[First published in the Midwest Christian Journal, Spring/Summer 2006; modified for website March, 2008]
Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving.
Col. 4:2 NASB
NOTE: This is an evaluation of the DVD “Be Still,” and not an attack on the participants who appear to be genuinely sincere in their assertions. However, as instructed in God’s word, we are to test all teachings carefully. DVD participants include Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Max Lucado, Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Henry Cloud, Peter Kreeft, and others.
Before salvation in Christ, the writer of this article was involved for many years in New Age and Eastern forms of mediation, including Tibetan Buddhist and Zen Buddhist meditation.
At the beginning, the DVD Be Still tells us how important prayer is, and that biblical meditation is “reflective thinking on a biblical truth, so God is able to speak to us through scripture.” If the DVD continued in this vein – that biblical meditation is “reflective thinking on a biblical truth” and involves pondering God’s word (i.e., the purpose of biblical meditation) – this article would not exist. But later the narrator states, “Christian meditation is the practice of being in the presence of God. Its ultimate goal is to seek holy God, and receive his guidance and grace.”
One naturally wonders why Christians are not already receiving guidance and grace through conventional prayer, Bible reading, worship, and regular contemplation done in the usual fashion — that is, thinking and pondering on God’s word using the mind He gave us, and as the Holy Spirit leads through standard Bible study. Have Christians been missing out all along?
Silence is Better
The teachings and advice on this DVD place silence and being physically still on a higher plane than normative talking to God. (Additionally, the title “Be Still” is taken out of context as explained further on in this article). Seeking to hear God’s voice by being still and silent is given as advice throughout the DVD, and this is presented as absolutely essential to being a spiritually healthy Christian. However, Christians are already in God’s presence through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and through our relationship with Christ. We have access to God’s throne in Christ (Heb. 4.16; 10:19, 20). Using words in prayer is not going to damage or undermine this relationship. During prayer, a Christian can be convicted by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit speaks through God’s word, so we can “hear” God without having to be still and silent.
The video, full of music and scenes that will stir those watching, sets up a false dichotomy from the very beginning. Just because we are a busy society and can get too caught up in activities, does not mean that sitting in complete silence in order to hear God is the answer. It may be true that we need to carve out time for devotions and prayer, but it does not follow that our busy lives demand the form of “prayer” the DVD is advocating. The DVD repeatedly emphasizes this with scenes of people rushing here and there contrasted with a still lake or other peaceful scenes. Nowhere in the Bible are we taught that to hear God we must be physically still and silent. The verses used for this in the video are taken out of context and do not support this credo.
The title and theme of the DVD are based on Ps. 46.10 (“Be still and know that I am God”). Beth Moore even asserts that “God’s Word is so clear, that if we are not still before Him, we will never truly know to the depths of the marrow in our bones that He is God.” In reality, Psalm 46 is God rebuking men for not recognizing His power and might! He is telling the nations and Israel to hush up, cease striving, and recognize the power and sovereignty of God (see related article, “Meditation and Psalm 46:10,“). In fact, the words “be still” are rendered “cease striving” in the NASB, “calm down” in the CEV, “Stop [your fighting]” in the HCSB, and “desist” in Young’s Literal.
The DVD also draws on Psalm 62 where David says that his soul waits “in silence for God only.“ Is David waiting in contemplative prayer mode to hear God’s voice? When we examine this passage, we discover this is not the case at all. David is talking about recognizing that only God can save. The focus is on trusting in the Lord, not on the silence, nor does the passage indicate that David is praying.
From New Concepts of God to Progressing in Sleep
Many dubious claims are made as though they are established truths. These declarations need to be vigorously scrutinized.
New Concept of God. Calvin Miller, author of Into the Depths of God: Where Eyes See the Invisible, Ears Hear the Inaudible and Minds Conceive the Inconceivable, tells us that silence “gives us a new concept of God.” What does he mean by this? Our concept is based on knowing Christ and on the Bible, and the idea of a “new” concept of God is rather disturbing. We should immediately want to know why silence gives us a new revelation about God, and we should wonder why we need a new concept of God in the first place.
Lectio Divina, described by Foster as “spiritual reading” of the Bible, has its own section on Be Still. Lectio Divina, meaning a “sacred reading,” and sometimes called “praying the Scriptures,” is defined and practiced differently by various Christian groups. Ir allegedly was practiced by the “Desert Fathers” and in monasteries though other sites claim it came into practice in the 6th century. One definition describes it as “a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures which enables the Bible, the Word of God, to become a means of union with God“ while a Roman Catholic site states “Lectio divina is a reading, on an individual or communal level, of a more or less lengthy passage of Scripture, received as the word of God and leading, at the prompting of the Spirit, to meditation, prayer and contemplation.”
The majority of teachings seem to involve choosing a Bible passage and reading it silently and very slowly several times; noticing a portion that speaks to you; repeating that portion aloud over and over but without thinking about it; and then “listening” for what God is saying through the text to you, often ending with a prayer. This is done alone or with a group.
It differs from regular Bible reading and study since Lectio Divina is not based on thinking about or analyzing Scripture in context, but rather uses Scripture to lead one into an Eastern-style meditation (i.e., a state achieved by bypassing or turning off the mind). In recent years, forms of Lectio Divina have become increasingly linked and promoted with Contemplative Prayer as part of a larger “Contemplative Spirituality.”
The method taught here appears to use God’s word as a mystical and subjective tool rather than reading the Bible as the objective word of God, letting the text speak for itself, and then allowing the personal application to flow from that. The Holy Spirit aids Christians as we read and study the Bible in the normal fashion; that is, one can derive both comprehension of the words and at the same time experience God’s presence without practicing a technique. One should not be looking for personal messages in the Bible, but rather personal applications of the message. In teaching that one must read the Bible in a distinctive way in order to get a personal message from the text, the Be Still DVD makes a false dichotomy between head and heart, a mistake common in this DVD.
Being healed? Katherine A. Brown-Saltzman, R.N., M.A., Executive Director UCLA Healthcare Ethics Center, states that as we slow down, “physiologically everything begins to shift, …[….]…breathing changes, our mind quiets, and we can actually get to this state of, where our body can heal in a much better way, because it’s not fighting all of this, right?” She seems to be talking about healing physically. Will we be healed doing this type of prayer over other prayers? The audience is left to wonder. It also begs the question of whether our goal in prayer should be its physiological effects. Visiting websites where Brown-Saltzman is listed, I was disturbed to find that one of her focuses in healing is guided imagery (see here and here).
Guided imagery is a technique from both the occult and the New Age. It often puts the mind into an altered state, which means that critical thinking is suspended.
“Silence is one of the great spiritual disciplines“ (Dallas Willard). We need to ask, “According to whom?” To find any support for this teaching, one must go to the mystics and assume that they have the authority to dictate what the disciplines are.
Mystic Jacob Boehme’s advice on silence is described as an “effort to bring the mind to a complete state of stillness” so that one’s consciousness could reach “an almost complete suspension of the reflective powers and the surface-consciousness, and a strange and indescribable silence” (F. C. Happold, Mysticism, A Study and an Anthology [Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964], 75).
Meister Eckhart, (1260-1328), a German Dominican friar and mystic much quoted by Contemplative Prayer proponents, talks of having a “Divine Birth” through remaining still and silent so that God could speak (Happold, 76-77; 246). Like many mystics, Eckhart had some dubious theology, such as the belief that God is remote and unknowable: “God is not light nor life nor love nor nature nor spirit nor semblance nor anything we can put into words,” (Happold, 244), a statement in total contradiction to the Bible as far as God being light, love, and spirit go.
This statement is the usual thinking found among mystics and in New Age beliefs; they ignore the fact that God has clearly revealed His attributes and character through His word and through Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Eckhart expresses an identification of man’s soul with God — the soul “becomes so one with God that she herself would say she is God,” (244.). While it is true that being silent allows the mind to focus so that there can be richer times with the Lord through prayer and Bible study, it is not the silence that brings on God’s “voice,” but rather, it is in His word that we find God’s “voice.” Communication is composed of our thoughts and words, whether done silently or aloud; the Bible is in words; Jesus prayed with words; and Jesus taught his disciples to pray using words. If God had remained silent, we would have no Bible.
Breathing technique. One of the more disturbing things is said by an unidentified woman who states that you should sit still, breathe slowly, and then, “As you inhale, think of the Holy Spirit breathing life and peace into your body. And as you exhale, remember the verse to cast all your cares upon him.” This is reminiscent of many Hindu meditation practices based on the belief that inhalation causes the person to breathe in a cleansing spiritual energy or “divine breath” (called prana; hence the name pranayama for yoga breathing techniques), while exhaling is to get rid of negativity. This implies a person can receive some kind of peace from the Holy Spirit by breathing a certain way.
The Holy Spirit indwells believers at the point of salvation; believers have access at every moment to the peace given by Christ (John 14:27; Rom. 5:1, 8:6; Eph. 2:14; Phil. 4:7). Inhaling cannot cause the Holy Spirit to do anything because the Holy Spirit is not composed of physical particles one can breathe, and He is not at man’s command. Additionally, breathing in such a way over a period of time can induce self-hypnosis.
Thin places. Another disquieting comment comes via a story told by Dr. Jerry Root, professor at Wheaton College. He relates an account from the mystic Evelyn Underhill about a friend of hers who heard that the Scottish town of Iona is a “thin place” because the roots of Scottish Christianity are there. Iona “is a thin place because there is not much between God and Iona.” However, according to the Bible, no physical space is closer to God than any other. After man’s sin in the Garden, the whole earth, created good by God, became corrupted by sin, resulting in death and decay. A “thin place” cannot exist in the biblical view.
Dr. Root follows this account by stating: “And all of life, properly looked at in some senses, is a thin place,” and quotes C. S. Lewis about awakening to the presence of God in the world He created. This comment, however, doesn’t really correct the error of the first one. Why even bring up this unbiblical concept of a thin place to make a point about God’s omnipresence that can be made from the Bible itself? Relaying this tale and referencing Underhill give this mystical concept an undeserved and misleading credibility.
Advancing spiritually in sleep. Not since I was a New Ager have I thought I could “advance spiritually” in my sleep! But Richard Foster states on this DVD that you can: “Brother Lawrence, in his wonderful book, ‘The Practice of the Presence of God,’ said those who have the gale, he means the wind of the Holy spirit, go forward, even in sleep. Isn’t that wonderful, that we can move forward in our spiritual life in our sleep? I often try, as I am entering sleep, to just give myself to God: My heart, my mind, my thinking, my dreams, whatever they might be. And then you wake up in the morning and you have advanced in the Spirit. You see? That is part of contemplative prayer.”
It is not clear what Foster means by “advancing in the Spirit.” Secondly, how would this occur during sleep? After salvation, we are gradually being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; Col. 3:10). This is part of the sanctification process and maybe this is “advancement.” However, this is a conscious process, done through cooperation with the Holy Spirit and obedience to Christ by the Spirit’s power (Phil. 2:12; 1 Peter 1:2; John 14:21, 23, 15:10; 1 Tim. 6:14; 1 John 2:3, 3:24, 5:3).
Dedicated to our beloved buddy…who showed us how to Be Still. This mysterious statement appears at the end of the first section. Who is the “beloved buddy?” Is it Thomas Keating, one of the founders of the Contemplative Prayer movement? I suspect it might be.
Are Christians Missing Something?
Missing Out? There is a wistful note to the DVD, a yearning, as though people are not satisfied with knowing Christ and need something more. The quotes and comments on the DVD emphasize a mystical longing for God, but in a way that implies we can’t know Him satisfactorily through His word, or through Christ.
While it is true that we cannot know God completely, and that we should long to be closer to Him, we are not hampered from knowing God or being close to Him by not being silent and still, as the DVD suggests. Rather than focusing on how we can know God through Christ and the Bible, there is an assumption in this DVD’s message that we are missing out on something, and that customary and consistent prayer and Bible study are insufficient.
Subjective reading of the Bible. Foster advises viewers to read over a Bible passage once, and then in a second reading, to highlight whatever seems to jump out at you. In the third reading, he says, read only the highlighted passage and remind yourself of this portion during the day. He calls this “contemplative prayer.” Biblical applications can be personal, but the original meaning is the same for everybody. The Bible should be read in context for meaning first, with application flowing from that; otherwise, a personal application is worthless.
Max Lucado says that we can read the Bible with two approaches, “one for information, one for inspiration,” and that for inspiration, “We find the passage the Holy Spirit has targeted for us.” While it is certainly true that Christians can find a specific passage that guides them, shouldn’t this happen through conventional Bible reading and study? This method of looking for the magical phrase of the day causes one to miss out on the richness and depths of God’s word. Why give viewers a false choice between information and inspiration? They can and do happen simultaneously! Why would God give us His word but fail to tell us that reading it in a regular manner is insufficient?
Introduction to more troublesome aspects of Contemplative Prayer Movement. Although the DVD does not go into the depths of Contemplative Prayer as do its main proponents, introducing this term and concept could easily lead people to search out the writings of Keating, Pennington, and others who advocate even more troublesome practices such as specific breathing techniques, repetition of a word or phrase, and teachings such as Pennington’s New Ageism that God “is known in pure consciousness rather than by some subject-object knowledge” (M. Basil Pennington, Centered Living: The Way of Centering Prayer [NY: Image, Doubleday, 1988], 95).
Be aware that Contemplative Prayer is a movement; it is not just a few people here and there giving private views on prayer. There has been a concerted effort by the leaders of this movement to spread these ideas to Christians and non-Christians (Pennington, 191-2). Pennington writes of teaching Contemplative Prayer to Hindus in a Jain temple, and referring to this and other times of meditating with those of “many different traditions,” he states that he experienced a “deep unity” with them and adds, “When we go beyond the portals of the rational mind into the experience, there is only God to be experienced,” (192). Until now, these teachings were a mere trickle into the evangelical church via Richard Foster and a few others. This DVD makes it more likely that these beliefs will now flow more freely into the church. [Update, October, 2023: Contemplative Prayer and related mystical practices have now become widespread in the evangelical church and is aggressivley promoted by prominent pastors and church leaders. It is actually at this point seeming to take over the church.]
Sense of urgency. The DVD repeats how important it is, not to pray, but rather to practice Contemplative Prayer, thus making a distinction between the two. At one point, the narrator says, “The practice of contemplative prayer can be a vital part of our everyday lives, but we must make time for it.” Foster tells us that Contemplative Prayer “ushers” us into the more abundant life that Jesus talked about. Dallas Willard says that Contemplative Prayer is “interactive relationship with God.” Beth Moore exclaims, “I want to be in the tent of meeting, I want to be in that place where the cloudy pillar of God’s glory falls, I want to sit back and listen long enough that perhaps the God of all creation might just speak to me.” A sense of urgency is given – ironically enough for this DVD! – that Christians must practice Contemplative Prayer in order to really, truly be close to God and in order to “hear” Him.
Well, hasn’t God spoken already, loud and clear? One would think from these statements and pleas that we are without Bibles and devoid of the Holy Spirit. We have God’s priceless words in the Bible. And, as believers, we have access to the throne of God through our faith in Christ (Heb. 10:19-22).
The mistake of mystics. Several references are made to Madame Jeanne Marie Guyon (1648-1717). Mme. Guyon was part of the Quietist movement in the 17th and 18th centuries. This movement was partially related to Miguel de Molinos, a Spanish priest who lived in Italy, and had roots in the mysticism of Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. “According to Molinos, the goal of Christian experience is the perfect rest of the soul in God. Such a condition is possible when a person abandons himself completely to God and the will is totally passive. Mental prayer rather than any external activity is the means to the state of absolute rest with God.” Mme. Guyon, after her husband’s death, “came under the influence of Molinos‘ thought and by 1680 felt herself so close to God that she received visions and revelations” (“Quietism, General Information,” R G Clouse, Elwell Evangelical Dictionary; also see this source).
Quietism was a reaction to the hard-line doctrines of counter-Reformation Catholicism, and the Roman Catholic Church did not support this movement. Like most mystics of the time, they attempted to cultivate a spiritual state believed to bring them closer to God. However, God is not a distant Presence who requires manmade techniques to bring us close to Him; rather one knows God through our faith in Christ. It is Christ who brings us near to God (Eph. 2:13; Heb. 4:16). The Quietists and mystics made the mistake of thinking that an experience must occur in order to be close to God.
Many of the Quietist mystics, such as Guyon and Frances de Sales, are discussed in an online Quaker article, “Friends’ Theological Heritage: From Seventeenth-Century Quietists to A Guide to True Peace“(Dianne Guenin-Lelle, Quaker Theology #6, Spring 2002, ). The article’s goal is to “to re-establish an historical link between Friends theology and practice of silent worship and the Quietist movement of seventeenth-century Europe.” The article continues, “The most evident connection between Quakers and seventeenth-century Quietists is the nineteenth century text “A Guide to True Peace or the Excellency of Inward and Spiritual Prayer Compiled Chiefly from the Writings of F’elon, Guyon, and Molinos,” compiled anonymously by two Quakers. In this study, we will examine the contributions of the three authors F’elon, Guyon, and Molinos, whose works were translated and compiled into “A Guide to True Peace,” in order to rediscover the distinct connection between Friends theology and this particular mystical tradition within Christianity” (Ibid). Because Foster is Quaker and is a leading influence on evangelicals in the area of contemplative prayer, an observation of this link to Quietism is reasonable.
The mystics often did not have access to a Bible, and thus sought contact with God through dubious subjective methods. Their theology suffered as well. For these reasons and others, looking to mystics as role models is, at the very least, problematic.
Dr. Bill Schneidewind. Dr. Schneidewind is listed for credit under “Biblical Support” on the Be Still DVD. He has a Bachelor’s from George Fox University (a Quaker school), an MA from Jerusalem University College, and his Ph.D. is from Brandeis University. He is, at the time of this article’s writing, Professor of Biblical Studies at UCLA and Chair of the Dept. of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. On Amazon, a Publishers Weekly review of his book, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (May 10, 2004), states “Thus, Schniedewind contends that the historical narratives of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, in addition to the Pentateuch and some of the prophetic writings, can be dated to Hezekiah’s reign rather than to an earlier Solomonic period or to a post-exilic Persian period. Schniedewind’s provocative thesis will likely generate some controversy, but it will be well received among those who accept the historical revisionism of Israel Finkelstein and others.”
Who is Finkelstein? In a magazine article, distinguished historian and author Paul Maier discusses Finkelstein’s theories and others like it (“Archeology: Biblical Ally or Adversary?” Vol. 27, no. 2, 2004). Maier writes that Finkelstein is part of a group of scholars “often styled as ‘biblical minimalists'” that “sees little or no correlation between archaeological and biblical evidence and thus no reliable history in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).”
Maier goes on to say that in 2001, Finkelstein, “a revisionist archaeologist with similar views, along with Neal A. Silberman, penned a widely read book: The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. This ‘new vision’ controverted traditional Jewish and Christian views of both the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible and how it came to be.”
In other words, Finkelstein writes against the historical evidence for the Bible, and Schneidewind is apparently in this camp. Because of Schneidewind’s role on the DVD, and because of his extremely unorthodox views on the Old Testament, the need for discernment on the Be Still teachings is even stronger.
The Veil Has Been Torn
Are the methods taught on this DVD intended to invoke a certain spiritual experience and feeling? The danger is that when one seeks an experience or a feeling, especially if one invests in certain techniques, the person will almost certainly get results. In my 15 plus years of experience doing Eastern and New Age meditation before trusting in Christ, I can vouch for the meditation experiences seeming very spiritual and peaceful. These experiences will be interpreted as God, but there is no guarantee that they are from God.
Foster himself warns in one of his books that Contemplative Prayer is for more mature believers, and that “we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm” where we may encounter “spiritual beings” who are not on God’s side. He suggests a prayer of protection in which one surrounds himself with “the light of Christ,” and to say “all dark and evil spirits must now leave,” and other words to keep evil ones at bay (Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (NY: HarperCollins, 1992), 156-57). Naturally, the Bible does not tell us that we must pray for protection before praying!
At the moment of Christ’s death, the veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. This was a supernatural act, recorded in three of the Gospels (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). This marvelous act is referred to in the book of Hebrews, which tells us that the torn veil is really the torn flesh of Christ, the true High Priest, broken for us so that access is open to all who have been made righteous through faith in Christ (10:12-22).
There is no curtain between God and us that requires a stillness or silence so that God can “break through” to us. This curtain has been torn once and for all time through the atonement. Communion with God springs naturally from our normal reading and study of His word, and from prayer as it is patterned for us in the Bible.
Our Blueprint for Prayer
Since Christians have access to God through Christ, why is it necessary to cultivate a deep silence in order to be close to God? Since we as believers “hear” God through His word, why do we need techniques to hear God’s voice? God provided the canon of scripture, which is “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3.16-17).
The Biblical model of prayer should be our guide. Colossians 4:2 instructs “Never give up praying. And when you pray, keep alert and be thankful” (CEV). The New American Standard version puts it this way: “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving.” Christians are to be alert and watchful in prayer, not turned off and tuned out in a mystical veil of silence fabricated by manmade efforts.
See related articles, “Contemplating Contemplative Prayer: Is It Really Prayer?”
and “Meditation and Ps. 46.10”
(Note of thanks: Much appreciation and thanks goes to Kim Treweek for the painstaking work of transcribing the entire DVD of “Be Still,” and for providing the transcript. I also am indebted to her for some vital pieces of related research that she passed on to me.)