Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Contemplative Prayer - What is Spiritual Formation?

by Sola Sisters

Roman Catholic mystic Thomas Merton once compared Contemplative Spirituality Mysticism (CSM) to the same powerful experience generated by mind-altering drugs. Now, you might be wondering why the opinion of a deceased Roman Catholic mystic on an obscure sounding practice should matter to us today. It is for this reason: Contemplative Spirituality Mysticism is literally flooding into today's churches through something called "Spiritual Formation." Spiritual Formation, for those who've never heard of it, is being promoted in many of today's evangelical churches as a way for Christians to draw closer to God. Christian leaders who are teaching or promoting Christian mysticism, know that the word "mysticism" has a negative, eastern connotation, and try to draw a distinction between "bad" mysticism and "good" mysticism. Obviously, to those pleading this case, "bad" mysticism would be occultic, and eastern in origin. But "good" mysticism (like Spiritual Formation, say its proponents) would be a type of mysticism that is Christian, biblical, and necessary for spiritual development.

The problem is that the Bible makes no such distinction between "good" and "bad" mysticism, which is a form of occultism. In fact, Spiritual Formation teaches the same "technique" for corralling and emptying the mind as that employed in eastern mantra meditation. To be clear, let me restate this: the technique used for silencing the mind in Spiritual Formation is identical to classic occultic meditation practices taught in Hinduism, Buddhism, wicca, paganism, etc. The technique goes something like this: find a quiet spot to sit or lie down, breathe deeply, and begin to focus on something for the purpose of stilling your thoughts. (The "something" can literally be almost anything: a candle, a word, a phrase, repetitive music, drumming, one's own breath, etc.) After about 20 minutes of practicing this technique, which is simple to do, a person will enter into an altered state of consciousness. In this altered state of consciousness, the mind is no longer active and critically engaged, and able to assess data. In this state, the mind is passive, its God-given barriers down; it is able only to receive information, much like a radio receiver. Mystics from all faith traditions the world over often report ecstatic experiences of becoming yoked to some spiritual energy, leaving them feeling refreshed, energized, and peaceful after engaging in their mystical practices.

So exactly how does this pagan practice manifest itself in Christian churches today? It looks something like this: instead of repeating a Buddhist mantra or the name of a false god, the Christian practitioner of Spiritual Formation would use something like the Jesus Prayer.....

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner."
...or they might repeat a short Scripture.....

"Be still and know that I am God."
...or they might simply repeat the name.....

But it is not the words or phrases themselves in so-called Spiritual Formation that somehow magically switches the dial from being "occultic" to being "Christian." Nor does the intention of the practictioner somehow magically protect one from danger. The words or phrases used are completely irrelevant...they are merely the device by which one corrals one's thoughts for the purpose of entering into an altered state of consciousness (among those who would claim to be "Christian mystics," this altered state of consciousness is known by many different names: "the Silence," "practicing the presence of God," "the cloud of unknowing," etc.)

But the God of the Bible is very specific about how we are to "draw closer" to Him, and it is not through using techniques for the purpose of entering into an altered state of consciousness. True born again believers draw close to God through the blood of Christ (Hebrews 10) and through the means of grace as taught by Scripture. And yet most religions outside of Christianity have some version of mysticism that they practice for the specific purpose of drawing close to God. So the question must be asked: if these faith traditions are outside of Christ, are they getting to God? We know the answer to that, and it is obviously, no, they aren't getting to God. We may not be getting much in the way of deep doctrinal teaching in our churches today, but we at least know that much, right? We know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no-one comes to the Father but by him. However, we also know from the testimonies of mystics that they are experiencing something, so what is it? It is a "counterfeit Holy Spirit experience" which "feels" very real and very spiritual. In fact, what they're experiencing is spiritual.....only, it is not from God.

As a former mystic, the biggest blind spot I see in today's Christian culture is almost an innocence about spiritual deception, a thinking that as Christians we can't be deceived. A belief that if, spiritually speaking, something were "off" about a teaching or practice, somehow we would just "know" it because it would "feel wrong." But even more than that, there also seems to be this idea that only we, as Christians, have true spiritual experiences, that somehow these mystics must not be having "real" experiences, that it's all smoke and mirrors. This is absolutely not true. What these mystics are experiencing is real, and it is spiritual, and mystics wouldn't have been doing these things for centuries if they weren't connecting to.....something. But God, in his loving-kindness and mercy, has graciously given us many warnings so that we would know how to defend ourselves against spiritual deception. We are warned that Satan himself can masquerade as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). We are told that we must test all things (1 John 4:1), because none of us are beyond being deceived.

So how do we "test all things?" What is our measure for testing? Is it our own hearts, our own emotions? In today's culture, we have a tendency to "test" things through our thoughts and feelings ("I didn't have a peace about it"). No, we must not do that, for we know that our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked above all things (Jer 17:9). Scripture is our standard for testing all things, Scripture is what we must use in determining whether or not something is acceptable to God.
Continue reading here.

Related: Mike Bickle of IHOP promotes Catholic mystics

Mike Bickle On Contemplative Prayer (part 1)

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