Reviewed by Stephen Yuille
The term mysticism is used in multiple ways. In this review, I use it to describe those who affirm that they can attain an immediate knowledge of God in this life through personal experience. To be more specific, I use it to describe those who believe that some of their inner impulses and intuitions are actually the direct work of the Holy Spirit whereby He speaks to them apart from the Bible. Here are two hypothetical examples.
I’m considering a job offer, working nights at a factory. I’ve been out of work for six months. This has caused a great deal of strain because I have a wife, three children, and a huge mortgage. The job pays well, and it seems to make sense for me to take it; besides, I have no other prospects on the horizon. But I’m struggling to discern God’s will, because He hasn’t given me peace about working nights – something that has never really appealed to me. I’ve prayed about it, and I just don’t feel right about accepting the job offer. By the way, this is how I usually make decisions: I commit the matter to God, and wait for Him to guide me by imparting an overwhelming sense of peace. I’m just not feeling it in this case.
I’m sitting under a willow tree, beside a beautiful pond. The temperature is perfect. There’s a gentle breeze. Birds are chirping, bees are buzzing, and ducks are quacking. A turtle is sunning itself on a log. I’m going to pray. But rather than speak, I’m going to wait for God to speak to me. I close my eyes, allowing nature to overwhelm me. I wait. I peek at my watch – five minutes have passed. I wait some more. Then, it happens: I have a feeling. No, it has nothing to do with the three burritos I ate for breakfast. (I can tell the difference.) I have a feeling. God is letting me know how much He cares for me. This is wonderful. I feel such peace, because God has just shown me He’s real.
Sadly, this kind of mysticism is deeply entrenched within modern-day evangelicalism. Many evangelicals would be absolutely shocked to hear me question the legitimacy of the personal experiences I’ve just described. They would be completely stunned to hear me say that God never speaks to me apart from the Bible. As a matter of fact, they would likely label me unspiritual.
That being the case, I was pleased to read Phillip Cary’s Good News for Anxious Christians.
Cary describes his book as an “attack” on “distortions” within what he calls “the new evangelical theology” (pp. ix, xvi). He unleashes his attack in three major waves.
In the first, Cary identifies four “distinctives” of the new evangelical theology. The first is the practice of listening for God’s voice in our hearts (chapter 1). The second is the notion that our impulses and intuitions are the direct work of the Holy Spirit upon our hearts (chapter 2). The third is the belief that obedience means allowing God to work in us, so that we don’t work (chapter 3). The fourth is the idea that we need to discover God’s will – for every decision we face – by searching for direction within our hearts (chapter 4).
Many evangelicals embrace these distinctives as the essence of what it means to have a “personal relationship” with God. But Cary sets the record straight by stressing the fact that God speaks to us the way any person speaks to us – from outside (not inside) our hearts (Rom. 10:17). In other words, God speaks to us through the external word of Scripture in which we find His precepts and promises – otherwise known as His revealed will.
In the second wave of attack, Cary identifies four “practical” ideas that shape the new evangelical theology, namely: we must seek right motivations (chapter 5); we must ensure that we do not separate head from heart (chapter 6); we must get transformed all the time (chapter 7); and we must always experience joy (chapter 8).
As Cary explains, these ideas are the product of a consumer-driven church. Consumerism needs people who do not remain attached to what they possess; that is to say, it needs people who are driven to desire the new, not cherish the old. The new evangelical theology has adopted this mindset, marketing its spirituality as a string of “life-changing experiences,” without which people are made to feel ordinary (i.e., unspiritual). Cary demonstrates the fallacy of this consumer-driven spirituality by affirming that everything we need is found in Christ. We don’t need to pursue a series of new experiences, but live out what we already possess by virtue of our union with Christ (p. 121).
In the third wave of attack (chapters 9 and 10), Cary maintains that the way to make a real change in people is by telling them about how Christ has changed everything – including their lives, identities, and future. This is done through the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word: “Since faith in Christ is what really changes our hearts and makes us new, it is hearing the gospel of Christ that really helps us live the Christian life” (p. 159).
In attacking these “distortions,” Cary’s primary concern is pastoral. He believes the new evangelical theology – while promising great experiences – produces a spirituality plagued by anxiety (p. 191). “Underneath a lot of talk about being personal with God,” says Cary, “it’s a spirituality that actually leaves you alone with yourself” (p. xi). Our relationship with God becomes contingent upon our impulses and intuitions – nebulous feelings. As we search ever deeper within for God, we plunge ourselves into a deeper state of spiritual perplexity. Experience breeds experience, meaning the pursuit of experience becomes a treadmill from which we can’t escape. The results are damaging.
First, it’s bad for “psychological health” (p. 191). “This way of making your feelings into God imposes on you an unhealthy narcissism, a false grandiosity of the self.”
Second, it’s bad for “moral character” (p. 192). “It blocks the pursuit of wisdom and therefore undermines moral responsibility.”
Third, it’s bad for “spiritual life” (p. 193). “It gets you to base your spiritual life on an unreal idea of God, a God you’re supposed to ‘make real’ in your life by having the right experience… Instead of learning what God says about himself in his word, you have to dance with shadows in your own heart and figure out which of them to call God.”
The church has struggled with this kind of mysticism throughout its history. If we think in terms of post-Reformation history, for example, we find the Quakers (beginning in the 1640s) urging people to turn to the inner light for guidance. While esteeming the Bible as God’s Word, they affirmed that the indwelling Holy Spirit is the supreme authority when it comes to direction for Christian living and thinking. That is to say, they believed their perceived Spirit-led thoughts, impulses, emotions, and intuitions were more important than the Bible.
This is now the default position of the vast majority of evangelicals. They are convinced that revelation is something that happens internally, and that they can discern God’s voice in their hearts. In so doing, they have made an unwarranted cleavage between the Spirit and the Word.
While several of Cary’s comments could use further clarification, his overall message is a welcome one. Against the tide of serious “distortions” within evangelicalism, he upholds the nature of the Holy Spirit’s work in the revelation of Scripture as unique, and affirms that the Holy Spirit now illuminates what He has revealed in Scripture – that is to say, the Spirit of God only speaks to us through the Word of God.
Dr. Stephen Yuille is Pastor of Grace Community Church, Glen Rose, TX, and he is Book Review Editor for Spirituality and Christian Living here at Books At a Glance.
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Good News For Anxious Christians: Ten Things You Don't Have To Do