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Does Contemplative Prayer Discourage Thinking & Discernment?  /  Is Contemplative Meditation the Same as Biblical Meditation?

 

The term “contemplative prayer” is deceiving because it implies that one is thinking deeply while praying. Such an idea naturally resonates with the Christian given that Scripture repeatedly exhorts the Christian to meditate upon the precepts of God’s Word. The Hebrew word for “meditate” used in such passages as Psalm 77:11–12 and 119:15 means “to muse”1 or “to ponder.”2 In other words, the Biblical term for “meditation” means to think deeply upon something. However, contemplative prayer teaches that we must empty our minds and stop our thoughts in order to experience God. Jan Johnson has written a book advocating contemplative prayer called When the Soul Listens. In it she writes, “Contemplative prayer, in its simplest form, is prayer in which you still your thoughts and emotions and focus on God Himself. This puts you in a better state to be aware of God’s presence, and it makes you better able to hear God’s voice correcting, guiding, and directing you.”3

In the context of contemplative prayer, to still one’s thoughts is intended to mean an emptying of one’s thoughts. This is what Jan Johnson advocates in her book When the Soul Listens. Quoting William Johnston’s book The Cloud of Unknowing, she writes, “‘In the beginning, it is usual to feel nothing except a naked intent toward God in the depths of your being. If you strive to fix your love on God, forgetting all else, which is the work of contemplation, I am confident that God in his goodness will bring you to a deep experience of himself.’ If you’re a person who has relied on yourself a great deal to know what’s going on, this unknowing will be unnerving.”4 She then proceeds to recommend James Borst’s steps to contemplative prayer in his book A Method of Contemplative Prayer, “Let go of thoughts, relax, and maintain silence.”5 She even suggests using the mantra “I am here” to empty the mind.

Often mantras are used to numb the mind. Constant repetition of a word or phrase—whether audible or mental—disengages the brain and induces a form of hypnosis. Jan Johnson writes, “The repetition can in fact be soothing and very freeing, helping us, as Nouwen says, ‘to empty out our crowded interior life and create the quiet space where we can dwell with God.’” In The Cloud of Unknowing, William Johnston writes:6

[T]ake just a little word, of one syllable rather than of two, for the shorter it is, the better it is in agreement with this exercise of the spirit. Such a one is the word "God" or the word "love." … With this word you are to beat upon this cloud and this darkness above you. With this word you are to strike down every kind of thought under the cloud of forgetting, so that if any thought should press upon you and ask you what you would have, answer it with no other word but with this one.

The particular word or phrase is meaningless. The same results can be achieved with any word or phrase regardless of how spiritual or secular it may be. In fact, the practitioner should not even think about the word or phrase being used as it is merely a tool to empty the mind. Contemplative prayer teacher and Zen Master Willigis Jager writes in Contemplation: A Christian Path, “Do not reflect on the meaning of the word; thinking and reflecting must cease, as all mystical writers insist. Simply ‘sound’ the word silently, letting go of all feelings and thoughts.”7

As is evidenced in When a Soul Listens, a foundational book upon which most advocates of contemplative prayer rely and frequently quote is The Cloud of Unknowing by William Johnston. In a sense, it is the Bible of contemplative prayer. According to this book:8

Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot know him, we can love him. By love he may be touched and embraced, never by thought. Of course, we do well at times to ponder God’s majesty or kindness for the insight these meditations may bring. But in the real contemplative work you must set all this aside and cover it over with a cloud of forgetting. … It is inevitable that ideas will arise in your mind and try to distract you in a thousand ways. … Don’t be surprised if your thoughts seem holy and valuable for prayer. Probably you will find yourself thinking about the wonderful qualities of Jesus, his sweetness, his love, his graciousness, his mercy. But if you pay attention to these ideas they will gain what they wanted of you, and will go on chattering until they divert you even more to the thought of his passion. Then will come ideas about his great kindness, and if you keep listening they will be delighted. Soon you will be thinking about your sinful life and perhaps in this connection you will recall some place where you have lived in the past, until suddenly, before you know it, your mind is completely scattered.

And yet they were not bad thoughts. … But a person who has long pondered these things must eventually leave them behind beneath a cloud of forgetting if he hopes to pierce the cloud of unknowing that lies between him and his God. … And as it is wrong for a person who sits in meditation to be thinking about the things he has done or will do regardless how good and worthwhile they may be in themselves, likewise it is wrong for a person who ought to be busy with the contemplative work in the darkness of the cloud of unknowing to let ideas about God, his wonderful gifts, his kindness, or his works distract him from attentiveness to God himself. It is beside the point to say that they are good thoughts full of comfort and delight. They have no place here!

This is why I urge you to dismiss every clever or subtle thought no matter how holy or valuable. Cover it over with a thick cloud of forgetting because in this life only love can touch God as he is in himself, never knowledge. … Therefore, firmly reject all clear ideas however pious or delightful.

In contemplative prayer, it is necessary to stop thinking and to forget what one knows in order to experience God. By rejecting all clear thoughts, one can experience God in a way which supersedes all else. William Johnston teaches that neither Scripture, nor preaching, nor other forms of prayer, nor worship, nor anything else can compare to the experience of, or benefit the believer to the extent that contemplative prayer can:9

Therefore, firmly reject all clear ideas however pious or delightful. For I tell you this, one loving blind desire for God alone is more valuable in itself, more pleasing to God and to the saints, more beneficial to your own growth, and more helpful to your friends, both living and dead, than anything else you could do. And you are more blessed to experience the interior affection of this love within the darkness of the cloud of unknowing than to contemplate the angles and saints or to hear the mirth and melody of their heavenly festival.

Does this surprise you? That is only because you have not experienced it for yourself. For when you do, as I certainly believe you will with God’s grace, you will understand.

This is heresy! William Johnston has set contemplative prayer above all else in the life of a believer. However, the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:15–17 that the Bible is God’s chief tool for perfecting and equipping the saints, “[A]nd how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Anything which sets itself above the Word of God cannot be from God. Rather, it belongs to the spirit of antichrist (1 John 5:10–12). Contemplative prayer requires that the Bible be first set aside. In order to empty one’s mind, he must displace all doctrine and prior revelation from God. However, this is opposed to David’s example which is provided in Psalm 119:16, “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.” Acts 13:22 informs us that God considered David to be a man after His own heart. Likewise, contemplative prayer is opposed to the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to Titus that he adhere to uncorrupt doctrine in all things. In order to accomplish this, Titus had to always keep in his mind what is true doctrine. Titus 2:7 says, “In all things shewing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine shewing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity,” (KJV).

The setting aside of Scripture is a prerequisite for contemplative prayer. Furthermore, proponents of contemplative prayer have placed it above the Bible in both its efficacy and its authority. As such, we have no option but to conclude that contemplative prayer is a tactic which is used by the spirit of antichrist to fool the well-intentioned Christian. At this point, it is important that we keep in mind 1 Corinthians 10:21 which says, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

It has been said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. In contrast to Tilden Edward’s declaration, “What makes something Christian is not its source, but its intent …,”11 a person’s intention is not sufficient to please the Lord. God demands that we also follow His directives as revealed in Scripture.

Never does God instruct the Christian to disengage his mind. Instead, a sound mind is a gift from God which is granted to all Christians according to 2 Timothy 1:7, “[F]or God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” In order to be self-controlled, one must also be in control of his own mind and emotions. It is impossible to be self-controlled when one’s mind is empty and devoid of all reason. God advocates reasoning. This is why He says in Isaiah 1:18a, “Come now, and let us reason together.” Likewise, God repeatedly commands His people to exhort others which is something that requires an engaged mind in order to both recall and convey truth to others (1 Tim. 6:2; 2 Tim. 4:2; Tit. 2:6; 2:15; Heb. 3:13). In fact, the ability to properly exhort others is a requirement for those who would oversee God’s church according to Titus 1:9, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

As we have already seen, the Biblical understanding of meditation is one of deep thought. It can only be accomplished when the mind is actively involved. David, a man after God’s own heart according to Acts 13:22, provides us with an example of the kind of meditation that pleases the Lord. In Psalm 63:6 he says that his meditation will include remembrance, “[W]hen I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;” This is a stark contrast to William Johnston’s teaching that remembrance of God’s grace, His kindness, the passion of Christ, or the sins from which He has saved us are distractions which can only hinder and prevent proper meditation.

Elsewhere, David reaffirms the truth that Biblical meditation requires a mind which is actively engaged and which is thinking upon not only God, but also His revealed Word. Psalm 119 says:

I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. … Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. … Even though princes sit plotting against me, your servant will meditate on your statutes. Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors. … Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works. … I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life. … Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.

Additionally, Joshua exhorted the Israelites in Joshua 1:8 to continually meditate upon God’s Word in order that they might know how to apply it to their lives, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”

Any form of meditation which is not centered on the Bible cannot be of God. This is because the entire Bible directs us to Jesus and teaches us of God’s love and of how to have a right relationship with God. Hebrews 10:7 says, “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”

Never does God endorse contemplative prayer. When teaching His disciples to pray, Jesus did not teach breathing exercises, mantras, and the beauty of silence. Jesus taught them to speak. According to Luke 11:1–2, “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ And he said to them, ‘When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.’” (emphasis added) The very fact that Jesus taught that prayer involves our talking to God negates every book and teaching that advocates entering into the silence as an effective prayer method. Contemplative prayer simply is not a Biblical practice.

 


1. “Hagah” derived from “hagiyg,” meaning “meditation, musing.”
(Strong, Strong’s, #H1897, 32.)
2. “Siyach,” meaning “to meditate, to ponder, to muse.”
(Strong, Strong’s, #H7878, 152.)
3. Johnson, When the Soul Listens, 16.
4. James Borst, A Method of Contemplative Prayer, Source: Johnston, When the Soul Listens, 120.
5. James Borst, A Method of Contemplative Prayer, Source: Johnson, When the Soul Listens, 121.
6. Johnston, The Cloud of Unknowing, 26–27.
7. Jager, Contemplation, p. 31.
8. Johnston, The Cloud of Unknowing, 46–47, 51–52.
9. Johnston, The Cloud of Unknowing, 52.
10. Titus 2:7 (ESV): “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity,”
Both the ESV and the KJV are acceptable translations. The definition of the Greek word didaskalia is “doctrine, learning, teaching.” Furthermore, “doctrine” means “teaching.”
(Strong, Strong’s, #G1319, 28)
11. Edwards, Living in the Presence, 18.
12. Johnston, The Cloud of Unknowing, 26–27.
13. Psalm 119:15, 18, 23–24, 27, 93, and 97.

Works Cited

1. Edwards, Tilden. Living in the Presence: Spiritual Exercises to Open Our Lives to the Awareness of God. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1995.
2. Jager, Willigis. Contemplation: A Christian Path. Liguori, 1994.
3. Johnson, Jan. When the Soul Listens: Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer. NavPress, 2009.
4. Johnston, William. The Cloud of Unknowing: And the Book of Privy Counseling. Random House, 2012.
5. Johnston, William. The Cloud of Unknowing. HarperCollins, 2004.
6. Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, 1989.

 

The above comes from our book Sinister Spirit. Check out this book to see how "Christian" mysticism is linked to the spirit of antichrist.

 

Author: Timothy Zebell, 2014