I remember in my last youth pastor position seeing material from Youth Specialities both in Youthworker Journal and in advertising for the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project  headed by Mark Yaconelli (son of the late Mike Yaconelli – founder of Youth Specialities).  It was all about a contemplative approach to youth ministry.  Connecting with God through experiences like centering prayers, praying the lectio divia, praying the Jesus Prayer… embracing Catholic mystic teachings from the middle ages from St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila for example.

This was primarily a mainline Protestant effort, but was a precursor to the emerging church embracing this approach.  There are some aspects to contemplative practices that I think can be helpful, perhaps not practiced the way they are taught by today’s proponents.   For instance, silence and solitude, we saw this much in the life of Christ – an example is found in Mark 1:35, “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed,” (ESV)”

We often times have so much noise in our lives we need to get away to focus.  To focus on God’s word.  To focus in prayer without distraction, to prayerfully consider our life’s focus/priorities, and when major decisions are before us.  Much of the teaching surround “listening” practices have bothered me though.  Phrases like… “empty your mind”, and then encouraging us to write down what comes to mind.  How the heck do I know that is the Lord, my thoughts, or a spirit?  It seems like this movement lacks discernment.  For instance consider the following quote from Dr. Tony Campolo, professor of sociology at Eastern University in his book, Letters to a Young Evangelical.

In my case (referring to him not experiencing a typical “conversion” experience) intimacy with Christ has developed gradually over the years, primarily through what Catholic mystics call “centering prayer.”  Each morning, as soon as I wake up, I take time – sometimes as much as a half hour – to center myself on Jesus.  I say his name over and over again to drive back the 101 things that begin to clutter up my mind the minute I open my eyes.  Jesus is my mantra, as some would say.

Sounds harmless right?  The word “mantra” is from Hinduism.  It is a word or a formula, as from the Veda which is chanted or sung as an incantation or prayer.  This reminds of something that Jesus warned His disciples about in His teaching on prayer:

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Do not be like them for your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” (Matthew 6:7-8, ESV).

I keep picturing Campolo doing this and each time Jesus says, “yes?”  It just seems so ridiculous to reduce Him to a formula said in prayer.  Jesus wants us to talk to Him, not just chant His name.  Think of it this way… if I were to wake up in the morning and wanted to experience intimacy with my wife Cheryl (this is G-rated I promise).  I wouldn’t chant her name…. “Cheryl.  Cheryl.  Cheryl.  Cheryl.  Cheryl.”  I think it would be more likely that I would get slugged because she wants to sleep than for me to achieve the intimacy I was after.

In Buddhism and Hinduism the purpose of repeating a mantra or focusing on an object or the  breath is to remove distractions with the hopeful outcome of hearing God’s voice.  They practice this repetition of a word or phrase in an attempt to “empty their minds” and in so doing would reach a higher state of consciousness that reveal their own divinity.

Umm… smells like smoke?  Is it just me or this practice straight from the pit of hell?  Where in Scripture does it say to do this?  This seems too much like a new age practice, but maybe I’m just being a crotchety old man (getting practice since I’m only 36, but I guess for some of you that may be old).

24 comments
  1. Weird.. the places that religion can take us in the name of spiritual disciplines. I think that unless the Spirit is really leading you it is often fruitless to follow the “disciplines” of others.

  2. Weird.. the places that religion can take us in the name of spiritual disciplines. I think that unless the Spirit is really leading you it is often fruitless to follow the “disciplines” of others.

  3. This kind of ritualism, though perhaps well-intended, takes away the personal relationship element of prayer. As you pointed out, you would never talk to someone that way.
    I guess you can mark me down as another crotchety old man!

  4. This kind of ritualism, though perhaps well-intended, takes away the personal relationship element of prayer. As you pointed out, you would never talk to someone that way.
    I guess you can mark me down as another crotchety old man!

  5. I do think that there is a place for repetitive and ritualistic prayer and time with God.

    I think, for example, that – although I don’t agree with all the doctrine in it – that the Rosary is useful. Humans need repetition to learn and remember. It’s human nature. The empty words spoken by Pharisee’s of Jesus’ day were public displays of verbiage – not meaningful words spoken in concentration in the privacy of someone’s home or house of worship.

    The Scriptures warn against “vain” repetition but but repetition itself isn’t vain unless it becomes useless and unedifying for the individual. And I don’t think we can judge that for any individual.

    So I agree that when it comes a marketing tool for the church – it’s probably wrong. But the practice of repetitive worship in and of itself I don’t think should be dogmatically challenged. Some people need it and are edified by it.

  6. I do think that there is a place for repetitive and ritualistic prayer and time with God.

    I think, for example, that – although I don’t agree with all the doctrine in it – that the Rosary is useful. Humans need repetition to learn and remember. It’s human nature. The empty words spoken by Pharisee’s of Jesus’ day were public displays of verbiage – not meaningful words spoken in concentration in the privacy of someone’s home or house of worship.

    The Scriptures warn against “vain” repetition but but repetition itself isn’t vain unless it becomes useless and unedifying for the individual. And I don’t think we can judge that for any individual.

    So I agree that when it comes a marketing tool for the church – it’s probably wrong. But the practice of repetitive worship in and of itself I don’t think should be dogmatically challenged. Some people need it and are edified by it.

  7. I don’t want to come down on all liturgy. There is a place for it. The vain repetition is dealing with Gentiles, a different warning than what he gave regarding the Pharisees which came a couple verses earlier.

    What I’m describing wouldn’t be meaningful. Nowhere in scripture do you see a “centering prayer”. Also, when it comes to meditation – what we are told in Scripture is to meditate on what? On the law, on His word. Not to “empty our minds”.

    I’m concerned that this has more in common with eastern religions than it does the Bible, and the fact that it is elevated to a higher place than reading & studying scripture and praying to God in a conversational manner instead of rote repetition.

    That said I take your point, but what you are describing isn’t necessarily what I’m talking about.

  8. I don’t want to come down on all liturgy. There is a place for it. The vain repetition is dealing with Gentiles, a different warning than what he gave regarding the Pharisees which came a couple verses earlier.

    What I’m describing wouldn’t be meaningful. Nowhere in scripture do you see a “centering prayer”. Also, when it comes to meditation – what we are told in Scripture is to meditate on what? On the law, on His word. Not to “empty our minds”.

    I’m concerned that this has more in common with eastern religions than it does the Bible, and the fact that it is elevated to a higher place than reading & studying scripture and praying to God in a conversational manner instead of rote repetition.

    That said I take your point, but what you are describing isn’t necessarily what I’m talking about.

  9. Clear your mind when you pray?
    Funky.
    Everyone I’ve ever heard– from the Catholic side– says to clear your mind of *distractions* and to contemplate what you’re praying about. Like, say, the stations of the cross:
    http://www.catholic.org/clife/prayers/station.php

    Maybe the difference comes to the purpose of prayer? Generally, I don’t pray to cause a personal relationship with God– I pray to try to align more closely with him. Personal relationship implies some give and take in how one behaves….

  10. Clear your mind when you pray?
    Funky.
    Everyone I’ve ever heard– from the Catholic side– says to clear your mind of *distractions* and to contemplate what you’re praying about. Like, say, the stations of the cross:
    http://www.catholic.org/clife/prayers/station.php

    Maybe the difference comes to the purpose of prayer? Generally, I don’t pray to cause a personal relationship with God– I pray to try to align more closely with him. Personal relationship implies some give and take in how one behaves….

  11. I think ridding yourself of distractions before prayer is helpful.

    I guess when I’m talking about intimacy with God in prayer – it isn’t to “cause” a personal relationship. Jesus does that for us through His death and resurrection. We repent and believe.

    So prayer would be talking to him about what distracts you, your burdens and worries, your joys, etc.

    I do agree with you that prayer is to more closely align ourselves with Him.

  12. I think ridding yourself of distractions before prayer is helpful.

    I guess when I’m talking about intimacy with God in prayer – it isn’t to “cause” a personal relationship. Jesus does that for us through His death and resurrection. We repent and believe.

    So prayer would be talking to him about what distracts you, your burdens and worries, your joys, etc.

    I do agree with you that prayer is to more closely align ourselves with Him.

  13. Ridding your mind of distractions is good, but emptying your mind?
    How can you come before God with your problems with an empty mind?
    It is interesting that the NASB uses meaningless repetition for the ESV’s empty phrases in Matt. 6:7

  14. Ridding your mind of distractions is good, but emptying your mind?
    How can you come before God with your problems with an empty mind?
    It is interesting that the NASB uses meaningless repetition for the ESV’s empty phrases in Matt. 6:7

  15. I guess it boils down to semantics. I think there is a huge element of truth in the Eastern forms of meditation.

    Where they go wrong is probably not in form but in the fact that they are opening themselves up to demonic influence by not recognizing Christ as the focal-point of meditation. If they did the same FORM of meditation but to resonate with Christ instead of some karma-based connection with the Universe, it would work. As a matter of fact, it might be useful to redeem that form of meditation if you were a missionary to a Buddhist or Hindu area of the world.

    You’ve had some great posts the last couple of days, Shane. Keep it up!

  16. I guess it boils down to semantics. I think there is a huge element of truth in the Eastern forms of meditation.

    Where they go wrong is probably not in form but in the fact that they are opening themselves up to demonic influence by not recognizing Christ as the focal-point of meditation. If they did the same FORM of meditation but to resonate with Christ instead of some karma-based connection with the Universe, it would work. As a matter of fact, it might be useful to redeem that form of meditation if you were a missionary to a Buddhist or Hindu area of the world.

    You’ve had some great posts the last couple of days, Shane. Keep it up!

  17. @Andy – my point exactly, you can’t. I think both the ESV and NASB have acceptable renderings, and both really speak to this issue.

    @Eric – I agree that the word meditation needs to be redeemed, but again when Scripture deals with meditation it is more than a mindless, rote chant:

    The Psalmist prays that the meditations of his heart would be pleasing in God’s sight, (Psalm 19:14). It is engaging, not just rote.

    Psalm 49:3: “My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding,” (ESV).

    Where does wisdom come from – God, where does our understanding of God come from His word. So again this is more than just a rote, repetitive chant.

    Also consider:

    “I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD,” (Psalm 104:33-34, ESV).

    So in meditation we praise God as well.

    Then we see in Psalm 119:97-99:

    “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation,”(ESV).

    This is from http://www.gotquestions.org/Christian-meditation.html

    The biblical passages that use the phrase “Christian meditation” are nonexistent. The words meditate and meditation are found about eighteen times in the Old Testament. There are two Hebrew words which are translated “meditate,” found in Genesis 24:63; Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2, and elsewhere. The Hebrew word hagah is given the meaning in the context of these verses “to ponder, imagine, meditate, mourn, speak, study, talk, utter, etc.” Further meaning is given in the Hebrew word aiyach when it is used to mean “to ponder, to converse with oneself, and hence aloud; to utter or commune, complain, declare, meditate, muse, pray, speak, talk with (God in prayer), etc.”

    The word meditation is found in Psalm 5:1; 19:14, and other passages. A familiar verse, Psalm 19:14, states, “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in Thy sight.” The psalmist asks that his words and thoughts be equal. Words of the mouth are a sham if they are not backed up by meditation of the heart.

    Contrary to popular thought in some circles, Christian meditation has nothing to do with any practices that have Eastern mysticism as their foundation or model. Such practices include lectio divina, transcendental meditation, and many forms of what is called contemplative prayer. These have at their core a dangerous premise that we can “hear God’s voice,” not through His Word, but through extra-biblical revelation. Churches are currently filled with people who think they are hearing a “word from the Lord,” often contradicting one another and causing endless wrangling and divisions within the Body of Christ. Nowhere in Scripture are Christians encouraged to seek any wisdom beyond the Bible, which is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If the Bible is sufficient to thoroughly equip us for every good work, how could we think we need to seek a mystical experience in addition to it?

    For the Christian, meditation is to be solely on the Word of God and what it reveals about God. David found this to be so, and he describes the man who is “blessed” as one whose “delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). True Christian meditation is an active thought process (thinking, resolving), whereby we give ourselves to the study of the Word, praying over it and asking God to give us understanding by the Spirit, who lives in the heart of every believer and who has promised to lead us “into all truth” (John 16:13). Then we put this truth into practice, committing ourselves to the Scriptures as the rule for life and practice as we go about our daily activities. This causes spiritual growth and maturing in the things of God as we are taught by His Holy Spirit.

  18. @Andy – my point exactly, you can’t. I think both the ESV and NASB have acceptable renderings, and both really speak to this issue.

    @Eric – I agree that the word meditation needs to be redeemed, but again when Scripture deals with meditation it is more than a mindless, rote chant:

    The Psalmist prays that the meditations of his heart would be pleasing in God’s sight, (Psalm 19:14). It is engaging, not just rote.

    Psalm 49:3: “My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding,” (ESV).

    Where does wisdom come from – God, where does our understanding of God come from His word. So again this is more than just a rote, repetitive chant.

    Also consider:

    “I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD,” (Psalm 104:33-34, ESV).

    So in meditation we praise God as well.

    Then we see in Psalm 119:97-99:

    “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation,”(ESV).

    This is from http://www.gotquestions.org/Christian-meditation.html

    The biblical passages that use the phrase “Christian meditation” are nonexistent. The words meditate and meditation are found about eighteen times in the Old Testament. There are two Hebrew words which are translated “meditate,” found in Genesis 24:63; Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2, and elsewhere. The Hebrew word hagah is given the meaning in the context of these verses “to ponder, imagine, meditate, mourn, speak, study, talk, utter, etc.” Further meaning is given in the Hebrew word aiyach when it is used to mean “to ponder, to converse with oneself, and hence aloud; to utter or commune, complain, declare, meditate, muse, pray, speak, talk with (God in prayer), etc.”

    The word meditation is found in Psalm 5:1; 19:14, and other passages. A familiar verse, Psalm 19:14, states, “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in Thy sight.” The psalmist asks that his words and thoughts be equal. Words of the mouth are a sham if they are not backed up by meditation of the heart.

    Contrary to popular thought in some circles, Christian meditation has nothing to do with any practices that have Eastern mysticism as their foundation or model. Such practices include lectio divina, transcendental meditation, and many forms of what is called contemplative prayer. These have at their core a dangerous premise that we can “hear God’s voice,” not through His Word, but through extra-biblical revelation. Churches are currently filled with people who think they are hearing a “word from the Lord,” often contradicting one another and causing endless wrangling and divisions within the Body of Christ. Nowhere in Scripture are Christians encouraged to seek any wisdom beyond the Bible, which is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If the Bible is sufficient to thoroughly equip us for every good work, how could we think we need to seek a mystical experience in addition to it?

    For the Christian, meditation is to be solely on the Word of God and what it reveals about God. David found this to be so, and he describes the man who is “blessed” as one whose “delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). True Christian meditation is an active thought process (thinking, resolving), whereby we give ourselves to the study of the Word, praying over it and asking God to give us understanding by the Spirit, who lives in the heart of every believer and who has promised to lead us “into all truth” (John 16:13). Then we put this truth into practice, committing ourselves to the Scriptures as the rule for life and practice as we go about our daily activities. This causes spiritual growth and maturing in the things of God as we are taught by His Holy Spirit.

  19. Here are some NASB verses with meditate as the translation…

    Jos 1:8
    “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous , and then you will have success .
    Ps 4:4
    Tremble, and do not sin; Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still . Selah.
    Ps 27:4
    One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life , To behold the beauty of the LORD And to meditate in His temple.
    Ps 63:6
    When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches,
    Ps 77:6
    I will remember my song in the night; I will meditate with my heart, And my spirit ponders:
    Ps 77:12
    I will meditate on all Your work And muse on Your deeds.
    Ps 119:15
    I will meditate on Your precepts And regard Your ways.
    Ps 119:27
    Make me understand the way of Your precepts, So I will meditate on Your wonders.
    Ps 119:48
    And I shall lift up my hands to Your commandments, Which I love; And I will meditate on Your statutes. Zayin.
    Ps 119:78
    May the arrogant be ashamed, for they subvert me with a lie; But I shall meditate on Your precepts.
    Ps 119:148
    My eyes anticipate the night watches, That I may meditate on Your word .
    Ps 143:5
    I remember the days of old ; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands.
    Ps 145:5
    On the glorious splendor of Your majesty And on Your wonderful works, I will meditate.

    Obviously there is the mention of meditating on the law…but there is also meditation on works, in the temple (on what?) doings, word, wonders, etc. How do I meditate on God’s majesty..by the word definition or upon what I visualize that majesty means? Where do those images come from?

    Is repeating the name of the Son of God (Anglicized of course) constitute a meaningless phrase? It’s one thing to use lots of theological words, plaintive words, begging words to get what you want…but “Jesus”

    If the Gentiles were the ones with the meaningless phrases…what about the Jewish tradition–Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One repeated day after day…what was that about? The Psalm that keeps repeating “His love endures forever…” Meaningless?

    The quoted article..”we hear from the Spirit” That’s not mystical? How is it that the words enter into us and give meaning?

    Pray continually…what does it mean to have such an ongoing connection with God?

    Just some thoughts…

  20. Here are some NASB verses with meditate as the translation…

    Jos 1:8
    “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous , and then you will have success .
    Ps 4:4
    Tremble, and do not sin; Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still . Selah.
    Ps 27:4
    One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life , To behold the beauty of the LORD And to meditate in His temple.
    Ps 63:6
    When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches,
    Ps 77:6
    I will remember my song in the night; I will meditate with my heart, And my spirit ponders:
    Ps 77:12
    I will meditate on all Your work And muse on Your deeds.
    Ps 119:15
    I will meditate on Your precepts And regard Your ways.
    Ps 119:27
    Make me understand the way of Your precepts, So I will meditate on Your wonders.
    Ps 119:48
    And I shall lift up my hands to Your commandments, Which I love; And I will meditate on Your statutes. Zayin.
    Ps 119:78
    May the arrogant be ashamed, for they subvert me with a lie; But I shall meditate on Your precepts.
    Ps 119:148
    My eyes anticipate the night watches, That I may meditate on Your word .
    Ps 143:5
    I remember the days of old ; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands.
    Ps 145:5
    On the glorious splendor of Your majesty And on Your wonderful works, I will meditate.

    Obviously there is the mention of meditating on the law…but there is also meditation on works, in the temple (on what?) doings, word, wonders, etc. How do I meditate on God’s majesty..by the word definition or upon what I visualize that majesty means? Where do those images come from?

    Is repeating the name of the Son of God (Anglicized of course) constitute a meaningless phrase? It’s one thing to use lots of theological words, plaintive words, begging words to get what you want…but “Jesus”

    If the Gentiles were the ones with the meaningless phrases…what about the Jewish tradition–Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One repeated day after day…what was that about? The Psalm that keeps repeating “His love endures forever…” Meaningless?

    The quoted article..”we hear from the Spirit” That’s not mystical? How is it that the words enter into us and give meaning?

    Pray continually…what does it mean to have such an ongoing connection with God?

    Just some thoughts…

  21. Hey Randy, good thoughts. I appreciate the pushback. I’m not against all liturgy, and I don’t agree with the article quoted above in its entirety. I do think we can hear from God.

    I just have a big issue with “emptying our minds.” While the name of Jesus is powerful… I think meditation means so much more than that.

  22. Hey Randy, good thoughts. I appreciate the pushback. I’m not against all liturgy, and I don’t agree with the article quoted above in its entirety. I do think we can hear from God.

    I just have a big issue with “emptying our minds.” While the name of Jesus is powerful… I think meditation means so much more than that.

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