Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Encountering Voices in the Silence of Contemplative Prayer

By Pastor Larry DeBruyn

Through practicing the discipline of solitude and silence, contemplative spiritualists hope to hear God personally speak to them. As one nationally known personality stated on the Be Still DVD, “intimacy automatically breeds revelation.”[1] But if a voice speaks, there is some question regarding its identity. Therefore, in the video’s same segment, “Fear of Silence,” Richard Foster offers advice about how to discern who might communicate in the stillness. He said,

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.[2]

Though there could be others, Richard Foster admits to a cacophony of possible voices that might speak: first, human voices from within and without (A source that could involve hearing oneself speak, in which case, contemplators would be listening to themselves.); second, Satan’s voice; and third, God’s voice.

In order to determine whose voice might be speaking, Foster provides criteria. If the voice is positive and reaffirming, then the voice is God’s. If however, the voice is that of a bully who “pushes and condemns,” then the voice must be that of Satan. To discern whether or not the voice is human, Foster offers no advice.

If the voice is human, one is left wondering, why go into a meditative trance to hear yourself, or another human, speak? After all, in the normal concourse of life people talk to themselves, and listen to others, all the time, unless contemplators feel so isolated and alone, or unless, in accord with the eastern monistic worldview, meditators believe they are gods so that when they hear their voice, they are listening to god!

Yet Foster is also of the opinion that the voice could be God’s. He errs, however, by asserting that the divine voice invariably “draws and encourages.” Scripture does not record that God exclusively spoke in that manner. Yes, God speaks positively. To disobedient Israel He said, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). But God also speaks negatively. Speaking for God, the prophets of Israel called the sinful nation to repentance as they warned the people of coming wrath and judgment. Of the prophets who droned on and on with their “encouraging” message, even in the face of Israel’s utter moral and spiritual collapse, the Lord said,

The prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds (Jeremiah 14:14).

In light of God’s manner of speaking through the prophets, can biblical Christians categorically dismiss all negative messages as originating from Satan?

Assuming that God speaks Soul to soul today, what if Foster’s paradigm for determining “the voice” was reversed, that the negative voice is God’s, and the positive is Satan’s? It happened that way. God warned Adam and Eve that for disobedience to His command, “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—when engaging meditative spirituality, the contemplator can never be certain who will speak, and consequently, the experience can become the spawning ground for myriads of flashy ideas based solely upon, “he heard this,” or, “she heard that.” At this juncture, Christians, and the church, will have turned aside “to myths” (2 Timothy 4:4).

We live in the age of the Holy Spirit and His spiritual communication and communion with the soul of the believer. But the Spirit’s communication is not always pleasant. Of the Holy Spirit’s communication Jesus predicted, “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). Even the Comforter does not always comfort. Sometimes He convicts, and conviction of soul is not pleasant to experience. It upsets. None of us likes criticism. We do not like to be told we are wrong. Yet without the voice of the Spirit’s conviction, we would continue in sin, pursue unrighteousness, and deny we are accountable to God for our behavior. So when, for legitimate reasons, the Spirit’s conviction comes over them, will Christians be so deluded by the positivity and feel-good mindset that saturates today’s evangelical church that they will ignore the Spirit’s conviction, or worse, that they will assign godly conviction to be the bullying voice of Satan?

Criticism is never pleasant, especially if it’s warranted. Instinctively, we become defensive. Nevertheless, not only is the Holy Spirit the believers’ Comforter, He is also their critic. As we might indulge the fleshly inclinations of our hearts, the Spirit brings feelings of guilt to bear down upon us. He calls us to repent of sin, and return to God’s righteousness. Again, should believers rightfully assign all guilt feelings to Satan? If the message of the plethora of positivity preachers who dominate evangelicalism is to be believed, then the answer would be, “Yes.” Negativity is of Satan. But if the Bible’s standard of spirituality is to be believed, the answer is “No,” for one mark of spirituality in the Bible is a person’s sensitivity to sin (See Genesis 18:27; Job 42:5-6; Isaiah 6:5; Luke 5:8; Romans 7:14-25; etc.).

In his classic work on the subject of holiness, German theologian Adolf Köberle countered the significance of the negative criteria Foster mentions. He wrote:

The clear-cut difference between mystical piety and that of the Bible can be seen most clearly in the attitude towards prayer. All mystical prayer . . . becomes a blissful absorption into divinity, where personal consciousness ceases, like the impassible, dreamy rest of Nirvana. The experience of all Biblical suppliants stands in direct contrast to this beatific transcendence. When anyone has really encountered God Himself and not merely a higher ego or an imaginary, fantastic portrayal of God, he is roused from dreaming to watchfulness, from an impure approach to a terrified retreat, from the familiar confidence of bombastic prayers to words that express a real feeling of awe towards the One Who is so far above the suppliant himself.[3]

Köberle then cites Isaiah’s response to his beatific communion with the Lord when he exclaimed,

Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (Isaiah 6:5).

Can Isaiah’s beatific experience accurately be described as one of being drawn to and encouraged by the Lord? If not, then to use Foster’s expression, was Isaiah being “bullied” by Satan?

That contemplative spiritualists engage in practices that, by their own admission, expose them to the influence of Satan’s voice is troubling. Scripture admonishes believers, “Neither give place [Or, opportunity] to the devil” (Ephesians 4:27). But in his advocacy of contemplative prayer, Richard Foster admits that Satan may seize the silence as an occasion to speak. He 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 supernatural guidance that is not divine guidance . . . there are various orders of spiritual beings, and some of them are definitely not in cooperation with God and his way![4]

Question: In light of Scripture’s admonition to “resist the devil” (James 4:7), why should Christians flirt with a spiritual practice that might expose them to hear Satan, or a demon, speak? The Apostle Paul warned,

Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God (Colossians 2:18-19).

One of the marks of spiritual defrauders is that they take their “stand on visions they have seen.” Is it not a legitimate inference from, and application of, Paul’s words to think that such defrauders might also take their stand upon voices they have heard?

The Truth:

"Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1)

[1] Michelle McKinney Hammond, “Fear of Silence,” Be Still (DVD © 2006 Twentieth Fox Home Entertainment LLC).
[2] Ibid., Richard Foster.
[3] Italics mine, Adolf Köberle, The Quest for Holiness, John C. Mattes, Translator (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1938) 35-36.
[4] Richard J. Foster, Prayer, Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992) 157. In a bibliographical note regarding Foster’s initial work, Celebration of Discipline (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), philosopher Arthur Johnson stated, “In an attempt to provide advice on living the Christian life, Foster promotes a very mystical view of Christianity.” Johnson concludes that, “Much of what the Protestant Reformers opposed is promoted by Foster.” See Arthur L. Johnson, Faith Misguided, Exposing the Dangers of Mysticism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988) 153.

Reprinted with permission. Altered slightly for blog use.