While regular attenders of a church, we realized for the first time that there is something wrong with contemplative prayer. My wife had attended a women’s retreat and the contemplative prayer session followed a time of worship during which the “songs directed our hearts towards God, to worship him.” After the last praise chorus, the leader asked the women to sit down, put both their feet on the ground, sit comfortably, close their eyes, breath regularly—something in the order of “letting go of things.” Suddenly, the spirit in the room appeared changed. The light was suddenly gone, and the atmosphere was uncomfortable. This was a very unpleasant and revealing experience for my wife. After the praise songs, she expected a time of (silent) prayer, praise and submission to Jesus Christ. Instead, the focus shifted to her body and herself. Two other women had exactly the same experience as her.
During her contemplative prayer session at the women’s retreat, the leader said things like: “Relax, clear your spirit, stay in the position you are in, relax, Jesus, I am your God, follow the light, there is a light follow it, imagine…, visualize…, etc.” The leader talked with a monotone, ethereal voice, slow, and with many pauses. Some women started crying. The session ended with calling the women back with words like, “Now come back, you can open your eyes.” Anyone who wanted to be prayed for could stay behind. Apparently, no one asked for prayer. Afterwards someone said, “Oh, this looks like hypnotism.” Another one said, “It looks like it [hypnotism]. If someone came in the church, they would not think this is a church.”
This kind of contemplative is inspired by the unbiblical teachings of Peter Scazzero. The leader claimed that her technique is copied from Scazzero’s technique on p. 160-161 of his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.
Scazzero, in turn, refers to the teachings of Richard Foster as his main inspiration. Foster is the best-known advocate of contemplative spirituality. What is the goal of contemplative prayer? Union with God (Foster, Prayer, p. 169; Scazzero, Emotionally, p. 45). First, you get into an altered state of mind in which you are unknowing and inactive, and subsequently you receive personal messages from God.
So the best way to hear from God is to hear from God personally, right?
At best, we hear ourselves during contemplative prayer, but at worst we hear from deceiving spirits, demons or even from the devil himself. God speaks loud and clear to us through the Bible. Through the authority of the Bible text, we have clear guidance to authenticate his voice. If it’s in line with biblical teaching, it’s good, if it’s not in line with biblical teaching, it’s wrong. Simple and straightforward.
Foster is well aware of the criticism that his contemplative spirituality is synonymous with pagan meditation in Eastern religions. Foster’s defense: “Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 20). But what Foster wishes us to fill our minds with are personal messages from the spiritual realm that we naively are to believe are the voice of God. Apparently, Foster doesn’t realize that the devil can masquerade as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Foster-Scazzero’s version of contemplative prayer is not meditating on (as in ‘ponder on’) God’s Word, but a dangerous technique to get in touch with the spiritual realm. In other words, it’s God-forbidden divination.
Oddly enough, Richard Foster is crystal clear about the fact that contemplative prayer is spiritually dangerous. Foster warns us (Prayer, p. 165-167) that “in the silent contemplation of God we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm, and there is such a thing as a supernatural guidance that is not divine guidance. While the Bible does not give us a lot of information on the nature of the spiritual world, we do know enough to recognize that there are various orders of spiritual beings, and some of them are definitely not in cooperation with God and his way! I say these things not to make you fearful but to make you knowledgeable. You need to know that ‘like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour’ (1 Pet. 5:8).”
Therefore, Foster warns us that “contemplative prayer is not for the novice” and he encourages us “to learn and practice prayers of protection.” I ask the same question again, does it really take a rocket scientist to understand that we should discard Foster-Scazzero’s version of contemplative prayer from our churches completely?
The Achilles heel of contemplative prayer is the lack of sound biblical support. Jesus never taught contemplative prayer and neither did any of the apostles. That should be reason enough to stay away from contemplative prayer. The personal messages that flow from Scazzero’s techniques are man-centered experiences. People who practice these techniques are prone to deception. Are we really going to believe that Foster-Scazzero’s version of contemplative prayer brings us closer to God? The only way to draw near to God is through Jesus Christ who died and rose again. If we really want to be closer to God, let’s follow the guidelines that Jesus Christ gave us in John 14:21,23. “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” Not Scazzero’s techniques but keeping Jesus’ commands (deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him) will bring us closer to God. First we have to keep Jesus’ commands (New Covenant discipleship), then we will experience God (“I will show myself to them”).
By actively promoting contemplative prayer, people are being led into God-forbidden, and even downright dangerous, exploration of the spiritual realm. Rather than searching for the hidden mysteries of God, and for the personal messages that God allegedly wants to convey to us, we should focus on what God has revealed to us in his Word.
Remember Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
Pieter Bouma is mainly occupied by teaching and writing. Inspired by the big questions of life (Does God exist? Where do we come from? How should we live? Is there an afterlife?), his main focus is on discipleship, explaining the New Covenant, apologetics in general and the question of origins in particular. Having a strong preference for direct, personal relationships (shared lives), Pieter is not active on Twitter, but will post regularly on Theology Mix.