(460.5) SPIRITUAL FORMATION DANGERS – Emerging Trends in the Church Today
REVIEW: In our the previous postings on SPIRITUAL FORMATION, we have
- looked at several different definitions of Spiritual Formation from various perspectives.
- looked at the history of how Spiritual Formation entered into mainstream Evangelical churches mainly from Roman Catholic sources but also influenced from with many similarities found in Eastern religions.
- looked at how some have mis-interpreted commonly used passages in the Bible to justify their meaning of related practices under the umbrella of Spiritual Formation.
=> Common phrases such as “Be STILL and know…..etc.” (Ps. 46:10) have been mis-interpreted by many people historically up through today. As a result, there are several so-called Spiritual Disciplines such as SOLITUDE, STILLNESS and SILENCE that have evolved from these mistaken interpretations. They have spawned many practices that have more in common with other mystical religions from the East. We see a similarity in historic ancient Roman Catholic mystical practices from the time of the early church through the Middle Ages. Roman Catholicism has a long history of people who proclaimed God’ word.
Looking more in detail at the origins and meaning of Spiritual Formation, we can see other sources for this information –
The Christian Research Network* states:
Despite assertions that the spiritual disciplines are “God-ordained,”13 they are in fact derived from the practices of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mystics.14 These practices are contrary to the biblical theology fought for in the Reformation.
Gary Gilley asks:
Do we, as believers in Sola Scriptura, take our marching orders from the written Word, or do we look to the ‘white spaces’ in Scripture to determine how we live?15
In other words, are we to turn to mystical, subjective ascetic practices, or do we rely upon the objective truth of God’s Word?
Bob DeWaay contends:
The Bible nowhere describes an inward journey to explore the realm of the spirit. God chose to reveal the truth about spiritual reality through His ordained, Spirit-inspired, biblical writers.16
UNBIBLICAL VIEW OF MAN’S CONDITION
Spiritual formation teaches that man possesses innate goodness, but that his fallen state of sin is a result of “deprivation” or “spiritual starvation.” Thus, the disciplines help to feed, mature and grow man’s spirituality. In his Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard states:
The evil that we do in our present condition is a reflection of a weakness caused by spiritual starvation. When Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he was not just being generous to his killers; he was expressing the facts of the case. They really did not know what they were doing. As St. Augustine so clearly saw, the deranged condition of humankind is not, at bottom, a positive fact, but a deprivation. It is one that results in vast positive evils, of course, yet depravity is no less a horror because it stems from a deficiency, and people are no less responsible for it and its consequences.17
INVENTED PRACTICES MADE BINDING UPON CHRISTIANS
Spiritual disciplines are not commanded in Scripture. To impose practices not commanded in Scripture as necessary for spiritual maturity is to undermine and deny the sufficiency of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
In spite of the absence of an explicit command in Scripture to practice these disciplines, leaders like Dallas Willard continue to assert their necessity:
The disciplines are activities of mind and body purposefully undertaken, to bring our personality and total being into effective cooperation with the divine order. They enable us more and more to live in a power that is, strictly speaking, beyond us, deriving from the spiritual realm itself, as we “yield ourselves to God, as those that are alive from the dead, and our members as instruments of righteousness unto God,” as Romans 6:13 puts it.
The necessity for such disciplines comes from the very nature of the self in the image of God, discussed earlier. Once the individual has through divine initiative become alive to God and his Kingdom, the extent of integration of his or her total being into that Kingdom order significantly depends upon the individual’s initiative.18
Though Dallas Willard admits that the Bible does not command that these disciplines be followed, he nevertheless argues that they were practiced among members of the early church. Bob DeWaay summarizes Willard’s argument regarding Paul’s silence as being that he “did not write about the spiritual disciplines because everyone was practicing them.”19 He further states:
Spiritual disciplines are man-made, amorphous, and not revealed in the Bible; they assume that one is saved by grace and perfected by works.”20
The Apostle Paul writes against such ascetic practices. In Col. 2:20–23, Paul rebukes the idea of relying on fleshly practices to grow in holiness. Gal. 3:3 reads: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected in the flesh?”
Though proponents like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard claim that spiritual formation has been practiced since the early days of the church, Foster admits that the term “spiritual formation” did not appear in evangelical vocabulary until he ushered it into the mainstream in the 1970s with The Celebration of Discipline:
By now enough water has gone under the Christian Spiritual Formation bridge that we can give some assessment of where we have come and what yet needs to be done. When I first began writing in the field in the late 70s and early 80s the term “Spiritual Formation” was hardly known, except for highly specialized references in relation to the Catholic orders. Today it is a rare person who has not heard the term. Seminary courses in Spiritual Formation proliferate like baby rabbits. Huge numbers are seeking to become certified as Spiritual Directors to answer the cry of multiplied thousands for spiritual direction. And more.”21
POSSIBILITY OF REAL SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCES NOT FROM GOD
Richard Foster himself has offered warnings when it comes to practicing some of the disciplines. In regard to the practice of contemplative prayer, which is a type of meditation, Foster, in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, writes:
I also want to give a word of precaution. In the silent contemplation of God we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm, and there is such a thing as a supernatural guidance. While the Bible does not give us a lot of information on that, there are various orders of spiritual beings, and some of them are definitely not in cooperation with God and his way!….
…But for now I want to encourage you to learn and practice prayers of protection.22
When seeking to “hear from God,” there is no biblical guidance as to how one may determine exactly who or what is communicating. Foster himself notes that not only could one be deceived by Satan, but one may also mistake one’s own imagination or “human voices” for the voice of God.
Learning to distinguish the voice of God…from just human voices within us…comes in much the same way that we learn any other voice. Satan pushes and condemns. God draws and encourages. And we can know the difference.23
Though Foster provides criteria for determining just who or what is speaking, there is no biblical support for the specifications he provides. He implies that God will always speak in a positive manner, yet there are multiple instances in Scripture when God speaks negatively to His people. About Foster’s comments in the above-referenced Be Still DVD, Pastor Larry DeBruyn writes:
Assuming that God speaks Soul to soul today, what if Foster’s paradigm for determining “the voice” were reversed; that the negative voice is God’s, and the positive is Satan’s? It happened that way in the Garden. God warned Adam and Eve that for disobedience to God, “you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17), but Satan reassuringly told Adam and Eve, “You surely shall not die!” (Genesis 3:4). The point is that when engaging meditative spirituality, the contemplator can never be certain who will speak, and as a consequence, the experience can become the spawning ground for myriads of flashy ideas based solely upon, “he heard this,” or “she heard that.” And at that juncture, Christians and the church will have turned aside “to myths” (2 Timothy 4:4).24
Deception is rampant, and unbiblical, mystical practices may offer people an actual spiritual experience, though not one that originates from the true and living God. To ignore the boundaries of Scripture is to open oneself up to danger.
In addition to Foster descriptions and warnings about these related SILENCE and MEDIATION,…..etc. and various types of CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER, Dr. Rod Whitacre from Trinity School of Ministry in Contemplative Prayer: A Brief Introduction, states (with my highlights added):
DANGER can arise if we practice the more extreme forms of physical control found in some forms of contemplative prayer. A gentle attention to the breath is not a danger, but more intensive forms of control of the breath or the beating of the heart can interfere with these functions and cause damage. Such practices should be avoided unless one has a competent guide.
Another form of DANGER occurs if we let our mind go blank, rather than focusing on the Lord. Such a condition can open us to demonic suggestion.
Sometimes people try to practice contemplative forms of prayer, but in fact they only daydream. Instead of an alert concentration on God, they simply let their minds roam among various thoughts and feelings, with perhaps a vague sense of God in the background. Such woolgathering is not the Prayer of the Heart and can have the negative effect of making us more vague and fuzzy in the rest of our life.
Since contemplative forms of prayer can be DISTURBING or even DANGEROUS, it is often recommended that we have a spiritual director, or at least a close friend who is sympathetic with such prayer with whom to share something of what we are experiencing. However, if we avoid excessive interference with our breathing and heartbeat, and if we focus on the Lord, asking for His guidance and protection, there need be no danger. The regular reading of Scripture and participation in Christian community, especially worship, are further safeguards.
Along with these practical DANGERS, there are also potential theological DANGERS. Those who seek to simply attend to God’s Presence as such, with no thoughts of any sort, are practicing an ancient and valuable form of Christian prayer, but such prayer can run the RISK of seeking a God beyond God, like some of the ancient Gnostics, and denying the Incarnation. We can guard against this DANGER by putting our contemplative prayer in the context of lectio divina, the meditative reading of Scripture.
Similarly, such forms of prayer can promote unmediated God-mysticism. The focus of the New Testament, however, is the Presence of God mediated to us in Jesus, the divine/human Son. Indeed, St. John seems to consciously reject unmediated God- mysticism, insisting that no one has seen God apart from Christ (e.g., John 1.18). The writings of John Main contain much help in understanding the role of Christ and the Holy Spirit in contemplative prayer.
There is so much to be said about these comments, but for now, I will just focus on the fact that a contemplative prayer advocate spends a great deal of time explaining the DANGER of contemplative forms of prayers. He makes it sound casually…….alarming and scary. This is how the Richard Foster describes the dangers associated with these practices.
=> The question becomes WHY are we suggesting to pursue a practice that comes with this type of DANGER? Does Scripture give us these stark warnings when we pray?
To be continued.