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  • Writer's pictureRusty McKie

Why Mysticism Scares Us

When talking to others about contemplative prayer — seeking to pay attention to and experience God's presence — I often hear a refrain of fear.

How do you know it's God's Spirit you're experiencing? Isn't that just being driven by our emotions? Shouldn't we seek a more objective experience?

The problem with this line of thinking is that the Bible encourages us toward a subjective experience of God.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. - Ephesians 3:14-19

I don't know about you, but I'd love to experience being "filled with all the fullness of God" and "have strength to comprehend" Christ's surpassing-knowledge love.

So why do we find ourselves resistant to seeking experience?

Here are a couple of reasons to consider.

1. We Forget what it's like to not know something

Out of all the insightful concepts in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, here's my favorite — The most challenging task in life is to remember what it was like not to know something.

We'll come back to this idea in a second.

The word "mystical" has the same root as "mystery." And at least in a biblical sense, mystery doesn't mean unknowable but to be revealed by God in his timing (Colossians 24-27; esp. vs.26-27).

As Bernard McGinn puts it, "Mystical theology is the knowledge of God gained not by human rational effort but by the soul's direct reception of a divine gift." (Source)

McGinn's definition is an Ephesians 3:14-19 way of thinking.

Now we can revisit that Made to Stick concept — we fear new experiences with God once we've forgotten how mystical the Christian life is in reality.

Contemplative prayer (sitting still with God) may seem edgier than talking to God, yet prayer at its core is a subjective experience. We speak to God and believe He listens. Crazy!

Think of the mystical nature of salvation, reading your Bible so God's Spirit might guide you, or service as a means to reflect Christ's loving presence to the world.

All of these are profound mystical experiences; we've just grown familiar with them.

2. We resist past abuses of Experience

Perhaps, you grew up in a sensationalist or emotionally driven religious culture. Past abuses of experience can cast a shadow of cynicism onto seeking a present experience of God.

While questioning experience is needed, we shouldn't be skeptical for skepticism's sake. Instead, we should discern truth so that we can know Jesus more personally (1 John 4:1-6). Someone else's extreme is never a positive motivator for how you live.

We would be wise to go back farther than our own experience and learn from church history here.

J.I. Packer says it much better than I can, "When, however, experiential aspects of life in the Spirit come up for treatment (as distinct from convictional, vocational, and disciplinary aspects)... Evangelicals for the most part seem to be at a loss. In this terrain of direct perceptions of God — perceptions of his greatness and goodness, his eternity and infinity, his truth and love, and his glory, all as related to Christ and through Christ to us — understanding was once much richer than is commonly found today. This is a place where we have some relearning to do." (Source)

3. We Confuse personal experience with radical individualism

Charles Taylor has written extensively on our cultural gospel messages (Source).

An ever-present cultural gospel promotes a message of salvation through self-expression and radical individualism. You've heard the mantras:

  • You do you.

  • Find your truth.

  • Be yourself.

As we talk about mystical experience that leads us to become our most authentic self in Christ, we can fear that we're co-opting a cultural message.

Is this you do you plus Jesus?

However, Tim Keller describes (based on Taylor's work) how our cultural gospels found their origin stories in Christianity (Source). Self-expressionism is no different. It co-opted discovering our true self in Christ and eventually redacted out the "In Christ" part.

Before self-expressionism was a concept in the West, we find a tradition in the church in the East of a mysticism leading to knowing God and our true self.

What's your Hangup?

Perhaps, more than any of these reasons, we're scared of a mystical experience with God because it is unknown.

  • Will it work?

  • Will I be bored?

  • Will God be enough?

  • Will God be too much?

We have to wrestle these questions to the ground and try. Taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8) involves putting our fear aside, taking God at His Word, and seeking to know Him with our whole self.

Following Jesus is more than knowing stuff about Jesus. It's a personal relationship with the God who is Love who wants an intimate relationship with us.

The real question is not:

  • Is a mystical experience to be feared?

  • But what's keeping you from this loving God?


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