Martin L. Carey grew up as an Adventist in many different places, including Tacoma Park, Maryland, Missouri, and Guam, USA. During daylight hours he works as a psychologist for a high school in San Bernardino, California. He is also a licensed family therapist. He is married to Sharon and has two sons, Matthew, 11, and Nick, 25. He continues to pine for clear, dark skies with eight different telescopes up to 20”. Biblical research and classical piano take up his remaining energy. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have become increasingly concerned with the spiritual confusion many people face as they meet Jesus and move out of Adventism into the Christian community. Many Christian authors and teachers have been adding spiritual disciplines and meditative practices to the gospel of the Lord Jesus in attempts to heal deep wounds and to find personal experiences with God. We run this article to help us see where these spiritual additions originate and also to remind us that the gospel is the source of our salvation and our deep healing; God’s word is His unerring provision for revealing truth and reality to us.
Please, show me your glory!” The request was abrupt, childlike, and straight from the heart.
Moses had trembled before Sinai’s dark slopes and had received the law from God’s hand. He had heard God’s thundering voice and had viewed His throne on the mountain with the elders of Israel; he had even prayed for the fullest level of assurance for Israel’s future, and God had answered from the core of His being. Moses, in fact, had spoken to God in a singular way, for he was the covenant’s prophet. There was no other prophet like Moses (Deut. 34:10) except One (Deut. 18:15), and “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). Yet Moses was not satisfied; he wanted a personal encounter with God’s glory.
We, too, yearn for direct, intimate encounters with God. What is prayer supposed to look like, we ask? Do we speak to God, or do we listen for Him to speak directly to us? Many books prescribe methods for making prayer more intimate and glorious, some even promising that we will literally hear God’s voice. Some Christians, moreover, believe that conventional prayers—simply talking to God—distance us from real communion with Him.
These feelings of prayer inadequacy form part of a larger, contemporary Christian anxiety that our spiritual lives are inauthentic. Of course, Christians know they can boldly draw near to the throne of grace and receive mercy, but how does an encounter with God become face-to-face?
Our spiritual appetites
Communication with God lies at the heart of our spiritual lives. By nature we look for a spirituality that promises comfort through a tangible experience that will answer our felt needs. We want a healing touch to bring relief from our wounds and a revelation to initiate deep change. Consequently, Christians sometimes become frustrated with speaking to God, and they search for something that reaches deep inside and brings results. Richard Foster has stated:
Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.1
It is true that exciting worship services that emphasize instant gratification have not produced real inward change and soul satisfaction. Philosophy professor and author Dallas Willard agrees with this analysis and further says that our feel-good worship services are also paired with shallow preaching that is focused on “forgiveness of sins so you’ll go to heaven when you die.” It is a narrow, ineffective gospel, says Willard, that is reduced to the forgiveness of sins and assurance of salvation. A broader, stronger gospel encompasses the whole life and person.2 Our ways of access to God’s power and presence are deeply flawed, Willard maintains, and as a result, Christians are suffering from spiritual stagnation. Over many centuries the church has lost its way, say Willard and Foster, and they offer a program for reform.
This program is a movement Foster and Willard have called “spiritual formation”, and it emphasizes imitating Christ’s lifestyle. True formation of the soul into Christ’s image, they teach, can only be realized through the intentional practice of spiritual disciplines. Instead of looking to the apostolic teaching of the new birth and submission to God’s word and will, this movement draws much of its theology and practice from the ancient Desert Fathers, a group of Christian hermits and ascetics who lived in the Egyptian desert in the third and fourth centuries AD. The primary activity of these monks was the practice of contemplative prayer, a kind of prayer that looks inward to the soul where, they said, they would find God. In their inner stillness they sought His immediate presence and guidance. Today in the evangelical world, Foster and Willard offer the disciplines of spiritual formation, especially contemplative prayer, as the solution to superficial spirituality, and believers from every denomination, both liberal and conservative, have been drawn to this revival of ancient spirituality.
What is contemplative prayer?
Richard Foster has written a great deal on spiritual formation. He urges us:
If we hope to move beyond the superficialities of our culture, including our religious culture, we must be willing to go down into the recreating silences, into the inner world of contemplation. In their writings all the masters of meditation beckon us to be pioneers in this frontier of the Spirit.3
That frontier is explored through the practice of an ancient spiritual discipline, the art of silence. Jan Johnson tells us:
Contemplative prayer, in its simplest form, is prayer in which you still your thoughts and emotions and focus on God Himself…The fundamental idea is simply to enjoy the companionship of God, stilling your own thoughts so you can listen should God choose to speak. For this reason, contemplative prayer is sometimes referred to as “the prayer of silence.”4
Contemplative prayer authors are unanimous about this “silence”, a quiet state of mind where the practitioner descends into wordless, intimate communion with God. In fact, verbal prayers are considered an obstacle to experiencing the deepest levels of intimacy with God. While most of the contemplative authors have not entirely discarded verbal prayers, they often disparage such prayers as less than life-changing. For them, only an immediate, intuitive knowledge of God, experienced through a meditative state, can achieve real spiritual transformation. As Ruth Haley Barton says, we must develop “…a readiness to leave words behind and remain alone with God in an act of love…it requires us to let go of what we have known in order to open ourselves to something new.”5
Barton, Foster, Willard, and others believe that only mystical prayer experiences can give us access into God’s immediate presence to effect real heart change. The goal of mystical experience, therefore, is a union with God that Foster describes as a “sweet sinking into Deity.”6 It was this union, in fact, that motivated the Desert Fathers to flee from the cities after the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 AD. Fearing the temptations and corruptions that came with official religion, many pious men left everything for the wilderness where they could isolate themselves, practice rigorous spiritual disciplines, and focus on subjugating the flesh and becoming more like Christ.7
Pedigree of contemplative prayer
Interestingly, although both Orthodox and Catholic believers generally claim the Desert Fathers as practitioners of a pure, original form of their faiths, their ways did not form in a cultural vacuum. Their mystical practices developed within a greater milieu that, over the centuries, blended Christianity with the philosophy of Plato, Egyptian religions, and eastern religions including Buddhism.8 Moreover, they were not the first ascetics isolating themselves in the pursuit of holiness. For example, monastic living was established in Egypt well before 200 AD, and mystical rituals and prayers there date back before the days of Moses. Furthermore, cultural exchanges between Egypt and India were common before 200 BC, and we can read the records of Indian Emperor Asoka the Great who sent Buddhist emissaries to many regions, including Greece and Egypt, to make converts.9 These facts should not surprise us because, by its very nature, mysticism is always able to cross boundaries and adapt itself.
In fact, Greek philosophy strongly influenced the Desert Fathers. The philosophers Plato and Plotinus had, in turn, developed their mystical ideas from even older sources—eastern religions—and their works reflect those influences.10 Plotinus, for example, spoke the universal mystical language when he wrote this in 200 BC: “Set free your soul from all outward things and turn wholly within yourself, and forget even yourself, and so come within sight of that One.”11
Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jewish contemporary of Christ, gives us more insight into these early desert ascetics as he wrote admiring descriptions of them, calling them therapeutae, a Greek term meaning “the healers.” He told how they left their wives, children, and possessions to seek extreme austerity and to live the life of the spirit. They were hoping to catch a glimpse of the living God.12 These earlier, non-Christian ascetics were predecessors of the Desert Fathers.
Prominent among the Desert Fathers, Antony the Great came from a wealthy Egyptian family but wanted to pursue a life of pure devotion to God. Accordingly, Antony gave away his possessions so he could retreat into the Egyptian desert and live an ascetic life of prayer, reading, and meditation on God in solitary confinement. He found various places including a cave, a tomb, and an old Roman fort into which he sealed himself, living for years on bread, salt, and water that others brought to him. It was told that while alone he was assailed by temptations and horrible apparitions of demons, even of Satan himself. The demons beat him severely until he nearly died, but he would not surrender. Antony claimed to have vanquished Satan, who personally admitted his defeat. Antony became renowned as a pious man, and many sought his wisdom until he died at age 105.13 He was beatified by the Church and is considered the patriarch of monks.
Antony’s pithy sayings on the ascetic life are widely quoted today. He believed that our highest faculty, the nous, transcended mere reason and grasped the divine through immediate experience and intuition. This was the true self that could know God; thus, by truly knowing himself, a person would truly know of God. Therefore, said Antony,
“Let us purify our mind, for I believe that when the mind is completely pure and is in its natural state, it gains penetrating insight, and it sees more clearly and further than the demons, since the Lord reveals things to it.”14
The Desert Fathers embraced apophatic, or negative, theology which posits that because God is ultimate, perfect, and transcendent, He cannot be adequately described or understood. Therefore it is best to speak of Him negatively—in terms of what He is not. Moreover, they taught, we access this transcendent God’s presence directly through non-rational experiences because the human spirit that knows God is non-rational. Therefore we must practice His presence by purging away our minds, the world, and everything that is not God.
Centuries earlier, Plotinus had illustrated this method of spiritual formation with the metaphor of a sculptor chipping away from a statue all that was not the true image. For Christians, however, it was the fifth-century philosopher and theologian Pseudo-Dionysius who brought a fully developed apophatic theology into the church.15
Pseudo-Dionysius taught that God only becomes truly knowable when we are able to cease speaking, seeing, or comprehending Him rationally. In such a meditative state, the seeker will enter a divine darkness and emptiness where God feels absent even though He is not.16 Pseudo-Dionysius compared his paradigm for experiencing God to Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to meet God in the darkness, leaving his intelligible theology down below. To commune with God directly, he said, Moses entered the mysterious, unknowable blackness of the cloud on the mountain top. Pseudo-Dionysius used the Sinai darkness story as an allegory of the mystical seeker who rises above himself towards union with God through spiritual disciplines and prayer.17 For mystics, this “cloud of unknowing” has since become the symbol of God’s hidden presence.
Climbing the ladder
In the seventh century, in an Orthodox monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, lived a devout monk named John. He took his monastic vows so seriously that he was asked to write a guide for monks on the monastic life. Little is known about John Climacus,18 but his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, remains a classic to this day.
In The Ladder, Climacus offers sage advice on conquering vices, acquiring virtues, and readying one’s body and soul over one’s lifetime for union with Christ. The ladder has 30 rungs, one for each year of “the hidden life of Christ” before His baptism. The final rungs demand the renunciation of all one’s pleasures, relationships, and passions, at last achieving “the silence” (hesychia). With the mastery of the flesh completed, one is left with pure love. At the top of the ladder is Christ waiting to embrace those who have left all, thus successfully imitating His life.19 Naturally, there is no assurance of salvation on the ladder until one has passed the top rung and entered paradise to be one with Christ. All others still climbing the ladder are assailed by demons and can fall off at any time, even from the very top rung. Climacus said that God the judge was standing, watching the outcome of this contest, so only a fool or a worldly man thinks he is safe.20
We might be tempted to dismiss The Ladder as a quaint Byzantine tale, but The Ladder provides a graphic picture of the works-righteousness systems that keep reappearing in fresh, contemporary versions. Even though our modern pathways of spiritual formation are adaptable for busy professionals, unlike the ancient monks’ harsh, demon-haunted exiles, the premises are the same. Our paths to holiness can be more subtle varieties of climbing a spiritual ladder, where superior discipline brings superior graces, and salvation is a lifetime personal achievement award. Such ladders, though, have broken rungs and ascend to nowhere. In the real gospel we find the answer to the eternal question: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” (Mic. 6:6).
Mystical spirituality has always had a place in Roman Catholic faith, even though it was not always viewed with favor by the hierarchy. During the times when the leadership in Rome has desired to protect and extend its influence, however, it has often called for a return to the church’s fourth-century spiritual foundations, reviving the veneration of Mary and the mystical ways of the saints. The time of the Counter-Reformation after Luther challenged church authority was such a time.
Martin Luther had been a monk who practiced his monastic vows with such vigor that his fellow monks were worried. When Luther discovered the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith, however, he saw his monkish holiness along with all the works of the great saints not as a “treasury of merit,” but as a “filthy puddle.”21 He saw that salvation is by grace alone, attained by faith alone through Christ alone, and found in Scripture alone. The Church hierarchy could not tolerate the “alones”, for they exposed the structure of the Roman church as man-centered and as stifling pure faith in Christ. From a single doctrine sprang an entire Reformation.
Luther said, “Whoever departs from the article of justification does not know God and is an idolater; for when this article has been taken away, nothing remains but error, hypocrisy, godlessness, and idolatry, although it may seem to be the height of truth, worship of God, holiness, etc.”22
The Roman church responded with its own Counter-Reformation, with a call back to its spiritual foundations, and the faithful responded. We will consider two noteworthy examples.
In 1521, the Spanish army was defending their citadel at Pamplona against the French when a Spanish officer was hit in the legs by a cannon ball. The officer, Don Inigo Loyola, was captured and treated by the French but nearly died from his injuries. During his long recovery, he devoted his life to imitating the great saints of old and began practicing extreme asceticism, including fasting from all food and water while living in a cave. During one severe fast, Loyola had a life-changing vision, intensifying his desire to live as a saint.23
Loyola wrote a book of spiritual exercises for ordinary believers to help them defeat sin. The exercises prescribe a 30 day program with sets of prayers, meditations, and thought experiments. One mental exercise prescribes imagining scenes in the life of Christ in a detailed way that involves all the senses. Seventh-day Adventists may hear an echo of Loyola’s exercises in Ellen White’s urging us “to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ,” by imagining each scene in vivid detail.24
Loyola also founded the Society of Jesus, an organization dedicated to enhancing the reputation and reach of the Roman Catholic Church. His movement spearheaded the Counter-Reformation, and his military mind brought discipline to his Jesuits who pledged to fiercely defend the Church and overcome all resistance. The Church beatified Loyola in 1609 as “Saint Ignatius.”25
A contemporary of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, was a 16th century Carmelite nun who entered the convent at age 20, devoting her life to prayer and meditation. She took to reading the great mystical saints, and as she adopted their ways, she also experienced supernatural encounters. Further, she was zealous politically, joining the Jesuits and the Counter-Reformation movement to return the Church to its original monastic ideals. St. John of the Cross worked with Teresa in reforming the convents, and they also founded 17 new ones.26
During one of her meditative states, Teresa beheld a young angel approaching her with a golden spear. She lay helpless as he plunged the flaming spear into her, eviscerating her. She described feelings of terrible agony while simultaneously being carried into the most exquisite ecstasy. The erotic overtones in this encounter were not uncommon for Teresa, as was noted by William James.27 The nun wrote of her mystical experiences in her best-known work, Interior Castle. She was beatified as St. Teresa and later named “Doctor of the Church” in 1970.
Ironically, today the legacy of the Counter-Reformers is making headway into evangelical Protestantism. The spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius and the mystical methods of St. Teresa are gaining popularity among members of Protestant denominations, while evangelical spiritual formation authors quote them frequently and approvingly. As this influence has grown, two pillars of the Reformation, justification by faith alone and sola scriptura, have been compromised or denied altogether. As John Piper said in 2007, justification by faith has become confused and cluttered. Protestants might well ask themselves, “What has become of our Reformation?”
The Cloud of Unknowing rediscovered
The Catholic legacy of spiritual formation began trickling inexorably into the Protestant world during the 20th century, and it gained momentum after William Meninger rediscovered an anonymous 14th century book, The Cloud of Unknowing, in 1974. Meninger, a Trappist monk at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts, was so delighted with this book on mystical prayer that he began to share it with his fellow monks.28
For over a decade, Meninger had been responding to the Pope’s Vatican II (1962-1965) challenge to Catholic leaders to dialogue with other religions. After discovering “The Cloud” in 1974, Fr. Meninger realized he had found something that Catholics had in common with other faith traditions, and he began inviting teachers of transcendental meditation and Zen Buddhism to join him in teaching meditation at the Abbey. The classes were thrown open to the public and soon became crowded to capacity. In 1978 fellow monks Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating joined Meninger in teaching contemplative prayer, and their written works soon became widely read outside Catholicism.29 Today these three monks are counted among the “founding fathers” of the modern mystical movement in the United States.
Even before the St. Joseph’s Abbey revival, however, another studious Trappist monk named Thomas Merton pursued his fascination with the similarities between ancient Catholicism and other mystical religions by reading voraciously and studying with Zen Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, and other “renunciate brethren”. He became convinced that man’s original sin was alienation from his true self and could only be healed by a journey deep within the self to encounter God and become renewed by a reunion with the divine spirit. Merton combined the panentheistic theology of fourteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart with the psychology of “individuation”, the process of uniting the fragmented parts of the self into a unique whole, which he adopted from psychoanalyst Carl Jung.30
Merton was a compelling writer, thinker, and social activist, and his works are frequently recommended in Christian literature. In fact, today one can find his thoughts quoted and celebrated in diverse places, from the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani31 to the Biola University website.32 What is often left unsaid is that Merton promoted deep ecumenism, believing that we must accept all religions, suppress doctrinal differences, and embrace the mysticism common to all traditions.
At St. Joseph’s Abbey, Pennington and Keating shared Merton’s mystical ecumenical vision and treasured the wisdom from the East: “We Christians should not hesitate to make use of the good techniques that our wise friends from the East are offering…”33 The techniques to which they refer are the meditative methods that Buddhists and Hindus use to unite with the divine. Christians can use Eastern techniques too, they say, as long they are intentionally seeking contact with their chosen god, Jesus.
We can better understand our modern mystic writers by reading Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century German theologian. Eckhart taught that God is in all things, and all things are in God—the doctrine of panentheism. In other words, all humans have a divine spark, an “uncreated aspect” that truly knows God. Deep down, he taught, everyone shares the divinity of God and can achieve oneness with Him by contemplation of the simple truth residing at the center of one’s being. Eckhart was indebted for this philosophy to the Neoplatonists who searched within their own souls to find unity with The One, and he kept the good life by a method he called “The Wayless Way”. This “Way” was uncharted except for its foundational premise: contemplation in “absolute stillness” would naturally yield loving actions.34
Thomas Merton loved Eckhart’s philosophy and stated its core insight eloquently:
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.”35
Mystical theology, in summary, is premised on the belief that every human, Christian or not, has some aspect of God within himself. This belief is contrary to Scripture’s declaration that we are all “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). Although most Christians who are attracted to mysticism would not identify themselves with panentheism, most have accepted its central assumption that people possess the glory of God, and their supporting Scripture is the KJV rendering of Luke 17:21, “The kingdom of God is within you.” (The final phrase of this passage reads “in your midst” in the NASB and “in the midst of you” in the ESV.) Because God is ineffable, they say, He is best understood intuitively, not in propositional theology. In other words, God’s presence and our true self are one and the same. Phillip Sheldrake said this:
“The more authentic our desires, the more they touch upon our identities and also upon the reality of God at the heart of our being.”36
Mystical theology says God’s blessings are accessed by peeling off the outer, “false self” through spiritual disciplines, especially silence and solitude. Reading the Bible and praying are not considered sufficient for accessing God’s power; instead, shedding rational analysis and practicing an altered state of consciousness are considered mandatory for spiritual growth.
Moreover, because mystical theology is strongly subjective—truth is found deep in the self where God dwells—Scripture is not read in a straightforward manner. Words in the Bible are interpreted intuitively while de-emphasizing the universal, objective meaning that God intended for us to grasp with our minds. Francis Schaefer clearly perceived how this “new theology” uses religious words that are loaded with connotations but avoid clear definitions. Mystical language can feel profoundly spiritual and may excite deep motivations, but word definitions are obscured to provide only an illusion of meaning.37
Nevertheless, many scholarly studies argue in favor of contemplative prayer, citing Scripture to support it. Most of these evangelical scholars are probably sincere and love God’s word, yet one must inquire carefully to find those willing to articulate and defend sola scriptura in the Reformation sense. Richard Foster, for example, urges his readers to submit to the authority of Scripture, but at his Renovare Institute where Dallas Willard is also a staff member,38 one will find teachings that directly contradict the Bible. These include the denial that God judges sin and statements that Genesis is myth, that Isaiah did not prophesy about Christ, that hell is escapable, and more.39
Furthermore, Foster cites Quaker founder George Fox for guidance on using Scripture. Fox wrote that God’s love is the spirit of Scripture and insists that spirit should be exalted above the text of Scripture.40 Quakers teach that it is not the Bible but the light of Christ within that brings spiritual insights and new life with God. To use the Bible to support the idea that its chief function is to inspire mystical experiences and to hear God’s voice personally, outside of Scripture, is to exalt the self above God’s eternal word.
The mystical experience
Classical Christian mystical literature includes three overlapping stages in the contemplative experience: purgation, illumination, and union.
Purgation: First, the soul is purged of its passions, desires, and even of the intellect—of all that is not God. Here the believer strives for “perfect resignation and detachment from everything for God’s sake alone.”41 This detachment leads to a “dark night of the soul,” where one feels empty and abandoned by God while He purifies the soul.
Illumination: Once purged of self, one is now ready to receive spiritual truth directly from God, often in the form of hearing His voice, seeing visions, or receiving impressions. Pseudo-Dionysius said, “The soul must lose the inhibitions of the senses and of reason,” for God is known through unknowing and is illuminated by the ‘ray of divine darkness’.”42 Richard Foster also recommends using the “tremendous power” available through the “door of imagination” to encounter God and have Him speak His words to us.43 The personal words one receives during illumination are considered God’s word and are to be obeyed as authoritative sources of truth. How will one know it is His voice? With practice, says Foster, one will learn that God’s voice draws and encourages, while Satan will push and condemn.44
Union: One has finally passed through the outer layers of the self to reach one’s center for unmediated communion with God. A sense of perfect oneness with God brings momentary ecstasy, powerful insight, and even an intense experience of romance with the divine, as many contemplatives have described.
Purgation, illumination, and union are a continuous cycle in the spiritual formation journey, but the foundation of all contemplation is living “The Silence.” Richard Foster said, “We are to live in a perpetual, inward, listening silence so that God is the source of our words and actions.”45
At the same time, however, there is controversy among Roman Catholics as to the sources of modern centering prayer methods. Cardinal Ratzinger has warned Catholics of the dangers of combining eastern meditation ideas and techniques, especially Buddhist, with Christian prayer.46
The mystical prayer
A central premise of mystical prayer is that for one to be spiritual, one must detach from the mind and bring it to a standstill. Not only must ordinary, profane thinking be silenced, but also any thoughts of God or of His word. The accepted method of shutting down the mind is to use a mantric device, in which a word or phrase is repeated slowly until all thoughts cease. Christian authors call the device a “sacred word,” or “breath prayer,” but its function is similar to Hindu and Buddhist mantras.47 Along with the sacred word, steady breathing and comfortable posture are also emphasized, since meditation is also physical.48
Another venerable method of contemplation is through using the imagination to visualize a scene or a person in vivid detail. With regular practice and intense desire, the imagined scenes become live, supernatural encounters with spiritual beings. “Sacred words” and visualization are the methods taught by the Desert Fathers, by The Cloud of Unknowing, and by contemplative writers today including Foster, Willard, Pennington, Keating, Merton, Nouwen, Manning, and many others.
Mystical prayer produces an altered state of consciousness where ordinary thought processes are disabled. Trance researcher Dennis Weir found that repetition of a thought will cause an “awareness loop” that increases focus and limits other cognitive functions.49 The altered mental state of meditation also involves dissociation, defined by Ernest Hilgard as “splitting off of certain mental processes from the main body of consciousness.”50 During a trance, the person dissociates, or detaches from his emotions, senses, and body, with an altered sense of identity and reality.51
Trances have long been the tool of shamanism, magic, and divination accompanied with claims of paranormal abilities such as telepathy, telekinesis, and encounters with the spirit world.52 Similarly, spiritual contacts have been a part of Christian mysticism beginning with the Desert Fathers and continuing through the ages. Indeed, one descends into the “deep silences” with the intent of having spiritual experiences, and within the heart, one may encounter the spirits’ realm.
Pseudo-Macarius said, “The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions…But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.”53
There is no place in Scripture, however, that encourages us to explore the spiritual world through the heart. Nor does Biblical meditation ever teach us to enter an altered state of consciousness and descend into the heart to hear God’s voice. Jesus made it clear that the heart is the source of wickedness (Mk. 7:20-23), not the place to communicate with the spirit world. We are given a much better way to commune with God.
A prophet like me
They pitched a little tent far outside the camp and called it, “The Tent of Meeting,” a place to meet with God. There was only one man, however, who could speak with God directly, friend to friend. Whenever Moses would walk out and enter the tent, the hovering pillar of cloud would descend to the tent’s door. That cloud contained the shekinah glory of God, and when the people saw it descend over Moses in the tent, they worshipped, each at his own tent’s door (Ex. 33:10). Moses was uniquely chosen to speak directly with God on their behalf as mediator, and there was no other way for anyone to speak face-to-face with God.
How did Moses prepare for his conversations with God? Certainly a man educated in the Egyptian courts where elaborate mystical rituals were part of the temple worship would have enlightened us about the emptying methods he used to achieve his personal, intimate communion with God.
Moses, however, told us nothing. Instead, he entered boldly into God’s presence, and when they met they did something that may not seem very spiritual—they just talked. Moses got right to the point and pleaded with God about what was on his mind: God could not abandon Israel like orphans. He begged God personally to stay with His rebellious, undeserving people, because they were His people, and without His presence they were lost. God agreed, “for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (33:12-17).
Then Moses said, “Show me your glory!”
God’s answer to Moses’ sudden request may seem mysterious, even evasive. But God answered gloriously, building on His name, “I am.” He answered Moses for all of us:
“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (vs. 19).
What can we learn about God’s glory from their conversation?
God is personal, rational, and reveals Himself with words. God did not need Moses to be “silent” or perform “detachment” exercises to hear His voice or see His glory.
God is holy. He must be approached on His terms, for He dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16). He is pure, undefiled, and separate from sinners. Worship isn’t focused on us or what we think we want from Him.
God is truth. His words are effectual: they always accomplish what He intends (Is. 55:10,11). As truth, they have epignosis—full, precise, specific meanings (Col. 1:9, 2 Pet. 2:20). God has revealed His glory to His people with content-rich, eternal words.
Through His words, God has also given us His glory, minus nothing. There was nothing revealed to Moses’ eyes or heart that God does not reveal to us with His word. This was not the ineffable God of the Greeks or the Desert Fathers, nor did Moses commune with God through a “cloud of unknowing.” Moses received the very answer he needed. A holy, sovereign God who speaks precise, effectual words can be trusted never to abandon His people. Moreover, these promises—and much more—are true for us today; God’s shekinah glory—his actual presence and authority—has descended to us!
The last word
Three men, Peter, James, and John, climbed slowly up the slopes of a tall mountain, wondering where their leader was taking them. When they reached the summit they stopped, and as the leader stepped away from them He suddenly began to change.
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (Mt. 17:2,3).
A cloud overshadowed Jesus and the prophets, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him” (Mt. 17:5).
Here, a man’s face glows like the sun before a bright cloud overshadows them, and the watching disciples hear the voice of God coming from the cloud. Reading the story, we are taken back to Exodus 33 and 34 where Moses spoke directly with God—who spoke from a cloud. Moses bore God’s words, and his face would shine with God’s glory after his meetings with God in the cloud of shekinah glory.
Now, however, Someone else is taking over the role of delivering God’s word: Jesus! He does not merely bear God’s word and reflect His glory; He is the permanent tabernacle of God’s glory, and He is the eternal Word. He became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we, too, have seen His glory. Remember, in Exodus 34:6, God told Moses He abounded in grace and truth. Now John tells us that the eternal Word is also filled with grace and truth (Jn. 1:14), and the Word was God (Jn. 1:1).
Jesus not only has all the authority of Moses, but He also has all the glory and authority of God. We listen to His words, just as Moses prophesied we must (Deut. 18:15), and we will finally be judged by His words (Deut. 18:19; Jn. 12:48). He is the final Prophet with the last words for all times (Heb. 1:2).
In the transfiguration passage in Matthew 17, when the other prophets and the obscuring cloud disappear, we see the Lord Jesus still standing, unobscured and alone. Now, whenever we ask God, “Show me your glory,” He directs us to behold Christ alone—and we encounter Him in His word (1 Pet. 1:22-25; Eph. 1:13; Rom. 10:17-18). We are never to forget or detach from His words.
The heart of prayer
In order to have intimate communion with God, we must first know the truth about ourselves: we are born dead with no spiritual life, not even a tiny spark (Eph. 2:1). We feel natural walking in sin, following the course of the world and the prince of evil (vs. 2). We are born children of God’s well-deserved wrath (vs. 3). Until we are changed, that is the hopeless state of our innermost, true selves. No good comes out of the heart (Mk. 7:20-23), and no amount of “centering down” or spiritual disciplines can bring an arrogant, willful corpse to life.
There comes a time when the spiritual corpse hears the gospel, and the Spirit of Christ enters the soul and gives spiritual ears to hear and eyes to see Him. The cadaver looks up and sees Christ and Him crucified, punished for his sins and rebellion. That spiritual zombie suddenly becomes convicted of his wretched condition and he repents. He asks Jesus to be his Lord and Savior, and he becomes a living soul. His faith is a most unnatural gift of the Spirit that accompanies his hearing the word of God, the gospel. So it is our faith in the real, historical event of Jesus, who entered into history to die for our sins and rise again—that kind of faith receives the gift of life. That is the gospel in which we stand and grow in our salvation, if we hold fast to the word (I Cor. 15:1,2). The gospel is the only source of an authentic walk with God.
Someone might say, “Well, the gospel is fine for beginning Christians, but to become like Christ, we must practice His presence with intentional disciplines.” They assume that salvation begins by relying on the gospel but advances by imitating Jesus, our example. Jesus, however, is not merely an enlightened spiritual master. He is our Substitute!
We were united with Him in His sacrifice and risen life (Rom. 6:5), and we are declared righteous by faith in His finished work alone (Rom. 5:19; Phil. 3:9). When we attempt to imitate Christ without full reliance on His dying and rising, we will fail. As Graeme Goldsworthy said, “Without the grace of justification our attempts at the imitation of Christ are futile and, in fact, godless.”54
Nowadays, we often hear the gospel presented in subjective language as the solution to our psychological problems. The magnificence of the real, historical Jesus fades from sight as we grope about for newer, more vivid experiences. We have to keep returning to reality: faith comes by hearing the word (Rom. 10:17). It is not a product of “intentionality,” vivid imaginations, or hard work. Faith is powerful, not because of disciplines in the one wielding it, but because of its mighty Object: the Lord Jesus. The trembling faith of the weakest child can “still the enemy and the avenger” (Ps. 8:2). Living day to day as weak dependents, He empowers us to practice our biblical spiritual disciplines of prayer and reading His word. He guarantees what He commands. Are you worried that you won’t be ready? “He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:23, 24).
We can be confident knowing that long ago, Jesus prayed for all of us to behold His glory and to be where He is (Jn. 17:24). We can put our full weight on the power of His prayer, for His words will not return to Him empty. We have received the spirit of adoption as sons, so we can cry out, “Daddeee!” Here is the heart of prayer. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). That turning isn’t easy, though, since we’re self-sufficient and grown up. We need help learning to pray.
How to pray like a child
Be Real. This is not the time to practice detachment or soul renovation. Just come. Bring the unprepared you, the filthy you to Jesus in messy, uninhibited repentance.55
Be Helpless. You are no spiritual master. The most helpless man who ever lived said, “I can do nothing,” and “Not my will, but your will be done.” You can stop climbing the spiritual ladder and surrender to Him, praying His will. Are you weak? Glory in your weakness, that His power may rest on you! (2 Cor. 12:9,10).
Be Bold. Speak what’s on your mind and heart, clearly and simply; no altered mental states are needed. Jesus intercedes for us; we can boldly enter His presence and find help (Heb. 4:16).
Trust. In His gospel we see the light of His face, with no obscuring cloud, no “ray of darkness.” He has adopted us; He knows us; He gives us eternal life; we will never perish, and no one can snatch us out of His hand (Jn. 10:28-30). We cannot allow His precious assurances to be taken from us by anyone, no matter how impressive their reputation or credentials.
The heart and soul of all prayer is the gospel, the very glory of Christ and the light God calls into our dark souls (2 Cor. 4:6). There is no other way to enlightenment or knowledge of God than in the face of the crucified Son of God. He gave us His word. †
Copyright 2013 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Casa Grande, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised April 3, 2013. Contact email: email@example.com
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VOLUME 14, ISSUE 1