Mysticism, Part 1


I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.
—2 Corinthians 12:2-5

Why is it that so many in the Christian Church, especially in the West, live to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

I see this tendency especially from those petrified that God will come along and shake up His Church by doing something they would classify as “weird.” Detail from 'The Resurrection' by Matthias GrünewaldI think that if you took those folks and put them into every biblical scene featuring the miraculous, they’d be quaking with fear with their hands over their eyes. They’d be the ones frozen stiff before the parted Red Sea screaming, “No! You can’t make me go through there!”

So these poor saints live to attack anything that threatens to undo their dusty religiosity. Unfortunately, in too many cases, that “anything” just happens to be God.

Now I perfectly understand the need to filter out heretical and false manifestations, but that’s why the Lord gave us discernment. Blanket condemnation of all such experiences, instinctive in these fearful saints, fails the discernment test. Nowhere in the Scriptures will you find “One bad apple ruins the whole bunch.” (If that were true, I suspect all our churches would be ruined!)

Instead, the Holy Spirit empowers our discernment. The Bible provides some basis for making distinctions between wrong and right, while the Spirit fills in the particulars. This is life in the Spirit, and it requires us to know His voice when He speaks to us in our day to day existence.

This brings us to today’s tossed baby, Christian mysticism.

I don’t know about the baby-tossers, but I can’t read the Bible and not see the mystical. As noted in the passage that starts this post, the Apostle Paul himself thought nothing of mystical experiences, such as being caught up in a heavenly realm where inexpressible realities can be glimpsed. Paul goes so far as to boast about the man who experienced this (likely Paul, as most commentators note).

The prophet Isaiah had a vision of God, the Holy One’s train filling the temple. He saw angels and they symbolically purged his sin with a touch of coal to the lips. Ezekiel glimpsed his famous wheel within a wheel. John fell prostrate before an angelic messenger who delivered a vision of the end of all things. Jacob’s ladder. Abraham entertaining three visitors. The inner sanctum of disciples witnessing Jesus’s transfiguration.

The Bible overflows with the mystical. So how is mysticism bad?

Some would claim that all these things vanished with the death of the Apostle John. That mystical experiences do not happen today.

Tell that to the Irish, though.

Last weekend, we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. One could argue that no evangelist exceeded Patrick, for 120,000 conversions are directly tied to his ministry in the Emerald Isle. But to what did Patrick attribute his burning desire to evangelize the Irish?

From a classically mystical source: a dream.

Patrick, ensconced in England, had a dream one night of Irish druids begging him to come preach the Gospel to them. He wasn’t reading the Scriptures for this revelation. He wasn’t down on his knees praying. He dreamed it.

The Bible says this:

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
—Acts 2:14-18

Now as far as I can tell, we’re still in the last days. I think most of us would agree on this. So how is it NOT still true that God will speak to us through dreams and visions? I find it impossible for anyone to argue against the validity of dreams and visions for revelation. Consider what the 120,000 saved through Patrick’s ministry think about mystical revelation through dreams.

A.W. Tozer, one of Evangelicalism’s greatest prophets, had no qualms with the mystical. Even the most casual readings of his many books and sermons reveals Tozer’s heart that we Christians should pursue a mystical intimacy with God that defies earthly definitions. Tozer was known for his keen understanding of the writings of noted medieval mystics such as Julian of Norwich (who many of Tozer’s good friends referred to jokingly as his “girlfriend”), Teresa of Àvila, Meister Eckhart, and others. Tozer recommend that we Evangelicals read mystic literature such as The Cloud of Unknowing and The Dark Night of the Soul. Why? To cultivate a depth of intimacy with God that transcended the casual dabbling in Him afflicting so many of us time-burdened Evangelicals, to scry the secrets of the saints who have gone before us.

Because I hold Tozer in high regard, I’ve read many of those mystics and their writings. I’ve found them fascinating. But more than this, I found they relayed understandings of God I did not possess. Those mystics have been to the mountain of God, so they offer a valuable map, a treasured insight. Their talk of rapturous union with God should inspire us, not drive us to doubt the reality that we human beings can approach the Divine and know Him intimately! Sometimes I wonder if some of us merely wish to keep others from that deep intimacy for no other reason than we have not experienced it ourselves; our jealousy drives us to deny others the joy those few have found.

Many Protestants revere the Reformation, but they balk at anything that came before that. What a loss! As we stroll back in time to the Medieval era and Dark Ages, when some of the noted mystics lived, the less confident many of the mystic-bashers become, as if no big “c” Church existed at all during those times. That’s foolishness, though, and for some to act as if nothing can be learned from the Christians of those days, many of whom would be branded mystics by today’s Evangelicals, is nothing more than jealous pride.

Mysticism’s core ideal that knowledge of God and His ways can’t be explained in perfectly rational terms didn’t bother those Christians of that era. But it bothers those who live on the other side of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

If anything, the modern antagonism toward Christian mysticism has little of its basis in Scripture’s and the Holy Spirit’s illumination, and far more in the rationalism and anti-supernaturalism wrought by modernism (as ushered in by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment). Oddly enough, the real damage to Christianity came not from mysticism as practiced pre-Reformation, but from this post-Reformation upheaval in philosophy. Odder still, the stepchildren of the god-denying Enlightenment are those very Christians who oppose supernaturalism (especially as it pertains to the charismata), who endorse a sort of sanctified scientific rationalism that turns the tables and declares Christians being caught up into the third heaven not only not possible, but part of a damnable plot to subvert Christianity!

Who is the real wolf in sheep’s clothing? The mystics or the scientific rationalists? I would contend the latter far better fit the bill.

And so we’ve paid dearly within Christianity because of anti-mystic crusading. The rationalists have shoved the awesome God into a small box convenient enough to be understood. Miracles? Nah. Dreams and visions as guidance? No way. Only superstitious fools would embrace such nonsense.

Worse, any revival in mysticism within the Church is disingenuously labeled Gnosticism by the critics. But those who toss around the Gnosticism label do so haphazardly and with little regard for the truth.

Gnosticism is anti-matter, which Christian mysticism is not. As a result, Gnosticism denies the incarnation of Christ, which Christian mysticism certainly does not. Gnosticism holds to a dualistic worldview, which Christian mysticism does not . Gnosticism believes that secret knowledge necessary to salvation is held by a select few, and only a select few who seek that knowledge get it. Christian mysticism holds that deeper knowledge of God is the desire of all those filled by the Holy Spirit, but this knowledge is open to all and can be grasped by any who come to the Lord.

To stress that latter point, would anyone reading this doubt for one second that a great Christian who has sought the Lord through years of prayer would know more about God and His ways than the new convert? Does that righteous old saint (who may at some point in life have been swept up into the ecstasy of the third heaven by the Spirit) possess a deeper knowledge? Would anyone seriously label him a Gnostic? Or the third-heaven-visiting Paul for that matter?

No, in most cases the Gnosticism label is a fraudulent scare tactic.

This is not to say that all mysticism tagged “Christian” is. In the second part of this examination of mysticism, we’ll examine the criticism leveled against modern practices of mysticism and see in what cases the accusations against it should be heeded.

25 thoughts on “Mysticism, Part 1

  1. Mysticism isn’t something chosen, but it has been part of my walk with God. I know it is biblical.
    He has given visions, warnings, His Presence during a difficult time where His Holy Presence entering the room was so powerful, I trembled beyond control, and begged for relief even though a deep part of me wanted to be in His Presence forever. He is so Holy it was too much to bear for a length of time. I heard Holy Joy then also. I don’t know the words for this.
    These have been frightening yet blessed, He is terribly loving, and prepared me for what was ahead in the visions and warnings. They have seemed to be an offshoot of prayer and time with Him, whether in petition, supplication or repentance, but I am not a saint because God chose to reveal Himself. They have not been sought, I’d say He came so directly unbidden because He is Lord.

    Reading church history and of other Christians, His entering my life these ways are not at all unique.

    I like my feet firmly planted on the ground and to walk by faith than experience.
    God had other ideas out of His great love, these revealings have been extremely rare and I don’t wish to talk about them.
    What was seen came to be. The warnings came to pass. His Holy immutable Presence and Joy changed me, strengthened me for the trial ahead and I cannot explain, words fail.
    I sought wise counsel after these experiences for checks and balances.
    God, be merciful to me a sinner, may Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory for ever and ever.

  2. Chris Campbell

    Very interesting post. I’m looking forward to part 2. I’m not sure I agree but I’ll hold my comments until after the next part.

  3. Brandon

    Great post. I too cannot read the Bible without seeing “mysticism”. I believe that this lack of understanding and experience is primarily a deficiency that is seen in the western institutional church…Don’t get me wrong, there are western churches that embrace Biblically balanced manifestations of God’s miraculous power, but that appears to be the exception rather than the “rule”.

    Another thing that seems to be exclusive to the western church is the “wacko” (for lack of a better term) churches that accept anything and everything as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. These are the churches that drive many well meaning believers to “toss the baby out with the bath-water”. They don’t understand, so it’s better to be “safe” than risk being heretical is their approach.

    Thanks again for another thought provoking post!

    Be blessed…

    • Brandon,

      Sometimes it’s hard to separate the genuinely Spirit-filled “weirdos” from the plain, old garden variety weirdos. Let’s be honest, John the Baptist probably set a few tongues wagging!

      • Brandon

        You’re probably correct about John the Baptist…Jesus fit into that category as well. It’s a point well taken that often the genuine Spirit filled Christian does sometimes look a bit weird. This is where discerning the spirit is very necessary. I also think that some believers need to learn not to discount or call counterfeit that which they do not understand.

        I had an experience in 2001 that was very similar to what Bene D described. I recall that the most overwhelming part of this encounter with God was His Holiness. It was incredibly satisfying to my spirit and I wanted more, but at the same time I was aware that my flesh could only take so much. It became so intense that I told Him I thought I would die if He continued to pour out His presence. I remember in the moments after that encounter the indescribable peace and joy that remained. It “ruined” me forever in the best way.
        I’m not sure that makes sense, but I wanted to share that with you.

        Be blessed…

  4. Glad to have stumbled upon your site. Will check in from time to time. Certainly appreciate the book list you keep: wonderful words for the western church in each of them. Wonderful words for me!


  5. Diane Roberts

    Well, I was going to go on a diatribe against much of what you wrote, which is strange for me since I agree with what you write almost 98% of the time. Then I read your last paragraph and decided to wait until part 2.
    So….anxiously awaiting part 2 with baited breath…LOL.

  6. Me too, looking forward to part 2. I sense the same hesitancy in the church with regard to “self-help” – people labeling it “pop” psychiatry and dismissing the tools and principles that God has authored and give us to use to become like Christ. (My blog is a Christian “self-help” blog – Thought Renewal.) Chat with you again, Lyn

    • Lyn,

      You won’t get a lot of support from me on anything psychology-related. I think psychology is one of the worst things to penetrate the Church. They have utterly incompatible worldviews, yet so many Christians try to make the two fit. Drives me nuts. I’ve written on this topic before and alienated a few readers. Honestly, I don’t think self-help is the answer, either. If without Christ we can do nothing, then self-help doesn’t exist. The self is supposed to die at the cross, too. That’s the core of Christian belief, that we have died and our lives are hidden in Christ. But psychology doesn’t preach the death of self, rather the complete opposite—there’s the worldview incompatibility I mentioned.

      • Dan,
        I agree with you as far as your comment goes, as you are referring to a secular definition of self help. I have a completely different take on the phrase, and am advocating a biblical understanding of how one might “take captive every thought” so that we might grow in obedience to Christ. I have written an extended introduction to this concept that will, if you are open to reading it, affirm the self as God intended. (The link is here: – I would ask though that if you do choose to read it that you not skim it, but follow my line of reasoning to the end, thanks.)

        For the “self” that we are to nail to the cross is our sinful nature. The self itself is a good creation (Gen 1) and, if born from above, will see resurrection life. Thus we have a responsibility to discipline our self in godliness – and the principles and strategies that we might use often overlap with those taught from a “self-help” or psychological perspective. That doesn’t invalidate them, it simply points to, like you said, a different motive or clash of worldviews.

        As to not being able to do anything without Christ, well, that is true when speaking of things that last and truly matter. And theologically speaking, sure, Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1). But if you mean that principles or strategies that improve our lives don’t work apart from Christ, then we are quibbling over Christ’s role in these techniques. For all truth is God’s truth and there are plenty of self-help principles that work without acknowledging Christ as its ultimate source. Just like there are plenty who use the laws of gravity to fly an airplane without acknowledging God as the author of that law – they are indeed “doing something” without Christ.

        Well, didn’t mean for this to be such an “off topic” comment. But thanks for providing a forum for dialog.
        Lyn from Thought Renewal

  7. Wonkyhead

    I’m very interested in this topic, and although I’ve also begun to formulate my thoughts on this, I think I too shall hold my peace until you have posted Part II.

    Blessings Dan – you have been on my mind to pray for, btw.


  8. In my sheltered existance, I’m not sure I’ve seen evidence of modern mysticism in Western churches. Seen lots overseas, though, rocks falling from the sky, visions, voices, signs and wonders and so on, and in my sceptical Western way questioned everything, which is, actually, what we are supposed to do, using the Bible as our guide, with much prayer and trembling because when we deal with the mystical we are heading into territory we must be very guarded about.

    We forget, I think, that we are immortal ourselves; spiritual creatures that are a little lower than the angels, and as C.S. Lewis wrote:

    …remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you may talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet if at all only in a nightmare.

    It pays to remember, also, that the greatest mystery of all, being indwelt by the Creator of all, is not explored nearly as much as it should be. We should be taking advantage of the situation, not letting it slide by watching the latest episode of “Stargate SG-1.” Mysticism is nice, interesting in it’s way, but the time we spend researching it is better spent in prayer.

    • David,

      A lot of “high” churches do the mysticism thing better than non-denom Evangelicals do. The sense of the otherness of God, but coupled with His initimacy can be readily seen in those churches, which is one reason why Emerging congregations often pull in the sensory elements of the old Anglican and Orthodox practice. They also like to highlight the paradoxes of Christianity (like Christ as both fully Man and fully God) along with a keen sense of union with Christ.

      Prayer is the key to mysticism, David. The mystics aimed for that ecstatic union with God, and that came through meditation and prayer.

  9. I appreciate this series, Dan. I will give it a good read. I can already tell that I’m going to agree with you. I’m reading a lot of Merton lately, and thus have become interested in the pre-Reformation mystics, St. John Chrysostom, Theresa of Avila and such. I do think that the mystical aspect of Christianity is gone, largely due to fear of anything unfamiliar in Western evangelicalism. Pray on!


    • Nate,

      Thanks. Fear drives some of the anti-mystic hysteria, but sometimes the critics do have good points. Always pays to be wise. I enjoyed The Dark Night of the Soul and learned a great deal from it, but I also tossed out some big chunks.

  10. What did I learn about the Character of God?

    Incommunicable – transcendent, unchangeable, eternal, omnipresent.

    Communicable – spiritual, all knowing, loving, wise, truthful, faithful, pure, merciful, grace, peace, gentle, strong, patient, joy, calm (in control), just, good, righteous, complete, beautiful, just, generous, protective, comforter, trustworthy. A divine mirth, a delight in us, being beloved.

    This is clumsy, incomplete, I don’t have enough words.

  11. Pingback: Voice of God, Round One! at The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese
  12. I was searching for blog references to Julian of Norwich ( she is a main “player” in my D. Min. dissertation) when I stumbled on your article. As A. W. Tozer is one of my all-time favorite Protestant “mystics” I was fascinated at finding out that he loved Julian as well. I was literally blown away by so many of your comments. My husband was also astonished when I was reading some of them to him. “Are you sure you didn’t write that in another life?” (Not that we believe in incarnation, but . . . well, you know . . .) I, too, have encountered the anti-mystic so often and now that I am working toward the D. Min. in Spiritual Formation at Azusa Pacific University, I am glorying in the opportunity to not only connect so many of my Protestant “reads” of the past and present with some of my favorite mystical writers of the past. I love putting Julian together with Thomas a Kempis, especially as they both came out of the same seed bed of theology re: salvation and a view of Christ’s death on the cross as so aptly written by Hugh of St. Victor and others of that 14th-15th century time. Thanks for writing it all so well and for daring to mix it up with believers of the past. Well done, my brother!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *