Biblical Spirituality: Rediscovering Our Biblical Roots or Embracing the East?

A Christ-centered, Bible-based approach to meditation, contemplative prayer, and spiritual formation.

Mark A. Finley, DDiv, serves as assistant to the president, world church of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

During a question and answer period at a spiri­tual convocation on the West Coast of the United States, a man stood up and asked, “What do you think of contemplative spirituality, spiritual formation, and meditation?” In some circles, these terms have become lightning rods; they engender heated discussions and sometimes more heat than light. There are those who believe that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has become cold, formal, legalistic, and spiritually lifeless; and its members desperately need to experience a fresh breath of spiritual newness. They are convinced that the way to reach postmoderns is through experience, not doctrine. To them, the answer lies in contemplative spirituality. For others, contemplative spirituality is no more than East­ern mysticism clothed in Christian terms—the devil’s deception. This group believes that contemplative spirituality leads unsuspecting church members into a counterfeit religious experience based on sub­jective feelings and emotions rather than scriptural truth.

This entire issue leads us to some vitally important questions. What is Christian meditation? How does the Bible define it and how does it differ from Eastern mysticism? What are contemplative and centering prayers? Are there dangers in these approaches to prayer? Is the con­cept of spiritual formation biblical? Where can we find answers for the Laodicean complacency, spiritual barrenness, and cold formality com­mon in too many of our lives?

Christian meditation

Throughout Scripture, meditation stays always active, never passive, and always has an object. The goal of Christian meditation comprises filling the mind with the Word and works of God. Meditating upon His great­ness and matchless love, we are changed into His image (2 Cor. 3:18). In Christian meditation, we look out of ourselves to Him. Jesus is the object of our thoughts, the supreme focus of our attention (Isa. 45:22; Heb. 12:1, 2). We recognize that the heart is deceitful above all things, desperately wicked, and that in us there is no good thing (Jer. 17:9; Isa. 53:6; Rom. 7:18). Our hope is in Him. Our mind is fixed upon Him. Our attention is focused upon Him, and when meditating upon Him, we are transformed into His likeness (Col. 3:1, 2). The psalmist speaks of meditating on God’s Word, His law, His testimonies, and His works (Ps. 119:97, 99, 104). He also meditates upon God’s precepts and contemplates His ways (Ps. 119:15). Christian meditation thus focuses our thoughts on the grandeur and greatness of God, lifting us from what is around us and within us to what is above us.

Ellen White uses the terms meditate and meditation 569 times. Speaking of Enoch, she declares, “The infinite, unfathomable love of God through Christ became the subject of his meditation day and night; and with all the fervor of his soul he sought to reveal that love to the people among whom he dwelt.”1 Describing the importance of filling our minds with the Word of God in active meditation, she states, “We must be constantly meditating upon the word, eating it, digesting it, and by practice, assimilating it, so that it is taken into the life current.”2 The significant factor in both the biblical and Ellen White’s counsel is that meditation is always rooted in God’s word, His works, and His ways, and anchored in His character, majesty, love, and power. Meditation’s goal is not to enter into the “silence of the soul” and somehow mystically “dwell in His presence,” but to actively engage the mind in focusing upon the matchless charms of His love and the amazing wonders of His grace.

In the high technological, frantic pace of our twenty-first century living, genuine Christian meditation may become a lost art. The prophet Isaiah reminds us, “For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength’ ” (Isa. 30:15).3 Thoughtfully opening God’s Word, reading a few verses, meditating upon His love, contemplating His character, and reflecting upon His greatness are life changing. The Holy Spirit speaks to us in these quiet moments. “When every other voice is hushed, and in quietness we wait before Him, the silence of the soul makes more distinct the voice of God. He bids us, ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ Psalm 46:10. This is the effectual preparation for all labor for God. Amidst the hurrying throng, and the strain of life’s intense activi­ties, he who is thus refreshed, will be surrounded with an atmosphere of light and peace. He will receive a new endowment of both physical and mental strength. His life will breathe out a fragrance, and will reveal a divine power that will reach men’s hearts.”4

Contemplating Jesus

The word contemplative simply means attentive, pensive, reflective, or thoughtful. A person who is con­templating is musing or pondering, reflecting or thinking. Ellen White uses the word contemplation 580 times. Her usage of the word is very similar to the way she uses the word meditation. She speaks of contemplating God’s Word, God’s works, and God’s providence. Here are just a few examples:

“The Bible is God’s voice speak­ing to us, just as surely as if we could hear it with our ears. If we realized this, with what awe we would open God’s Word and with what earnest­ness we would search its precepts. The reading and contemplation of the Scriptures would be regarded as an audience with the Infinite One.”5

“In the Bible a boundless field is opened for the imagination. The stu­dent will come from a contemplation of its grand themes, from association with its lofty imagery, more pure and elevated in thought and feeling than if he had spent the time reading any work of mere human origin, to say nothing of those of a trifling character.”6

Probably the most well-known Ellen White statement on the value of genuine Christian contemplation is this: “It would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ.

 We should take it point by point, and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones. As we thus dwell upon His great sacrifice for us, our confidence in Him will be more constant, our love will be quickened, and we shall be more deeply imbued with His spirit. If we would be saved at last, we must learn the lesson of penitence and humiliation at the foot of the cross.”7

Contemplating the Cross draws us into an intimate relationship with Jesus, providing a solid foundation for our faith. Neither Ellen White nor the Bible writers speak of an aimless or mindless contemplation in which the mind resides in some sort of neutral trancelike state of oneness with God. In Scripture, the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible, speaks through the divinely inspired Word to transform our lives as we prayer­fully meditate upon its passages. Jesus stated this plainly when He declared, “ The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life’ ” (John 6:63, NKJV). The apostle Peter adds, “By which have been given to us exceeding great and precious promises that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Pet. 1:4). James declares, “Therefore lay aside all filthiness and the overflow of wickedness, and receive with meek­ness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). Our characters are transformed as we actively meditate on God’s Word. The Bible writers also describe the life-changing power of contemplating God’s creative works (Pss.19:1–6; 32:6–12). The point of these divinely inspired writers is the same: Christian meditation does not seek to empty the mind but seeks to fill the mind. It does not seek oneness with a mystical god within, but seeks to understand more deeply the nature of God who created and redeemed us, and we then more fully reflect His character.

 Understanding centering and contemplative prayer

In centering prayer, the individual chooses a common word and con­tinually repeats it to center his or her thoughts. This exercise purportedly prepares the worshiper to enter a contemplative state in which all distractions cease. The goal involves a journey to the center of one’s being to enter into a state of oneness with the divine presence within. The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous fourteenth century author, includes practical principles of contemplative prayer. It instructs those interested in experiencing this form of prayer to “Take just a little word, of one syllable rather than of two. With this word strike down every kind of thought under the cloud of forgetting.”

Centering and contemplative prayer have been taught by Roman Catholic monks in monasteries for centuries. More recently Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and Basil Pennington, as well as Quaker Richard Foster have advocated it and conducted retreats for thousands of people on contemplative spirituality. Their books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Most of the advocates of contemplative spiritual­ity see real value in learning from the techniques of Eastern meditation. They often draw from the teaching and writings of medieval mystics, as well as Hindu and Buddhist spiritual teachers. Basil Pennington, one of the well-known proponents of the center­ing prayer technique, has delineated four guidelines for centering prayer.

1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and have faith in God.

2. Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you (“Jesus,” “Lord,” “God,” “Savior,” “Abba,” “Divine,” “Shalom,” “Spirit,” “Love,” etc.).

3. Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere inten­tion to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you.

4. Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, per­ceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.

Pennington’s guidelines for entering into centering prayer are deeply influenced by a group of monks called the Desert Fathers in the Middle Ages. These men lived a monastic lives of prayer and medita­tion in the deserts of the Middle East. The whole concept of looking to the Desert Fathers and the monastics for a deeper spirituality is seriously flawed. Jesus declared that His fol­lowers were to be in the world but not of the world (John 17:15). They were to be “ ‘the salt of the earth’ ” and “ ‘the light of the world’ ” (Matt. 5:13, 14). Paul affirms this truth by declaring that followers of Christ should shine as “lights” in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Phil. 2:15). Jesus and the disciples lived their lives between the moun­tain and the multitude. They spent time with God but did not neglect spending time with people. Their lives were dedicated to devotion, but they were focused on service. True genuine spirituality involves both a relationship with God and loving ser­vice to God’s children and can never be truly lived by choosing to live a life of isolation. The One whom we serve “went about all the cities and vil­lages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matt. 9:35). Daniel Goleman’s comments should give every Christian pause before entering into contemplative spirituality. “The meditation practices and rules for living of these earliest monks bear strong similarity to those of their Hindu and Buddhist renuciate brethren several kingdoms to the East.”8

The concept of centering prayer raises serious questions for followers of Christ. The use of a sacred word to center ones thoughts seems strangely similar to the mantras of the East. Is centering prayer Eastern mysticism in Christian garments? Jesus is very clear when He admon­ishes, “ ‘When you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do’ ” (Matt. 6:7). Does not the constant repetition of a “sacred word” violate Christ’s clear instruction? Why is there such a conspicuous absence of anything like centering prayer in the Bible? The Old Testament prophets, the New Testament believers, and Jesus never give even the slightest hint of continuously using a sacred word to center their thoughts in prayer. This should give us seri­ous pause before we experiment with something that may open the door for satanic delusions. Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington state, “We should not hesitate to take the fruit of the age old wisdom of the East and ‘capture’ it for Christ. Indeed those of us who are in min­istry should make the necessary effort to acquaint ourselves with as many of these Eastern techniques as possible.”9 This counsel would sound very strange to Peter who proclaimed, “ ‘Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ ” (Acts 4:12). The New Testament believers did not “turn the world upside down” with a gospel that blended Eastern philosophy with Christian doctrine. Neither should we. The New Testament believers did not seek to get “in touch” with the divine presence within. They looked to their crucified, resurrected, and returning Lord, and their lives were transformed.

Thomas Merton describes the goal of centering prayer in these terms: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusions, a point of pure truth ... This little point ... is the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody.”10

Thomas Keating adds these thoughts, “Contemplative prayer is not so much the absence of thoughts as detachment from them. It is the opening of mind and heart, body and emotions—our whole being to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts and emotions.”11 It is well to note these phrases in the above quotes, “point of nothingness,” “and the glory of God in us which is in everybody.” This sounds strangely like Buddhism. The idea of “the god within” comes directly from Eastern mysticism. Keating’s expression, “beyond words, thoughts and emo­tions” calls into question the nature of genuine spirituality. Can it be defined as a mystical experience or a relationship with God based on truth and fact that is life changing?

The biblical declaration that we are created in the image of God reinforces our ability to think and reason. Should we not be exceed­ingly cautious of any approach to spirituality that bypasses the mind and leads us to depend on a subjec­tive, mystical experience as the measure of genuine spirituality? Mysticism is purely subjective. It does not rely upon biblical truth as the measure of spirituality but shifts the emphasis to our own experience. Yet, the Word of God has been given to us for the very purpose of estab­lishing our faith. Jesus’ own words are too plain to be misunderstood; “ ‘Sanctify them by your truth, Your Word is truth’ ” (John 17:17). What we know about God is based on the truth of His Word. Trusting in expe­riential knowledge over the biblical record takes a person outside of the standard of all truth—the Bible. Encountering God in His Word leads us to a genuine Christian experience. When our subjective experiences, feelings, and emotions do not lead us to the Word, beware!

Spiritual formation

Another concept that has gen­erated a great deal of discussion is spiritual formation. Words have meaning in the way they are defined and who defines them. Is the con­cept of spiritual formation biblical? If we define spiritual formation as being formed into the image of Christ as we meditate upon God’s Word, seek Him in prayer, and open our minds to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, certainly it is biblical. The apostle Paul admon­ishes believers at Rome “not [to] be conformed to this world but [to] be transformed by the renew­ing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2).

 He urges the Philippians to “let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). To the Colossians, he says, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above” (Col. 3:1, 2). Ellen White expresses the idea of our characters being formed in the image of Christ beautifully: “In Jesus is manifested the character of the Father, and the sight of him attracts. It softens and subdues, and ceases not to transform the character, until Christ is formed within, the hope of glory. The human heart that has learned to behold the character of God may become, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, like a sacred harp, sending forth divine melody.”12

When the term spiritual formation is used to describe contemplative spirituality, centering prayer, and a religious experience based on a mystical involvement, however sincere its proponents may be, it is certainly not biblical. If by spiritual formation we mean blending the meditative techniques of priests and monks or non-Christian religions with biblical ideas to achieve some sort of spiritual oneness with the so-called spark of divine within us, this is not biblical at all.

Adventism’s uniqueness

Adventism’s uniqueness lies in our understanding of the great con­troversy between Christ and Satan. In contrast to an ever-deepening knowl­edge of Christ through His Word and an ever-closer relationship with Him, Satan will offer a counterfeit spiritual experience. Seventh-day Adventists believe that in the final conflict over the law of God, His people, saved by His grace, and transformed by His love, will reveal His compassionate character before a waiting world and watching universe. God will have an end-time people who desire to be like the One they most admire, a people who long for something much deeper than a mystical experience based on subjective feelings, on the one hand, or cold, legalistic formalism based on an intellectual assent to doctrinal truth, on the other. The words of the apostle John will beat fervently in their hearts, “Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).


1 Ellen G. White, Conflict and Courage (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), 28.

2 White, Counsels on Diet and Foods (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976), 89.

3 All Bible references are quoted from the New King James Version.

4 White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), 58.

5 White, “Our Great Treasure-House,” Signs of the Times, April 4, 1906.

6 White, Child Guidance (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1954), 507.

7 White, The Desire of Age (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 83.

8 Daniel Goleman, The Meditative Mind (Los Angeles: Tarcher/ Putnam Inc., 1988), 53.

9 Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington, Finding Grace at the Gate (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Pub., 1978), 5, 6.

10 Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday Publishers, 1989), 157, 158.

11 See Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group), 18–23.

12 White, “Christ Our Hope,” Signs of the Times, August 24, 1891.

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Mark A. Finley, DDiv, serves as assistant to the president, world church of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

August 2012

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