In this blog I continue the discussion of mysticism, the spiritual disciplines, and Reformed faith. I introduce Antony, the father of the monastic movement, critique the teachings of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, share my experiences with meditation before Christ saved me, and present the key elements of biblical faith. Christians who adhere to Foster’s teachings often give standalone authority to spiritual experiences such as visions, dreams, and intuition, especially if they contain biblical themes. In future blogs, I offer ways to use Scripture to test the source of spiritual experiences.
St. Antony of the Desert
Athanasius wrote the story of Antony, a wealthy, educated Egyptian Christian (AD 251–356). Disgusted by pagan culture, Antony sold his possessions, put his sister in a convent, and retreated to the desert to live as an ascetic for Christ. He believed that genuine faith required depriving his sinful humanity and relying on Christ.
Antony eventually lived in an abandoned fort and subsisted on water during the day and bread and salt at night. In addition to depriving himself of sustenance and human companionship, he battled demons. The demons laughed senselessly, hissed, and manifested as bright light, holy figures, angels, and even the power of God. Antony sang psalms, recited Scripture, prayed to Christ, and signed the cross.1 Antony later emerged to preach and teach about the power of God over human and demonic evil.
The book was so popular that after Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313, retreating to the desert replaced martyrdom as the highest expression of devotion to Christ. Monasteries dotted the desert and the monastic movement continued through the Dark and Medieval Ages into modern times. Ascetism and the spiritual disciplines were foundational to monastic life.2
Richard Foster reintroduced the disciplines to Christians in the 1970s, which is when Eastern religious practices and the New Age surfaced in American culture.
Foster—A Man of the 70s
The turbulent 60s and 70s produced a strident individualism in America that encouraged people to decide for themselves what was right and true. Leaders of an alternative spirituality promised a deeper, more authentic spiritual experience than organized Christianity and Judaism. Richard Foster wrote his highly influential Celebration of Discipline: the Path of Spiritual Growth in this spiritual climate.
Foster turned to the disciplines of medieval Roman Catholic monastics as a corrective to what he perceived to be a doctrine-ladened, intellectual Christianity pervading America. Cognitive pursuits and Bible studies had their place, but in the main hindered genuine intimacy with God. God spoke directly to people in the Bible, e.g., Adam and Eve, Abraham. Christians should stop listening to others tell them about God and commune directly with him through meditation and disciplines such a fasting, solitude, and prayer.3
Foster wrote, “The Spiritual Disciplines are the means God uses for producing in us the needed transformation of heart and mind and soul.”4 Through meditation we create the space for God to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart where the divine-human encounter takes place. There as he imparts his grace and transforms us, we have union with God.5 While in altered states, Christians can tune into God’s frequency which makes prayers more successful. Additionally, using one’s imagination when praying enhances the effectiveness of prayers. For example, when praying for the sick, imagine the healing light of Jesus fighting the germs.6
Spiritual disciplines “call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. . . into the caverns of the spiritual realm.”7 Furthermore, Jesus sanctifies the imagination and imparts visions and spiritual experiences to teach Christians about the unseen realm. He offers insights and guidance on daily concerns.8 Praying God’s protection and his sanctification of the imagination assures Christians the devil cannot deceive them. Christians should have an experiential attitude toward the spiritual realm—an unwillingness betrays a prejudice.9
Notably, Foster rejected the monastic tradition of battling demons with Holy Spirit power, the Word, and prayers to Jesus. Many of Foster’s teachings and language reflect teachings of the alternative spirituality that emerged in the 70s.
The Alternative Spirituality of the 70s
In the 70s spiritual leaders and authors awakened people to the spiritual realm. They offered a smorgasbord from which to choose—Buddhism, Hinduism, spiritualism, astrology, channelers of the light, shamanism, and other aboriginal traditions. They agreed that meditation and dreamlike states were the gateway to the spiritual realm. People grew spiritually as they turned inward and allowed their spirit to merge with energies in the spiritual realm.
I began meditating in the 70s, because I believed that my spirit merged with the spiritual frequencies of the divine or higher levels of consciousness. The spiritual realm imparted energy that enabled me and others to fulfill our potential as spiritual beings living in a physical realm. I relied on my imagination and intuition when communicating with the spirit realm—critical thinking and reason inhibited spiritual growth. Spirits communicated through visions, physical sensations, intuitions, and direct communication into the mind. They conveyed insights and guidance on personal situations as well as wisdom, truth, and information on the spiritual realm. I had no fear of evil because spiritual leaders assured me that my good intentions protected me. If evil did attack it was karma and for my own good. Like Foster I believed that spiritual experiences were superior to reading about the spiritual realm. I used the same meditation techniques Foster teaches in his book.
My Comeuppance and Salvation
One morning in January 1985, I awoke to hissing and cursing in my mind. To my horror, the spiritual evil that I didn’t believe in dominated my inner life. Two and half years later, spring 1987, Jesus saved me. The Holy Spirit broke the demons’ hold and told me to give Scripture authority over my inner life. I did.
Like Antony, I battled demons by praying Scripture back to God and calling on Jesus to protect me. I believed in my marrow that Christ would remove them in his time and way, and that the Bible was God’s revelation of himself, his creation, and his people.
I read the Bible during silent retreats, morning devotionals, prayer meetings, worship services, Bible studies, and standing in line at the post office. My knowledge of Scripture and doctrine inspired deep intimacy with God. I learned that the Holy Spirit and Scripture worked hand and glove to teach and guide Christians in righteousness (2 Ti 3:16–17). With Scripture as the norm making norm, the Spirit within me communed and guided me to pursue the holiness of Christ.
Am I mystic? In ways I am—the Protestant variety—and so are many other believers who embrace the mystery of the gospel and love God and his Word. Within a few years of my conversion, demonic harassment diminished to a level I consider normal for Christians serving Christ in a world hostile to God. I wrote my testimony, Rescued and Redeemed: How to Discern Demon from the Divine.10
Without the Bible I could not have made it. I could not have tested the source of spiritual experiences, nor could I have comprehended my sin or God’s amazing grace, love, and gift of salvation found only through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
A Biblical Critique of Foster and Roman Catholic Ascetism
- Scripture is God’s self-revelation of himself, his creation, and humanity. It is the sole authority on the spiritual realm. It tells us who God is, what went wrong, his redemptive work, and what he expects of his people.
- The Bible tells us that it is by grace that we are saved and sanctified—not by our efforts or works (Eph 2:8–9, Ro 8:29–30). Jesus atoned for our sin through his death; he rose from the grave. He justifies anyone who puts faith in him (Ro 3:24, 5:1-9) and gives them fellowship with God. The devil has no hold on us. Furthermore, the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit to indwell believers. He sanctifies and changes our mind, heart, emotions, imagination and will to reflect the holiness of Jesus Christ. He does this as we love God and others, repent of sin, and serve him in the way he has gifted and ordained us to serve.
- Ascetism cannot overcome sin, and Paul condemns it. He warned that a doctrine of demons will influence teachers to forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods. God created marriage, fellowship, and food for our good. We receive it with thanksgiving—consecrated by the Word of God and prayer (1Ti 4:1–5).
- God did not design us to explore the spiritual realm on our own.
- Believers are to test the source of spiritual encounters because false prophets are in the world (1 Jn 4:1). The devil roams like a roaring lion. We are to resist him and stand firm in the faith (1 Pt 5:8–9). He disguises himself as an angel of light and deceives even the elect (2 Co 11:14–15, Mt 24:24). We must not be ignorant of his devices (2 Co 2:11).
- God initiates all communication with his people through his Spirit and Word. Sometimes he sends an angel. Everything he communicates whether an intuition, dream, or vision aligns with Scripture.
- On the great Day of the Lord when Jesus comes in judgment, we will see Jesus face to face. Until then God has ordained that we commune with him through Word and Spirit.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Ro 8:28).
1 St. Athanasius, St. Antony of the Desert (Rockford: Tan books and Publishers, Inc, 1995), 30-34, 47–48.
2 Sharon Beekmann and Peter G. Bolt, Silencing Satan: Handbook of Biblical Demonology (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 171–172.
3 Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path of Spiritual Growth (New York: Harper Collins, 2018), 17, 20-23, 28-31.
4 Ibid, xv.
5 Ibid, 20.
6 Ibid., 39, 41–42.
7 Ibid, 1.
8 Ibid, 22, 26.
9 Ibid, 23, 26.
10 Sharon Beekmann, Rescued and Redeemed: How to Discern Demons from the Divine (www.Illumify Media.com, 2018).