I recently had my personal spiritual retreat on Monday afternoon (December 29th): to seek God especially for His direction for the new year (2009). I have been clearing leave during this season so I have had the free time to slow down and take stock of this passing year, and Monday afternoon was the time I had set aside to seek God exclusively for an extended period of time. It has indeed been a very refreshing time, though also one in which the flesh rails against the spirit the most. But I digress.
Normally, I prefer not to reveal more personal stuff publicly on the Internet, focusing instead on more important stuff like doctrine and Christian issues. After all, I am nothing but dust but Christ is everything; Christ alone is eternal and worthy of praise, and that's why we should talk about Him and not ourselves, let alone me. Yet I will concede in this post so that my life experience in this particular episode may hopefully be used to instruct others — not that my life is that great, for I know my sins and weaknesses, but that Christ be magnified in the proclamation of His truth.
The idea for this post came about in the course of the retreat itself as I prayed over the terrible blight of spiritual poverty in the [Visible] Church. It must be admitted that modernist Evangelicalism, with all its positive thinking, 12-steps-to-this and 7-steps-to-that programs, is spiritually bankrupt and the thirst for true spiritual reality has swept many professing Evangelicals into the contemplative camp in search of spiritual satisfaction yet all they receive are counterfeit trinkets. Yet the Protestant Reformed tradition has the biblical answer to the heart's yearning for spiritual reality, and the tragedy is that so many overlook the truth, and even worse when they ignore it altogether. Instead of following God's way, they prefer their own methods; they have forsaken the fountains of living water for broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jer. 2:13). What utter folly! Yet like irrational animals (Jude 1:10), they refuse to listen to God and tumble into the pernicious error of Contemplative Spirituality, thinking that they can approach God under their own terms in their own manner (cf Lev. 10:1).
In this post therefore, I will share my own experience of how a biblical spiritual retreat is done which I am sure is reasonably biblical, and contrast it with the anti-Christian practice of Contemplative Spirituality. May this be edifying to the saints.
I started my retreat after lunch, which I had done outside somewhere in the Central district in the city. Finding a relatively quiet spot in the outdoors (ie no distraction except moderately soft background noise), I proceeded with the retreat proper. I don't have a particular liking of fixed schedule of things to do as it reminds me of Modernism (although fixed order/liturgies are not Modernism, yet Modernism does consist of them) and anyway this was a personal retreat, so the activities during the few hours of retreat was more or less done in a dynamic fashion "as the Spirit leads" so to speak. First of course was prayer to dedicate this portion of time to the Lord, then the remaining time was spent alternating between prayer, reading the Word, reading a good Christian book I had with me (A Heart for Reformation — review here) and worship. The retreat was finally closed with a closing prayer after all was done.
Prayer is a two-way conversation, although NOT in the way the Contemplative spiritualists have made it out to be. In prayer, the focus must be on God and on God's Will, NOT treating God as if he is a Santa Claus to be thrown a shopping/wish list at! That is not prayer. Unless one comes before God in humility and contrition of his sins, God will not hear. The focus is always on God (theocentric) not on fulfilling our own whims and fancies or even our yearnings for spiritual reality. In prayer especially when we desire sweet communion with our LORD, there must be preparation in terms of genuine repentance and we must live in obedience to Him. It is no coincidence that the first few propositions in the Lord's Prayer asks us to glorify God and calls for His will to be done. God speaks to us today through His Word as the Spirit illuminates it to our hearts, and therefore knowledge of the Word of God and doctrine is important as God uses His Word to speak to us. Isn't it any wonder therefore when few Evangelicals can hear God speaking to them, for they know not the Word of God nor biblical doctrine? How can anyone claims to love God and want to know Him, yet refuse to read and understand the primary love letter God has written to us in the Bible? Whose fault it is when Evangelicals complain that they cannot hear God and have communion with Him? If they refuse to learn the language of God's revelation and believe its truth, they have only themselves to blame; God does not reward disobedience!
Traditional Christian spirituality revolves around what are termed the "means of grace" to nurture our walk with God (progressive sanctification). In our personal walk, these includes prayer and the Word. (Corporate means of grace includes hearing the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments). Contemplative spirituality however guts both means of grace and replace them with counterfeits. In place of the Word of God, they offer mantras loosely based upon the Word of God (ie Lectio Divina). In place of biblical prayer, they offer contemplative prayer. In the former substitution, an easy method of repeating biblical words/phrases over and over again in counterfeit meditation is given. Such is Jeroboam all over again. Remember the reason given by King Jeroboam of the northern Kingdom as to why he made the two golden calves in the first place? It was because it was too hard to go up to Jerusalem to worship God (1 Kings 12:28 - NIV), so here was an easier alternative to be pious before God, or so it was claimed. The biblical method of reading and using your mind to understand God's truth is so hard (and we don't want to appear too doctrinaire, right? Why, that would be just like the Pharisees!) for many, and so substituting it with Scripture as mantra is just so much easier to do in order to purportedly get the same spiritual benefits.
Along with a counterfeit "Word" comes counterfeit prayer. Why should we spend so much time understanding God's Word, and then after that we are "forced" into contrition and repentance as the Word of God exposes our sins? No, no, no! That wouldn't do at all! Here's an easier method which requires little effort and promises the same benefits as the harder one PLUS, you do not need to feel uncomfortable as the Spirit pricks your conscience over your sins. Practicing Contemplative prayer and hearing God "speaking out of the silence" is much more alluring than having the Holy Spirit communicating God's truth to us while devastating our idols and pride. Why the necessity for pain when there is an easier alternative?
True biblical spiritual disciplines and retreats are done wholly dependent and in obedience to the Word of God, while false spiritual disciplines and retreats are practised according to the vain imaginations and philosophies of Man (Col. 2:8). Biblical spiritual disciplines center on the means of grace as spelled out in Scripture, and thus comprise thoughtful reading, understanding, systematizing, meditation on and application of the Word of God and its truths in the lives of Christians. Coupled with that is prayer which is done intelligently based upon a proper understanding of the Word of God and submission to His Will. A time of spiritual retreat is therefore a period of time set aside and devoted to God whereby all worldly and even ministry matters are placed to one side so that the believer can spend that period of time focused on reading God's Word, praying and worshipping God. The "silent retreat" promoted by the contemplative spiritualist mystics however voids the Word of its power and promotes spirituality without God and therefore leads people away from God. Such laziness in contemporary Evangelicalism is definitely not acceptable before God and will be punished by Him. As it is written
The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied (Prov. 13:4)
It is very unfortunate that this doctrine of demons has entered the Evangelical Movement through the Trojan horse of Quaker Richard J. Foster and his organization Renovare. Through his best-selling book The Celebration of Discipline, Foster introduces undiscerning Evangelicals to the so-called Desert Fathers and the "Christian" tradition of contemplation, a tradition which developed during the Dark Ages as the Church then has sliden into apostasy. Just as we do not tolerate the doctrine of Arianism (that Jesus is not truly God) just because it was once embraced by some who call themselves Christians at one time or another in church history, it is simply stupid to argue that we should consider the "Contemplative tradition" as being a legitimate Christian tradition just because some who call themselves Christians once practiced it.
As we have seen, Contemplative Spirituality is un-biblical and anti-Christian in its outlook. We must remember that Contemplative Spirituality is not about being quiet as opposed to being pre-occupied by other matters (that is a straw-man), but about seeking intimacy and communion with God apart from the God-appointed means of doing so. By attempting to short-circuit the process of growth, Contemplative Spirituality pits itself against Christ and His Word, and is therefore not to be promoted or partaken of by Christians. Remember:
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Prov. 14:12, 16:25)
With this, let me close with this exhortation to all believers. If you value your walk with God, I implore you to have nothing whatsoever to do with the blasphemous and anti-Christian methodologies of Contemplative Spirituality. Reject them like the plague that it is, and turn back to the simplicity of the Gospel and the pure spiritual milk therein (1 Peter 2:2). Otherwise
30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” (Ez. 18: 30-32)