Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 1Pet. 3:15
As a way of giving account for the spiritual emphasis that we encourage at Imago Dei, we offer a Scriptural apologetics for the practice of contemplative prayer* and for the spiritual direction that such prayer implies. These meditations will hopefully serve to secure our confidence that we are truly pursuing Jesus’ intent for us, according to Scripture.
* Note: Contemplative prayer is simply an aspect of prayer that explores the more receptive side of our relationship with God. It describes the more passive posture that we sometimes assume in prayer.
PART 1: SEEKING GOD’S FACE
Contemplative prayer traces the deep desires of the heart that lead to God as the ultimate object of our longing. It is the response of our hearts to the invitation we often hear throughout Scripture to “seek God’s face.” (1Ch 16:11, 2Ch 7:14, Ps, 24:6, Hos. 5:15) David describes something of the profound longing of love that inspires contemplative prayer when he writes, “My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek” (Ps. 27:8). Such prayer awakens in us the desire to seek not only the knowledge of God, but a growing intimacy with the person of Christ (Jn 5:39).
A. W. Tozer once spoke of the curious logic whereby many Christians assume that “once they have found God, they no longer need to seek Him.” And yet to seek intimacy with God is the very reason for which we were given life. As Paul explains to the Athenians
From one man God made every nation, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that we would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.
Not only does the Lord encourage such seeking, He also delights in our response. As the book of Proverbs declares, “I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me” (Prov. 8:17). Other Scriptures, as well, gives us assurance that if we seek God we will surely find Him (Dt. 4:29, Jer. 29:13). Jesus invites us to prioritize this quest (Mt. 7:7) and affirms His friend Mary who chooses intimacy with Him over the distracting busy-ness of life. What Jesus says to her He says to us as well, “only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better” (Lk. 10:42).
Seeking God then is an intentional form of prayer whereby we exalt our relationship with God over all other relationships that define our lives. Such seeking inevitably implies the conversion of our wills, as well as the purifying of our desires as we choose, in all areas of life, to exchange our self-orientation for the precious pearl of new life in Christ (Mt. 13:45).
To seek and find God’s face then is our chief vocation. It is our glory. As the book of Proverbs states, “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings (and queens)” (Prov. 25:2). Because of the many veils that remain over our hearts God seems more hidden to us than He really is. But as our hearts are unveiled, our own glory as Abba’s children is revealed as we more perfectly reflect God’s image (2Cor. 3:16). This is the relationship of intimate love and closeness that God most desires with us. From the mysterious place of His seeming absence the Lord bids us to come near saying, “Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?” (Jer. 30:21). He also assures us that, as we draw near to Him, He will also draw near to us (Jam. 4:8).
Contemplation, then, is a form of prayer that intentionally cultivates the discipline of seeking and finding God. It takes place in an environment of minimal distraction where the heart is most free to discover and respond to its profound longing for unity with God. The desire to seek the Lord’s “face,” as well as the ongoing conversion of our hearts in purifying this desire, are what inspire the practice of Christian contemplative prayer.
The motivation as well as the objectives of contemplative prayer make it different in intent from other types of prayer that we are also called to—notably prayers of intercession and petition. It represents spiritual growth in the area of increasing given-ness to God (Rom. 12:1). In this it has much in common with the disposition of prayer that most defined Jesus’ life—He who “made Himself nothing” (Phil. 2:7) in order to remain perfectly united with His Father.
PART 2: SEEKING LOVE
Contemplative prayer represents the natural progression of love towards greater intimacy with God. As John of the Cross taught, “it is the nature of love to desire unity with the object of its love.” This is why Scripture so often uses the image of marriage as the most appropriate metaphor for the love relationship that God desires with us (Hos. 1-3, Isa. 54:5, Eph. 5:31-32, Rev. 19:7). From the deep yearning that such prayer evokes, our own hearts cry out as well for unity with our “Abba” (Gal. 4:6) What we seek is nothing short of the intimacy of marital hope whereby “the two shall become one.”
Contemplative prayer is a receptive posture that submits, in love, to the advances of God. It is an expression of utter trust such as David describes in Psalm 131 where he “stills and quiets his soul” in order to rest more fully in the embrace of God. This “resting in love” also represents our most basic sense of “home.” It anticipates the spiritual rest that the writer of Hebrews encourages when he writes,
There remains then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest. (Heb. 4:9-10)
To rest from our own “work” in prayer expresses faith that the Holy Spirit is truly active in this relationship. And from this place of stillness, we come to a more precise knowledge and experience of the Spirit’s movements within us. In the immediacy of our experience, we come to know, that “He is Lord” ( Ps. 46:10).
Over and over, the Psalms speak of our deep longing for intimacy with God, often equating it with the essential need of the body for food or water (Ps. 42:1-2, Mat. 5:6). It is a longing that grows in intensity the more we taste that the Lord is good. Psalm 84, for instance, celebrates the passion of love when it speaks of the heart and flesh crying out for God, and of the soul yearning, even fainting, for the courts of the Lord (Ps. 84:2). Receptive prayer heightens and concentrates these deep longings for unity with God. To seek the fruit of contemplative prayer then is an expression of our desire to be more consistently open and available to God. In this, contemplative prayer is simply a response to Jesus’ command to “remain in His love” (Jn 15:9).
As our experience of God’s love grows, so does our resolve to never leave again. Like Ulysses lashing himself to the mast of his ship so that he would not be lured to the shore by the Sirens, we too seek to position ourselves as close as possible to the Fount from which we draw our life. Like the branch that remains fruitful in the vine (Jn 15:5), we learn to “remain in His love” through the disposition that contemplative prayer teaches.
PART 3: SEEKING GOD’S WILL
Contemplative prayer is one of the ways we respond to the Spirit’s invitation to surrender more fully to God, in whom we live, move and have our being (Acts 17:28). It is the life that Jesus envisioned for us when He prayed to His Father, “May they be one with us, just as you and I are one” (Jn 17:21) For Jesus, the pronoun “I” was always understood as “We.” He did not suffer the illusions of autonomy and of separation as we do.
Our Lord’s deepest desire is that we too should live according to the same relationship of loving obedience that He enjoys with the Father—a life lived in the immediacy of God’s will (Jn 5:19, 12:49-50). Contemplative prayer, then, seeks to live more in tandem with the conformity that Christ modeled for us (Rom 8:29). As we grow in this disposition, our desires become more congruent with the Father’s will in all that we are and do.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord anticipates the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost by which He will impart to us the immediacy of His will. Referring to this gift as the “new covenant” He says, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). The prophet Ezekiel also speaks of this initiative from God when he writes,
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Again, a similar conversion of the heart is echoed in Eze. 11:19 when the Lord says,
I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
In contrast to our hearts of stone, which are insensitive to the movements of God, the heart of flesh represents conversion towards a life that is more attentive to the Lord’s promptings. As we submit to these movements, we reflect more accurately the particular image of God that each of us is meant to be (2Cor. 3:18). Contemplative prayer then is the crucible in which we place ourselves for the conversion of our hearts towards greater conformity with God’s creativity in our lives.
God’s will, now imparted to us directly, is no longer a set of marching orders that comes from outside us, but more a movement of the Spirit, written on our hearts, that we are to follow out of a growing love for He who moves us. The onus of our obedience has shifted from adherence to the external and prescribed laws of the Old Testament to a growing sensitivity and submission to the immediate promptings of God’s life within us. It requires not so much the discipline of self-will, leading to obedience, as the loving and continual submission of the self to its Creator. It is God Himself who promises to move our hearts in accordance with His will—to place in us the desire to obey all that He is doing in and through us.
The apostle Paul as well speaks of a movement of Spirit that takes place within us in accordance with the will of God. In his letter to the Romans, he writes of the prayer that is active in our hearts as a result of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us.
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. and God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom 8:26-27 RSV)
Such is the God-breathed prayer that contemplative prayer attends to. It surrenders to the initiative of the Spirit, exchanging the self-willed life for one that more fittingly has its origins in God. As Jesus tells Nicodemeus, in order to partake in the kingdom of heaven we must be born “from above,” (i.e. according to the immediate will of our Creator), rather than “from below” (i.e. according to our own best intentions) (Jn 3:6, Jn 1:12-13).
Through contemplative prayer we sacrifice our autonomy on the altar of God’s will (Rom. 12:1). As the clay submits to the Potter, so we allow ourselves to be refashioned according to the higher ways of God (Jer. 18:4). No longer drinking from our own cisterns, we draw life instead from the living water of Christ (Jer. 2:13). Such is the trusting disposition of love and submission that contemplative prayer fosters in us.
PART 4: SEEKING A MORE HUMBLE OBEDIENCE
Contemplative prayer humbles us and makes us more disposed to yield our lives to God. It is a posture of self-offering through which we imitate the humility of Christ who perfected His own obedience (Heb. 5:8) to the Father’s will by making Himself nothing (Phil. 2:7). Growing in our dependence on God, we come to trust and anticipate the goodness of His ways rather than following those of our own understanding, or of our best intentions (Prov. 3:5-6).
Such prayer invites us to increasingly surrender ourselves, out of love, to whatever God is calling us to be. It is the posture of clay that trusts the Potter’s hand without having to second-guess God’s purposes (Isa. 45:9). It is the disposition that God affirms in Mary when she offers herself unequivocally to the Lord’s initiative saying, “Let it be unto me, according to Your word” (Luke 1:38). It is the union that Jesus encourages when He invites us to exchange the heavy burden of our autonomous life for His much lighter yoke (Mt. 11:30).
Contemplative prayer seeks humble obedience to the Divine will that is always acting upon us. As the apostle Peter teaches us, God has given “his very great and precious promises, so that through them we may participate in the divine nature” (2Pet. 1:4). As we defer to God’s initiative in our lives, our hearts align more closely with the Spirit whose very purpose is to call us to conformity with Christ (Rom 8:29).
Paul too exhorts us to seek the more immediate will of God in our lives saying, “since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). It implies a growing attentiveness to the Spirit’s movement—the very fruit that contemplative prayer fosters in us. Such prayer encourages the humility of silence and stillness. We learn to rest from our own works (Heb. 4:10) in order to be more attentive, and obedient, to God’s initiative.
To seek the Lord’s preference for our lives is also what Paul encourages when he tells us to “find out what pleases the Lord” (Eph. 5:10). We welcome, as our own, whatever God’s desire for us might be. Such was the disposition that Jesus modeled for us throughout His life, most notably in the garden of Gethsemane (Mat. 26:39). It requires the same humble disposition by which John the Baptist recognized that “He (Christ) must increase and I must decrease (Jn. 3:30).
Jesus taught on many occasions that, in order to find our lives, we must first lose them (Mt. 10:39). Paul, as well, teaches that it is only to the degree that we have died to ourselves that Christ’s resurrection can become the Source of our new life (Rom. 6:4). Presenting himself as an example of this new creation, he proclaims that, “the life I live is not my own, it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). He has exchanged the old man for the new (Col. 3:9-10)
Contemplative prayer then is our response to the Spirit’s invitation to live more humbly in tandem with God’s will. It fosters growth not only in our attentiveness to the movements of the Holy Spirit, but also in our trust of God and of His mysterious ways as the ongoing Creator of our lives. Jesus alludes to the humility that such prayer will require of us when He says, “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
From the increasing state of given-ness that contemplative prayer encourages—a life more yoked with the humility of Jesus—we also come to enjoy a foretaste of the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). For as Paul writes elsewhere, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2Cor. 3:17). Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden is light. This is what we discover as we “let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts” (Col. 3:15). Only then can we bear authentic witness to the truth of Paul’s words that “the mind controlled by the Spirit is peace and life.” (Rom. 8:6)