In the previous blog I set the context for this review of the book The Dangers of Contemplative Prayer, by Howard Peth (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association and Hart Research Center, 2012). In this blog I want to share what I liked about the book and in the following some concerns I have about it. The book describes some dangerous types of prayer and the author’s belief that these forms of prayer are infiltrating the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His desire in this book, then, is to sound the alarm that no one might be deceived.
The book makes three powerful points that were very helpful to me. The central point of the book is summarized in a nutshell in the Author’s Preface (page viii). The key issue in prayer has to do with the purpose of meditation. In the eastern tradition the purpose of meditation is to empty the mind. Through the use of repetitive syllables, words or phrases (a so-called mantra), one banishes stray thoughts, feelings and images until one is at the “center of consciousness.” In the silence at the center one can begin to hear spirit voices that tell you things you have never heard before. You hear the voice of God within. In the biblical tradition, on the other hand, the purpose of meditation is not to empty the mind but to focus the mind on the words of truth from the Scriptures. In other words, the meditation is not directed inward toward a subjective truth but rather outward toward an objective truth. This is an extremely important distinction.
What’s wrong with the eastern approach? What if one replaces the meaningless mantras with Christian prayer words like “Jesus” or “Father?” The danger is that if one empties the mind, one has no control over which spirit voice speaks to that emptied mind. Apart from the safeguard of Scripture, it is possible to be deceived into thinking that satanic influences are truly the voice of God. The spirit world contains both angels and demons, so eastern forms of meditation can connect one with either source. It seems to me that this fundamental point is crucial. But for what it’s worth, I have never heard a Seventh-day Adventist preacher, liberal or conservative, tell people they need to empty their minds. The emphasis is always on ridding oneself of distractions so that the Bible or a devotional reading can be the full focus of one’s attention. That, I think, is a different thing than seeking a total emptying of the mind. While I think Peth could have made this point more effectively in 3-5 pages rather than a hundred, I do think his fundamental point is crucial and it is worth reading the book if one is not clear on this point.
Second, Peth makes a powerful point on page 62 where he says that God has arranged the “rules of the game” in such a way that the devil cannot force anyone to sin. Satan cannot take over a life unless at some level that person consents to it. The danger Peth sees in contemplative prayer is that a person will consent to Satan influencing or taking over his or her life thinking they are opening themselves to God. Without that consent, Satan cannot control a person’s life. But once that consent is given, it can be very difficult to extricate oneself from Satan’s clutches. The key in meditation is to keep the process of meditation under the control of reason and subject to the Scriptures. I couldn’t agree more.
Third, and this point was worth the price of the book in my opinion, Peth has pointed out one of the great misreadings of the Bible, one that I have been guilty of all these years. He points out on pages 27-29 that the phrase “Be still and know that I am God” has been grossly misused in Christian society. Most people think, and so did I before reading this book, that the phrase is all about prayer and our attitude toward God in the inner life. But in context that couldn’t be further from the truth. When you read the context of Psalm 46:10 it is all about a military attack on the fortress of God’s people (Psa 46:1-5). When enemies attack the people of God, He steps in with the mighty power of His word (46:6). The end result is the enemies’ bows are broken, their spears are splintered and their chariots are burned with fire (46:7-9). In the context of a battlefield strewn with the detritus of a defeated army, the phrase spoken to defeated enemies actually means something like, “Shut up and know who you are dealing with!” To use such a phrase in support of a questionable strategy for meditation and prayer veers wide of the exegetical mark.
So in sum, there are reasons to read this book and I am glad I did. While I knew the first two points before reading the book, the third was worth the time I took to read it. Next time, I will begin to share a few cautions about the content of the book.