Thursday, December 4, 2014

What Is Spiritual Formation?

Posted by Christine Pack (originally published 10-25-10)

While I recognize that the graphic that accompanies this article is shocking, it was used intentionally and purposefully to illustrate the dangers of Spiritual Formation, the Trojan Horse through which Contemplative Spirituality, a "Christianized" form of mysticism, is flooding into our churches today. Contemplative Spirituality is primarily coming into the church through the teachings associated with Spiritual Formation (also known as Spiritual Disciplines). But make no mistake: Contemplative Spirituality is a mind-altering practice that is as spiritually dangerous as a drug. And much like a drug addict, the Spiritual Formation addict will have to keep coming back to the contemplative practice for "hits," continually seeking the elusive spiritual highs once attained from the practice, but which can no longer be found. You think I'm exaggerating? Don't take my word for it: Roman Catholic mystic Thomas Merton once compared Contemplative Spirituality Mysticism (CSM) to the same powerful experience generated by mind-altering drugs.
"Isn't it a pity that people are going into LSD to have spiritual experiences, when we have a tradition in the Church [contemplative prayer] which no one knows anything about?" (Thomas Merton, from  a letter he wrote to fellow mystic Matthew Fox)
Now, you might be wondering why the opinion of a deceased Roman Catholic mystic on an obscure sounding practice should matter to us today. It is for this reason: Contemplative Spirituality Mysticism, as noted above, is literally flooding into today's churches through practices that have positive sounding names, like "Spiritual Formation" and "Spiritual Disciplines." Spiritual Formation is being promoted in many of today's evangelical churches as a way for Christians to draw closer to God. Christian leaders who are teaching Spiritual Formation often understand that the word "mysticism" has a negative, eastern connotation, and try to draw a distinction between "bad" (eastern) mysticism and "good" (Christian) mysticism. Obviously, to those pleading this case, "bad" mysticism would be occultic, and eastern in origin. But "good" mysticism (like Spiritual Formation, say its proponents) would be a type of mysticism that is Christian, biblical, and necessary for spiritual development. They make this distinction between "good" and "bad" mysticism based on a quote by the founder of the Spiritual Formation movement, Richard Foster, who said in his 1978 book Celebration of Discipline that:
"Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind. Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind"(Celebration of Discipline, p 20).
The problem is that the Bible makes no such distinction between "good" and "bad" mysticism, which is a form of occultism. In fact, Spiritual Formation teaches the same "technique" for corralling and emptying the mind as that employed in eastern mantra meditation. To be clear, let me restate this: the technique used for silencing the mind in Spiritual Formation is identical to classic occultic meditation practices taught in Hinduism, Buddhism, wicca, paganism, etc. The technique goes something like this: find a quiet spot to sit or lie down, breathe deeply, and begin to focus on something for the purpose of stilling your thoughts. (The "something" can literally be almost anything: a candle, a word, a phrase, repetitive music, drumming, one's own breath, etc.) After about 20 minutes of practicing this technique, which is simple to do, a person will enter into an altered state of consciousness. In this altered state of consciousness, the mind is no longer active and critically engaged, and able to assess data. In this state, the mind is passive, its God-given barriers down; it is able only to receive information, much like a radio receiver. Mystics from all faith traditions the world over often report ecstatic experiences of becoming yoked to some spiritual energy, leaving them feeling refreshed, energized, and peaceful after engaging in their mystical practices.

So exactly how does this pagan practice manifest itself in Christian churches today? It looks something like this: instead of repeating a Buddhist mantra or the name of a false god, the Christian practitioner of Spiritual Formation would use something like the Jesus Prayer.....
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner."
or they might repeat a short Scripture.....
"Be still and know that I am God."
or they might simply repeat one name.....
"Jesus" or "Yahweh"
But it is not the words or phrases themselves in so-called Spiritual Formation that somehow magically switches the dial from being "occultic" to being "Christian." Nor does the intention of the practictioner somehow magically protect one from danger. The words or phrases used are completely irrelevant.....they are merely the device by which one corrals one's thoughts for the purpose of entering into an altered state of consciousness (among those who would claim to be "Christian mystics," this altered state of consciousness is known by many different names: "the Silence," "practicing the presence of God," "the cloud of unknowing," etc.)

But the God of the Bible is very specific about how we are to "draw closer" to Him, and it is not through using techniques for the purpose of entering into an altered state of consciousness. True born again believers draw close to God through the blood of Christ (Hebrews 10) and through the means of grace as taught by Scripture. And yet most religions outside of Christianity have some version of mysticism that they practice for the specific purpose of drawing close to God. So the question must be asked: if these faith traditions are outside of Christ, are they getting to God? We know the answer to that, and it is obviously, no, they aren't getting to God. We may not be getting much in the way of deep doctrinal teaching in our churches today, but we at least know that much, right? We know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no-one comes to the Father but by him. However, we also know from the testimonies of mystics that they are experiencing something, so what is it? It is a "counterfeit Holy Spirit experience" which "feels" very real and very spiritual. In fact, what they're experiencing is spiritual.....only, it is not from God.

As a former mystic, the biggest blind spot I see in today's Christian culture is almost an innocence about spiritual deception, a thinking that as Christians we can't be deceived. A belief that if, spiritually speaking, something were "off" about a teaching or practice, somehow we would just "know" it because it would "feel wrong." But even more than that, there also seems to be this idea that only we, as Christians, have true spiritual experiences, that somehow these mystics must not be having "real" experiences, that it's all smoke and mirrors. This is absolutely not true. What these mystics are experiencing is real, and it is spiritual, and mystics wouldn't have been doing these things for centuries if they weren't connecting to.....something. But God, in his loving-kindness and mercy, has graciously given us many warnings so that we would know how to defend ourselves against spiritual deception. We are warned that Satan himself can masquerade as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). We are told that we must test all things (1 John 4:1), because none of us are beyond being deceived.

So how do we "test all things?" What is our measure for testing? Is it our own hearts, our own emotions? In today's culture, we have a tendency to "test" things through our thoughts and feelings ("I didn't have a peace about it"). No, we must not do that, for we know that our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked above all things (Jer 17:9). Scripture is our standard for testing all things, Scripture is what we must use in determining whether or not something is acceptable to God.

Let's look at one of the most powerful biblical warnings there is against incorporating pagan practices into our worship of God. Spiritual Formation, which is a blending of Christian terminology and occultic mysticism, is very similar to what the Israelites did in Exodus 32 in the story of the golden calf. What most people don't realize is that this well-known incident wasn't about straight up paganism. No, this story records how God's chosen people blended together (1) what they had been taught to do by God with (2) pagan practices that were familiar to them from their years of captivity in Egypt. They knew about altars and making offerings to God. And they knew about pagan animal worship from their exposure to Egyptian culture. When Moses delayed returning to the people from atop the mountain where he was speaking with God, the people decided to create their own tangible way of worshiping God. So they set up an altar, added a little Egyptian flavor in the form of cow worship, and called it a festival for the Lord:
"When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” " (Exodus 32:5)
And God saw this, and was very pleased?  Not exactly.  This is what the Bible records:
"Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.'  'I have seen these people," the LORD said to Moses, "and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.'"  (Exodus 32:7-10, my emphasis)
God was not pleased - and only Moses' intercession on their behalf saved them from being completely destroyed by God. As if that weren't a clear enough warning against mixing pagan worship practices with worship of God, we are also warned in Deuteronomy against spiritual syncretism:
"The LORD your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, 'How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.' You must not worship the LORD your God in their way..." (Deut, 12:29-31a, my emphasis)
God is quite clear on how we are to worship and approach him - and it is not through blending our worship of him with pagan practices. But this is exactly what Spiritual Formation is: a blending of Christian terminology with occultic mysticism, and calling it Christian. I recognize that it is very popular in today's global, syncretized culture to meld different things together. We are most certainly an experience-driven culture, always seeking the fresh, exciting, "new" thing. And we also like our smorgasbord religions, with a little of this, a little of that. But we have clear mandates from Scripture about how we are to worship and approach God.  We are to be set apart from the world - not syncretized with it - so that God's truth will shine like a beacon in the darkness.

If you know anyone who is being drawn into the deceptive practices of Christian mysticism, Spiritual Formation, and Contemplative Prayer, please warn them. These things look spiritual and sound spiritual, but they are occultic and will lead into a dangerous spiritual realm. We must be diligent to guard our hearts and minds: after all, it is the Lord's honor and glory which are at stake. When we become just as pagan as the world, how is God revealed, exalted and glorified? And not only must He be rightly exalted, it is mockery to blend worldly pagan practices into our worship of Him. The Lord will not be mocked, and He will discipline those He loves:
"When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it." (Exodus 32:19-20)
If you yourself have done these things at the leading of your pastor or church group, I urge you to repent so that you do not find yourself drinking ground calf juice - or whatever the modern equivalent of that judgment might look like today. Innocence concerning the "pagan-ness" of a practice will not protect a believer, especially when it comes to the area of the occult. This is Satan's domain, and we must flee from it. Those "ecstatic experiences" reported by mystics of other faith traditions? Having once been a mystic myself, I can attest that the mystical experiences may start out this way, but if continued, will lead to a very dark place.  The Bible speaks about those who practice occultism as starting out seeking knowledge, but ending up in a place of distress, darkness and anguish:
"And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness." (Isaiah 8:22)
My heart is broken for those who have been led into these unbiblical practices through church leadership, but it is never too late to fall at the foot of the Cross. The Lord is mighty to forgive and restore.

photo credit: jp512 via photopin cc

photo credit: daveblume via photo pin cc

 Additional Resources 

Mysticism: A Counterfeit Holy Spirit (Sola Sisters)

Interview With A Former Mystic (Sola Sisters)

What Is Contemplative Prayer? (Christine Narloch)

Contemplating Contemplative Prayer: Is It Really Prayer? (Christian Answers for the New Age, Marcia Montenegro)

Out Of Your Mind: Meditation and Visualization (Christian Answers for the New Age, Marcia Montenegro)

Meditation and Psalm 46:10 ("Be still and know that I am God.") (Christian Answers for the New Age, Marcia Montenegro)

The "Be Still" DVD Featuring Beth Moore: An Ode To Silence (Christian Answers for the New Age, Marcia Montenegro)

The Labyrinth: A Walk By Faith? (Christian Answers for the New Age, Marcia Montenegro)

Lecture and Meditation Session Led By Roman Catholic Trappist Monk Thomas Keating (Christian Answers for the New Age, Marcia Montenegro)

What Is New Age Eschatology? (Herescope, Sarah Leslie)

Conversations With (an Occult) God - a critique of Neale Donald Walsche (Crossroad, Berit Kjos)

Conversations With (an Occult) God - quotes from Neal Donald Walshe's books (Crossroad, Berit Kjos)

Can Mysticism Lead To God? (Christian Answers)

Barbara Marx Hubbard - What does she believe? (Stand Up For The Truth)

What Is Mysticism? (Sola Sisters)

What Is Mysticism? (5-Part Series by Pastor Gary Gilley) - Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5

Mystical Youth Ministry (Southern View Chapel, Pastor Gary Gilley)

Rob Bell Recommends New Age teacher Ken Wilber to His Readers (Crossroad, Berit Kjos)

How We Are Sanctified: The Means of Grace (Bob DeWaay, Critical Issues Commentary)