What If Silence, Mystery, and Love Are All We’ve Got?

“You’re not an evangelical anymore, are you?”

The question caught me off guard. To be honest, I almost replied, “Of course I still am!”

But then if you compare the sorts of things I write about with the kinds of “evangelicals” who get quoted in news stories or who make a splash in the headlines, it’s understandable why there is some confusion. From the political court evangelicals that apologize for their favorite politicians, to the Bible teachers who promise answers and solutions, to the self-help Christian authors who focus on helping people with their busy, cluttered lives, I don’t feel like I fit in much with this group at times.

Of course, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about labels and my identity within a particular group. Who even has time to keep up with all of the latest feuds, fads, and fits among evangelicals?

I’m primarily concerned with remaining faithful to where God has called me to be and avoiding the foolish extremes that I have mistakenly adopted in the past. I don’t want to exchange one set of judgmental dogmatism for another.

It’s tempting to debate whether certain folks are too progressive, not progressive enough, truly evangelical, or traitors to what evangelical used to mean. I’ve gone down that rabbit hole plenty of times.

Once you go down that rabbit hole enough times and find out that it hasn’t done anyone much good, it’s understandable that you’d begin searching for alternatives. Is there another way to exist as a Christian without defining yourself against someone else?

I think this is why I distinguish my own evangelicalism today from my previous anxious evangelicalism. As an anxious evangelical I needed something to defend, a group to defend, and a person to attack.

As I continue to step into my journey into contemplative prayer, I’m far less certain about particular answers I used to rely on, but my faith is also far more secure. As if answers were a prerequisite for faith in the first place!

I won’t say that we only have silence, mystery, and love, but these three things sure feel like they take up a lot of my time right now, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they were all we had to go on.

Silence before God because there’s so much I don’t know, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes when I let my mouth run.

Mystery because it’s true that purity of heart and obedient action are important, but those serve as starting points before the mystery of God.

Love because the love of the Father and love for neighbor were the two highest priorities of Jesus, and when we finally surrender ourselves in silence to the mystery of God and confess our inadequacies, we will find loving presence more often than we’ll find solutions.

Who knows what else God may bring into our lives or what else may speak to us. I’m not concerned about being dogmatic about this. Rather, these words are three of the most important sign posts that I’ve found as a kind of evangelical refugee.

Truth be told, silence, mystery, and love can be found in the roots of the evangelical movement. They are often obscured by other causes and priorities. They’re easy to miss if you don’t hold a place for them and let God quietly work through them.

They don’t contradict the Bible, but they do call for a different way of considering it and using it.

They don’t neglect the cross, but can exist without scrutinizing of the mechanics of salvation and atonement theories.

They don’t prevent us from sharing the Good News, but they offer a very conceptions of sharing the loving presence of God with others.

They can appeal to many of the commitments of evangelicals, but they also don’t feed the modern movement’s anxious, defensive tendencies.

Silence, mystery, and love may not be “ALL” that Christians have today, but they can prove foundational for making space for God’s love, remaining open to the what God is speaking, and allowing God to transform us into his beloved people.

These three things can calm our anxiety about God and our Christian “commitment” could be delivered from the endless temptation to measure and to report progress.

Embracing these three things haven’t produced an immediate life-changing revolution that  left my life unrecognizable. Rather, they are part of a lifelong process of becoming aware of God and allowing God to transform my life. I’ll take my chances on the fruit that comes from the slow and steady presence of God.

Do I Pray for the Wrong Reasons?

I can easily haul my issues with my identity or my personal pursuit of happiness or contentment right into my prayer time. Questions start popping up in my mind:

Am I doing this contemplative prayer thing right?

Do I have good results from my prayer?

Do I have a greater sense of God’s presence?

Present throughout all of these questions is the lingering false self that seeks an outward marker of identity. Even becoming someone who prays, and prays well, can become a kind of false identity marker.

I write in my book Flee, Be Silent, Pray that American evangelicals like myself are especially driven by results and outcomes. What can you measure? What can you point at to validate your work or practices? This mentality creeps into a kind of success-driven approach to spirituality.

Thankfully, Thomas Merton is on the case. He cuts through our misguided motivations. Rather than offering one slick promise to replace another, he points us into the direction of mystery and complete faith in God.

This isn’t a spirituality that dangles the hope of discovering purpose, living a super story, or even finding peace. Merton points us to mystery so that we can live out of our authentic identity in God as his beloved children. Perhaps we will find some of those things after they have been pried out of our hands and we learn to cling to Christ alone, but those are afterthoughts rather than the focus.

Here is what Merton writes for those of us seeking to become contemplatives or to derive happiness from contemplation:

“Another law of the contemplative life is that if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or worse still, happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced. And again, this means renouncing the illusory self that seeks to be ‘happy’ and to find ‘fulfillment’ (whatever that may mean) in contemplation. For the contemplative and spiritual self, the dormant, mysterious, and hidden self that is always effaced by the activity of our exterior self does not seek fulfillment. It is content to be, and in its being it is fulfilled, because its being is rooted in God.”

Thomas Merton. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, p. 2.

Simple Advice for Christians: Trust Your Instincts

warning-sign

If a leader is too combative and controlling, there’s a reason for that.

If a spiritual teacher keeps giving you tasks and obligations, you’re not learning spirituality or how to abide in Christ.

If a theology system makes God sound like a monster, then you’re not learning about the God who is love.

If you are fearful of God, then your teachers and guides are in error.

You aren’t crazy. Trust your instincts.

Christianity shouldn’t be a series of inconsistencies and shocking incongruities to be accepted at face value.

There should be mystery and uncertainty when encountering the divine, but if you’re repeatedly running into one red flag after another, you can stop explaining away the obvious problems or treating them as inevitable.

You can stop listening to the leaders who demand the acceptance of inconsistencies.

If a system of theology appears to be controlling, oppressive, and harmful, then trust your instincts.

Ask questions, seek the wisdom of trustworthy women and men with more experience, and explore other traditions and perspectives within the faith. What you find may surprise you.

There’s a good chance that other people have already asked the same questions and raised the same concerns.

My faith has evolved from assenting to a doctrinal checklist to consenting to the loving presence of God without any expectations or demands.

My hands are no longer clutching lists of things to do or inconsistent doctrinal statements that require defending.

When all is well, my hands are open, ready to receive from God.

I’m still angry some days at the Christian machine with its demands, obligations, and hoops to jump through. I forget that God is present, views me as a beloved child, and desires that I share this love with others.

At the very least, I can approach each day with the relief that I’m not crazy, that so many of my instincts about Christianity have led me toward a more loving and generous spiritual practice.

I don’t have to run from questions, doubts, uncertainties, and incongruities. There is a lot that I’m still sorting out and recovering from, but the survival of my faith no longer rests in defending insufficient answers to eternally complex questions.

I can rest in the mysterious presence of God with open hands and a mind that is no longer trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

 

Evangelicals Lack the Language for Slow Transformation

Evangelicals know about discipleship, which is often synonymous with accountability and learning.

Evangelicals know about conversion and revival, going from blindness to sight.

Evangelicals don’t have language for slow, gradual transformation. It’s not surprising then that we generally lack the practices that can lead to slow transformation.

I love the charismatic gifts and teachings. I’ve had intense moments that were deeply transforming and meaningful.

I’ve also wondered, “Now what?” after the moment passes.

I’ve immersed myself in Bible study and had life-changing insights as the Spirit used the scriptures to reshape my thinking and choices. I’ve also hit the point where I’ve felt like I’m just cramming information into my brain and God appears distant, if not non-existent.

My own assessment of my place in the evangelical subculture is that I have lacked the language and guidance into the full spiritual tradition of the Christian faith. I have found renewed hope by taking part in the contemplative tradition.

Incorporating the contemplative tradition isn’t a contemporary trend of self-help spirituality or a complete replacement of Bible study, revival, or the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. By bringing contemplation into my daily spiritual practice, I’m putting something into place that should have never been lost in the first place.

While my evangelical tradition looks for revivals and enlightening moments, the contemplative tradition warns us against seeking frequent spiritual highs. These “highs” can become obstacles in the loving pursuit of God. Yes, intimate moments with God can happen, but God is present in both the silence of waiting and in the intense awareness of God’s love.

While my evangelical tradition tends to put pressure on us to seek God and to make spiritual epiphanies happen, the contemplative tradition teaches us to rest, to be still before the Lord, and to wait for his salvation.

While my charismatic background puts great emphasis on dramatic moments of deliverance and conversion, the contemplative tradition gives a space for the slow work of transformation as we place ourselves in the loving care of the Holy Spirit day-in, day-out.

Sitting in silence before God remains jarring to my evangelical sensibilities where so much emphasis was placed on study, praying with fervent sincerity, and working toward measurable results or spiritual emotions. The contemplative tradition gives me a basic spiritual practice of 20-30 minutes of silent prayer before God and few immediately measurable results—although the impact of this type of prayer is very apparent over the course of time.

This is the slow transformation that occurs through contemplative prayer. It isn’t the type of thing you can share during a testimony service on Sunday evening. It’s hard work, forcing us to face our darkness, our false selves, and our fears. The “results” take time to materialize, and even when they do, they often end up being things like, “I’m more compassionate toward others” or “I’m more aware of God’s love and presence daily.”

These are surely good things, but they’re not going to turn heads during testimony time. However, these are the practices that have carried me through the silence, the lows and highs, and the anxiety of life. They have grounded me and given me a place to rest in God when the revival folded and the emotions dried up.

God so loved the world…

Be still and know that he is Lord…

Wait on the Lord…

The Lord is gracious and compassionate…

These are the words we can turn to in silence each day in faith and hope.

Can We Offer Hope to a Chaotic World by Withdrawing? A Parable

Imagine a deep rushing stream that flows in between mountains.

People from every background are floating down the stream together, some in kayaks and canoes, others in tubes.

The rushing water is swift and occasionally dangerous, but the majority of people pass by safely, even if they have plenty of anxiety about what’s coming around the next bend.

Some have lashed themselves to each other. Others float in small clusters. Whether in large groups or small groups, everyone is talking, always talking.

When the stream settles to a tranquil flow and the boats and tubes barely move along, the talking grows louder and louder. It echoes off the rock walls lining the stream. The only relief to the talking is the rushing water that sends everyone zipping downstream and prompts them to consider what awaits them around the next bend.

At a particularly quiet stretch of the river the stream splits to go around an island. The island is large for a river of this size. A woman of indeterminate age stands on the shore waving to all who pass by.

Some have paddled over to her island to speak with her as they float past.  She is a curiosity. Perhaps she has gained some wisdom by stepping out of the stream, but who can possibly step away from the stream for so long? Who has the time? There is so much more of the river to explore.

Others dig their paddles and hands into the water, splashing water furiously to avoid her at all costs.

A few have left the stream to spend a longer time on her island.

The woman leaves the water’s edge frequently to rest in the shade of the pine trees. She had once traveled on this river. The rush of the river still whispers to her. The movement had been addicting. It took a supernatural willpower to take those first steps out of the stream so many sunsets ago.

Day after day, she stands by the water’s edge to speak with the people floating by, rests in the shade of the trees, and then emerges when she has been restored.

A few stay on her island, learning from her. They spend long days imitating her until the days no stop appearing long. Eventually, they become themselves. It is a moment without fanfare or epiphanies. No one taught them how to be who they are because they had always been themselves. The river kept them from seeing it. There had been so much to talk about and to anticipate. The silence of the island taught them.

Over time, those who have learned from the woman venture into the center of the island where they had stowed away their boats long ago. They do this reluctantly and with a measure of trepidation. But they have a renewed sense of mission. They have faced who they are, and over time they have enlarged their compassion for those who have been floating down the stream. Do they know who they are? Do they know why they are on this stream?

Some will float down to another island to speak with the people just as the woman has done. Others will hop from shoreline to shoreline, floating and speaking before withdrawing to become grounded in who they are, lest the stream sweep them away with the talking and worrying about what is around the next bend.

As they paddle away from the woman’s island, she welcomes a man who has paddled over reluctantly. Perhaps a little rest on this island could help ease his mind. Perhaps this woman can answer some of the questions he’s been unable to ask when so many people are talking on the river.

He stumbles over the slippery rocks along the shore as he pulls his kayak over. His paddle falls into the water and he stubs his toe as he snatches it out of the water. Nothing is graceful about this exit from the water.

Finally, he crunches onto the solid gravel beach of the island where the woman is waiting. After he drags his boat onto the shore, he realizes that the woman has been speaking to him all of this time. When did she start speaking to him? It’s as if she’d been giving him this message for all of eternity, before he was born and it will continue long after he is gone.

Spinning around, he faces her, but he can’t hear her over the stream.

He steps closer, and she smiles, raising her arms to embrace him.

“Welcome. You are loved.”

Resting Takes a Lot of Work?

Blue-Sky-finding center

A month ago I set off on an 11-hour drive to speak at a Writing Retreat that my friend Andi hosts each year. The prior three weeks had been an all-out sprint to keep up with client projects while my wife was on a research trip, release a book, prepare for the retreat, and catch up on client work a little more.

This was the final stretch of a month-long sprint, and my mind and body were BUZZING.

Energy, stress, anxiety, and who knows what else left me feeling desperate, sad, and a bit unhinged. How in the world could I speak about writing without crushing your soul at this retreat in a state like this?

I needed silence: a lot of it.

I breathed deeply. I centered on a prayer word. I let go of any thought that wasn’t related to avoiding trucks and finding Dunkin Donuts coffee.

Starting north of Nashville, I sat in silence for long stretches all the way across I-40.

When I reached Knoxville, I had listened to a few short podcasts (thanks to Anne Bogel’s “What Should I Read Next”!), but the unsettled buzzing in my mind continued.

Over the rolling hills and mountains of Virginia I continued to breathe deeply for the entire stretch of I-81.

Finally, turning toward Charlottesville, I sensed something settle.

Since I was arriving about an hour later than I had intended, I passed up a scenic overlook along the highway. I immediately regretted this. The mountains were spectacular at this pass. Why was I so determined to pass up beauty for the sake of a clock?

I just about jumped out of my seat when another scenic overlook showed up five miles later. I pulled into the lonely rest area and just about fell over with the silent majesty of these mountains.

The words of Jacob came to mind: “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’”

This thin moment before the mountains was its own gate of heaven, delighting in creation. Nothing particularly spectacular or spiritual happened. I had found my center, a place of rest in God that wasn’t at the mercy of my circumstances so that I could enjoy what was before me.

How many times in the past have I been running on empty or burned out, but I’ve pushed on, believing that I just needed to get through it?

How many times have I passed up beauty, rest, and restoration because I didn’t understand the value of silence or finding my center?

How often have I missed the silent beauty of God because I didn’t know how much work it is to be still and know that he is God?

Contemplative prayer has taught me about the paradox of resting in God. I don’t naturally choose rest, and I honestly need to work at resting. I have to fight for my rest by choosing silence when everything in my body craved distraction and noise.  Resting in God takes practice and intention.

I Used to Pray to a Passive-Aggressive God

church-prayer

The Psalms tell us to wait patiently on the Lord. I used to read that as a kind of passive-aggressive move on God’s part. Here I was, desperate for God, waiting and praying with all of my heart. Would it kill him to show up when I pray?

After learning about and practicing contemplative prayer, I realized I had everything completely backwards. God has been waiting for us all along, but we are often too distracted, impatient, or fearful to be present for him. In addition, a “present God” may not bring about the emotions and experiences we expect.

God’s love is here and constant, and there is nothing I can do or feel to change that reality. I can ignore it or obstruct it, but I can’t stop it.

Learning to pray isn’t about turning on the tap of God’s love. Rather, learning to pray is about training ourselves to be present for the love of God that is already at work in our lives.

Evangelical anxiety tells us that prayer isn’t working because there must be something wrong with us.

Evangelical anxiety focuses on results and progress, but God is more concerned about loving presence.

Contemplative prayer has taught me that God’s love is present and that I need only seek God in order to pray. I may have an epiphany, but I most likely will not. God’s love is steady and constant, and many days I have to settle for taking that on faith.

Focusing on my feelings and experiences have been my greatest barriers to contemplative prayer. I have had to completely shut down my anxious evangelical tendency toward measuring and proving my spiritual vitality and worth.

François Fénelon wrote, “How will you go on to maturity if you are always seeking the consolation of feeling the presence of God with you? To seek pleasure and to ignore the cross will not get you very far. You will soon be trapped in the pursuit of spiritual pleasures” (100 Days in the Secret Place, 11).

The journey into contemplative prayer calls on us to think differently of God and of ourselves. Very little depends on us. The spiritual “work” we do in contemplative prayer is very different from the spirituality of many evangelicals who are bogged down with lists of beliefs, practices, and activities that we must do to pursue holiness or the presence of God.

We’re never doing enough to win God’s love or to achieve any kind of lasting life transformation. How could we? God’s love is already ours, and until we learn how to simply receive it, we’ll get stuck in an anxious rut of performance, failure, and struggle.

The first step in many spiritual practices such as the Examen and centering prayer is a simple acknowledgement that God is present. That is so very different from my assumptions as an evangelical Christian who used phrases like, “I’m waiting for God to show up.” Theologically I could explain divine omnipotence, but practically, I struggled to believe that God was truly present with me and, most importantly, loving me right in that moment without preconditions.

This is the true prayer of a little child in the Kingdom. If you can only call out, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” in faith and reliance, then you can pray. My own pride and hopes for spiritual advancement kept me from seeing how badly I needed to become like a little child in prayer.

 

This post is taken from my book

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

Read more by downloading it for $2.99 today

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What Would God Shout at You from a Cloud?

In the Gospel of Matthew, there are two instances where a cloud appears over Jesus and God shouts two brief, identical messages. I have often wondered what God would shout at me in a similar situation.

Honestly, I tend to think God would shout negative things at me. I imagine God telling me to stop doing something or to do more of something. In either case, the message would focus on the ways I’m falling short and have been inadequate.

I have struggled to imagine a loving and merciful God. It’s much easier to imagine a God who is either disappointed or really, really angry.

Bringing up this disappointed/angry image of God with people tends to strike a nerve.

What would God shout at you?  

volunteer more!

spend less money!

stop obsessing about your body image!

share the Gospel more!

stop lusting!

help more people in need!

read the Bible more!

pray more!

go to a different church!

spend less time on social media!

We can’t imagine that God the Father is for us and loves us. We can only imagine God showing up in a cloud and telling us to get our acts together, to start doing something different.

God the Father isn’t typically imagined as being on our side. God the Father is somehow joined with Jesus in the Trinity but remains disappointed in us and in need of a blood sacrifice to make us acceptable in his sight, working out a loophole in his infinite holiness and justice.

Before Jesus launched his ministry and before Jesus ventured to Jerusalem where he would be killed and then rise from the dead, God the Father spoke the same message over Jesus:

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:16-17

 “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Matthew 17:5

On both occasions, God the Father affirmed the Son. On the first occasion Jesus had not even started his ministry.

I have tended to write off the significance of these moments between the Father and the Son. However, I now think that this was a big mistake on my part.

Jesus came to unite us with God, adopting us in God’s family. Paul writes that our identity is hidden away in Christ. In the midst of this union with Christ, we dare not overlook the love of God for us that goes beyond our comprehension:

“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17-19

Through the ministry of Jesus and our union with him, we have a new way of thinking about God. If God is our Father through our union with the Son, then it isn’t far-fetched to say that God’s first thought of us is love and a desire for deeper union with us. God desires to heal, redeem, and restore his children.

Failing to believe that I am a child of God is the most important obstacle for prayer. Once I believe that God loves and accepts me like Jesus is loved and accepted, prayer becomes a moment to rest in God’s love rather than a game of hide and go seek with God or a proving ground for my spirituality.

For years, I doubted God’s love for me, and my struggles with prayer served as validation for those doubts.

Beginning with the foundational teaching of God’s love and acceptance for his children made it possible to rest in God’s presence and to trust in his love for me. I was finally able to participate in the silence of contemplative prayer that seeks to lovingly gaze at and adore God the Father.

Contemplative prayer relies on resting in this love as the first step in prayer, letting all other distractions fall away in order to be still in God’s presence.

Imagining a God who calls down to us with loving messages before we’ve done a single thing can revolutionize how we pray. This was the God that Jesus wanted to reveal to us, and this is the God that we can pray to when we turn to him in silent adoration.

Take a First Step in Contemplative Prayer

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

 

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N | iBooks

 

Is There Hope for Anxious, Doubting, and Burned Out Christians?

If you’re a Christian who is burned out, falling flat, discouraged, struggling, or doubtful, I have a suggestion based on my own experiences. This suggestion may or may not help, but just consider it for a moment.

What if Christianity is bound to fail you no matter how often you say sincere prayers, no matter how hard you study the Bible, no matter what theology you adopt, no matter how often you attend church, and no matter how sincerely you commit to follow Jesus?

What if your faith can only survive if you approach God in a different way?

I don’t necessarily want to undermine practices such as Bible study, attending church, or praying sincerely. These are all good things in their place. However, one can lean too heavily on these practices, expecting them to provide what they cannot, and then burning out as you continue to come up empty.

That’s where I found myself when I first attended a church service during my seminary days that introduced contemplative prayer, sitting in silent adoration of God. I struggled to sit in silence, I recited the prayers, nothing seemed to happen, and so I gave in to despair for a season.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to see the rich contemplative tradition of the church that teaches the practice of daily silence in order to rest in God, trusting God to work in us. The contemplative tradition of the church teaches that we cannot earn God’s favor or make God love us more. God has already sent Jesus to us out of his deep love for us, and in Jesus we become his sons and daughters.

The foundation of Christianity is God’s love for us. If we miss that, everything else will be a chore, struggle, or burden.

Contemplative prayer doesn’t seek to prove anything or to produce a particular emotion or experience. By sitting in silence and reciting a simple word like “mercy” or “beloved,” we step away from any other thought or conception of ourselves so that we may be present for God.

Over time, contemplative prayer can shift our understandings of ourselves, seeing ourselves as we are as God’s beloved children. We can also develop a greater capacity of love for other people as we learn to see them as God sees them.

There is an effort to remove distractions in contemplative prayer, but it’s not up to me to produce a spiritual transformation. I can’t save my soul or make myself more loving. I can only rest in God and enter God’s presence with faith that he is faithful in caring for his children.

When the love of God comes first, I no longer have to prove myself or work to find God’s love. God’s love is something to rest in and to gradually experience over time, rather than something I have to frantically or anxiously work for.

Out of a foundation of God’s love, the Christian faith becomes restorative and regenerative. We all come to God with our struggles, baggage, and religious backgrounds that can complicate matters.

There aren’t simple formulas and I never want to suggest that contemplative prayer is a quick fix. Rather, this is a lifelong practice that is challenging to learn and requires a significant commitment. Monks would devote their entire lives to this practice of contemplation, so one can hardly jump into it after a kind of short term boot camp.

I can’t speak for every person or situation, but I do know that the people who have passed through similar seasons as my own share similar experiences of God’s love and presence. Contemplative prayer isn’t the only way to make ourselves aware of God’s love, but it has a strong tradition that is rooted in the history of the church. This is hardly a gimmick or a “culturally relevant trend.”

If everything else in Christianity has left you uncertain, anxious, or struggling to believe in God, you may not have anything to lose.

What if God loved you deeply and completely as a beloved child?

What if you only need to take that love on faith and rest in it?

 

Learn More about Contemplative Prayer

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N | iBooks

Is Contemplative Prayer Dangerous? Evangelicals and the Fear of Contemplation

I first learned about contemplative prayer from Christian radio shows, particularly, the dangers of contemplative practices such as centering prayer. Mind you, Christian radio shows told me that lots of things were dangerous and wrong, such as Catholics, liberals, and Harry Potter.

The Bible study expert on this call-in show railed against contemplative prayer because it made two grave mistakes:

  1. Contemplative prayer borrows from Eastern Religion.
  2. Contemplative prayer empties the mind and leaves it vulnerable to demonic influences.

Ten years after hearing these warnings, I finally practiced contemplative prayer and found both assessments to be inaccurate.

My book Flee, Be Silent, Pray shares my journey out of anxious evangelicalism and the many barriers to this ancient Christian prayer practice. I still consider myself an evangelical today, at least in its historic sense, but I have come to rely on this interior prayer tradition that relies on God’s indwelling Spirit as the bedrock of my spirituality. Far from emptying one’s mind in a pointless manner, contemplation aims to remove distracting thoughts in order to adore God and to surrender to God’s presence. Some have said that the “prayer” of contemplation is God’s work in us.

Arriving at a point where I was willing to try contemplative prayer required a season of spiritual despair and a major rethinking of Christian spiritual practices. It wasn’t easy to overcome my fears of contemplative prayer and the significant misinformation available, and I wanted to offer a few explanations for evangelicals who may be fearful of contemplative prayer or uncertain about the benefits of this spiritual practice.

Few Christian Contemplative Prayer Mentors and Models

I don’t blame church leaders for passing along anxious evangelicalism, and it’s hard to get too angry at the radio personalities who misrepresented it. They all lacked mentors and models to guide them in contemplative prayer.

I became more open to contemplative prayer after a pastor from my seminary introduced me to several contemplative practices. If I had access to contemplative prayer training like I had access to Bible study training, I would have certainly embraced it and benefitted from it sooner. It remains challenging to find spiritual directors for many seeking to practice contemplative prayer.

Unnecessary Animosity Toward Catholics

While contemplative prayer has a robust presence outside of Catholicism in the Orthodox and Anglican/Episcopal traditions, many of the leading contemplative authors are Catholics. Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and Thomas Keating are all Catholics who are widely read and sought-after, and Keating’s Contemplative Outreach network has made significant strides in spreading contemplative practices such as centering prayer.

Evangelicals who are already jumpy or wary about Catholics will have a hard time trusting what they say about contemplative prayer. In some cases, evangelicals may treat Catholicism as a completely different religion altogether. When I compare a visit to a cathedral vs. a suburban megachurch, I suppose I can see where they’re coming from. While I remain a committed evangelical, Catholic writers have provided some of the most constructive spiritual direction in my life.

Misinformation about Contemplation Prayer

Despite all of the misinformation about contemplative prayer, the truth is that the Christian contemplative tradition dates back well into the 300’s, making it as old or older than the final New Testament canon. The practitioners of contemplative prayer also saw their practices as deeply dependent on scripture.

The tax collector’s prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” formed the foundation of prayer used by many contemplatives in the desert who meditated on this prayer while going about their work. Contemplative prayer, which is entered into through a practice such as centering prayer, uses a simple word to teach the mind and body to be still before God. Just as Jesus told his followers to enter a private room to pray, centering prayer helps practitioners enter the secret place of prayer.

Contemplative Prayer Defies Explanation

The authors of contemplative prayer books are generally hesitant to describe what goes on during contemplative prayer. It’s a private, intimate moment of communion with God. Most importantly, descriptions of this type of prayer tend to fall short because it isn’t an intellectual or analytical practice.

That may be an instant turn off for evangelicals, but it’s also an essential point of caution about dismissing contemplative prayer. Can you dismiss something as dangerous based on the hearsay of people who aren’t even engaged in practicing it in the first place?

Leaders Cannot Control Contemplative Prayer

Christian leaders have attacked contemplatives on and off for centuries, banning their books and threatening contemplatives with prison, exile, or death. The more concentrated church power became, the more it opposed contemplation. This type of prayer is beyond the scope of leadership’s control because it is interior and personal, even if it is cultivated and supported in community or through spiritual direction.

Throughout church history the mystical expressions have either come under attack or been conveniently forgotten in place of the easier controlled dogmas and doctrines.

It’s Impossible to Measure the Results of Contemplative Prayer

I can tell when I have missed time practicing contemplative prayer, but I can’t exactly tell you what the “results” of contemplative prayer are. They are difficult to quantify, such as a greater awareness of myself and of God. These aren’t the typical measuring sticks that evangelicals are used to in their talks about spiritual growth and holiness.

It’s true that those who practice contemplative prayer will enjoy a greater awareness of God’s love and will, therefore turn away from sin. In fact, this growth in holiness is an essential aspect of contemplative prayer, but it defies the simple formulas that evangelicals use in testimonies. Since contemplative prayer relies on God’s indwelling Spirit to guide us into prayer, the transforming that happens is also a fully miraculous work of God’s Spirit that we cannot define on our own.

Contemplative Prayer Relies on Tradition, Not Chapter and Verse

It’s true that contemplative prayer relies on the indwelling Spirit and has roots in scripture, but practices, such as centering prayer, are passed down through traditions, not chapter and verse. That not only means many evangelicals lack access to contemplative teachings, but they are naturally suspicious of them.

While there are many Bible experts saying that contemplative prayer is dangerous, there have been few mentors in evangelical circles who can counter that narrative. In addition, contemplative prayer isn’t the kind of spiritual practice you can sample or test to get quantifiable results of any kind. Rather, contemplative prayer is a long-term practice where it’s impact will be gradually noticed over time. It may take a while to reach that point as well!

Beginning Contemplative Prayer Takes Practice

My early days of contemplative practice were agonizing as I confronted all of my negative thoughts and learned how to practice silence before God. It ran counter to everything I’d learned about prayer as an evangelical. In contemplative prayer I had to let go of control, completely surrendering to God’s loving presence rather than pleading with a supposedly disinterested deity.

I didn’t have incredible spiritual experiences, and the actual “rest” or peace with God didn’t come until I had a better grasp of how to approach silence before God. I felt the void of not having a spiritual mentor at the beginning who could guide me into this spiritual practice. Websites such as Contemplative Outreach became a lifeline over the years, as well as other spirituality apps that guided me into the practice of daily silence and surrender before God.

Take a First Step in Contemplative Prayer

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:

Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

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