Beware the leaven . . . thoughts on contemplative prayer


PhilospherThere has been some discussion lately about the danger of contemplative prayer in the Church. While I understand that some proponents of this practice lean heavily on eastern religious practice and error has crept in, I am concerned that an over-reaction is taking place.

There was one group that Jesus singled out in his warnings, the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus did not say “beware the leaven of the philosophers.” Nor did he warn us against the leaven of the false religions. He warned his disciples to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). We have been warned against the leaven of the Orthodox, the Biblically correct, the ones who should have known better. Jesus warned us against smug confidence that we have all the answers.

Now I’m not saying that orthodoxy does not have value, it does. Nor am I saying that eastern religions provide adequate answers to life, they do not and we should be wary of anyone who wants to borrow from eastern religions. We do have an obligation to be sure that our belief and practice correspond to the revealed truth of the Bible.

What I am saying is that rather than decrying the wrong ways to pray, it is more profitable to teach the valid ones. Let us not have a knee-jerk reaction to error and throw out the good with the bad.

The good part of the discussion about contemplative prayer is the move to make prayer less transactional and more relational. Too often in the prayer meetings of my youth, prayer consisted of listing situations where God’s help was required with a good bit of advice forĀ God on how he should handle those situations.

There is mystery in prayer that much of the doctrinally correct, Bible believing church has lost over the years. Say what you want, but Psalm 46:10 tells me that I need to spend more time listening and less time talking to God. Whether you call that contemplative prayer or not, I need to stop striving and listen.

My own experience is that when I take the time to ask God to instruct me he does. When I take the time to meditate on a verse and seek deeper understanding of what it is telling me, God is faithful and often provides the insight. When I focus my attention on God, as he has revealed himself to me in Scripture, then my prayer becomes less transactional and more relational. When I am in the right mindset to listen, God answers.

When a finite human interacts with an infinite God, there is bound to be mystery. When we, being bound by time and space, interact with a God who is outside time and everywhere, there is bound to be mystery. We cannot fully understand God, our vision is like the view in a foggy mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12). We cannot take the mystery out of prayer; prayer in its very nature is mysterious.

While we cannot remove the mystery, we can confront known error. But error can only be effectively confronted by replacing it with truth. If people are looking for relationship with God through prayer, we should encourage this with the focus being on the nature of God as he has revealed himself in Scripture.

Instead of spending time condemning contemplative prayer in its entirety, we need to do the hard work of understanding what practices which claim that title are wrong, but also which are right. Our response then is to jettison the wrong and embrace the right.

We don’t want to throw out the wheat along with the chaff.