Are "contemplative prayer" and other "spiritual disciplines" part of a "New Age" plot to subvert the church? Should I steer clear of these practices? My church recently launched a class in "spiritual formation." I was excited when I learned of this opportunity because I'm hungry to know the Lord in a deeper, more personal way. But when I shared this with a Christian friend at work, she responded with dire warnings about the "eastern" influences concealed within the contemplative prayer movement. Now I'm thoroughly confused. Can you help me?
With all due respect for your friend, we think her fears are unnecessary. There is nothing unbiblical or anti-Christian about solitude, silence, and contemplative prayer. Not, at any rate, as they have been practiced within the context of Christian history. As a matter of fact, these disciplines are part of a time-honored tradition. They've been central to the church's spiritual life for centuries. The fact that an idea looks or sounds like "New Age" mysticism at first glance doesn't necessarily prove that it is "New Age" mysticism. You have to dig deeper to get at the heart of the matter. This is a case where the danger of jumping to unwarranted conclusions is very present and real indeed. Let's take a look at the scriptural evidence.
It was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire that the Lord spoke to Elijah. It was in the "still, small voice" of intimate, personal communion (1 Kings 19:12). David highlights the value of this type of spiritual discipline in Psalm 4:4, where he writes, "Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still." Another Psalmist similarly represents the Lord as exhorting His people to "be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). And Jesus Himself, who lived and breathed the Old Testament Scriptures, often retired to quiet, secluded spots in the wilderness or on the mountain where He could converse with His Father. He obviously believed it was important to get away from the noise and distraction of the crowd (see Mark 1:35). In time, His disciples learned to follow His example.
On the basis of this biblical foundation, a strong tradition of Christian contemplation and mysticism has grown up within the church over the past 2,000 years. Many of the early church fathers of the first three centuries of the Christian era - men like Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, and Anthony of Egypt - were contemplatives who had mystical experiences in prayer. This tradition has nothing to do with the depersonalizing, self-abnegating, Nirvana-seeking spiritual practices of the Hindus, Buddhists, and New-Agers.
It's even possible to trace this strain of spirituality to the apostles themselves. Peter, for example, saw visions on the roof of the house of Simon the Tanner (Acts 10:9-16). Paul speaks of having been "caught up to the third heaven" where he "heard inexpressible words which it is not lawful for a man to utter" (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). Then there's John, whose encounter with the risen Christ while "in the Spirit on the Lord's Day" gave us the Book of Revelation (Revelation 1:9). In our view, it's not the form or style of such experiences that determine their legitimacy. Neither should we place too much emphasis on the methods or techniques of prayer that precede them. What counts is their content and the degree to which they either do or do not bring glory to the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you'd like to talk about this at greater length, Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone. They are available at this number.
In this iQuestions video from Focus on the Family, Gary Thomas discusses his thoughts on ways to commune with and deepen our relationship with God.
Praying God's Word: Breaking Free From Spiritual Strongholds (book)
The Essentials of Prayer (book)
National Day of Prayer Task Force
Prayer and the Difference It Makes