Pastor Gary Gilley | Southern View Chapel
Of all the spiritual disciplines the Spiritual Formation Movement promotes, none is more important than prayer and the intake of God’s Word. On the surface we would expect little resistance to these two disciplines since they have been recognized as essential to spiritual growth by virtually all Christians from all traditions. Sadly, upon closer examination we discover that what is meant by most evangelical Christians when they reference prayer and Bible intake is not always what the leaders within spiritual formation mean. We begin with Donald Whitney, Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality at Southern Seminary, who agrees with Carl Lundquist,
The New Testament church built two other disciplines upon prayer and Bible study, the Lord’s Supper and small cell groups. John Wesley emphasized five works of piety by adding fasting. The medieval mystics wrote about nine disciplines clustered around three experiences: purgation of sin, enlightenment of the spirit and union with God. Later the Keswick Convention approach to practical holiness revolved around five different religious exercises. Today Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, lists twelve disciplines – all of them relevant to the contemporary Christian. But whatever varying religious exercises we may practice, without the two basic ones of Emmaus – prayer and Bible reading – the others are empty and powerless. 
In future articles on spiritual formation we will shine the light of Scripture on many of these disciplines, but it is only proper and wise to begin with the two universally recognized as most important. As Whitney and Lundquist state, without prayer and Bible reading, all the other disciplines are empty and powerless. We begin with prayer, for its place in spiritual formation teachings is even more prominent than Bible study. Of course the position of prayer in the life of the believer is without question and needs little defense. Prayer is taught, modeled and expressed throughout the Bible. After the disciples had been with Jesus for a while and witnessed His life and power, they brought a request to Him: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus responded, not by giving them a rote prayer to repeat, but what we often call “The Lord’s Prayer” as a model. The need and command to pray are seldom debated. Why we need to pray in light of God’s sovereignty and omniscience and how we pray are two different things. We pray, not because we have unraveled all the mysteries of prayer but because God tells us to pray and somehow our prayers really do make a difference.
How to pray gets more complex and is at the heart of the subject at hand. Scripture does not dictate a set amount of time to pray, nor does it approve or disapprove of particular postures in prayer. It does teach the need for both corporate and private prayers and it does model and instruct us on reasons to pray: to worship God, to bring our requests to Him, to thank Him, and to confess sin. What is important to notice throughout Scripture is that the individual who prays is speaking to God. While God communicates to us through the Bible, we respond to Him in prayer. A biblical model of prayer is that of the believer approaching the Father in faith, through the mediatory ministry of Christ Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to communicate to God praise, thanksgiving, supplications and confession. While this paradigm, which I will call throughout this paper “biblical prayer,” is never denied by those in spiritual formation circles, it is usually not what they have in mind when they speak of the discipline of prayer. Biblical prayer is our communication with God. As the Lord speaks to us through His Word, we speak to Him in prayer. Such prayers are rational, intelligent and flow from our minds. Paul said that he would pray with his spirit and with his mind also (1 Cor 14:15), not either/or. When we pray we are making use of our God-given intellect as we worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24). We are to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17) and in those prayers we are to make our requests known (Phil 4:6). In prayer we praise God for His known attributes. In prayer we confess specific sins (1 John 1:9). Unfortunately biblical prayer, as described above, is not what spiritual formation advocates mean by contemplative prayer.
We need to take a hard look at contemplative prayer and ask some important questions: What is it and how does it differ from biblical prayer? How is it practiced? What is its goal? What is its origin? And why does it concern us?
What Is Contemplative Prayer?
First, as is common throughout the Spiritual Formation Movement, the catalyst offered for investigating the disciplines, including contemplative prayer, is the supposed insipidness of biblical praying. Larry Crabb, in his book The PAPA Prayer, frames it this way:
[Biblical] praying to God is something like e-mailing a relative you’ve never met, who lives in a place you’ve never been. In return correspondence (to embellish the analogy), your relative never sends a picture of himself, never sends a picture of his house or land, and always writes a generic letter addressed to “My much loved relatives,” like the ones we receive every Christmas. His e-mails never come only to you and are therefore never addressed only to you. He never calls. And you can’t call him. He has no phone. 
Crabb contrasts this impersonal type of prayer (as found in Scripture) with a contemplative form he calls the PAPA prayer making a promise to all who will use it, “I am promising Papa will speak to you. He loves a good conversation.”  Who wouldn’t be intrigued by such an offer?
So exactly what is contemplative prayer? It begins with detachment. Richard Foster, in his original 1978 edition of Celebration of Discipline wrote, “Christian meditation is an attempt to empty the mind in order to fill it” (p. 15). Fill it with what? In Eastern religions a person empties his mind in order to become one with the universe (or the Cosmic Mind). In Christian mysticism one empties the mind in order to become one with God. Foster quotes a number of mystics to describe this experience. For example there is Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse who said, “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.”  What Foster and Theophan mean by this is anyone’s guess, but it is a vital part of the mystical experience.
Following detachment is the step of illumination, in which the newly emptied mind and heart is filled with supposed communication from God. The primary means of accomplishing illumination is through the use of the technique we are discussing: contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is the constant theme of the mystic, yet it is merely a means to an end which is union with God. The ultimate goal of the mystic, no matter what religion or tradition, is union with God (or gods of the universe) made possible through contemplative prayer. Mystics often claim to find union with God deep within their souls. Teresa of Avila states, “As I could not make reflection with my understanding I contrived to picture Christ within me.”  She is quoted as also saying, “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself.” 
These types of experiences supposedly result not only in extrasensory contact with God but also communication from God. Richard Foster tells us, “We are to live in a perpetual, inward, listening silence so that God is the source of our words and actions.”  Through these methods, especially that of contemplative prayer, a person is to empty his mind (detach) then fill it with imaginative experiences with Christ (attach) who he will find in the silence of his soul, resulting in God becoming the source of his words and actions. All of this unquestionably sounds attractive to many, even if no such teaching is found in Scripture.
Digging a little deeper, there seems to be two overlapping goals to contemplative prayer. The first is to encounter God in an inexplicable way. Ruth Haley Barton, well-known in spiritual formation circles and formerly on staff at Willow Creek Community Church, describes this desire,
There are many terms that seek to capture this dynamic – silent prayer, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, interior prayer, prayer of the heart. Each carries a slightly different nuance, but they all are attempts to capture the same thing: the movement beyond words to an intimacy that requires no words. This intimacy is the kind that lovers know when they give themselves over to the act of lovemaking 
It should be noted that this type of erotic/romantic expression of the believer’s relationship with God is historically common among the mystics.
Ruth Barton gives more details. She quotes Carlo Carretto, a Catholic mystic living just prior to the Reformation, “Thus the time comes when words are superfluous…The soul converses with God with a single loving glance, although this may often be accompanied by dryness and suffering.”  Barton describes contemplative prayer as a “deeper level of intimacy that will move us beyond communication, which primarily involves words and concepts, into communion, which is primarily beyond words. If there are any words at all, they are reduced to the simplest and most visceral expressions.”  Later she writes, “You don’t think your way into your breath prayer; you discover it by listening to your deepest longings and desires in God’s presence.” 
Those promoting contemplative prayer are not particularly interested in the mind. As a matter of fact, the mind gets in the way. It is the experience of somehow encountering God in an indescribable way that is desired. This is the goal of all true mysticism no matter what religion, and contemplation is the primary means used to accomplish this goal.
The second goal of contemplative prayer is to actually hear from God. John Ortberg, a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, states, “It is one thing to speak to God. It is another thing to listen. When we listen to God, we receive guidance from the Holy Spirit.”  While many evangelicals talk about the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Ortberg seems to be going further when he explains,
I certainly have no way to prove it was God speaking to me. A few friends have told me that early in life they were given a clear sense of what God was speaking to them. They learned to recognize certain movements of heart and mind as being the voice of God the way children learn to recognize the voice of their mother…I must be open to the possibility that sometimes God does speak directly to me…We must learn to listen for the still, small voice…In fact, being open and receptive to the leadings of the Holy Spirit is a nonoptional part of transformation. 
Bruce Demarest writes, “Growing intimacy requires that I pay careful attention to the other person. When that other is God, it’s necessary to still my own voice and listen in quietness. Then I can detect the gentle whispers of the Spirit. Too often we fail to hear God speak because we are not attentively listening.” 
Richard Foster, the modern day authority most often consulted by contemplatives, wrote an entire book to convey this point. He opens Sanctuary of the Soul with these words, “Jesus Christ is alive and here to teach his people himself. His voice is not hard to hear; his vocabulary is not difficult to understand. But learning to listen well and to hear correctly is no small task.”  He continues two pages later as he reviews his own experiences, “Now, I am not speaking here of an outward voice that can be captured by electronic equipment. That no doubt is possible, as the Bible gives ample witness. But here I am speaking of an inward whisper, a deep speaking into the heart, an interior knowing.”  It is instructive to note that Foster does seem to recognize that this “interior voice of God” has no biblical base. When he speaks of the audible voice of God, Foster can point to chapter and verse to at least indicate that God spoke audibly on occasion in biblical times. But he cannot do so with inner voices from God, for in fact the Bible never mentions this type of interior message from the Lord. When God spoke in Scripture it was audible and objective, not internal and subjective. Foster, the contemplatives, and many others aligned with evangelicalism have invented a form of divine communication never found in Scripture. Even the “still small voice” borrowed from Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 19:12-18) and used in almost all spiritual formation books was an actual voice, not an inaudible one heard only deep down in the interior of one’s soul. Yet so important is it to hear God’s voice in prayer that Foster quotes Elizabeth O’Connor saying, “This may be extremely difficult, for the churches have no courses on meditation, despite the fact that it is an art that must be learned from those who have mastered it, and despite the fact that the supreme task of the church is to listen to the Word of God.” 
There are a number of things wrong with this statement. Foremost, the author is equating the supposed inner voices, which are being interpreted as from God, as the very “Word of God.” This is important to note throughout spiritual formation literature. There are often disclaimers given by contemplatives to the effect that such revelations are not on par with the Scriptures, nor do these communications ever contradict Scripture. But the reality is that these perceived words are considered the very “Word of God” as O’Connor and Foster affirm. Tricia Rhodes writes, “Once I’m in that place of quiet, I often ask, ‘Lord, what would you have me know right now? What would you have me consider?’ Surprisingly enough, I often hear a specific word for that which lies in front of me.”  Former evangelist Leighton Ford states, “In helps me to think  of ‘abiding’ as a continual conversation in which I listen for God’s voice and speak back to him.” Larry Crabb tells us that “Prayer is more about us hearing God than about Him hearing us. We’re the audience.”  This idea that we will hear directly from God, deep within the recesses of our souls, and therefore have a far more intimate relationship with Him, explains the draw of contemplative prayer. And while attractive, we have to ask: Where in Scripture is contemplative prayer taught? And where in Scripture are we told that prayer is about God talking to us rather than us talking to Him? And where in Scripture do we find any reference to God speaking to us within our spirits in an inaudible voice?
Another flaw in O’Connor’s statement has to do with the idea that this form of listening to God must be taught by the spiritual masters (“those who have mastered it”). First, when the Lord spoke in Scripture, which was always audibly, no one had to teach the listener how to hear Him – they knew without taking lessons or reading books from anyone else that it was God speaking. Secondly the direct implication is that left to ourselves we will never be able to learn the art of hearing from God and if we don’t become skilled at this art, we will be deficit in our spiritual development. Spiritual formation stands or falls on one’s belief in extra-biblical, inner words from God that will be given only while practicing the art of contemplative prayer as taught by the “spiritual masters,” i.e. Catholic and Orthodox mystics and their disciples.
Larry Crabb assures us, “I’m hearing from God in a way I haven’t before. Sometimes, though never audibly, I hear the Father speak more clearly than I hear the voice of a human friend… Let me tell you this: once you hear from God, you’re hooked.”  But Crabb and other contemplatives are not learning these doctrines and methods at the feet of Jesus as revealed in Scripture, but from the ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers and Catholic mystics both past and modern. The reason these techniques must be learned from the “spiritual masters” is because the inspired authors of God’s Word said nothing about them, nor did Jesus. This certainly ought to say volumes to anyone truly wanting to know and do the will of God.
Speaking of techniques, just exactly how does one go about practicing contemplative prayer? Some of these have already been touched on above where the three-fold process of detaching, illumination and union are described. But let’s take a closer look at the actual practices. When we do, we find that the techniques used and promoted by Christian contemplatives are virtually identical to those of Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jewish Kabala, and so are familiar to most of us through media presentations of transcendental meditation (TM) and yoga. Gary Thomas gives these rather common instructions to those wanting to practice contemplative prayer with the goal of encountering God in mystical fashion:
Choose a word (Jesus or Father, for example) as a focus for contemplative prayer. Repeat the word silently in your mind for a set amount of time (say, twenty minutes) until your heart seems to be repeating the word by itself, just as naturally and involuntarily as breathing. But centering prayer is a contemplative act in which you don’t do anything; you’re simply resting in the presence of God. 
So, the repetition of words or short phrases, a mantra, is key to this experience. Barton agrees, but first she sets the mood: “Settle into a comfortable position that allows you to remain alert. Breathe deeply in this moment as a way of releasing any tension you might be holding and become aware of God’s presence, which is closer than your breath. Allow yourself to enjoy God’s presence in quietness for a few moments.”  Mark Yaconelli, in his book Downtime which is designed to aid teens in developing the contemplative life, writes, “I sometimes invite students to a time of prayer by asking them to focus on the very simple act of breathing…Close your eyes and simply notice your breathing…Imagining with each in-breath that you are breathing in God’s love, and with every out-breath you are releasing every distraction, every anxiety, every tension and resistance to God.” 
Once you are in the right frame of mind you are ready for a mantra. Barton writes, “Choose your favorite name or image for God as you are relating to him right now, such as God, Jesus, Father, Creator, Spirit, Breath of life, Lord, Shepherd…” 
What else? While Richard Foster suggests a number of methodologies, he says, “he finds it best to sit in a straight chair, with my back correctly positioned in the chair and both feet flat on the floor…Place the hands on the knees, palms up in a gesture of receptivity. Sometimes it is good to close the eyes to remove distractions and center the attention on Christ. At other times it is helpful to ponder a picture of the Lord or to look out at some lovely trees and plants for the same purpose.”  Brennan Manning gives these instructions in his book,The Signature of Jesus: “The first step in faith is to stop thinking about God in prayer…Contemplative spirituality tends to emphasize the need for a change in consciousness…we must come to see reality differently…Choose a single, sacred word…repeat the sacred word inwardly, slowly and often…Enter into the great silence of God. Alone in that silence, the noise within will subside and the Voice of Love will be heard.” 
Apparently the repetition of the mantra triggers the blank mind, or allows the mind and heart to detach. With the mind in neutral and the heart open to whatever voices or visions it encounters, accompanied with a vivid imagination, the individual enters into the mystical state. This is the state prized by mysticism and made possible through contemplative prayer. Concerning all of this Foster encourages, “Though it may sound strange to modern ears, we should without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of contemplative prayer.”  By contrast, we search in vain to find any such encouragement or instruction in Scripture.
One of the most important aims of contemplative prayer, as we have already seen, is to hear the voice of Jesus, not audibly (at least not as a norm) but as “an inward whisper, a deep speaking into the heart, an interior knowing.”  Foster assures us that many characters in the Bible had this experience, including Moses and Elijah.  What Foster and all promoters of mysticism fail to notice is that when biblical characters heard from God or angels they heard an audible voice, not an “inward whisper.” For that reason, rarely does anyone in the biblical accounts ever question that he or she had heard from God. Not so the mystic who must “learn to hear the voice of God.”  Foster assures us that in time we will be able to distinguish the voice of God from all others, including Satan’s and our own. One way to determine this, we are told, is to remember, “Satan pushes and condemns, God draws and encourages. You can tell the difference.”  Of course this is a gross over-generalization. We know, for example, that it is the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin and judgment (John 16:8) and that God pronounces warnings and judgments throughout the Scriptures. Jesus Himself pronounced “woes” of judgment on the Pharisees who saw themselves as the spiritual leaders of Israel (Matt 22:13-36); He clearly called Peter “Satan” at one point and told him to get behind Him, for Peter was a stumbling block to Him (Matt 16:23). To characterize the Lord’s voice as only one of drawing and encouragement would mean we would need to ignore huge portions of the Word of God.
In his book Sanctuary of the Soul, Foster offers three basic steps for contemplative prayer: recollection, beholding and listening.  He defines these as follows:
- Recollection – letting go of all competing distractions, even good ones, until we have become truly present where we are. This can be done by focusing on a name, word or phrase.
- Beholding the Lord – “An inward steady gaze of the heart upon God, the divine Center…The soul, ushered into the Holy Place, is transfixed by what she sees.”  During this phase some have experienced intense heat around their hearts;  others speak in tongues. 
- The prayer of listening – it is at this step that God speaks to us and we enjoy His full presence  (pp. 80-88).
The ultimate goal of these techniques is union with God, or what Foster calls, borrowing from the Cloud of Unknowing, “the contemplative life.” Foster explains:
The highest level, the contemplative life consists entirely in learning how to live in the presence of God. There is darkness here, but it is not a darkness of absence, but rather a darkness of incomplete knowing. We are carried into the “cloud” by love and sustained in it by gazing on God alone. We shut out every other source of stimulation – sensual, intellectual and reflective – in order to focus on God alone. At this level, we even move beyond our thoughts of God in order to dwell in his presence without thought or distraction. Of course, no one in this life can sustain this level of concentration for long…But our calling is not to sidestep the opportunity but to recognize our own limits. 
This quote sums up both the methods and the aims of the contemplative life. Through various extra-biblical techniques, one enters into a sphere which is devoid of thought and feeling in an effort to experience the presence of God in an inexplicable manner. This is the union or ecstasy so prized by the mystic and found in all forms of mysticism. However it is not found or encouraged in Scripture. Contemplative life, as expressed by the spiritual formation leaders, put me in mind of something found in Isaiah in a different context. In Isaiah’s day the people were turning not to God but to spiritists for hidden information. Isaiah tells them,
And when they say to you, “Consult the mediums and spiritists who whisper and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn (Isa 8:18-19).
I am not accusing the contemplatives of being spiritists, but much like the spiritists they are seeking experiences and knowledge not sanctioned in Scripture. Thomas Merton wrote, “The life of contemplation…is the life of the Holy Spirit in our inmost souls. The whole duty of contemplation is to abandon what is base and trivial in [your] own life, and do all [you] can to conform…to the secret and obscure promptings of the Spirit of God.” When Christians begin looking “to secret and obscure promptings,” supposedly from the Holy Spirit, as taught by men and women of errant doctrine rather than Scripture, we are surely on shaky ground. We might do well to pay attention to the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s warning to the Jews of his day is applicable to us now. He tells Judah, if people do not speak “according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.” That is, the very ones who are claiming enlightenment and esoteric knowledge not found in Scripture don’t know what they are talking about—so don’t follow them. Instead turn to the law and to the testimony,” i.e. the Word of God, for our source of truth.
Many evangelicals are turning to spiritual formation and the spiritual disciplines. Here is a sampling: Leighton Ford, former evangelist associated with Billy Graham, is now a strong adherent of spiritual formation. He describes his practice of contemplative prayer in this manner, “Often in the morning I will sit in a favorite chair in my study with a cup of coffee, with classical music playing, not trying to form a prayer with words but waiting, listening, until perhaps I sense the Spirit bringing to the surface a word from God. Then I offer just a simple ‘Thank you.’”  Tricia McCary Rhodes draws on the fourth century Desert Fathers and Mothers to learn the art of “breath prayer” which is “to choose a phrase that is simple and heartfelt and can be offered to the Lord in one breath…Once we’ve decided on the particular phrase, this then becomes the focus of our communion with Christ for a season. Some people like to repeat the prayer numerous times as they breathe in and out, quieting their heart before the Lord.”  She tells us, “In this practice we take a few minutes to slow our breathing as we mentally inhale the reality of God’s presence and exhale the noisy clamor inside us. We inhale the peace of Christ and exhale the anxiety of the day. We inhale cleansing for sin and exhale guilt and condemnation.” 
On Rhodes’ first attempt at breath prayer she “almost immediately…heard the words, ‘Give me a heart for you,’ and I knew this was what I wanted and needed most – a renewal of yearning for the Lover of my soul.” 
One of the most popular forms of contemplative prayer makes use of the “Jesus Prayer.” Mike King, a pastor at Jacob’s Well Church in Kansas City, writes in his book Presence-centered Youth Ministry,
In the centuries after Jesus’ resurrection, his followers sought ways to commune deeply with God. One form of prayer [was] respiratory prayer…The most ancient prayer of this type is called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner…With the inhale, pray the first part, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God.” With the exhale, pray the second part, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” 
A more extensive example comes from the pen of Ruth Barton as she leads a leadership retreat,
Recently our leadership community went on retreat to listen for God’s direction…Later on that day, one of the people who had heard about our decision [concerning a particular issue] sensed God saying, “You can help with that!” Having learned what the office space would cost, they sensed God’s prompting to contribute the funds that would enable us to take the space for the year…[In response Barton] sensed God saying very clearly, “You don’t know what your future holds, but I do, and I know what you will need for that future. That is why I am giving this to you.” [She then heard God ask], “What do you do with gifts?” “You receive them,” I heard myself answer. I heard God saying, “Stop your clinging and grasping, just receive what I am giving you and then build your ministry with that.”
Professor Bruce Demarest points his readers toward two post-Reformation mystics to illustrate the spiritual riches of the contemplative life.  The first is Counter-Reformation nun Teresa of Avila whose “classic” bookInterior Castle is a virtually incomprehensible description of mystical fantasy that spiritual formation disciples love. Having read the book, I seriously doubt that many have any idea what she is talking about as she describes her supposed visions from the Lord detailing seven rooms (or layers) of progressive experiences with God. Even more concerning is Demarest’s second hero, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk from Kentucky who died in 1968. No modern mystic besides Richard Foster has had more influence on the Spiritual Formation Movement than Thomas Merton. His work and promotion of contemplative prayer cannot be overestimated. Yet even Demarest admits that toward the end of Merton’s life he became attracted to Eastern mysticism and believed that Zen meditation and Christian contemplation pursue the same goal. Ultimately he saw no difference between Buddhism and Christianity and once visited the Dalai Lama to “discover truth in dialogue.” Demarest disagrees with Merton at this point; nevertheless, he and most contemplatives look to Merton as a spiritual master and a guide to spiritual formation.
Spiritual formation seeks to lure evangelicals into ancient Catholic and Orthodox contemplative practices in order to draw closer to God, experience His presence, and hear His voice apart from Scripture. In order to embrace this mystical form of spirituality, contemplatives are willing to compromise at virtually every turn. Central doctrines such as sola fide and sola Scriptura are shrugged off as secondary. Methods never found in the Bible as the true means of spiritual growth and of knowing God, are emphasized. And complete heretics such as Thomas Merton are seen as reliable spiritual guides to spirituality. The contemplatives have sold out to Catholic mysticism and abandoned the clear teaching of Scripture. Sadly, in the process many undiscerning evangelicals will follow suit.