator of greater intimacy with Christ and greater alignment with his kingdom purposes. In other words, the focus of a spiritual conversation is on our experience of God. We’re not only sharing our feelings, struggles, or hopes about what’s going on in our lives –- explicitly or implicitly we’re also talking about how things are going in our relationship with God.
Practice the A-B-C’s of Soul Talk
The best way to learn to participate in spiritual conversation is to find a fellow disciple of Jesus and practice. This transforming way of sharing hearts that can be learned and developed. The basic idea simply is to offer listening and compassion that is focused especially on someone’s relationship with God or spiritual journey.
I’d like to share with you the “A-B-C’s of Soul Talk.” I’ve used this exercise with people to help them practice participating in a spiritual conversation. This teaching comes from my experience of training Christian lay counselors for the New Hope Counseling Ministry at the Crystal Cathedral (now Christ’s Cathedral and owned by the Catholic church). It is a way to break down the basic components of having a spiritual conversation. The idea is for you to practice being a Sacred Companion who listens to, cares for, and prays with a friend. Ideally, it’d be best to do this in person, but you could also do this over the phone or e-mail.
Keep in mind that your focus is different than that of a typical supportive friend or counselor. In ordinary caring relationships the focus is to comfort someone who is hurting or to help him or her overcome a struggle. But in spiritual friendship (also in spiritual direction or mentoring) we offer caring help in order to facilitate growing intimacy with God — to help our friend become more conscious of God’s presence, discern what God is saying, express love for him and others, and be more fruitful in ministry.
In spiritual conversation the listener is a “Christ’s Ambassador” (2 Corinthians 5:20) — a bridge or facilitator to connect the friend to God, who is actually present in Spirit, and offers his love, truth, and power. Notice the order: love, truth, and power. That order is essential for the conversation to be safe and helpful! Also, it’s important that the friend receiving help accept that he or she has a role with steps to take in order to connect with and make good use of God’s grace in the midst of whatever is going on.
The table below summarizes how friends can offer spiritual hospitality to help one another grow closer to God in a particular conversation by offering the “A-B-C’s of Soul Talk.” The distinction in Soul Talk is that the one sharing talks to a friend and to God and the one caring listens to the friend and to God. The instructions below guide the Sacred Companion through the process with specific steps.
Table: The A-B-C’s of Soul Talk
|God’s Role||Sacred Companion’s Role||Friend’s Role|
|Love||Active Listening||Salt: elicit thirst for God’s presence and add God-flavor
“You are the salt of the earth”
|“When have you sensed God’s presence?”||Trust God’s care|
|Truth||Brainstorm an Action or Focus||Light: illuminate God’s Word
“You are the light of the world”
|“What do you think God is leading you to do?”||Believe God’s Word|
|Power||Close with Prayer||Keys: open doors to the Father’s house or the path of life
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom”
|“How can we pray for your relationship with God?”||Act with the God of grace|
Instructions for Sacred Companions
Pair off and take turns being a Sacred Companion for one another on your journeys with God. Allow about 15 minutes for a prayerful conversation and then allow another 15 minutes to switch roles. This way in about 30 minutes each of you get a turn to give and receive spiritual hospitality and soul nourishment.
1. Active Listening
The most important thing you can do for your friend is to listen with interest and compassion to his or her heart before God. Helpful listening and good soul talk hinges on good questions that focus the conversation. In spiritual conversations with friends or those I’m mentoring I like to use what I call a salty question to invite people to share about how things are with their soul in the context of their relationship with God.
The idea of a salty question is is to add God-flavor in your friend’s life and elicit his or her thirst for more of God (Matthew 5:13, MSG). A salty question is simply an open question (that can’t be answered with yes or no) to expresses interest in how things are going in your friend’s spiritual journey.
Spiritual directors use salty questions to help directees focus on their experience of God in the details of their daily life challenges and opportunities. Similarly, the Jesuit tradition has passed on to us a spiritual exercise called the “examen of consciousness” which is a way of reflecting at the end of the day on how you’ve appreciated God’s presence (or not) that day. Sample salty questions include:
- “When have you sensed God’s presence recently?”
- “What is an example of how you have been experiencing God lately?”
- “How are things going in your relationship with Christ?”
- “What has the Lord been saying to you recently?”
- “What are you and God working on together these days?”
It’s important to clarify that the intention of these salty questions is to focus on the experience (or lack of experience) of God. It is not about religious stuff! It’s about personal relationship with the Lord in the context of actual daily life happenings.
As the Sacred Companion it’s important that you listen to your friend with empathy. Offer your compassion through reflecting feelings, summarizing what you’re understanding, and asking more open questions to help you arrive at a deeper, shared understanding of how things are going for your friend and Jesus. You’re listening and caring to see where Christ is in the midst of what is going on in your friend’s life.
If your friend is hurting or struggling then it’s important for you to focus your listening on inviting him or her to share the difficulties with you (and the Lord). As you listen try to notice examples of God’s care and action in your friend’s life and then when its appropriate put words to what you see God doing. What a blessing this will be for your friend!
2. Brainstorm an Action/Focus
Your friend may need help to discern from Jesus a next step for dealing with the issue that’s being discussed. (Or it may be that your friend just needed to be drawn out and listened to in a gentle way that increased his or her appreciation of the presence of the Spirit of Jesus.)
If your friend needs help taking positive action then you can help connect him or her with the light of Christ (Matthew 5:14) by asking an illuminating/guiding question like:
- “What do you think God is leading you to do about this situation?”
- “What would you like to do to grow closer to God in this area?”
- “What might Christ be teaching you about improving your relationship with him?”
- “What has God said to you from his Word about this issue?”
Asking gentle, probing questions focused on shedding God’s light on a possible next step in your friend’s spiritual journey can help him or her to take hold of Jesus’ hand and follow him.
3. Close with Prayer
Jesus taught us that the keys of his kingdom – the way to access the riches of God’s grace — is through praying in faith with another person (Matthew 16:19, 18:18).
You can help your friend to pick up the keys to the kingdom of God by offering to pray for his or her relationship with the Lord Jesus as it relates to the what has been shared. If your friend’s prayer request is unclear then ask something like:
- “How can I pray for you?”
- “How can I pray for your relationship with God in this area?”
- “What would you like to ask God to do in your life?”
Pray in faith, calling upon God’s grace and power on behalf of your friend’s specific needs. And pray that the Father God — our Sovereign Lord and Heavenly Potter — would use the situation your friend is in to form him or her more into the image of Christ.
May you grow in the soul talk that help you to befriend Jesus Christ and become more like him. This is the joy of life! This is the ministry of Soul Shepherding.