Approaching the Throne of Grace

The Apostasy of Contemplative Prayer

By Jim Allen

Will a religious mantra help believers approach the throne of grace to experience God more fully?

While eastern prayer practices of Buddhism and Hinduism appear to have played a role in the growing popularity of mystical prayers in the church, Jewish temple rituals may have reinforced the idea. After all, the Jewish worship protocol was rather involved for its time, although necessary to help explain Jesus' role as our High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16). And still others suggest the mystical prayer originated here in America.

A mystical or contemplative prayer begins with a centering prayer wherein "…the practitioner focuses on a word and repeats that word over and over for the duration of the exercise. The purpose is to clear one's mind of outside concerns so that God's voice may be more easily heard. After the centering prayer, the practitioner is to sit still, listen for direct guidance from God, and feel His presence." [1] Sounds good but is it?

Mystic prayer found its way into Christianity during the last half of the 20th century. The prayer varies among denominations and from believer to believer. One mainline church refers to its mystic prayer retreat as the Centering Prayer Immersion Experience that includes six thirty-minute periods of prayer emersion followed by meditative walks for each period.

Practitioners of mystical prayer report a wide range of experiences from tingling sensations and euphoria to dreams and visions:
In Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Life, on Day Eleven, he encourages people to practice "breath prayers" by repeating words and phrases over and over in a mantra-style prayer, a practice used centuries ago by a group of mystical monks known as the Desert Fathers. This so-called "prayer" is identical to that found in Hindu yoga and Zen Buddhism. [2]
Before Rick Warren's rise to prominence Father Keating* (a monk and priest) wrote:
Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God's presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him. [3]
According to Father Keating, his prayer method brings forward the idea of establishing a personal relationship with God that moves a believer beyond conversation to experiencing God's presence. His approach to God is unbiblical because it replaces Jesus as our high Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16) with words to gain God's favor. Keating's prayer method is man-centered with the onus on the practitioner. With his prayer, one approaches God in such a way to win His approval and acceptance resulting in the experience.

What the priest appears to have missed is that the Trinity does not relate to us by experience but by truth that leads to a personal and abiding relationship that is the true experience one should desired (John 15:4). To experience a supernatural force not founded on biblical truth is to experience a supernatural force grounded on deception.

How is it possible to commune with someone without first getting to know that someone? This is mysticism. And, exactly what is the difference between thinking and knowing the person with whom you are communing? The Bible is clear about the need to know Christ (John 14:17; Philippians 3:10) before we can experience the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). The difference between "thinking" and "knowing" is immeasurable and one reason for unrestrained deception in the church.

According to the Bible, men like Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton** (father of contemplative prayer) are promoting these kinds of prayers for all the wrong reasons.

First, God's presence in us is not a mystical experience. God's presence is by faith alone through Christ alone (Romans 10:17). We do not always feel God's presence because His presence is faith-based on truth and not faith based on a touchy-feely experience. Seeking to experience God is unbiblical and unnecessary when knowing God is our experience we live out as overcomers.

The faith of the overcomer is one who believes God apart from any experience. Pastor David DePra shares a powerful truth:
It should be obvious to any believer that despite the finished and full victory of Jesus Christ that we do in much of that victory...Well, herein is the need to overcome. We are called to overcome — not the forces that Jesus already defeated — but we are called to overcome the unbelief that would keep us from standing in His finished victory. [4]
Standing in the finished victory of Jesus is the experience we should seek. The apostle John writes, "For whoever is born of God overcomes the world: and this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith" (1 John 5:4). Believers walking in the Spirit are overcomers because they experience God's love, joy and peace; they experience a gentile and forgiving heart overflowing with kindness, goodness and faithfulness to all (Galatians 5:22-23). This is the experience God has for us; this is the experience Jesus wants to give us; and, this is the experience we learn to possess by faith.

Coming before the Lord in prayer is not some mystical, tingling sensation causing us to empty our mind and drop to the floor with no thought given to the source of the experience. Our life in Christ is our prayer played out daily before the throne of grace, made possible by the indwelling Christ (John 15:5).

Second, centering and contemplative prayers bring forward the idea that genuine believers need to do something "special" to enter God's presence. The Bible does not teach this idea. What the Bible does teach is that Jesus did that "something special" for us at Calvary and now, as our High Priest, is our open doorway to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:14-16). Even more, the Bible says true believers already abide in His holy presence, by faith. About this truth the apostle John says, "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God" (1 John 4:15.)

Third, the abiding relationship between the Father, Son, Spirit and now the believer is intimate and holy. The Father sees our goings and comings and keeps us from evil and harm (Psalm 121:1). His watchful eye is ever upon us to bless and discipline when necessary. Psalm 91:1 says, "He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty." There can be no closer communion than to experience His love and protection, a promise to all who dwell in the Secret Place.

Fourth, the danger from contemplative prayer is more real than one might imagine. Unbelievers (thinking they are saved) are at risk of opening Pandora's Box, a Greek mythical story revealing ghostly forms escaping to torment the one who opened the box to glance inside.

The Book of Revelation mentions evil spirits escaping from the bottomless pit during the Tribulation to torment humanity (Revelation 9:3-4). Will mantras muttered by the millions of undiscerning people in church be the end-time key to unlock and open Pandora's Box? Is not seeking to experience the supernatural dominion an endeavor to glance inside?

The apostle Paul wrote, "Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons..." (1 Timothy 4:1)

Christine Pack was deceived by deceiving spirits and unbiblical doctrines and repented when she understood the danger. In her article entitled "Mysticism: A Counterfeit Holy Spirit" she said:
Mantra meditation is so very seductive because it generates a very powerful, seemingly supernatural experiences that can make one feel as if they are actually encountering God. The first meditation I ever did at age 20 left me utterly convinced that I had experienced the presence of God. In hindsight, I believe that this encounter truly was supernatural. [5]
Christine went on to explain the evangelical church and others*** practicing these kinds of prayer methods are opening themselves up to the dark side of evil (2 Corinthians 11:14). She continued by warning, "It feels just like you have had an encounter with God, that you have been in the presence of the Divine...only, you haven't." [6]

Aside from these many forewarnings, Jesus warns against this kind of prayer in Matthew 7:7-9 when He said, "And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray."

The Lord's Prayer is short and effectual. It is a guide for all to follow during prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).

Fifth and finally, centering and contemplative prayer have two close cousins that go by the names of "channeling and necromancy." Channeling is the practice of professedly entering a meditative or trancelike state in order to convey messages from a spiritual guide. Necromancy is nearly the same with the caveat of communicating with the dead. Deuteronomy 18:9-12 warns any person who seeks a mystical experience from God or spirit being is an abomination.

The difference between true prayer and mystical prayer is the difference between right and wrong and day and night and life and death. Satan and his horde have spiritual authority to tingle the flesh with a sense of mystical elation. Those who live for these moments of euphoria will think, as did Christine, God's anointing is upon them. They are wrong of course and follow another spirit on another pathway to another end (1 Timothy 4:1).

There is absolutely no need for a born again believer to enter into a mystical state of consciousness to converse and experience God. A prayer leading to mysticism is powerless, failing to give anyone special audience with the Father. Keating and Merton and others who sponsor mystical prayer (and its many forms) are mistaken and misled.

In closing, Jesus is our centering and contemplative prayer. Because of him we have easy and instant access to the Father (Hebrews 4:16). The prayers of a genuine believer are open, direct, and holy. While our prayer may be no more than a heart-felt thank you or an enduring time of personal worship and devotion, the throne of grace is no more than one thought away.

* Fr. Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O. is a Trappist monk and priest, known as one of architects of the Centering Prayer, a contemporary method of contemplative prayer that emerged from St. Joseph's Abbey, Spencer, Massachusetts, in 1975. Source: Matt Papa; "The problem with seeking God's will"

** The Trappist monk and influential writer Thomas Merton was strongly influenced by Buddhist meditation, particularly as found in Zen — he was a lifetime friend of Buddhist meditation master and Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Merton is known as the architect for contemplative prayer — Source: Thomas Merton

*** The Pentecostal, Assembly of God, Charismatic, Emergent Church, and a growing number of other evangelical churches are practicing mystic prayers to encounter God. I have been in two of these churches and witness these prayer practices first-hand.

1. "What is contemplative prayer?"
2. "Evangelical Leaders Promote New Age and Eastern Spiritual Practices"
3. "What is wrong with contemplative prayer?"
4. "Jan 19: Overcoming"
5., 6. Christine Pack; "Mysticism: A Counterfeit Holy Spirit"

Published 2-5-14