Mysticism in the Local Church

Bernard Palmer discusses the place of feelings and the desire to be close to God

Mysticism is the belief that a direct knowledge of God or of ultimate reality is attainable ‘through immediate intuition or insight and in a way differing from ordinary sense perception or logical reasoning’ (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary).

Some look for this experience by turning inwards and emptying their minds of all external influences as much as possible. Others meditate on some particular idea or mantra, such as words of their scriptures. In both forms the desire is to feel intimately involved with the divine. Mystics can be found in most religious groups.

One of the concerns over its increasing popularity is that it can be associated with both pluralism and syncretism as, whatever the religious background, they tend to speak in similar terms and have similar experiences, which can blind people to the underlying doctrinal differences. Mystics try to wean themselves away from the physical world, and long for deeper and deeper experiences of the spiritual world.

The question needs to be asked whether these experiences are genuine evidence for and of God?

Aids to mystical experiences

Throughout the generations there have been countless techniques used to help people receive mystical experiences. Ascetic practices such as fasting, flagellation, and sensory deprivation can heighten people’s experiences. One investigator reported: ‘Recent physiological investigations … tend to confirm the notion that provoked alterations in body chemistry and body rhythm are in no small way responsible for the dramatic changes in consciousness attendant on these practices.’1

Systems of posture, breathing and meditation are used by some devotees of Yoga (now frequently practised in primary schools) and Zen Buddhism to help give mystical experiences. Muslim dervishes, who follow Sufi Islam, have obtained ecstatic states by controlled breathing, chanting and dancing to rhythms with repeated whirling.

Drugs have also been used to give rise to psychic experiences that have been interpreted as experiences of God or at least of a spiritual realm.

The question Christians should be asking is whether these feelings or experiences are genuine experiences of God. Such experiences are commonly sought by Hindu devotees and, to a lesser extent, were sought by some in ancient Greece. Some early Christian mystics lay considerable emphasis on their experiences, as do some Sufi Muslims today. There has been a resurgence in Christian circles of seeking experiences. The experience of ‘being slain in the Spirit’ is remarkably similar to the Hindu Kundalini experience, as many YouTube videos have demonstrated. In some modern church services some people are clearly trying to ‘feel the presence of God’. Whether they are encouraged by the repetitive loud rhythmic music, dynamic direction from the leader, emptying the mind of any thought, or just concentrating on a mantra, questions should be asked whatever the religious environment they occur in. Christians need to answer them in the light of Scripture.

The Bible’s emphasis

The Bible certainly talks of the Christian’s experience of God. Paul wrote:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his sufferings, becoming like him in his death… (Phil. 3:10)

The difference of this experience is that it is long-term. Paul is wanting his whole life to become like that of Jesus, his Lord. This is the experience he prays that others may have:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:10-11)

Central to the Christian faith is the person of the Lord Jesus. He claimed to be God, come in the flesh. He claimed that His death was the real purpose for which He came – to be the ultimate sacrifice for sin. To be forgiven and have a certain future in heaven, each person must personally become one of His followers and then live accordingly. But it is possible for people to have great religious experiences and not be personally committed to Christ.

Aldous Huxley, in his book Perennial Philosophy, takes a diametrically opposite view to that of Jesus and His apostles. The only form of Christianity he could conceivably accept was one based on mysticism which ‘…went some way towards liberating Christianity from its unfortunate servitude to historic fact.’2 He preferred, instead of apostolic Christianity, ‘a spiritualised and universalised Christianity’. Such a religion would be focused on experiences instead of on obedience to the person of Jesus.

No man can ever become at one with God in this life. What we can do is enter into a relationship with Christ now and enjoy the deepest satisfaction of living as He requires, with His commitment to us that we will live in full joyful harmony with Him in the next life. For Christians the secret of life is obedience to the person of Jesus Christ as revealed to us in Scripture. We cannot make up our own version of Christ – he has already been revealed to us. We are here to obey. Paul’s own experience of God was profound and all-pervasive of his whole life; at times this meant suffering just as his Lord had. This was Paul’s experience:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Gal.2:20)

It is not that God doesn’t give us great experiences. He has, after all, created us as emotional beings. Paul knew a man, possibly himself, who was given an experience of heaven (2 Cor.12:2-10) but he refused to brag about this. God does thrill people at times in a wide variety of transient ways, but the evidence of the Spirit’s presence in our lives is not ecstasy, but obedience. We should not be seeking experiences of God, they are His gift; what He wants to see is obedience. The fruit of the Spirit’s presence is long-term evidence of:

…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control (Gal. 5:22).

These are all changes in our character, not short-term experiences. The higher gifts we are told to seek are long-term character changes and skills, especially love (1 Cor. 13:13), those characteristics that come from this (1 Cor.13:4-7), and teaching gifts by which we can help others to understand what the word of God teaches (1 Cor. 12:31). These are not short-term thrills, but gifts to serve others.

It is noteworthy that the emphasis of the New Testament is to teach people the facts about Jesus and what He taught, to encourage everyone to become His follower and to urge us to obey God, whatever the cost. This teaching of biblical truths, and encouraging others to obey what the Bible teaches, should surely be the priority of all churches that want to remain apostolic. Encouraging people to chase experiences is not a priority encouraged by the Bible.

In the Bible, words such as ‘obey’, ‘obedience’, ‘obedient’ and ‘follow’ are very commonly used about the relationship God wants with His people. In contrast words such as ‘feelings’, ‘feel’ and ‘experience’ are not used about our everyday relationship with the Lord. The evidence for having a genuine relationship is not to be found in feelings or gifts, but in the practical outworking of the presence of the Holy Spirit, in holiness and obedience. Scripture is clear about this.

Paul urged Timothy to make Bible teaching the priority of his life:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Tim. 4:1-5).

Bernard Palmer

Bernard Palmer is consultant surgeon at Lister Hospital in Hertfordshire. and is an elder of Christ Church Baldock.

1. R.E.L. Masters and Jean Houston, The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, New York 1966 p.248
2. Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, London 1946 p.63