"One thing have i asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life;
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple."
I’ve been pondering this for some time now, and my heart is heavy. I’m going to try to approach this topic as gently as I know how, but this is, honestly, something I have spent time praying and crying about, so I’m not trying to gin up controversy or be a jerk or call anyone out or be hyper-critical or anything. These are the kinds of posts I always post with shaking fingers and some nervousness, but here it is.
There is a....I don’t want to call it movement, but I’m not sure what else to call it.... among the evangelical circles in which I run, in real life and online, toward a kind of ‘Christian’ contemplative type of prayer. It’s a subtle thing, and in many cases the ideas I’m struggling with are not introduced with any malicious intent or intent to deviate from truth. They are introduced with the best of intentions. However, good intentions aren’t the standard. Uzzah had good intentions when he reached out his hand to stop the Ark of the Covenant from falling from a moving ox cart, and you can read what happened in 2 Samuel 6.
Here is my heartbreak: I am afraid that in desiring a more consistent or deeper prayer life, we too often get distracted looking for an intense experience with God and seeking some kind of emotional experience with Him and we deviate from hungering for and seeking God. Scripture tells us over and over to seek God, but doesn’t focus on seeking an experience or some emotional, highly personalized, mystical or romanticized feeling, or a certain kind of mood that we are so prone to seek, but we’re told to seek to know Him. There is a difference. I’m not sure I am expressing myself well, but there is a difference.
I think, sometimes, that well-meaning Christians are getting tripped up by subtle word usage. To contemplate isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if by it you mean to think about God’s word, to study it, to learn the meaning and implications of what you are reading, to learn to think carefully about how to apply it to your life and to repent when the Holy Spirit, through the Word, opens your eyes to areas where you are not living in accordance with His Word and to obey it as one who loves God. That kind of contemplation, if you will, is good.
However, there’s something called ‘contemplative prayer’ that has other connotations and baggage that aren’t so much good. Start searching around the internet for ‘contemplative prayer’ or ‘centering prayer’ and you find that it’s a whole different kind of contemplating being encouraged. It’s way beyond the scope of this post to get into all the ways it is rooted in ‘New Age’ thought and Eastern mysticism, but that in itself ought to give us serious pause. If you do a search, there’s lots of good and bad information about that. What I wanted to focus on here is a more narrow scope, mostly focusing how a sincere attempt to become a better pray-er, for lack of a better term, can sometimes get off track if we fall into the ditch of being too desirous of a certain mood or emotion or experience.
I sincerely believe that it is a good desire to want to be more committed to prayer and to want to see your church become more of a praying church. We need to pray. As believers it’s so important to have a vital prayer life, privately and corporately. I get a little frustrated with some of the discussion I hear about prayer, though. Why do we have such a hard time grasping prayer? We either reduce it to a time of listing all the ailments that we know about from close friends and family to far distant people and spend the whole time praying people out of heaven, so-to-speak (I’m not saying we aren’t supposed to pray for sick people, just that this is not ALL we’re to pray about), or, in the genuine spark of recognition that this is not really all prayer is meant to be, we get creative and try to incorporate all the senses in an experiential, highly personal, ultimately too inwardly focused exercise. Another movement I see in the evangelical camp is one that seems enthralled with ‘creativity’, but unfortunately there’s not a lot of discernment coming alongside it. (This website is chock full of the kind of stuff that I’m talking about but definitely not endorsing, if you want some context.) Both extremes end up shallow and empty and devoid of the power we say we seek in prayer...and miss the mark, I would argue.
The thing is, in order to worship God, we ought to be focused on who God is, His attributes, and what He has done. Worship means to ascribe worth to someone or something, to acknowledge the worthiness of the object of our worship to be worshipped. It’s about God, not about us and what we can get out of it or experience in it.
Of course, rightly informed worship, grounded in God’s word and focused on His attributes and marvelous grace will ultimately cause emotions to well up in us as our affections are stirred to love and glorify God. I’m not against emotions or a mood that is affected by true worship. I’m often very emotional while worshiping. It’s not that we worship coldly in a vacuum. What I’m disheartened by is an attempt, no matter how well-meaning, to manipulate emotions or generate a certain mood through overly creative experiences and too much focus on ourselves and our senses and how we feel.
I think in our desire to seek an experience, we get too inwardly focused, too focused on me and how I feel and my supposed ‘worth’ and what this means to me, and then we begin to pray in a way that, ultimately, is more about us than it is about God. We begin to focus on the wonder that is us, rather than taking our focus off of ourselves and turning in wonder, awe and praise to the One who has saved us, redeemed us, reconciled us to Himself, turning in worship to the One who has lavished such grace in not consuming us in our sin but in cleansing us from our sin by bearing the wrath that we deserve. I am convinced that we do not think often enough and deeply enough about the fact that we deserve wrath. We were wretched, poor, blind and hopeless....But God, in mercy and grace, sent Jesus to bear the wrath we deserve in our place and in grace and mercy to clothe those who in repentant faith place their hope in Him in His righteousness to worship Him and honor Him forever more. And we dare to sit in contemplative introspection and think about the wonder that is us?
I think sometimes we are too willing to take poetic license with how we write and sing and talk and think about God. I’m not saying creativity and poetry are wrong, and I know some people are just artsier than I am and more in tune with their creative side. But. We have been given God’s word, and we need to make sure our creativity and poetic license don’t violate it or point our affections at ourselves rather than Him.
When Jesus gave us the model prayer, He didn’t instruct us to ponder how gifted we are or how we feel about things or how we can forgive ourselves. Take a look at that prayer again, and think about it, if you will. (Matthew 6:8-12) Where is the focus? How we feel? How gifted/talented/creative we are? No.
When Isaiah saw God, he did not then contemplate how wonderful or gifted he (Isaiah) was. He did not then sit and contemplate the amazing creation that was himself. No. He saw himself for the wretch he was before Holy God. “And I said, ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’” (Isaiah 6:5) And when we rightly think about it, this is what we know ourselves to be. Not a wonder, but a wretch. And, friends, this makes God’s grace all the more amazing, as we contemplate it. When you really start to think about how awesome the gospel is, how incredible Jesus’ statement from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” you can’t help but be moved emotionally, and you can’t help but be moved to worship HIM rather than sit there taking in deeply how wonderful you are. He loves us not because we are wonderfully lovable, but while we were yet sinners He loved us in all of our wretchedness and died on the cross and bore the wrath that we deserve, and by the grace of the perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, through faith in Christ alone, declares us righteous. That is how He has demonstrated His love for us. Because Jesus bore my wretchedness on the cross, bore the wrath I deserve, I stand before Him, clean and righteous and holy. Think long and hard about that, and I am convinced you will begin to pray.
The more I think about this and look at prayers in the Bible, the more I’m convinced that the prayers God will hear are not those that focus on how lovable we are. The prayers we need to be seeking to pray are those that focus on our awesome, incredible God and that ask for things that would bring honor and glory to Him. We desperately need to turn our focus from ‘What am I getting out of this? What is my blessing?’ to ‘What pleases my God?’
Then we can be freed from the tyrannical discontent of seeking a romanticized, highly personalized, heightened emotional mystical feeling and freed to seek our God, through the precious and glorious grace He has offered us in His Son. We are freed to rest in His forgiveness and grace. We are freed to feast on His word and have our prayers informed by rightly dividing the Word of God and to know Him, and that we may learn to pray rightly for others - fellow believers and the lost - that our love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment; so that we may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 2:9-11)
Friends, we don’t find that by looking inward and being awed by the wonder that is us. We find that by denying ourselves and looking up at our Savior and savoring the grace that He has so richly lavished on us while we were yet sinners, and savoring the blessing that through Jesus Christ we are declared righteous and able to stand in His presence and boldly approach the throne of grace. Let's not open the door to deception. Let’s not settle for the cheap imitation of manipulated emotion and self-focused, romanticized notions of worship. Let’s dig into His word, and with renewed minds fixed on Jesus Christ, pray from a heart that is regenerated and transformed by the power of Him who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject all things to Himself. (Philippians 3:21)