Contemplative Prayer

We all hunger for a prayer-filled life, for a richer and fuller practice of the presence of God. Richard Foster describes it as “a deepening love for God that feels more like a gift than an achievement; a peace that cannot be dissected, a quiet rest; a flaming passion; a transformation into the likeness of Christ, taking on his habits, feeling, hopes, faith and love.”1 It is the contemplation of God that fuels our mission for God.

The Scriptures call every Christ-follower to a life characterized by both the contemplation and activity of a loving and focused attention on God. One of the pressing issues for Christians, living in this age of distraction, is how to develop a more balanced, contemplative lifestyle. One answer for an increasing number of Christians includes contemplative prayer. They find the pursuit of this spiritual discipline drawing them into a more intimate and vibrant walk with Christ.  What we need and hunger for is a more balanced Christian life. While we must always ensure that our spiritual practices flow out of a theological framework, it is also important for us to explore the Bible and be open to aspects of our spiritual lives we have never developed. If we want to “taste and see” the goodness of God, we need to do more than know about Him – we must know Him.

Both the Scriptures and our spiritual heritage illustrate the importance of the contemplative life in producing a mature Christian walk. Therefore, as a church family, we support a biblically based, Christ centered practice of contemplative prayer. While we do support biblical contemplative prayer, we also recognize that there is a spiritual practice of contemplative prayer that has arisen that is not firmly rooted in the Scriptures or church history. There are people who have been deceived by a counterfeit perpetrated by Satan, who loves to tempt believers with half-truths, as he endeavored to do with our Savior in the wilderness.  As a result, we would not support every practice that people call “contemplative prayer” but only that which rests on a biblical understanding of sin and grace, justification by faith alone, and the objective nature of Christ’s work.

Because we believe there is a basis for biblical contemplative prayer, this paper is written to help define this practice, its basis in Scripture and our Christian heritage, the spiritual benefits of its use, and an awareness of two practices that need examination.


Defining Contemplative Prayer

The contemplative life has been described as a steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us. One expression of that life is contemplative prayer, which is the “act and experience of a person’s spirit opening to the indwelling Spirit of Christ. He is the one who is continually revealing Himself to us and bearing witness to our spirit that we are children of God, who are loved by Him, but in such a way that this opening of our spirits is in fact due to the movement of God’s Spirit.”2

For additional information on our beliefs regarding the Holy Spirit, please see Our Confession of Faith3 along with additional papers on Spiritual Gifts4 and Spirit Led Worship5.

Whereas meditation is the active use of our mind to engage God through reading and praying Scripture (active and intentional reflection), contemplative prayer is our loving attentiveness and grateful gazing on God (experiential and savoring). It is the kind of intentional focus that builds on biblical convictions about God but goes beyond them in terms of the experience it generates. This contemplation has been a part of the response of many believers to God from early in the history of the church, where a four-step process led them to first read, then to meditate, then to pray, and finally to contemplate. This contemplation is not divorced from the life of the mind. It simply constitutes a capstone, as it gathers all these aspects into a response of affection, wonder, and delight.


It’s Scriptural and Spiritual Heritage

The Old and New Testament are filled with examples of believers’ contemplative prayers and their exhortations for others to personally experience God. From the Psalmist’s “gazing on the beauty of the Lord,” to the Apostle Paul praying that the “eyes of our hearts would be enlightened,” we see the longing of God’s people to experience His presence, and their prayers for us to do the same.

“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.”6

“As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God…”7

“O God, You are my God; earnestly I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh faints for You…”8

“I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of our hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His great might…”9

“I bow my knees before the Father …. that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being … and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may  be filled with all the fullness of God.”10

Responding to these spiritual exhortations and examples, Christ-followers throughout church history, moved by the Spirit, have pursued greater intimacy with God through contemplation.

  • Church Father, St. Augustine, wrote of his pursuit of God, “O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, I sought you outside and I had you within.”11
  • Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages, dedicated eight articles to the contemplative life in his writings.12
  • Jonathan Edwards, one of the most brilliant theologians and pastors in American history, wrote “My manner has commonly been to walk for divine contemplation and prayer. Recently, I had a view of the glory of the Son of God… of his full, pure, sweet grace and love, with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception, which continued about an hour and kept me in tears.”13

Both in Scripture and throughout Church history, biblical contemplation and prayer is a practice of attentive beholding – a gazing on the object of our delight that assumes and builds on rational convictions about Christ, but goes beyond them in terms of the experience they generate. We behold in order to become. “This personal knowledge of God cannot be attained by human effort or spiritual activities on their own, but is always grounded in the regenerating and ongoing illuminating and animating ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who connects us back to God.”14


The Biblical Result of Contemplative Prayer

As we see from the Scriptures in their biblical exhortations and historical examples, contemplative prayer is the practice of opening our heart to discern and experience the Spirit’s work in the inner man. It is a response to Paul’s command in

Colossians to “let the Word of Christ richly dwell in your hearts,”15 and in Ephesians to “be filled with the Spirit…making melody with your hearts to the Lord.”16 This allowing of ourselves to be filled (passive voice) is scriptural contemplation. It is the cooperating with, and participating in, the work of the Spirit to bring about the following realities that the Apostle Paul prays for in Ephesians 1 and 3:

  • That we be given a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God (1:17)
  • That we have the eyes of our heart enlightened to know our hope, the riches of His glory, and the greatness of God’s power toward us (1:18-19)
  • That we be strengthened with power in the inner person (3:16)
  • That Christ dwell in our hearts through faith (3:16)
  • That we come to experientially know the extent of the love of God (3:18-19)
  • That we be filled with all the fullness of God (3:19)

Through contemplative prayer, God wants to move these truths from mere head knowledge to a personal experience of the indwelling Spirit. He wants to take what Christ has made available to us on the basis of His finished work on the cross and make it a reality in our lives. Applying these Scriptures to the practice of contemplative prayer we conclude:

  • It is grounded in the work of Christ to reconcile our sinful nature to Him.
  • It values both the intellectual precepts of our faith, and the self-revelation of God to us, in order to love and strengthen us.
  • It does not encourage us to “empty our minds,” but rather to empty our hearts of unnecessary distractions to open our spirit to the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • It is not solely dependent on an engineered spiritual discipline, but is the work of the Spirit of God, who initiates His presence, resulting in greater intimacy and maturity.


Recognizing Imitations and Distortions of Contemplative Prayer

All the world’s religions, and secular spirituality also, offer contemplative techniques for dealing with mental distractions, calming the body and mind, and bringing a measure of relief from anxiety and stress. From the monotheistic religious experiences found in Judaism, Islam, and Roman Catholic Mysticism, to the Eastern religious practices of Hinduism, Buddhism, and New Age Transcendental Meditation, all of them claim to connect their followers to the transcendent in transformative ways through contemplation. But there is no Scriptural basis for these claims because they are seeking God through means other than Christ and His revealed Word.

Nevertheless, because the Scriptural practice of contemplative prayer has been absent in many Christian communities, spiritually sensitive seekers have been susceptible to imitations and distortions of this practice, such as the expectation of a certain type of experience. They have been drawn by the perceived therapeutic benefits and the promise of a stronger inner sense of centeredness, meaning, and even healing. These all being physical or psychological benefits that place one’s focus on themselves rather than on God. Two prevalent practices affecting our Christian culture and some in our Fellowship Church family today that require a discerning spirit are the Theophostic Prayer Ministry and Centering Prayer.

  • Theophostic Prayer Ministry – This ministry is an approach to “mind renewal,” or the healing of emotional pain. It is perhaps the fastest-growing method of inner healing (or healing of memories) moving through evangelical churches today. Ed Smith, its founder, claims this approach was a direct revelation given to him by God in 1996 in his counseling ministry with patients of sexual abuse. He realized all of us have memories based on lies or false impressions, and these are the root of much of our present pain and irrational, undesirable behavior. As a result, he developed this counseling approach, which he states is not a counseling ministry but a prayer ministry.

In a “prayer session,” the facilitator invites Jesus into the meeting and asks Him to reveal His truth about the person’s memories. The counselee then waits on Jesus for an “encounter” and the vision, words, or realization which will be impressed on his or her mind. Jesus actually enters into the counselee’s memory so he or she can reexperience the event with Christ, revealing the truth in the midst of it, creating a new experience. The person is then healed by Jesus in this area of their emotional lives.

From a Scriptural standpoint, we have two concerns. First, there is no Scriptural basis for the process this ministry offers or the promises it makes. We need to be extremely cautious about creating spiritual expectations that are not grounded in the Word of God, as they can raise false hope and cripple future steps of faith. Secondly, its application can take certain detours, depending on the biblical grounding of the person guiding the recipient. Their spiritual immaturity or lack of biblical insight can steer the recipient away from the truth.

For these reasons, we discourage anyone from engaging in this counseling/prayer ministry.

  • Centered Prayer – This prayer focus or technique asks the praying person to sit in silence for an established time period with the intention of being present before God. Its focus is on making and keeping an appointment with God. There are four recommended guidelines. First, choose a sacred word as the symbol of one’s intention to consent to God’s presence and action within (this word is not meant to be a mantra). Second, sit comfortably with eyes closed, assuming a posture that embodies respect and receptivity, that represents surrender. Third, when praying people become aware their minds are wandering, return to their sacred word, allowing grace to move them away from the distraction. Fourth, conclude the prayer time with the Lord’s Prayer and a statement of gratitude. This form of prayer is promoted by the Catholic organization Contemplative Outreach, which has 160 chapters world-wide and has gained national prominence in its forty-year existence through articles in major publications in the U.S. It has also been embraced by many in the evangelical church.

Three words of caution about this practice. First, Thomas Keating, the modern-day father of centering prayer and a Roman Catholic priest, also embraces universalistic leanings and has made pantheistic-like statements. Involvement in this movement has the potential to draw Christ-followers into a wider spectrum of reading and practices that are not Christian. Second, this form of prayer needs to not only focus on “who we are in Christ,” but also on “who He wants us to love through Christ,” helping us become a new person more deeply committed to loving others. Finally, it should be a form of prayer that grows out of a well-developed practice of vocal and Scripturally centered prayer. All prayer needs to be grounded in God’s revelation of Himself (and our access to Him) through the finished work of Jesus Christ. We must be able to define and declare those truths before we dwell in them.

For these reasons, we urge each person who chooses to engage in centered prayer to make sure their practice is grounded in biblical truth. Jesus guideline for prayer in John 15:7 exhorts every Christ-follower to not only abide in him but for his Word to abide in them. In addition, everyone who seeks God using centered prayer needs to be aware there are numerous secular and spiritual proponents of this approach whose writings and application of this method of prayer could lead them away from a Scriptural and historical pursuit of God.


Footnotes: 1 Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster, Harper Collins, p.49;2 Embracing Contemplation by John Coe, Intervarsity Press, p.31; 3 Our Beliefs Position Paper ; 4 Spiritual Gifts Position Paper; 5 Spirit Led Worship Position Paper; 6 Psalm 27:4;7 Psalm 42:1-2;8 Psalm 63:1;9 Ephesians 1:16-19;10 Ephesians 3:14,16,19; 11 The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 10 by F.J. Sheed, Sheed & Ward, p.236; 12 Embracing Contemplation by John Coe, Intervarsity Press, p.63; 13  Embracing Contemplation by John Coe, Intervarsity Press, p.106; 14  Embracing Contemplation by John Coe, Intervarsity Press, p.28; 15 Colossians 3:16;16 Ephesians 5:18-19