Contemplative Prayer: a Critique (Part One)
Written by Pastor Bob Vradenburgh, Senior Pastor
If Satan cannot keep us from getting earnest about prayer, he will try to get us off on “rabbit trails” – or worse – spurious prayer! That’s what “contemplative prayer” (hereafter referred to as “c.p.”) is. It sounds so spiritual! Shouldn’t we contemplate God when we pray? Yes! Isn’t contemplation the same as meditation? No!
The problem with contemplative prayer (or “listening prayer,” “centering prayer”) is that it is actually rooted in experience, in subjectivism, rather than in the Bible, God’s objective revelation. Although we might learn some characteristics about God when we experience the world around us (general revelation), only in the Scriptures (special revelation) do we have a reliable guide to encounter God and experience salvation. Profound mystical silence is not prayer. The endless repetition of a “prayer word” is not prayer. Getting one’s mind in neutral so that the mystical presence of God can be experienced is not prayer. It is “Christian yoga,” which is not Christian at all!
A key verse in the Bible that is twisted to teach “contemplative prayer” is Psalm 46:10.
“Be still, and know that I am God…”
According to c.p., this verse teaches that one must get totally silent, quiet, and still before the Lord, or he cannot hear God. One popular advocate for c.p. has actually said, “silence is the language of God.” That simply is not true!
This is a dangerous perversion of this verse! The Hebrew word for “still” is raphah which means “slacken, cease, or abate.” The preceding verses describe the din of warfare – the raging of the heathen, the desolation of war, and the dramatic intervention of God. Such commotion is likely to have the effect upon men of inducing stress and causing them to get in a dither! But God says: “Slow down and trust Me!” Relax and watch God work!
This is far different from getting into some trance-like altered state of consciousness! The Bible actually forbids such mysticism that smacks more of Buddha than of Christ. In Colossians 2:18-19, Paul commands:
“Let no man beguile you [defraud] you of your reward, in a voluntary humility and worshiping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen [visions], vainly puffed up by his fleshly [sensuous] mind.”
It is important to remember that mysticism works by self-abasement. It sounds so modest! It promises that the lower you get, the “emptier” you get, and therefore the higher the level of spirituality that you can attain to. It is a veiled form of pride.
This false humility really appealed to the Roman Catholic monks of the Middle Ages. Their attitude was: “Let’s retreat to a cave somewhere and contemplate our navels for the rest of our lives.” Not surprisingly, the guiding lights and spiritual authorities of the modern revival of mysticism, known under the new mantra of “contemplative prayer,” are the Catholic “desert fathers.” The granddaddy of them all was Thomas Merton. He was so influenced by Eastern religion that those who knew him well said that he was more Buddhist than Christian!
Two modern-day disciples who have picked up Merton’s mantle are Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. The influence that these two men have had on contemporary evangelicals is scary! How often have you heard a prominent evangelical teacher – man or woman – say something like: “Jesus appeared to me,” or, “God spoke to me!” They elevate visions and angels – even though Paul forbad both of these practices in Col. 2:18-19.
Beware of mysticism! You ask, “What is that?” Mysticism is “the idea that direct knowledge of God is achieved through personal, subjective intuition or experience apart from – or even in opposition to – historical fact or objective divine revelation” (John MacArthur). Any influence that encourages you to “let yourself go” or put your mind in “neutral” when you pray so that you can really “pray in the Spirit” comes from the unholy spirit – Satan! The inspired apostle said in 1 Corinthians 14:15
“I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also.”
Fill your mind and heart with God’s Word. Let that Word “abide in you” and inform your praying. Then pour out your heart to Him in sincere, natural supplication. Let your requests be made known unto God about everything! Don’t check your brains in at the door of your prayer closet! God wants you to use them! He is the One Who gave you a mind and promises to renew it daily through the Scriptures.
God is convicting us of how anemic is our praying – both personally and corporately. But in that conviction, let us not be deceived by the pious terminology and sensational claims of the many voices endorsing contemplative prayer. You might be shocked to know who some of them are!