Mystical Prayer vs. Biblical Prayer

Posted by on Jul 16, 2012

I recently read an interview of a Christian leader that included this interchange:

Interviewer: “When you pray, what do you say to God?”

Christian leader: “I don’t say anything. I listen.”

Interviewer: “Okay…When God speaks to you, then, what does he say?”

Christian leader: “He doesn’t say anything. He listens.”

The account of the interview recorded that, at this point, the interviewer seemed “baffled.”

Then, the Christian leader added: “And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.”

What do you think of that? Do you agree with and/or like the Christian leader’s answers to the interviewer’s questions? Do you think the Christian leader accurately portrayed what prayer is all about? Do you hold this view of prayer, that if you don’t experience prayer first hand, you can’t really understand it?

This interchange was quoted in two Christian books* and I think, in both cases, the authors were lifting up the Christian leader’s understanding of prayer as a positive example. But I think the Bible has something different to say.

When Jesus was asked by his disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he did not say, “Well, for one thing, don’t use words. Just listen.” Instead, he told them (and us) to use words and, in one instance, he even gave us the exact words to say (Luke 11:2).

As we read the Bible, we find many prayers that include lots of words. Consider that we have the equivalents of transcripts of intercessions by Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Hezekiah, and many others. Note that all 150 psalms, in a sense, are written out prayers. Reflect on the fact that Paul tells his readers the very content of his supplications on their behalf. That such prayers have been recorded for us, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, suggests a high value on the use of words in prayer. It is simply not an accurate portrayal of Biblical prayer to say, “I don’t say anything. I listen.”

To be sure, listening is an important part of prayer. Our entire prayer times should not be filled with our words. Stillness and quietness should be a part as well. (Although, to be honest, I can’t seem to remember too many places in the Bible that say things like, “When you pray be sure to include some times of silence” or “When the disciples prayed, they sat still and listened to the voice of the Lord.”)

And to say that God doesn’t speak to us when we pray…well, I fear that may imply that God doesn’t speak words to us at all, which undermines the important Christian doctrine of inspiration – that indeed God has spoken and his word, the Bible, should be read as the very words of a communicative, verbal God.

There is something very appealing about a kind of mystical, non-verbal prayer. It serves as a foil against a totally rationalistic spirituality that we find in too many places today. Simplistic cognitive approaches leave us dry, uninspired, and unmoved. If all there is to our faith is a logical set of propositions, we feel we’ve missed something crucial because we are not merely rational beings. We also have emotions and spiritual drives that long for something other than arguments, credal statements, and formulaic how-tos.

Granted. But to swing the pendulum to the other extreme is to replace one unbiblical mode for another. A totally rational prayer life may be shaped more by the enlightenment than the Bible. On the other hand, non-verbal mystical prayer may look more like Buddhism than Gospel faith.

Now suppose I told you the interview quoted above was of Mother Teresa and the interviewer was Dan Rather. Does that change your opinion of the exchange? Or of my critique? Did you like the fact that Dan Rather got baffled?

When I told my wife I was going to write a blog about the interview she asked, “You’re not going to pick on Mother Teresa, are you? People don’t like it when you attack their favorite nun.”

Well, I hope I’m not attacking her. But, other than Jesus, no person’s life is 100% exemplary. We should be able to learn from flawed people’s successes as well as their failures and their good teaching as well as their mistakes. No one should be above a respectful critique. I think, in this case, Mother Teresa expressed a kind of mysticism that is different from what Scripture teaches, records, and models.

A study of the Bible’s teaching about and examples of prayer should shape our prayer lives far more than any other influence**. Our prayers should involve words and silence, speaking and listening, singing and confessing, gratitude and petition. And when curious outsiders ask, we can describe prayer in ways that explain as well as invite them to find out what they’re missing.

 

* Quoted in Chuck Swindoll, So You Want to Be Like Christ? Eight Essentials to Get You There  (Thomas Nelson, 2005), 61-62 And Skye Jethani, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God (Thomas Nelson, 2011), 114.

** A great study of Paul’s prayers that deserves close reading is D.A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Baker, 1992).

2 Comments

  1. Duncan Brown
    July 28, 2012

    “And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you” – it doesn’t make sense before or after you reveal the speakers. Isn’t that part of a Christian’s role – to as accurately as we can reflect God and ignite or introduce others into freedom. “I can’t explain it to you” closes another door. Assuming it ws a televised interview, it seems an opportunity was lost.

    You say “he even gave us the exact words to say (Luke 11:2)” Here’s a thought: Rather than a trite or even meaningful repetition by rote, I like to use his words as headings which help focus and release my own innermost feelings into words.

    There are (at least) 3 ways I pray: speaking to God (implies listening as well, as a conversation), speaking to the spirit world (including exercising authority) and speaking to my own soul/spirit (reminding myself of God’s words, spoken to me) some call it faith confession

    As you suggest, praying David’s Psalms have really helped me through difficult circumstances. Thanks for the post 🙂

    Reply
  2. Alexander Mack
    April 2, 2013

    Thank you so much for this article. I have been doing a lot more listening prayer lately and some of it has been fruitful maybe, but I have started feeling a little empty and weird about it. God doesn’t want us to sit there and think about nothing and wait for His “input” as if we are just some living receiver of information, not a person intimately acquainted with Him. The most incredible and helpful words I have received from the Lord have come at times that I was not looking for them! And the times I have felt most instructed by the Holy Spirit are times when He has been DIRECTING my thoughts. But I wasn’t emptying myself of thought. There is a need to quiet the heart and focus on the Lord. But the way I see it, God does not have a speech impediment, and I don’t need to “open myself to the silence” in order to hear Him.

    Then again, I get confused. It’s hard to tell where the line is! I was just doing this yesterday, and I think the Lord showed me things. But there was a lot of talking to Him and writing things down; I wasn’t just sitting in silence the whole time. At this point, I don’t know what is of God and what is not!!! But I thank you so much for this article, because I think it really helped me to read the writing of someone who is comparing these things to biblical truth. The days are evil, and it is so important to stay biblically sound. Lord bless!

    Reply

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