One of the most curious trends in the Godblogosphere so far this year is the utter pummeling that "spiritual disciplines" are taking along with the people who are promoting them. I've lost track of the number of both unknown and well-regarded pastors (and their followers) writing on the topic of how proponents of the spiritual disciplines are part of a vast New Age conspiracy that will culminate in outright apostasy.
Before we go any further, let's list the spiritual disciplines that have got so many people saying they're the toe in the antichrist's bathwater:
Scary list, huh? And yet it has some people tearing their hair out. I won't list who those people and ministries are because I'm not willing to commit the same sort of guilt by association that so readily flows from some of these sources. What bothers me, at least as the critics stand, is that none of them are attempting to ask whether the disciplines are Scriptural or not.
Are they? For most of the following, I'll attempt to list one reference each from the Old Testament, a Gospel, and an Epistle:
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 good success. (Joshua 1:8 ESV)
I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands. (Psalms 143:5 ESV)
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8 ESV)
Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you [God] at a time when you may be found…. (Psalms 32:6a ESV)
And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. (Matthew 21:22 ESV)
…pray without ceasing…. (1 Thessalonians 5:17 ESV)
For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me. When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach. (Psalms 69:9-10 ESV)
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18 ESV)
And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:23 ESV)
You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently. Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules. I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me! How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. (Psalms 119:4-11 ESV)
But [Jesus] answered, "It is written, "'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:4 ESV)
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV)
If I have made gold my trust or called fine gold my confidence, if I have rejoiced because my wealth was abundant or because my hand had found much, if I have looked at the sun when it shone, or the moon moving in splendor, and my heart has been secretly enticed, and my mouth has kissed my hand, this also would be an iniquity to be punished by the judges, for I would have been false to God above. (Job 31:24-28 ESV)
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 ESV)
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5 ESV)
Be still, and know that I am God…. (Psalms 46:10a ESV)
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:6 ESV)
And after [Jesus] had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone…. (Matthew 14:23 ESV)
Teach me to do your will, for you are my God! Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground! (Psalms 143:10 ESV)
And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34 ESV)
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7 ESV)
And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul…. (Deuteronomy 10:12 ESV)
If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:26 ESV)
So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:10 ESV)
I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin. (Psalms 38:18 ESV)
If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld. (John 20:23 ESV)
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16 ESV)
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him! Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness…. (1 Chronicles 16:29 ESV)
God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24 ESV)
Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. (Hebrews 13:15 ESV)
Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long. (Psalms 25:5 ESV)
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13 ESV)
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5 ESV)
Then [Nehemiah or Ezra]said to them, "Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:10 ESV)
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11 ESV)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. (Philippians 4:4 ESV)
These things are indeed biblical as practiced. Anyone arguing against them faces an uphill (and unscriptural) battle. Sit down with a good study Bible (I use the Thompson Chain Reference) and check for yourself. In most cases, there are dozens or even hundreds of Scriptures that support each discipline.
Is it somehow hard to believe that the practice of these disciplines won't make a person a stronger, deeper disciple of Jesus Christ? Please, if you are reading this and believe that these spiritual disciplines will actually result in a weaker, shallower disciple, leave a comment and tell me why you believe that to be the case.
And now to the real beef…
The same proofs by which we say that the Bible is uniquely perfect among all books is the same proof that says that all other books are not perfect. Unless modern day Christian writers want to lay claim to their own perfect apostolic authority, then all books outside of the Scriptures contain errors, whether gross or minuscule. (By nature, all errors must be confronted with godly discernment. This is one reason why the Holy Spirit was given: to guide believers into all truth.) It doesn't matter if the book is written by John MacArthur or Richard Foster, it should be read always with one eye on the Scriptures and with one's heart illuminated by the Holy Spirit.
This is where I'm confused concerning the level of discernment practiced by those who are currently assaulting the spiritual disciplines outlined above. They call for discernment, but make blanket statements about those who are advocating the disciplines. Yes, they do a fine job of pointing out what is wrong with the doctrine of some of those advocates, but at the same time they show an appalling lack of discernment for the good in what those same advocates are saying. They act as if what is good is simply what is "not bad," but that's a damningly low opinion of what God has said is good.
We know that the disciplines are biblical, but are there ways to botch their practice? Sure! Any good thing can be muddied. Let's face it, Satan only tries to attack the very best things of God. You can bet that if there's a counterfeit the Enemy's manufactured, God's real version is gloriously wonderful. What I find disturbing is that the current critics of the spiritual disciplines are doing a horrendous job communicating the difference to people, lumping everything—good or bad—into one confusing pile that does nothing but stymie people who are genuinely looking to grow in the Lord.
I'm also confused by the conspiratorial picking and choosing that goes on by some of these critics, drawing lines of connection from one advocate to another in a bizarre game of "Six Degrees of Separation," seeking to create some sort of Last Days corporate hierarchy of apostasy. I'm baffled, though, by their choices of who constitutes the "good guys" and who the "bad guys." Richard Foster and Dallas Willard are perpetually held up for derision for quoting "mystics" who practiced spiritual disciplines (there's that guilt by association again, no discernment needed) while the critics quote A.W. Tozer's comments on discerning truth from error as we head to the End. Foster and Willard get lambasted, while Tozer—who was a strong supporter of Christian mysticism— is used by the critics in their arguments against the disciplines and their advocates. It's the height of hypocrisy if the critics own standards are used to tie them into a mystic like Tozer. Will the last non-heretic left standing please turn out the light?
I continue to be stunned at the lousy state of discernment in the Western Church today. Whether it's a complete lack of discernment, esoteric arguments for/against that no one can understand, guilt assigned by six degrees of separation, or the random picking of what constitutes good and bad—well, the whole state of it all, advocates or critics, has just gotten silly. And when the Church looks silly, the world just goes to hell faster.
I'm not suggesting that people go panning for gold in fields of manure, but neither am I for straining for gnats and swallowing camels. The frenzied fear that many of the critics sell by their inability to sort out the good from the bad in what people say is sad. All it does is make people paranoid; the last time I looked, paranoia was not a spiritual gift!
I'm no apologist for Foster or any of the other folks advocating the disciplines, but like all authors I read, I read them with a critical eye, swallowing the big chunks of truth they might speak while spitting out the questionable bones. And isn't that how any follower of Christ should approach any message from anyone?
No one said that discernment is easy, but neither is it haphazard.
Tags: Spiritual Disciplines, Church, Faith, Christianity, Jesus, God
19 thoughts on “The Horror of Spiritual Disciplines!”
Have you read anything by Brother Lawrence or Jeanne Guyon? To me, looking at the fruit of a life is very telltale.
Dan — I agree with your post, and I noticed plenty of caveats, i.e. swallowing camels and panning for gold in a field of manure (I LIKE that one).
I think my concern is that PASTORS are not very discerning and are leading their congregation, (many who are new believers, or naive), into many questionable practices.
This is not guilt by association or six degrees of separation, but actual experiences that I have witnessed. That is my biggest concern — pastors lack the basic skills and knowledge to discern these things.
You must be able to identify the bones in order to spit them out, and in a post-Christian culture, that is becoming more and more difficult.
I am all for disciplines, I think we practice them far too little, and it shows in our spiritual anemia, however there needs to be an honest appraisal of the validity of some of the methods…
As I said, I agree with your post, however I think it is dangerous if we simply open the door and tell folks, ‘figure it out’. There needs to be mature Christian leadership (pick your title) that ensures that people do not get lured into error.
As always, a thought-provoking post… Thanks!
I totally understand your not wanting to cite names/blogs/etc of the pummelers, but this takes some heft from my thoughts. So if I’m way off-base… 😉
One of the hallmarks of legalism is the notion that discernment is a “don’t try this at home” thing. If any discernment is to be done, it’ll be done by the pastor, thank you, and he’ll tell you what to do/think/wear/etc.
In the legalistic circles in which I used to spin, nearly all of the disciplines were espoused (not celebration, of course — wouldn’t want anyone to be happy), but they were all done from a very works-based perspective. While this is definitely a “baby with the bathwater” mentality, I can undestand those that might regard such actions lowly.
“Yes,” you might say, “but the afore-mentioned pummelers are writing of their fear of the disciplines heading toward New Age-ism — that’s pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum from legalism.” I don’t have time to think about this particular comparison right now, but I will say that I keep finding instances where two errors that seem to be 180 degrees from each other are actually very close. I’m starting to think that error doesn’t even have a spectrum.
A few comments:
The questionable practices can cut both ways, too. Allowing any old thing into the church is bad, but so is keeping everything out based on poor discernment and scare tactics.
What I have been reading (and reacting to) is the “keep everything out” mentality. I am especially concerned by their six degrees of separation issue. They find some famous Christian they really don’t like then start drawing lines of connection from him/her to all sorts of other people by often tenuous means (like one line blurbs on book jackets) and slander perfectly good servants of God by weak associations. Honestly, if I worked hard enough, I could take all the critics down by the same means. I did in part by tying a few in to Tozer, whom they routinely quote, but who was a strong proponent of reading the old Catholic mystics like St. John of the Cross and Terese of Avila.
No doubt that identifying the bones is tough to do sometimes, but it is also commanded from the Scriptures. That means we should take it seriously. One of the poorest ways to do so is to ask if other religions have a spiritual discipline that might be shared in the Christian community, then to blanket condemn it. Yes, Buddhists meditate, but that does not automatically mean that Christians can’t practice truly biblical meditation. What true Christian meditation looks like will distinguish it from that of other religions, but to knee-jerk condemn it without asking what the Christian distinctives are is simply poor discernment. Too often, that is how the critics work.
You’re right. Some of the methods need to be examined. I know that many people were not thrilled by Richard Foster’s descriptions of meditation in his book Celebration of Discipline. Good! I believe Foster changed that chapter in several places in later editions due to criticism. That’s as it should be. That’s real discernment at work.
While I agree that mature leadership is needed, at some point people have to stand on their own two feet spiritually. I’ll get complaints from critics on this, but I believe it is important for a specific sect of Christians to examine the faiths of those Christians outside their sect to see if there is anything they can learn from others. (Notice that I am not saying that a sect of Christians should examine the faiths of non-Christian religions—I think that is one way to start getting off, the panning for gold in fields of manure that I mentioned.) The problem of both critics and your average Christian is that they’re so stuck on their one position that they have no idea what else is out there that is good and should be examined.
Case in point, when I was at Wheaton College, I was stunned at how stuck so many of the students were in their own little corner of Christianity. I used to tell students that now that they were away from Mommy and Daddy that they should explore other Christian traditions in order to better build their foundation in the faith. Baptist, go to an Assemblies of God church one Sunday! Presbyterian, check out the Ukranian Orthodox church down the road. Pentecostal, attend an Episcopal church service. But people were so stuck they couldn’t do anything. They weren’t willing to go and use good discernment to see what is wrong while also seeing if there was something right they could take away from their attending something different that Sunday. It was so sad. That kind of knee-jerk exclusivity those kids practiced will only make them sterile in large portions of their faith walk.
Thanks for writing!
IN reply to Brendt — I am a pastor, however I do not espouse the ‘Don’t try this at home’, yet I do believe that pastors should take ownership in leading and guiding their people in the disciplines.
Part of the problem is that the pastors themselves do not practice any of these disciplines, therefore they are verboten to the ‘non-anointed’.
I have seen the opposite to your experience — that is, a pastor opening the door, and telling people to JUST DO IT… And I have seen the tremendous damage done to people because of it…
While I do not believe that I am the arbiter of spiritual disciplines, i do believe that I am responsible for ensuring that the disciplines that are practiced are understood and done in a biblical manner…
You’re right, error may not have a spectrum. A ditch is a ditch! Still, confusing the road for a ditch is a mistake. That’s why discernment is needed.
Any spiritual practice can become legalistic, especially if we divorce it from the true purpose of the Faith: to know Christ. The post I had up a few days before on Tozer and testing the spirits is a good look at how this works.
Thanks for writing.
I read snippets of Brother Lawrence’s work a long time ago. I have a copy of Guyon’s Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ but have not read it yet. I have read St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul and found it to be a very accurate assessment. And yes, I did have bones from it that I spit out, but that’s true with just about every book. I’ve also read The Cloud of Unknowing. My favorite Christian book, Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy, draws much from those types of books and is a better book for it.
I’ve never been able to understand some Christians who tell us that we should read older Christian material, but then want to excise the entire body of work written between 500 A.D. and 1500 A.D. as if nothing good came out of that time. Was there not a single Chriistian on the face of the planet between St. Augustine’s death and Martin Luther’s birth? That’s simply not true, but some act as if it is.
Dan – Excellent thoughts and I am in total agreement. Our church is currently working with churches from other cultural and denominational backgrounds on a number of items, including me preaching at their church and their pastor at ours.
I believe that understanding other portions of Christianity outside of our comfort zone would go far in helping the body grow in unity…
You left out labryinths and lectio divina….LOL
I agree that we need to get to the center and not at the extremes. However, mor importantly, we need to see the FOUNDATION of these disciplines. Many come out of a skewed Catholic and/or New Age belief system and not a real Biblical theology.
For example, meditation. Is it real Bible meditation? Or the Eastern comtemplative type?
Ironically, one of the best ways to seek correction in the Church is in the discipline of prayer. It’s a heck of a lot better than taking the issue on your own shoulders all by yourself.
Dan, I didn’t know you ever popped over to my blog, but I did want to say thank you for your comment today.
That must have been devastating to lose your parents so close together. That actually happened to my mom – her dad died on 3/20 and her mom on 4/21. My grandmother was the one who was ill with cancer, so it was a complete shock when my grandfather died first.
It’s odd that people tend to flee, though, don’t you think? I’ve been at the hospital or the nursing center every single day for the past 41 days – hours at a time.
Yikes, sorry to threadjack!! Thanks again for visiting.
(I read you all the time, but rarely comment, as I’m always in 100% agreement with you! We do think alike)
I have found that practicing these makes me a better more God-fearing Christian than blogging about the horrors of other people’s doctrine and movie endorsements. I honestly think some of this stuff is just blog-fodder for people who have nothing to criticize.
Thanks for the post.
Oh no, not the labyrinth thingy!
Meditation seems to be the one discipline that stands the hair up on a lot of necks. Christian meditation does exist. The verses I included above are just a few of dozens on that subject. Meditating on God’s words is an obvious one that is doctrinal. The Philippians passage also opens the door to contemplating the goodness of the Lord, and I believe that this extends beyond the Scriptures into those places in life where we are thankful for God’s good provision. I got to hold my new nephew yesterday and that led me to meditate on the goodness of God in my life and the lives of others. Extrabiblical? Yes, but not outside the limits that the Bible places on appropriate meditation.
When we talk about skewed Catholicism we have to be careful because Catholic and Orthodox faiths (they officially split in 1054 AD) pretty much contained the entire set of believers between 500 AD and 1500 AD. Like I said in my comments to Noelle above, we can’t pretend that no Christian Church existed during that time. Nor can we throw out all Christian thought that developed in that time period because it was strictly Catholic or Orthodox. If we Protestants believe that God preserved His true Church by pulling the Protestants out of Catholicism, then God had to have had some of His true Church in the Catholicism that existed prior to the Reformation. Again, discernment is critical here. If we criticize the Catholics and Orthodox of that day, then we are leaving ourselves with nothing. I don’t believe we can do that.
If we approach a Catholic writer that lived prior to the Reformation, such as Julian of Norwich (who lived from 1342-1416), we can’t say that she wasn’t born again simply because she lived prior to Martin Luther pounding his 95 theses on the Wittenburg church door. We have to examine her work with discernment. I think what Tozer lays out in the post I submitted a few days ago is a good start to testing what she wrote.
Dan, great post. Mystics and those who are truly submitted to Jesus Christ as Lord will always serve as a living witness as well as a conviction to the the many who are not fully surrendered. I believe that J. Vernon Mc Gee indicated, in his opinion, that when persecution comes to America, the many within the church who do not will persecute the few who do.
Great post. I think that there is a lot of value in these spiritual disciplines including the “Labyrinth thingy” (within reason of course). I use Phyllis Tickle”s the Divine Hours and find that practicing the daily offices helps me to focus on God during each day as the wisdom of the world is bombarding my thoughts.
Too often we have our daily quiet time in the morning and tend to forget God for the rest of the day as life becomes busy.
Dan said, “Richard Foster and Dallas Willard are perpetually held up for derision for quoting “mystics” who practiced spiritual disciplines (there’s that guilt by association again, no discernment needed…”
Let’s be careful, Dan. Not everyone who has criticized Foster and Willard has done so via mere guilt by association, etc.
Foster in particular has been critiqued on specifics, and legitimately so.
You are absolutely correct. I have the original edition of Celebration of Discipline and I thought the meditation chapter was suspect.
I am going to post anonymously as I am going to talk about my own prayer life. When I first became I christian I was in one of those probably suspect type of churches. I was taught that God loved me and that He was my portion in this life. I scheduled six hours a day of prayer. I attended a few public prayer meetings a day. During this time I was told scriture memory was a good thing so I memorized the books of Romans, Philiipians, 1 Cor., the Gospel of John and probably a few others. My friends and I were used to introduce about 500 people to Christ and had a small group of upwards of 70 folk. The church we belonged to planted about 50 church plants in 3 years and it was great.
This lifestyle was filled with confidence and freedom and joy. There is nothing life knowing God and being used. If this is a bad thing then I will take all the heat and all the ridicule that comes with it.
God is the Gospel and the spiritual disciplines (private and corporate) are the feast of the one whose pleasures are in the pleasures of God.
I appreciate your thoughts and I wholeheartedly agree. But I actually consider myself far from being a mystic. I find nothing mystical about the spiritual practices and that they are a type of habitual training. I believe that sin is an addiction and that the only solution is another addiction: righteousness. And one last point – from my own experience in trying to practice the spiritual disciplines I feel that they must be practiced with an awareness of one’s own tendency towards self-destruction through sin. If one truly believes that, without spiritual transformation, they will continue to sin more and more then the spiritual disciplines become the most practical manner of intentionally enacting spiritual transformation.