A Lighthouse Trails reader recently asked our editors to take a look at a page on the Focus on the Family website defending the practice of contemplative prayer. Those of you who have been readers of Lighthouse Trails for a while will know that Lighthouse Trails has challenged Focus on the Family on more than one occasion for their promotion of contemplative prayer. We first issued a concern twelve years ago in the spring of 2006 in an article titled “Focus on the Family Answers Lighthouse Trails -Defends Contemplative Author.” That article stated:
“On April 26th, Lighthouse Trails Publishing contacted Focus on the Family, via telephone, sharing concerns about FOF’s recent promotion of contemplative author Gary Thomas. On May 5th, Lighthouse Trails received a letter from Timothy Masters of Focus on the Family’s “Office of the Chairman.” Masters responded to Lighthouse Trails with the following:
[D]ue to the unusual nature of your inquiry, our phone representative has taken the liberty of forwarding your message to the staff here in Dr. Dobson’s office for special handling.
“While we are pleased that our phone call has received attention from Dr. Dobson’s personal office, statements made in the letter by Masters have left us concerned and disheartened. Masters said that the staff:
… found nothing within the pages of Sacred Parenting [by Gary Thomas] that contradicts the Christian faith or Dr. Dobson’s philosophy … we are not in a position to address the contents of Mr. Thomas’s other writings … but this much we can tell you: there is and always has been a strong tradition of contemplative prayer in the Christian church that has nothing to do with mantras and Eastern meditation. To confuse the two, as you have done, is to jump to an unwarranted conclusion based on a misunderstanding of certain features they appear to share in common.
“In light of Master’s apparent conviction that the two camps (Christian and Eastern contemplative) are distinct and unrelated, it is important to note here that Tilden Edwards, the founder of the largest and most influential contemplative school in the US, would disagree that the two are indeed different. Edwards revealed that contemplative prayer is the Western bridge to Far Eastern spirituality in his book, Spiritual Friend (of which Richard Foster endorsed, calling it an excellent spiritual book).
“While FOF states they are “not in a position to address” Gary Thomas’ other books (which clearly promote contemplative), the book that FOF does promote, Sacred Parenting, devotes an entire chapter to contemplative spirituality, calling it the “active discipline” of “true listening,” and saying it is the way we can “seize heaven and invite God’s presence into our lives” (pp. 58-59). In that chapter, Thomas names two people who had a major impact in his prayer life: contemplative/mystic Teresa of Avila and Frank Buchman, initiator of Moral Re-Armament, now called Initiatives of Change, an inter-faith organization working towards globalization. Buchman was a controversial figure, partly due to his 1930s public statements showing admiration for Adolph Hitler. And according to cult expert Dave Hunt, Buchman was involved in both mysticism and the occult:
MRA founder Frank Buchman … embraced new revelations through occult guidance [and]helped to set the stage for the New Age movement…. He inspired thousands on all continents to meditate … decades before Maharishi Mahesh Yogi left India. (Hunt, Adaptation of Occult Invasion, 1998)
“Gary Thomas devoted three entire pages to Buchman in Sacred Parenting. All things considered, this book hardly seems like it will be a “tremendous help and a great inspiration to those moms and dads who choose to take advantage of its message.” On the contrary.
“The question must be asked, when Masters states that “there is and always has been a strong tradition of contemplative prayer in the Christian church that has nothing to do with mantras and Eastern meditation,” which authors have or do teach contemplative prayer excluding the mantra and Eastern-like meditation? Richard Foster, whom Focus on the Family now promotes? Gary Thomas? Thomas Merton? Brennan Manning? Henri Nouwen? (All of whom can be found on FOF websites and all of whom teach mantra-style meditation)
We must also ask, can Focus on the Family rightfully disregard the contents of Gary Thomas’ other writings, writings in which he tells readers to repeat a word or phrase for 20 minutes until “your heart seems to be repeating the word by itself.” Did the apostle Paul, or the Psalmist or Jesus Christ ever give such instructions? Of course not. Gary Thomas’ website clearly promotes practices such as lectio divina and centering prayer all the while encouraging visitors to read the works of Thomas Merton and Basil Pennington, both of whom wholeheartedly and without reservation embraced Eastern mysticism. Incidentally, Thomas teaches Spiritual Formation at Western Seminary. By promoting one of Thomas’ books, FOF is directly promoting contemplative prayer.
“Focus on the Family has entered into an unbiblical territory that can spiritually harm many people, including children. It is our prayer that Dr. Dobson [who is no longer with FOF] and other Christian leaders will look at the facts fairly before proceeding any further down this path.” (end of 2006 article – source)
Since 2006, when we first contacted Focus on the Family, the organization has shown no interest in taking a serious and biblical look at contemplative spirituality. On the contrary, one only needs to read their current statement on their website to see that they have not lessened their stance but rather have emphasized it.
The statement is formatted as a Question and Answer with the Question reading:
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?
Focus on the Family answers by saying:
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.
The Focus on the Family statement then says it will provide some “scriptural evidence” to prove contemplative prayer is biblical. Misusing both 1 Kings 19:12 and Psalm 46:10 (the two “signature” verses used by contemplatives to “prove” their point), FOF then suggest that even Jesus and the disciples practiced contemplative prayer. Their response continues:
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 . . . 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. . . . 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. (emphasis added)
Clearly, Focus on the Family has groomed their response since that first response in 2006. And they are just as wrong today as they were then.
First, there is nothing in God’s Word whatsoever to indicate that Jesus or the disciples practiced a mystically induced prayer (repeating a word or phrase in order to enter a silent state to hear God).
Second, the frequent references in the statement by FOF to contemplatives of the past are without a doubt referring to mystics such as the Desert Fathers, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and others who practiced this “time-honored tradition.” This is easy to prove because it is these figures who every modern-day contemplative looks to for his or her contemplative “inspiration” “within the context of Christian history” “for centuries.”
Third, contrary to what FOF says, contemplative prayer is no different than the “spiritual practices of the Hindus, Buddhists, and New-Agers” as Lighthouse Trails has documented for sixteen years since the release of Ray Yungen’s book A Time of Departing (*see note below). We could provide many quotes to show that contemplative prayer is indeed one in the same as eastern-style meditation or occultic (i.e, New Age) meditation. But we’ll just provide a few right in this article. These are cited from Yungen’s booklet “Five Things You Should Know About Contemplative Prayer.”
The meditation of advanced occultists [New Agers] is identical with the prayer of advanced mystics [contemplatives]: it is no accident that both traditions use the same word for the highest reaches of their respective activities—contemplation. Richard Kirby, The Mission of Mysticism, p. 7
It’s important to note that, throughout the history of Christianity, Christian mystics have displayed an unusual openness to the wisdom of non-Christian philosophy and religion. In other words, Christian mysticism seems, from the beginning, to have had an intuitive recognition of the way in which mysticism is a form of unity that transcends religious difference.—Carl McColman, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, p. 63 (emphasis added)
The East does not represent a culture or a religion so much as the methodology [meditation] for a achieving a larger, liberating vision. In that sense, the “East” has existed in Western mystical traditions [i.e., contemplative prayer].—Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy, p. 368
Individual religions have various names for the esoteric paths that can bring us step by step to these experiences. In Mahayana Buddhism, there are the paths of the Tibetans or the way of Zen. . . . In Hinduism, there are the different forms of yoga. In Islam, there is Sufism. In Judaism, there is the teaching of the Cabala. In Christianity, there is contemplation. All of these can lead people to the ultimate level, to cosmic consciousness.—Willigis Jäger, Searching for the Meaning of Life, p. 31 (emphasis added)
Focus on the Family leaders were wrong in 2006, and they are wrong in 2018. Tragically, along with so many other Christian organizations today, FOF has led countless Christians down a dangerous esoteric path that is not the path that Jesus and the disciples took but rather is the path that “advanced occultists” are on.
*Note: If you have not read A Time of Departing and would sincerely like to or would like to give a copy to your pastor, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will send you a free copy. We will keep your name and address confidential. If your pastor or your church leadership is talking about “Spiritual Formation,” “contemplative prayer,” “spiritual directors,” or “the spiritual disciplines,” then it is time you found out what they are really talking about.