Mysticism is the attempt to directly experience God through various “spiritual” techniques. It attempts to do this apart from believing the truths of God. I can understand wanting to lay aside the attempt to understand God. It can be very frustrating. Sometimes, we yearn to just turn our mind off, find a safe refuge, and just experience the peace of God.
However, this is not the Scriptural way to find God’s peace and blessings. Instead, in many ways the Bible instructs us that finding God’s blessings has to come through the knowledge of God:
· Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:2-3)
It’s God’s truth that transforms:
· Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)
However, to a large degree, the church has ignored this biblical counsel in its pursuit of mystical experience. Instead, practices found in the spiritual formation movement - silence, imagination and visualizations - which promise quick results, have achieved enormous popularity.
Richard Foster is a prime example of this movement. In the late 70s, he wrote a book —Celebration of Discipline - that is still highly popular today. While some of it is good, other parts envision a different God. For example, Foster wrote:
· Often we assume we are in contact [with God] when we are not…Often people will pray and pray with all the faith in the world, but nothing happens. Naturally, they are not contacting the channel. We begin praying for others by first centering down and listening to the quiet thunder of the Lord of hosts. Attuning ourselves to divine breathings is spiritual work, but without it our praying is vain repetition. Listening to the Lord is the first thing…(34)
There is nothing wrong with waiting and listening for God. Regarding prayer, I do many extra-scriptural things. I journal as a form of prayer and I also like to walk as I am praying. However, I would violate Scripture if I taught that everyone needs to journal in order to have a full and blessed relationship with God. However, Foster claims that “without it [his disciplines] our praying is vain repetition.” In essence, he is writing that what Scripture teaches isn’t adequate to truly “connect” with God—that we need to add additional practices.
However, according to Paul, Scripture is sufficient to make us complete in regards to our relationship with God:
· All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
However, Foster insinuates that we are not complete without his techniques of “centering down and listening to the quiet thunder of the Lord” and “attuning ourselves to divine breathings,” we are simply not going to have our prayers heard, let alone answered. This amounts to adding to God’s Word (Deut. 4:2). Indirectly, he is claiming that God’s Word isn’t sufficient without his practices.
Perhaps even worse, Foster claims that if “nothing happens,” it means that we have simply failed in “contacting the channel” of God despite the fact that we are trusting our Savior in faith. This means that faith alone isn’t enough to sustain contact with God. If “nothing happens,” it signifies that our faith wasn’t enough and we’ve failed to make contact. This is in contrast to the many verses that claim that God is close to those who trust in Him. For instance, Proverbs assures us that if we trust in God, we connect with Him:
· Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)
However, Foster’s teaching undermines this most basic confidence. It teaches that our God is more interested in mystical techniques than in trust and obedience. However, this contradicts God’s assertions about what He values. For example, Micah 6:8 reads:
· He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Nowhere is there any mention of practicing certain spiritual techniques. Besides, Foster’s god is no longer close to the brokenhearted as the Bible assures us (Isa. 57:15; 66:1-2). Consequently, those who have despaired in themselves and are trusting in God alone will be disappointed by God unless they learn Foster’s disciplines. How discouraging and how contrary to Scripture to be informed that we are “missing the channel” when our prayers aren’t immediately answered! Had Abraham been nurtured on such teaching, he would have thought that he was “missing the channel” because he had not received his promised child after decades of waiting!
Instead, James 4 instructs us that we miss “the channel” when we ask with “wrong motives”:
· You ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)
At other times, it’s sin that blocks us from God. However, Scripture never tells us that we receive not because we lack the right spiritual practices!
Foster also teaches unbiblically about the imagination:
· Imagination opens the door to faith. If we can ‘see’ in our mind’s eye a shattered marriage whole or a sick person well, it is only a short step to believing that it will be so. (36)
There is nothing wrong with exercising our imagination, but there is a lot the matter with believing that we can move mountains with it. This thinking seems to claim that we have power that we clearly don’t have. Instead, Jesus claimed that without Him, we can do nothing at all (John 15:3-5). Foster’s teaching places our faith in our ability to imagine and not in God alone (Psalm 62). Besides, if it’s about us and the quality of our imaginations, our attention will naturally focus on ourselves, the source of our hopes. This will enslave us to self-preoccupations.
It also suggests that we can coerce God through our imagination and fails to give adequate acknowledgment to the will of God (James 4:13-16), as if God has no plan or will of His own – as if He is no more than a passive blob waiting for us to learn how to exercise our minds before He can bless us.
Although imagination can be used profitably when writing a children’s book, it has no place in regards to connecting to God. Instead, the Bible refers to imagination as an evil to which people resort in favor of the Word of God.
Similarly, Foster’s teachings portray God as unwilling or unable to heal without the right visualizations:
· Imagine the light of Christ flowing through your hands and healing every emotional trauma and hurt feeling your child experienced that day. Fill him or her with the peace and joy of the Lord. In sleep the child is very receptive to prayer since the conscious mind, which tends to erect barriers to God’s gentle influence, is relaxed. (39)
Why worry about performing the right visualizations if God is the healer! Instead, Foster would have us place our faith in our ability to “Imagine the light of Christ flowing through your hands and healing every emotional trauma,” and not in Christ Himself. In contrast to Foster, it is so liberating to not have to worry about the quality or intensity of my prayers and visualizations and instead to look to Christ alone.
However, there are even more toxic implications to this teaching. Foster is claiming that we have the power to “Fill him or her with the peace and joy of the Lord” – that we can channel God’s healing power through our visualizations. This places us in charge of God’s grace, dispatching it in whichever way we choose.
Besides, the Bible never teaches visualizations. If anything, it teaches against them as aids to worship (Exodus 20:4-6).
Foster’s teaching also calls into question the omnipotence of God, by claiming that our conscious mind “tends to erect barriers to God’s gentle influence.” In essence, Foster is saying that our mental activity can block God’s mercy. If our conscious mind can interfere with God’s grace and plan for our lives, we cannot confidently place our trust in Him. In contrast, Isaiah identifies sin as the real impediment:
· Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. (Isaiah 59:1-2)
This teaching also disparages the mind that God has given us. According to Foster, rather than recognizing that God gave us a mind to serve and adore Him (Mat. 22:37), the conscious mind is an impediment to “God’s influence.”
Armed with this understanding, the mystic attempts to deactivate the mind in the hope of experiencing God directly. The writer Brennan Manning (The Signature of Jesus) claims that:
· “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.” “Choosing 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.” (Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing, 83).
However, the Bible requires us to be mentally sober and watchful to guard against deceivers (Mat. 7:15), taking all thoughts, philosophies, and false teachings captive according to the teachings of God (2 Cor. 10:4-5).
How does Foster justify his teachings? Although, he appeals to the Christian mystics and desert fathers and their spiritual “triumphs,” some of his justification is based on imagination:
· Scripture tells us that John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” when he received his apocalyptic vision (Rev. 1:10). Could it be that John was trained in a way of listening and seeing that we have forgotten? (14)
If he was, Scripture is silent about it. Perhaps this is the best place for Foster to exercise his discipline of silence!