It is easy to feel inferior to someone who knows something you don’t — especially when they hold information that you earnestly desire. For centuries, religious mystics have been working overtime to insinuate that the church suffers from the same kind of information void, supposedly a void that only they can fill.
When the apostle Paul wrote his epistle to the church in Colossae, the believers there were being intimidated by people who claimed to have a higher, broader, deeper, and fuller union with God than Christ alone could give. They were the mystics. They claimed to have interacted with angelic beings through visions and other mystical experiences. Paul said of them:
Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. (Colossians 2:18–19)
Mysticism is still very much alive, and still using spiritual intimidation to demean the uninitiated. People today who claim to have had heavenly visions or spellbinding experiences are often simply puffed up with idle notions, using their claims to intimidate others into elevating them. As the apostle Paul told the Colossian believers, that kind of mysticism is the product of an “inflated . . . [and] fleshly mind.” Those who embrace it have turned from their sufficiency in Christ, who alone produces true spirituality. Don’t be intimidated by them.
Apparently the Colossian mystics claimed that anyone not having similar esoteric visions or embracing similar doctrines was disqualified from obtaining the prize of true spirituality. In reality they themselves were the disqualified ones.
Mysticism is the idea that direct knowledge of God or ultimate reality is achieved through personal, subjective intuition or experience apart from, or even contrary to, historical fact or objective divine revelation. Arthur Johnson, a professor at West Texas State University, elaborates:
When we speak of a mystical experience we refer to an event that is completely within the person. It is totally subjective. . . . Although the mystic may experience it as having been triggered by occurrences or objects outside himself (like a sunset, a piece of music, a religious ceremony, or even a sex act), the mystical experience is a totally inner event. It contains no essential aspects that exist externally to him in the physical world. . . . A mystical experience is primarily an emotive event, rather than a cognitive one. . . . Its predominant qualities have more to do with emotional intensity, or “feeling tone,” than with facts evaluated and understood rationally. Although this is true, it alone is a woefully inadequate way of describing the mystical experience. The force of the experience is often so overwhelming that the person having it finds his entire life changed by it. Mere emotions cannot effect such transformations.
Furthermore, it is from this emotional quality that another characteristic results, namely, its “self-authenticating” nature. The mystic rarely questions the goodness and value of his experience. Consequently, if he describes it as giving him information, he rarely questions the truth of his newly gained “knowledge.” It is this claim that mystical experiences are “ways of knowing” truth that is vital to understanding many religious movements we see today.
Prevalent especially in the charismatic movement, modern mysticism embraces a concept of faith that in effect rejects reality and rationality altogether. Waging war on reason and truth, it is thus in direct conflict with Christ and Scripture. It has taken hold rapidly because it promises what so many people are seeking: something more, something better, something richer, something easier—something fast and easy to substitute for a life of careful, disciplined obedience to the Word of Christ. And because so many lack certainty that their sufficiency is in Christ, mysticism has caught many Christians unaware. It has thus swept much of the confessing church into a dangerous netherworld of confusion and false teaching.
Mysticism has created a theological climate that is largely intolerant of precise doctrine and sound biblical exegesis. Note, for example, how wildly popular it has become to speak scornfully of doctrine, systematic Bible teaching, careful exegesis, or the bold proclamation of the gospel. Absolute truth and rational certainty are currently out of vogue. Authoritative biblical preaching is decried as too dogmatic. It is rare nowadays to hear a preacher challenge popular opinion with clear teaching from God’s Word and underscore the truth with a firm and settled, “Thus saith the Lord.”
Ironically, a new breed of self-appointed prophets has arisen. These religious quacks tout their own dreams and visions with a different phrase, “The Lord told me. . . .” That is mysticism, and it preys on people looking for some secret truth that will add to the simplicity of God’s all-sufficient, once-for-all delivered Word.
A well-known charismatic pastor told me that sometimes in the morning when he’s shaving, Jesus comes into his bathroom and puts His arm around him and they have a conversation. Does he really believe that? I don’t know. Perhaps he wants people to believe he is more intimate with Christ than most of us. Whatever the case, his experience contrasts sharply with biblical accounts of heavenly visions. Isaiah was terrified when he saw the Lord and immediately confessed his sin (Isaiah 6:5). Manoah feared for his life and said to his wife, “We will surely die, for we have seen God” (Judges 13:22). Job repented in dust and ashes (Job 42:5–6). The disciples were petrified (Luke 8:25). Peter said to Jesus, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Each of them was overwhelmed with a sense of sinfulness and feared judgment. How could someone casually talk and shave while in the presence of such an infinitely holy God?
A local newspaper once told of a well-known television evangelist who was taking a nap in his home when suddenly, he claimed, Satan himself appeared, grabbed him around the neck with both hands, and tried to strangle him to death. When he cried out, his wife came running into the room and chased the devil away. That same man has reported other bizarre experiences over the years.
I frankly don’t believe accounts like that. Aside from the fact that they often don’t align with biblical truth, they distract people from the truth of Christ. People begin to pursue paranormal experiences, supernatural phenomena, and special revelations — as if our resources in Christ weren’t enough. They spin their views of God and spiritual truth out of their own self-authenticated, self-generated feelings, which become more important to them than the Bible. They create experiences in their minds from which they develop a belief system that simply is not true, opening themselves to further deception and even demonic influences. That’s the legacy of mysticism.
Mysticism also destroys discernment. Why should people think for themselves or compare what they are taught with Scripture when their teachers claim to receive truth directly from heaven? Thus mysticism becomes a tool through which unscrupulous leaders can coerce money and honor from the flock with fabricated experiences that play on people’s gullibility.
The pastor of a rather large church in our area wanted to relocate the church. The idea wasn’t popular with some members of his congregation, but he convinced them that it was God’s will by appealing to mysticism. He told them that on three separate occasions the Lord Himself had spoken to him instructing him to move the church to a certain location. The pastor claimed that on the third occasion the Lord said to him, “The time has come. Leave the problem to me. I will work on many hearts. Some will not understand. Some will not follow. Most will. Go, and do my bidding.” That is a verbatim quote from the church’s newsletter.
When the pastor presented the plan to his congregation, he likened it to Caleb and Joshua’s challenge to the Israelites to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 13:30). Then he added,
If you cannot catch the vision of God’s beautiful plan, I will understand, but it is essential that our church be faced with this opportunity to follow His plan. If you won’t go with us I will understand. I will not think of you as evil, or destructive. . . . I want us to move forward into God’s plan, and I want every one of you to go with us. You will be glad you did, and God will bless you for it.
That’s the classic intimidation of an appeal to mysticism! This man effectively renounced all responsibility for his plan and placed it on God. By doing so he took the decision away from his people and other church leaders and based it on his own unreliable feelings. He implied that anyone who disagreed with his plan was opposing God’s will and ran the risk of incurring the same fate that the unbelieving Israelites suffered when they refused to enter Canaan!
Maybe God wanted that church to move — that’s not the issue. The pastor’s appeal to his own mystical, subjective, self-authenticating feelings was wrong. Scripture is clear about how such decisions must be made—on the basis of the prayerful, wise, unanimous agreement of Spirit-filled elders who search the heart of God in Scripture, not on the mystical whims of one man.
Those familiar with Christian television during the 1980s would remember Oral Roberts’s infamous claim that God would kill him if listeners didn’t send eight million dollars to his organization. Over the years he made similar fantastic pleas, ranging from the promises of a miracle for certain sums of money, to the claim that God would reveal to him the cure for cancer if everyone would only send several hundred dollars. That kind of extortion is made possible because too many Christians don’t recognize the error of mysticism. They want to support what God is doing but they don’t know how to discern things biblically. Consequently they’re indiscriminate in their giving. Some send enormous sums of money in hopes of buying a miracle. By doing so they think they’re demonstrating great faith, but in reality they’re showing great distrust in the sufficiency of Christ. What they think of as faith in Christ is really doubt looking for proof. Such weak people are easy victims of mysticism’s false promises.
Preachers who confront mystical teachings are often branded as judgmental, unloving, or divisive. Mysticism has thus cultivated a tolerance for false and careless teaching. But the biblical mandate is clear: We must be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that [we] will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).
There is no mystical higher plane of existence. Christ is all in all. Cling to Him. Cultivate your love for Him. In Him alone you are complete!
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