by Ray Yungen
I once heard a radio interview with Richard Foster that revealed the high regard in which many influential evangelicals hold him. The talk show host made his own admiration obvious with such comments to Foster as, “You have heard from God . . . this is a message of enormous value,” and in saying Foster’s work was a “curriculum for Christ-likeness.” I found this praise especially disturbing after Foster stated in the interview that Christianity was “not complete without the contemplative dimension.”1 Of course, my concern was that Foster’s curriculum would result in Thomas Merton-likeness instead.
When I look ahead and ponder the impact of [what I am saying], unquestionably there are some very sobering considerations. The contemplative prayer movement has already planted strong roots within evangelical Christianity. Many sincere, devout, and respected Christians have embraced Thomas Merton’s vision that:
The most important need in the Christian world today is this inner truth nourished by this Spirit of contemplation . . . Without contemplation and interior prayer the Church cannot fulfill her mission to transform and save mankind.2
A statement like this should immediately alert the discerning Christian that something is wrong. It is the Gospel that saves mankind, not the silence. When Merton says “save,” he really means enlighten. Remember, Merton’s spiritual worldview was panentheistic oneness.
Some will see [what I am saying] as divisive and intolerant—especially those who share Merton’s view of the future. Pastors may be set at odds with one another and possibly with their congregations; friends, and even family members may be divided on the issues of contemplative spirituality. Nevertheless, having weighed the pros and cons, I am prepared to receive the inevitable responses from fans of these contemplative mentors. And although I sincerely feel goodwill toward those I have critiqued, I am convinced the issues are of vital importance, leaving me compelled to share them regardless of the cost.
After taking an honest look at the evidence, the conclusion is overwhelming that contemplative prayer is not a spiritually-sound practice for Christians. The errors of contemplative spirituality are simple and clear for the following three reasons:
• It is not biblical.
• It correlates with occult methods (i.e., mantra, vain repetition).
• It is sympathetic to Eastern mystical perceptions (God in everything; all is One—Panentheism).
These are well-documented facts, not just arbitrary opinions. Furthermore, the contemplative prayer movement is uniform, indicating a link to a central source of knowledge. Based on the above facts, we know what that source is.
The apostle Paul warns us of seducing spirits in his first letter to Timothy: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.” (I Timothy 4:1)
The operative word here is “deceiving” or seducing which means to be an imposter or to mislead. It is plain to see a real delusion is going on or, as Paul called it, a seduction. How then can you tell if you are a victim yourself? It is actually not that difficult.
The doctrines (instructions) of demons—no matter how nice, how charming, how devoted to God they sound—convey that everything has Divine Presence (all is One). This is clear heresy—for that would be saying Satan and God are one also (i.e., “I [Lucifer] will be like the Most High,” Isaiah 14:14). If what Henri Nouwen proclaimed is true when he said, “[W]e can come to the full realization of the unity of all that is,”3 then Jesus Christ and Satan are also united. That is something only a demonic spirit would teach!
An even more subtle yet seductive idea says: Without a mystical technique, God is somehow indifferent or unapproachable. Those of you who are parents can plainly see the falsehood of this. Do your children need to employ a method or engage in a ritual to capture your full attention or guidance? Of course not! If you love your children, you will care for and interact with them because you are committed to them and want to participate with them. The same is true of God’s attention towards those He has called his own.
And, we must not forget the most decisive indication of the Deceiver’s handiwork: the belief or doctrine in question will undermine the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as both God and man and His atoning work on the Cross. The apostle John brings out this distinction with clarity in his first letter:
Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. (I John 4:2-3)
It is evident then, that the whole idea of a Christ consciousness where we all have divinity, is completely unbiblical in that it negates who Jesus was and what He came to do.
The central role of a shepherd is to guide and direct the sheep. The sheep know the voice of their Master by simply following Him in faith (John 10:14-18). The Shepherd does not expect or desire the sheep to perform a method or religious technique to be close to Him. He has already claimed them as His own.
Remember! Religiosity is man’s way to God while Christianity is God’s way to man. Contemplative prayer is just another man-inspired attempt to get to God.
When we receive Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit—thus we receive God. Christians do not have to search for some esoteric technique to draw closer to God. The fullness of God has already taken residency in those who have received Christ. The Christian’s response is not to search for God through a method but simply to yield his or her will to the will of God.
When looking at principles like these, Paul’s warning becomes clear. A seduction will not work if we are wise to the ways of the seducer.
Christians must not be led purely by their emotions or a particular experience; there must be ground rules. A popular saying is: “You can’t put God in a box.” That is correct in some ways, but it’s not true if the box is the Bible. God will not work outside of what He has laid down in His message to humanity.
The answer to the contemplative prayer movement is simple. A Christian is complete in Christ. The argument that contemplative prayer can bring a fuller measure of God’s love, guidance, direction, and nurturing is the epitome of dishonor to Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. It is, in essence, anti-Christian.The late Dr. Paul Bubna, President of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, wrote in an article, “Purveyors of Grace or Ungrace”:
Knowing Christ is a journey of solid theological understanding. It is the Holy Spirit’s illuminating the Scriptures to our darkened minds and hearts that give birth to the wonder of unconditional love.4
The contemplative message has seriously maligned this wonderful work of God’s grace and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who guides the Christian into all truth. Those who have the Holy Spirit indwelling them do not need the silence. It is one thing to find a quiet place to pray (which Jesus did) but quite another to go into an altered state of consciousness (which Jesus never did). The Christian hears the voice of Jehovah through the Holy Spirit, not through contemplative prayer. Again, Jesus made it clear He is the one who initiates this process, not man:
If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (John 14:15-17)
Scripture instructs us to “try the spirits” (I John 4:1). Let’s test them, using Richard Foster’s teachings. In his book, Celebration of Discipline, Foster devotes a number of pages to what he calls the biblical basis for this form of prayer. He makes reference to many instances throughout the Bible where God talked to people,—in other words, encounters between man and Divinity. But Foster then jumps straight into contemplative prayer, leading the reader to think this is how it is done when, in fact, he has not really presented a biblical basis for using the repetition of sacred words at all. He looks to the contemplative mystics to legitimize his teachings when he writes:
How sad that contemporary Christians are so ignorant of the vast sea of literature on Christian meditation by faithful believers throughout the centuries! And their testimony to the joyful life of perpetual communion is amazingly uniform.5
That is the problem. The contemplative authors are “amazingly uniform.” Even though they all profess a love for God and Jesus, they have each added something that is contrary to what God conveys in His written word.
Contemplative mystic John R. Yungblut penned the following observation that rings true for almost all such contemplative practitioners. He concludes:
The core of the mystical experience is the apprehension of unity, and the perception of relatedness. For the mystics the world is one.6
Panentheism is the bedrock of the contemplative prayer movement; therefore, the establishment of whether or not it is biblically valid is imperative.
Foster also believes, that God’s ability to impact the non-contemplative Christian is limited. Foster expresses:
What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart.7
But the Trinity already has an inner sanctuary in every Christian. It is being in Christ (via the Holy Spirit) that allows every believer to receive guidance and direction.
Furthermore, when Richard Foster cites someone like Sue Monk Kidd as an example of what he is promoting (as he does in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home), it is reasonable to expect that if you engage in Foster’s prayer methods, you will become like his examples.
Monk Kidd’s spirituality is spelled out clearly in her book When the Heart Waits. She explains:
There’s a bulb of truth buried in the human soul [not just Christian] that’s “only God” . . . the soul is more than something to win or save. It’s the seat and repository of the inner Divine, the God-image, the truest part of us.8
Sue Monk Kidd, an introspective woman, gives a revealing description of her spiritual transformation in her book God’s Joyful Surprise: Finding Yourself Loved. She shares how she suffered a deep hollowness and spiritual hunger for many years even though she was very active in her Baptist church.9 She sums up her feelings:
Maybe we sense we’re disconnected from God somehow. He becomes superfluous to the business at hand. He lives on the periphery so long we begin to think that is where He belongs. Anything else seems unsophisticated or fanatical.10
Ironically, a Sunday school co-worker handed her a book by Thomas Merton, telling her she needed to read it. Once Monk Kidd read it, her life changed dramatically.
What happened next completely reoriented Sue Monk Kidd’s worldview and belief system. She started down the contemplative prayer road with bliss, reading numerous books and repeating the sacred word methods taught in her readings.11 She ultimately came to the mystical realization that:
I am speaking of recognizing the hidden truth that we are one with all people. We are part of them and they are part of us . . . When we encounter another person, . . . we should walk as if we were upon holy ground. We should respond as if God dwells there.12
One could come to Monk Kidd’s defense by saying she is just referring to Christians and non-Christians sharing a common humanity and the need to treat all people well. Yet, while respecting humanity is important, she fails to distinguish between Christians and non-Christians thereby negating Christ’s imperative, “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7), as the prerequisite for the indwelling of God. Her mystical universalism is apparent when she quotes someone who advises that the Hindu greeting namaste, which translates, I honor the god in you, should be used by Christians.13
Monk Kidd, like Merton, did not join a metaphysical church such as the Unity Church or a Religious Science church. She found her spirituality within the comfortable and familiar confines of a Baptist church!
Moreover, when Monk Kidd found her universal spirituality she was no teenager. She was a sophisticated, mature family woman. This illustrates the susceptibility of the millions like her who are seeking seemingly novel, positive approaches to Christian spiritual growth. Those who lack discernment are at great risk. What looks godly or spiritually benign on the surface may have principles behind it that are in dire conflict with Christianity.
Since the original edition of A Time of Departing came out [in 2002], two major discoveries have come to my attention. First, Sue Monk Kidd has become a widely known author. She has written a bestselling book titled The Secret Life of Bees, which has sold millions of copies. Her latest book, The Mermaid Chair, is also on the bestseller list. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I found even more profound evidence that my conclusions about her worldview were right. It seems that just a few years after she had written the book I’ve quoted, she wrote another book on spirituality. This one was titled The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. If ever there was a book confirming my message, this book is it.
In her first and second books, Monk Kidd was writing from a Christian perspective. That is why the back cover of God’s Joyful Surprise was endorsed by Virtue, Today’s Christian Woman, and (really proving my point) Moody Monthly. But with her third and fourth book, Monk Kidd had made the full transition to a spiritual view more in tune with Wicca than with Christianity. Now she worships the Goddess Sophia rather than Jesus Christ:
We also need Goddess consciousness to reveal earth’s holiness. . . . Matter becomes inspirited; it breathes divinity. Earth becomes alive and sacred. . . . Goddess offers us the holiness of everything.14
There is one portion in Monk Kidd’s book The Dance of the Dissident Daughter that, for me, stands out and speaks right to the heart of this issue. I want my readers to grasp what she is conveying in the following account. No one can lightly dismiss or ignore the powers behind contemplative prayer after reading this narrative:
The minister was preaching. He was holding up a Bible. It was open, perched atop his raised hand as if a blackbird had landed there. He was saying that the Bible was the sole and ultimate authority of the Christian’s life. The sole and ultimate authority.
I remember a feeling rising up from a place about two inches below my navel. It was a passionate, determined feeling, and it spread out from the core of me like a current so that my skin vibrated with it. If feelings could be translated into English, this feeling would have roughly been the word no!
It was the purest inner knowing I had experienced, and it was shouting in me no, no, no! The ultimate authority of my life is not the Bible; it is not confined between the covers of a book. It is not something written by men and frozen in time. It is not from a source outside myself. My ultimate authority is the divine voice in my own soul. Period.15
If Foster uses these kinds of mystics as contemplative prayer models without disclaimers regarding their universalist beliefs (like Sue Monk Kidd), then it is legitimate to question whether or not he also resonates with the same beliefs himself. At a Foster seminar I attended, a colleague of his assured the audience that when they were in this altered state, they could just “smell the gospel.” Based on the research of this movement, what you can smell is not the Gospel but the Ganges [River]!16 (To better understand the contemplative prayer (Spiritual Formation) movement, read A Time of Departing.)
1. Interview with Richard Foster, Lou Davies Radio Program (Nov. 24, 1998, KPAM radio, Portland, Oregon).
2. Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York, NY: Image Books, Doubleday Pub., 1989), pp. 115-116.
3. Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey.
4. Dr. Paul Bubna, President Briefings, C&MA, “Purveyors of Grace or Ungrace,” March 1978.
5. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Franciso, CA: Harper, 1988), p. 19.
6. John R. Yungblut, Rediscovering the Christ (Rockport, MA: Element Books, 1991), p. 142.
7. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1988), p. 20.
8. Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1990), pp. 47-48.
9. Sue Monk Kidd, God’s Joyful Surprise (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1987), p. 55.
10. Ibid., p. 56.
11. Ibid., p. 198.
12. Ibid., pp. 233, 228.
13. Ibid., pp. 228-229.
14. Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 162-163.
15. Ibid., p. 76.
16. The Ganges is a famous river in India, thought to have holy powers but is actually very polluted.