Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Experiencing God or Knowing God: Examining Mysticism

Interest in mysticism – the connecting to or “experiencing” of God through various techniques and practices – has become rampant, especially among younger Christians in search of church alternatives.

Suggested practices are numerous – meditation (not on Scripture), silencing the mind, visualizations, rituals, imaginations, and dream analysis. Others, like the deceased Catholic priest, Henry Nouwen, have promoted the mindless repetition of words:

  • The quiet repetition of a single word can help us to descend with the mind into the heart…This way of simple prayer…opens us to God’s active presence.

Is the expectation that we can connect to “Gods active presence” biblical? For one thing, the Bible never promotes mindless, understanding-less repetitions. The Apostle Paul had warned that even the supernatural speaking of foreign languages – tongues - was useless unless accompanied by understanding:

  • Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? (1 Cor. 14:6)

This principle does not just apply to the experience of speaking in tongues but also to mystical experience. Whatever we do, we must proceed in the light of understanding.

This certainly shouldn’t be an argument against experience, but against the pursuit of experience for its own sake. Of course, the Spirit is always working in our lives, providing learning experiences even when we are not aware of them. It has become a great joy for me to meditate on what God has done for me – forgiving my sins and promising that I will be with Him, in a place of bliss, for all eternity.

Similarly, the Bible emphasizes seeking understanding, not experience. Moses had arguably the greatest mountaintop experience. His appearance was even transformed. However, when he returned to the Israelites, he told them nothing about the experience and everything about the words God had given him (Exodus 34:29-34).

Jesus’ disciples also had a great mountaintop experience on the Mount of Transfiguration. However, God’s heavenly voice had nothing to do with learning techniques about experiencing Him but everything to do with a doctrinal revelation of the Person of Jesus:

  • “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5)

There is absolutely no Scriptural evidence that we can experience God by repeating a set of words. In fact, there is evidence against such a hope and practice:

  • “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7)

In addition to this, God regards mindless rituals as an abomination:

  • The sacrifice of the wicked is detestable— how much more so when brought with evil intent! (Proverbs 21:27; 15:8; 28:9)

Even when prescribed rituals are performed without “evil intent,” they are “detestable,” because the offerer is not right relationship with the Lord. This raises a great concern about mysticism, which presents an unbiblical God – a God who cares more about technique and mystical methodology than about what God values – faith, confession, repentance, sin and obedience. Mysticism implicitly communicates that having a relationship with God and experiencing “God’s active presence” are about practicing techniques and not about what the Bible teaches.

Meanwhile, the Bible claims that it is totally adequate in itself, through the Spirit, to produce in us what God desires:

  • All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

However, the teachings of the mystics implicitly deny this truth, claiming that we need their techniques in order to achieve the blessings of God.

What do mystics experience when they claim that they are experiencing God or union with God? Although the Spirit works within us, producing His fruit in our lives, Scripture mentions nothing about experiencing God in a mystical manner. In fact, those Israelites who did experience the Presence of God were terrified and not enraptured by joy!

The Israelites were gathered around Mt. Sinai to experience the Presence of God. However, they found that this Presence was the last thing in the world that they ever wanted to experience again. Instead, they cried to Moses:

  • “Speak to us yourself [Moses] and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (Exodus 20:19)

Their experience was typical, even for prophets, like Isaiah, who actually saw the Lord Jesus:

  • “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5)

In fact, Israel’s temple communicated that only the High Priest could approach the Lord without being struck dead. Even in the NT, contact with the Divine was a frightening thing. The three disciples were terrified on the Mt. of Transfiguration (Mat. 17:6). John was even terrified by the presence of a mere angel (Rev. 1:17).

So what is it that the mystics are experiencing? Do they know? Is it possible to coerce God into intimate contact through a set of extra-biblical practices? They claim that if we imagine that we are in contact with God, then we will be. In Celebration of Disciple, mystic Richard Foster insists that:

  • As with meditation, the imagination is a powerful tool in the work of prayer. We may be reticent to pray with the imagination, feeling that it is slightly beneath us. Children have no such reticence. (172)

  • Since we know that Jesus is always with us, let’s imagine that he is sitting over in the chair across from us. He is waiting patiently for us to centre our attention on him. When we see him, we start thinking more about His love than how sick Julie is. He smiles, gets up, and comes over to us. Then, let’s put both our hands on Julie and when we do, Jesus will put His hands on top of ours. We’ll watch the light from Jesus flow into your little sister and make her well. (173)

However, Scripture does not give us the freedom to use imagination in worship, as Jeremiah warned:

  • This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise me, 'The Lord says: You will have peace.' And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts [“walketh after the imagination of his own heart;” KJV] they say, 'No harm will come to you.'” (Jeremiah 23:16-17; Ezek 13:2; Luke 1:51)

Instead, God requires us to worship Him according to who He is, in spirit and in truth (John 4:22-24), contrary to the assertion of the mystics, who want to bypass considerations of truth and doctrine.

So what are the mystics experiencing? Their own imaginations, but perhaps something even worse! Paul warned that demons can disguise themselves as entities of the light (2 Cor. 11:14) and that when we worship in an unbiblical manner, we might be opening ourselves to demonic fellowship:

  • The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. (1 Cor. 10:20)

How can the mystics be sure that they are not participating with demons? Even Foster admits this possibility, according to writer Roger Oakland:

  • Richard Foster claims that practitioners must use caution. He admits that in contemplative prayer “we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm” and that sometimes it is not the realm of God even though it is “supernatural.” He admits there are spiritual beings and that a prayer of protection should be said beforehand – something to the effect of “All dark and evil spirits must now leave.” (Faith Undone, 99)

Will the demons obey Foster? How can Foster know that these evil spirits have left and that he now communes with God? By departing from the teachings of Scripture, he cannot know!

Why are vast numbers of young educated people embracing mysticism? I think that there are many possible reasons for this:

  1. They have never known the Savior.
  2. They have rejected God’s Word.
  3. Experiencing spirituality has become far more socially acceptable than believing in a set of truths.
  4. Experiencing, instead of accepting a demanding set of doctrines, does not interfere with one’s lifestyle or politics.

In any event, mystical pursuit represents a costly rejection of God and His Word – an attempt to set up our own spiritual workshop and play-station.

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