Contemplative prayer is based in spiritual formation, it teaches the use of spiritual directors, and it teaches that we need to center ourselves in prayer. These terms and phrases are found nowhere in the Bible, nor do they have any Biblical basis. Some who advocate the use of contemplative prayer use Psalm 46:10 where it speaks of being still before God to justify this practice. In context, the command to be still has nothing to do with letting go of our thoughts and feelings for the sake of some mystical experience with God. It speaks of trusting God even when the difficulties and troubles of life come. The Psalmist’s exhortation is to acknowledge God as sovereign over our life’s events and to rest by faith in these truths in order to keep from succumbing to fear, doubt, and discouragement. Psalm 4:4 makes this interpretation even clearer when it says, “Tremble, and do not sin; Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still.” Being still by implication clearly means to not tremble so as to fall into fear and sin. The remedy is to meditate. Yet the call is not to meditate by emptying our minds, as spiritual formation teaches, but to fill our minds with the truth of God according to His Word. We are to think upon His commands (Psalm 119:23) and His nature and wonders (Psalm 77:12), all of which are revealed in His Word. We may remember how God has led us in the past according to His Word and how He has delivered us from difficulties and distress. These are valuable reminders, but the call is not to dissect the past ad nauseam. We are not to take empty-minded spiritual journeys through our life stories. Rather, we are to press on toward the upward call of God in Christ (Philippians 3:12-13). This we do as we yield to God’s Word rather than to the pull of sin and self.
The Bible consistently teaches that we are to meditate upon God’s Word, a process in which the mind is active and engaged. Joshua 1:8 says, “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 success.” Thus, the purpose of meditation is to know God by His Word so that we are careful to live in a way that honors Him. Meditation is not for the purpose of achieving some extra-spiritual oneness or closeness to God, as if we can take our Christian faith deeper through means other than trusting and obeying God’s Word. John 6:29 says, “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’” It is with faith that we please God (Hebrews 11:6) and it is by faith that we grow in Him (2 Corinthians 5:7). Spiritual formation’s idea of “silence” implies that we can find God within us as if turning our minds off leads us to Him. Granted, God indwells believers, but we find Him by seeking Him according to truth, not by trying to find Him in weak, fallible humanness, let alone in nature or some imaginative experience.
Spiritual formation presents itself as being something that Christians used to do, but they say it is only since we have become more cross-cultural and have recovered our history that we are finally learning what Christians used to do. The problem is that Christians of centuries ago could have been just as wrong as those who teach spiritual formation today. The Bible must be our guide, and it contains nothing that teaches Christians to try to attain some mystical experience of “silence.” Those who advocate contemplative prayer promote the use of spiritual directors who are supposed to hear the Holy Spirit’s personal voice in response to the life stories expressed by the directees. Their purpose and goal is to lead these vulnerable ones to some newer level of freedom and closeness with Christ, a job the Bible says belongs strictly to the Holy Spirit Himself (John 16:13). Now, it is true that the Holy Spirit leads and guides His people, but He doesn’t need a spiritual director to help Him. He can handle it (Romans 8:26-28). Futhermore, He leads us through His Word, not through any extra-biblical revelation. God is not going from person to person telling them new things as they enter this “silence.” This teaching totally undermines the fact that the Bible is able to make us complete and adequate for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). What God has said He has said, and anybody who adds or takes away from it does wrong (Revelation 22:18-19). We are sanctified in the Word, for it is truth (John 17:17). We do not grow spiritually, nor are we formed spiritually or guided spiritually by anything outside of the Word of God. This notion of emptying our minds and being freed from our thoughts such that we can hear the voice of God is found nowhere in the Bible. God does speak, but He speaks through His Word as we seek Him in truth and by His Spirit.
Being guided by the Word of God does not mean that we are to repeat single words and short phrases, thinking on them over and over again until we are no longer conscious that we are thinking at all. This is called using mantras, a distinctly pagan practice for the purpose of losing thoughts and feelings. Yet this is the driving force of spiritual formation and contemplative prayer. The teaching is to be so close to God that you just commune with Him rather than communicate with Him. In other words, they believe that God’s presence is experienced most deeply without the mind and the emotions. Prayingchurch.com of the ELCA says this, “Respond to God’s presence with an act of faith. Do not allow your thoughts or feelings to get in the way” (emphasis added). However, the Bible teaches that losing our thoughts and feelings is not necessary for faith to be exercised. Faith requires an active mind and will to obey and believe. The contemplative view of faith is not Biblical faith, for faith has an object. We can’t “just have faith.” Faith is believing the truth of God’s Word which results in obeying it. Spiritual formation teaches that faith is merely abandoning thoughts and feelings altogether. Again, quoting from prayingchurch.com, “When thoughts come into your mind, gently let go of them and focus on a single word, such as - Jesus, Lord, Love.” And again, “Center your attention and desire on God. Leave your thoughts and feelings peacefully”. Nowhere in the Bible does it say to abandon thoughts and feelings. Rather, it says to think on what is good, right, pure, and noble (Philippians 4:8). It says to have our minds transformed according to the Word of God (Romans 12:1-2). It says to take wrong thoughts captive, which only an active, engaged mind could do (2 Corinthians 10:5). It does not say to stop thinking and feeling. This is akin to pagan eastern religions such as Buddhism where one must lose his or her state of consciousness in order to find god and be one with god. Buddhism calls this altered state of consciousness of mind-emptying oneness “ohm.” Contemplatives call it “the deeper Christian life.” Both use mantras, both advocate this mystical silence, and both speak of finding oneness within. A pattern does emerge, and certainly, it is not a Biblical one.
Jesus is revealed as the Word (John 1:1), meaning that core to His being is logic, words, language, reason, and thought. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the way to become closer to God is through reasoned faith in His reasonable Word. It requires an active role of the mind, not an emptying of it.
May we not fall prey to this deception which is centuries old of tricking us into thinking that there is a deeper life besides enjoying God and knowing Him by His Word. We don’t have to go out to the desert or to some mountain in order to hear God. As we pour out the burdens and longings of our hearts toward God, wherever we are, He will point us to Scriptures that will teach us and guide us. The more Scripture we know and have read, studied, and meditated upon, the easier it will be for us to grow in Christ.
God is everywhere, and He is in the hearts of His church. We do not need a spiritual director, for we have the Holy Spirit of God to lead us and give us the words to say (Romans 8:26-28). We don’t need mantras because we have the Word of God. We don’t need to find some “deeper Christian life,” for we only need to believe the Word of God more as we rest in our God Who we believe is faithful. God doesn’t want us to imagine ourselves in some Biblical story; He wants us to study the Bible and draw principles from it to apply to our lives. He doesn’t want us to read a passage and then think about what it means to us; He wants us to discern what it means to Him and then make the resultant changes and applications.
The bottom line is this: the deeper life is not in us. Prayingchurch.com has it wrong: “Enjoy your own inner silence. Be calm. The Lord lives in the midst of your silence.” The Lord doesn’t live in my silence or your silence. Plain and simply, the Lord lives! We grow not by going into ourselves but by being found in Him (Galatians 2:20) and letting Him have control of our active and conscious mind, will, and emotions. Going into ourselves doesn’t lead us to God; yielding ourselves in faith to God is what enables us to grow. We are not to go into ourselves and find an altered state of being and mind, but we are to actively reflect upon God’s Word.
This contemplative prayer and centering movement is a dangerous addition to any Christian’s prayer life. It is not God who speaks in the contemplative’s “silence.” Whoever is speaking to the Buddhists and to those practicing New Age and to any other mystics is the same being who is speaking in this “silence.” Satan, our enemy, gives new revelation (Galatians 1:8-9) and enjoys what he can manipulate when a mind is altered by any means, whether drugs, alcohol, hypnosis, or centering prayer. We are to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), which happens when we remain alert and sober. Notice why Peter commands us to remain alert and sober: “Be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer” (1 Peter 4:7). If we want to grow in our prayer life and in Jesus, we must stay sober and remain in a state where we can make sound judgments. It is only when we stay alert and mentally conscious and engaged that we can truly pray and honor Christ.