Pastor James Murphy on Mysticism and Experientialism

Many of you have already listened to First Baptist church of Johnson City, Pastor James Murphy’s sermon that I shared the other day. If you haven’t, I hope that you will because it is the most encouraging thing I’ve heard in a very long time. (click here to listen)

But I’d like to discuss some more of that message in depth because it is a danger I see more and more people, even sincere and seemingly wise believers, embracing.

I agree with Pastor Murphy’s assessment that after the Bible was undermined and God was taken off the throne and the gospel minimized “experiential” knowledge became desirable and the ancient-future movement (looking back to find the right way to do things) began to take root among Christians.

Murphy courageously addressed the introduction of such “pagan practices” into the church. He said, “The landmark book for the introduction of pagan practices into evangelicalism was Richard Foster’s book in 1979, he introduced this spiritual mysticism to a growing biblically illiterate church because of the dumbing down and minimizing of the bible called the Celebration of Discipline.”

Through that book, mysticism, asceticism and pietism came into the church. Mysticism, and he defined it: is the idea that you can “experience the divine intuitively, or by experience. You can feel God, you can hear his voice.”

This book is now so widely accepted and referred to that it is nearly ubiquitous.

“But it was in the 1970s after the modernism and the dumbing down of the church that this ancient future movement took hold in the fringes of evangelicalism. It wasn’t mainstream, it is now full-blown mainstream,” Murphy noted.

I’ve warned about Foster (and those he has influenced) before. He introduced unbiblical contemplative practices of silence (silencing the mind!) through “centering prayer” and lectio divina.

“It begins to introduce techniques of relaxation, techniques of transcendental meditation. Centering prayer isn’t praying to God and pouring out your heart [to Him]. It is finding a silence. If you hear of someone speak of silence they are speaking of a different and other form of Christianity. In this silent prayer you chant a word over and over and over…” Murphy said.

The Bible doesn’t teach us to pray like this and since Jesus instructed his followers in how to pray, don’t you think that if silencing our mind was the best way to pray to God he would have said so? Yet, he didn’t say that at all.

The Bible also doesn’t say that hearing the voice of God directly will be the normal experience of a believer. It is very important to recognize that those voices could coming from yourself or even from evil spirits — especially if you are emptying your mind in order to hear them.

I agree with Murphy on this point as well.

“If you’re hearing voices I’m concerned about you. I’m not trying to be funny. Nowhere in the Scripture does the Bible tell us to empty our minds and listen to a voice because Satan is more subtle than any beast of the field. How do you know who’s talking? You don’t know!”

The bottom line is that the meditation of Foster and other contemplatives is NOT the meditation of the Bible. Biblical meditation is think about and chew on passages of scripture, to study them and understand them better. Mystical meditation is putting yourself in a trance through repeated words or breaths in order to have an experience with the “divine.” I have no doubt whatsoever that people have real experiences in such a state, but I’ve read a lot on the subject and believe that those experiences are coming from the deceiver Satan himself who is a master of disguise.

Contemplative spirituality is not part of the narrow way we Christians are commanded to follow. As Murphy noted, The Center for Contemplative Spirituality says:  “‘We come from a variety of secular and religious backgrounds [syncretism] and we each seek to enrich our journey through spiritual practice and study of the world’s great spiritual traditions. [not the Bible!] We desire to draw closer to the loving Spirit which pervades all creation [that is pantheism and panentheism as a philosophy] and which inspires our compassion for all beings.’ Why? Because there is a divine spark in everybody,” Murphy concluded.

These practices lead to universalism and universal salvation heresies like Rob Bell’s as well as to panentheism and they are already widespread in the evangelical arena. I once spent a year in a Baptist church unaware of the many divergent false teachings that were pervading that church, including mysticism. At that time I hadn’t even heard of the word “contemplative,” but thankfully the Lord allowed me to be warned and I started researching the subject. Through that I realized the church even had a special “contemplative service” and on one Sunday I saw flyers for a weekend “contemplative retreat” that would show people a “new way to pray.” I left the church shortly thereafter, but am still grieved that so many are in danger there.

Beware brothers and sisters. Jesus told us in Matthew 7 to watch out for false prophets that will seem like sheep, but actually be “ravenous wolves.” We also have a spiritual enemy in the Devil who seeks to destroy us. Peter 5:8-9 warns us to “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.”

About Julia

Here's what you might like to know about me. My name is Julia and I'm a Christian. I love the Bible and, much less importantly, a good steak. My goal with this site is to share the truth of scripture with believer and non-believer alike, and to specifically encourage believers to study and know the Bible, and warn them of false teachings in and around the church. Romans 1:16-17 "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, the just shall live by faith."
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12 Responses to Pastor James Murphy on Mysticism and Experientialism

  1. I listened to it, and I think he’s dead on. The things he’s describing are all the things that turned me away from evangelicalism, all the things that felt wrong and unbiblical and empty. It is encouraging; I hope others will listen to him. Popular evangelicalism has gone off the rails.

    I don’t know much about the “ancient-future movement” — I had never heard of it until you mentioned it and I googled it. I don’t think looking to the past is in itself harmful — but it requires discernment, and it sounds like people have been looking to the wrong things in the past. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s right. And it has to be taken in the proper context. It sounds like Foster and others have taken Catholic mystical practices, combined then with New Age and Eastern elements, and separated them from their proper context — which is only in strict adherence to the teachings and authority of the Church.

    • Julia says:

      Based on my research the desert fathers/Catholic mystics were influenced by eastern religion. Lighthouse Trails Research is devoted exclusively to exposing contemplative spirituality for what it is (and where it came from). You can find more there if you want to look into it.

      • I have never read much of the Desert Fathers, so I can’t speak with any authority, but as I said in my original comment, everything in the past should be taken only with discernment. Mystical practices and contemplative spirituality are not at the mainstream of Catholic teaching. I have never heard it taught or even mentioned in church. The Catholic Church deals with these same movements that are affecting evangelicalism — so I think it’s a mistake to point a finger at the Church as the essential culprit. It’s the people, the writers who want to appropriate Catholic meditative practices and combine them with other elements who are the enemy (some of whom are in fact Catholic, but not mainstream).

        The Catechism has a section on contemplative prayer, but I don’t think it anywhere approaches the kind of practices you are talking about. It is about a deep and contemplative reflection on Jesus. It says in summary, “Contemplative prayer is the simple expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, an attentiveness to the Word of God, a silent love. It achieves real union with the prayer of Christ to the extent that it makes us share in his mystery.”

        This article seems to be what you’re referring to. And note that a borrowing from the East is only a speculation on the part modern authors. The Desert Fathers literally lived in the desert in an attempt to cut off all contact with worldly civilization. Influence by pagan religions in the East is highly unlikely.

        Each of the sources this article cites is from a modern-day proponent of contemplative spirituality, who wants to appropriate the Desert Fathers for the modern-day movement’s use, who is in favor of such blending with the East. The article essentially sets up a few straw men and knocks them down. I don’t think that is fair to the Desert Fathers or to history, to take only the testimony regarding them of the people one already wants to reject. (It is similarly not fair to give the rest of Catholicism that treatment.) The little I have read of the Desert Fathers is orthodox and praiseworthy.

      • P.S. You know, I was trying to agree with you.

  2. JessicaHof says:

    I’d be interested in any evidence that the Desert Fathers were influenced by non-Christian sources, Julia. Interesting post.

    • I made another reply to Julia above that’s stuck in the moderation queue (because I had two links in it, d’oh). So I’ll just give you one link and hope that works: This appears to be the primary article Julia was referring to. There may be others on this site. I’ll paste to you my comments about it from the aforementioned comment-in-limbo:

      This article seems to be what you’re referring to. And note that a borrowing from the East is only a speculation on the part of these modern authors. The Desert Fathers literally lived in the desert in an attempt to cut off all contact with worldly civilization. Influence by pagan religions in the East is highly unlikely.

      Each of the sources this article cites is from a modern-day proponent of contemplative spirituality, who wants to appropriate the Desert Fathers for the modern-day movement’s use, who is in favor of such blending with the East. The article essentially sets up a few straw men and knocks them down. I don’t think that is fair to the Desert Fathers or to history, to take only the testimony regarding them of the people one already wants to reject. (It is similarly not fair to give the rest of Catholicism that treatment.) The little I have read of the Desert Fathers is orthodox and praiseworthy.

  3. JessicaHof says:

    Dear me, if that is the source then I am a little anxious. It seems to suggest a link between the Alexandrian Gnostics, who were second century, and fourth century St. Anthony, whose life was written by St. Athanasius, both of whom were entirely orthodox. That piece shocked me, I am afraid.

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