June 4, 2015
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, has long been beloved by many evangelicals. Over the course of his ministry, he has somehow managed to deftly please both liberal and conservative Christians alike. He has been hailed as a leader among the Reformed movement. His books can be found on the tables of conferences everywhere.
And yet, over time, some have grown increasingly concerned about Keller. Of particular interest is Keller’s obvious affinity for the contemplative. Even a cursory glance at the website of Redeemer Presbyterian leads one to the conclusion that Keller encourages Christians to engage in contemplative prayer practices.
Says Christian Research Network:
Contemplative prayer (also referred to as centering prayer, breath prayer, meditation or listening prayer) is one of the most esteemed spiritual disciplines taught in spiritual formation. In both practice and purpose, contemplative prayer stands in contrast with what Scripture teaches about prayer. (Source)
Articles appearing on the website of Redeemer Presbyterian include such titles as “Meditation: Not So Mysterious” by Jan Johnson and “First, You Listen: Discover the Key to Learning What’s On God’s Heart” by Lee Brase. What are these teachings, are they biblical, and why are they being promoted by a top “Reformed” evangelical leader? The first two questions may be answered with easily determinable fact. The final question, of course, can only be answered by speculation. The reader is urged, then, to take the information that follows and draw his own informed conclusions, not merely about Keller or Redeemer Presbyterian, but about the practices that are described.
For the purposes of space, this particular post will explore Jan Johnson and her article, “Meditation: Not So Mysterious,” however Brase’s article teaching the reader how to “listen” for God could be approached with many of the same arguments discussed below.
On her website, Jan Johnson describes herself thusly:
I am a writer, speaker and spiritual director who holds degrees in Christian education and spirituality. I’ve enjoyed writing seventeen books, including Enjoying the Presence of God, When the Soul Listens, and many magazine articles. I’m also a frequent retreat and conference speaker. (Source)
She further declares that everything about which she writes or speaks “flows out of” the three areas of spiritual formation, partners “with God in caring for the voiceless,” and lives “with purposeful intentionality.” She claims to be a spiritual director who was trained in the discipline at Stillpoint: The Center for Christian Spirituality in Pasadena, CA. Stillpoint’s mission statement reads in part:
Stillpoint is an open and inclusive community that exists to form and train excellent, deeply grounded spiritual directors, and to live together into a deeper contemplative life of faith, spiritual practice, and action. (Source)
They define “spiritual direction” as follows:
Spiritual direction is an ancient ministry, a unique one-to-one relationship in which a trained person assists another person in the search for an ever-closer union of love with God. (Source)
In her book, When the Soul Listens: Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer, Johnson describes the practice of contemplative prayer this way:
Contemplative prayer, in its simplest form, is prayer in which you still your thoughts and emotions and focus on God Himself. This puts you in a better state to be aware of God’s presence, and it makes you better able to hear God’s voice correcting, guiding, and directing you…. The fundamental idea is simply to enjoy the companionship of God, stilling your own thoughts so you can listen should God choose to speak. For this reason, contemplative prayer is sometimes referred to as ‘the prayer of silence.’
(Jan Johnson, When the Soul Listens: Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer, [NavPress: 1999])
Here, then, is the background from which Jan Johnson teaches on meditation. In her article published on the Redeemer Presbyterian website, Johnson instructs the reader on the practice of meditation.
One of the best-known ways to ponder God’s character, works and ways is a format originated by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Loyola’s methods, recorded in his book Spiritual Exercises, have been used for hundreds of years. He urged people to enter into Scripture with all five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell….
Using the five senses allows you to experience the text in a fresh way. For example, as you enter into the text of Mark 10:17-22, you may take the role of the rich young ruler and see what he saw. In verse 21, Jesus “looked at him and loved him,” then immediately challenged him to give up what he apparently loved best: his wealth. Years ago, I began meditating on that passage. Ever since, I have regularly had a sense of God looking at me, loving me, and then challenging me to give up ingrained habits I hold close: self-centered thoughts, judgmental attitudes, the need to be right. When nothing else has been able to persuade me to relinquish such things, that picture of Jesus’ loving yet challenging gaze has resurfaced, and I have quietly acquiesced.
Yet, what is biblical meditation? Does it entail a subjective, narcissistic journey inside oneself, or is it something different? The Scriptures instruct believers to meditate upon God’s Word, so how is that rightly executed? John MacArthur notes that biblical meditation means to focus one’s mind on one subject. Says MacArthur,
David highlighted the role meditation plays in our sanctification when he wrote the first Psalm. The blessed man is one who meditates both day and night on God’s law rather than seeking counsel in the fellowship of unbelievers (Psalm 1:1–3). It is the key to his perseverance and fruitfulness as a child of God.
Meditation is no less needed today. We live in a culture that continually assaults us with distractions through billboards, television, the Internet, and more. God says that we should keep His Word perpetually in front of our eyes, filling our minds and conversations wherever we go.
Yet, biblical prayer engages both the mind and the spirit, not one or the other (1 Corinthians 14:15). Meditation on the Word must do the same as it ponders and applies the Scriptures in such a way that the God of the universe, the divine Author of Scripture, is exalted and rightly understood.
Upon what, then, ought the Christian focus His mind?
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Johnson’s article continues with an exhortation to the reader to engage in the ancient practice of Lectio Divina:
This kind of meditation has been used widely among believers since the sixth century. Lectio divina consists of four parts: reading a passage, meditating on that passage, praying, and contemplating God. After the Scripture is read aloud, participants wait for a word, phrase or image from the passage to emerge and stay with them. From this phrase or image, the participant asks, What does this passage say to me right now? (Bible study before meditating is important preparatory work because it asks, What did the passage say to listeners then? This keeps us from coming up with absurd answers to this question.)
Lectio Divina is a product of the Roman Catholic Church, and ultimately is a decidedly non-christian practice with its roots in pagan religions. Pastor Gary Gilley explains:
Lectio divina is a method of biblical meditation on the Scriptures that has been practiced by some Christians as far back as the fourth century. It is important to note from the outset that nobody knowledgeable of lectio, which is sometimes called “sacred reading,” “divine reading,” or “spiritual reading,” claims that it is taught or modeled in Scripture. Rather, it is a method created and first practiced by contemplative monks and hermits three to four hundred years after the time of Christ. Only recently, through the efforts of Richard Foster and a host of others, has lectio gained a foothold among Protestants, but its popularity is growing rapidly. Foster documents that lectio is rooted in the allegorical interpretation of Scripture that reigned from the time of the early church fathers such as Origen until the Reformation. Foster believes the pre-Reformation church saw “interplay between God’s interpretive Spirit, our spirit and God’s inspiring Spirit that gave rise to the original text.”
Developed by ancient mystics, lectio divina and other contemplative practices reach outside the Scriptures for the foundation and justification of these activities. Yet the Christian knows that the Word of God is the only objective truth upon which we may rely. It is a Word to be guarded and treasured (2 Tim 3:16-17; Mark 7:6). It is God’s Word and it must not be played with as though it were Silly Putty as sinful men seek to conform it to their own selfish whims.
Johnson concludes her article by acknowledging that many Christians are wary of these contemplative practices. She states,
Other Christians object to using the imagination in meditation. But since I read Richard Foster’s words about “sanctifying the imagination” many years ago, I’ve asked God to purify my imagination along with my heart, mind and will. Isn’t it wiser to give the imagination to God to be retrained than to ignore it?
Richard Foster catapulted the notion of spiritual formation into the evangelical mainstream in 1978 with the publication of his book, The Celebration of Disciplines. Among these “spiritual disciplines” is meditation, which Foster describes as follows:
Mediation is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word. Christian meditation allows for a precious space in time for a meeting between God, the Lover, and we, the beloved. We can meet with God in ever-growing familiarity and intimacy not because of any of our special abilities, but simply because we come willing to enter into a listening silence. It is a creation of space, emotionally and spiritually, in our often hectic and hurried world, allowing the Creator of the universe to meet with us as he met Moses, face to face, as a friend.
What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart.
Where does the Scripture teach that truth is found within man’s subjective imagination, as Johnson has indicated? Quite the opposite, does not God’s Word declare that the inner man is filled with wickedness and deceit (Jeremiah 17:9)?
Where does Scripture describe what Foster has set forth as meditation? God communicates to man through His Word, the Bible, and man responds in prayer. The subjective experience described above by Foster has no basis in Scripture. In prayer, sinful man must humble himself before the God of the universe, come before the throne with an acknowledgement of God’s high and lofty holiness, thank Him for His condescension to man through the Savior Jesus Christ, confess and repent of his sin, and ultimately desire to align and submit himself to the will of God (Psalm 86:11; Matthew 6:10; John 15:7; John 16:23; 1 John 5:14).
Does adding a “Christian spin” or a Christian facade to a practice such as eastern meditation magically transform it from one of pagan intent and origin into a sanctified use of one’s time? The reader is encouraged to search the Scriptures for the answer to such questions.
Why is Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian promoting such unbiblical practices and dubious teachers of them? As stated at the outset, the answer to this question can only be rooted in speculation. Perhaps the more important question for the astute and discerning Christian would be: Do these practices honor God and His Word? If the answer is no, then the Christian has no choice but to decry their inclusion in a professing Christian church.
Contemplative Prayer (from Christian Research Network)
Spiritual Formation (from Christian Research Network)
Biblical Silence vs. Mystical Silence
Thinking Rightly About Loving God; Voskamp Gets It Wrong
Beth Moore Wants Scripture + Experience
Equipping Eve: How to Hear From God
As Interest in Spiritual Directors Grows, Christians Must be Wary and Armed with Truth