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By Gary F. Zeolla
How does one experience God? How should we pray? Catholic mystic Madam Guyon claimed to have answered these and similar questions in her book, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ (also called, Short and Very Easy Method of Prayer).
This book was written in France in the late 1600's. Guyon was in prison at the time on charges of heresy (Hope, p.491). The Catholic clergy of the day denounced her views and publicly burned 300 copies of her book (Guyon, p.143).
Guyon's Continuing Influence
Despite the opposition, Guyon's ideas have had an influence on a great number of Christians and Christian movements, past and present. Included among these are the Quakers, Zinzendorf and the Moravians, John Wesley and the holiness movement of the late 1800's (Guyon, p.144).
"... but one of the greatest influences this book has ever had was during the 1920's in China." It was here that, "The book fell into the hands of young Watchman Nee." Subsequently, "Watchman Nee saw that this book was translated into Chinese and made available to every new convert of The Little Flock" (Guyon, p.145, back cover).
And in recent times, "Nee's writings have exerted a great deal of influence in evangelical circles" (Johnson, p.90). Nee's writings are especially popular in the charismatic movement. Thus, indirectly, Guyon's ideas continue to influence millions of Christians today. But what did she promote and were her ideas Biblical?
"Criticizing" Guyon's Ideas
In the preface, Guyon writes, "Beloved reader, read this little book with a sincere and honest spirit. Read it in lowliness of mind WITHOUT THE INCLINATION TO CRITICIZE. If you do, you will not fail to reap profit from it" (Guyon, p.xi).
So Guyon says not to "criticize" her book. But, "criticize" means, "To judge the merits and faults of; analyze and evaluate" (American, p.341). And Christians need to "judge the merits and faults of" all proposed spiritual disciplines since the Bible warns false teachers will arise (Matt 7:15; Acts 20:29-31; 1John 4:1).
And the standard to use to "analyze and evaluate" all ideas is the objective teachings of Scripture (Deut 13:1-5; Acts 17:11; 1John 4:2,3). And this evaluation needs to be done BEFORE one follows any teacher or proposed teaching (2John 10,11; Rev 2:14-16,20). With all this in mind, Guyon's ideas will be "criticized."
Guyon's book begins by quoting Paul's injunction, "pray without ceasing" (p.1; 1Thes 5:17). On page 3, Guyon asks, How then will you come to the Lord to know Him in a deep way?" She responds, "Prayer is the key."
This attitude about the importance of prayer is commendable. As John Calvin writes, "Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and how many ways the exercise of prayer is profitable." This section on prayer in Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is titled, "Prayer, Which Is the Chief Exercise of Faith, and by Which We Daily Receive God's Benefits" (pp.851,850; Luke 18:1; Phil 4:6,7).
Mind vs. Heart
However, a problem enters when Guyon begins to explain the kind of prayer she is advocating, "May I hasten to say that the kind of prayer I am speaking of is not a prayer that comes from YOUR MIND. It is a prayer that begins in THE HEART.... PRAYER THAT COMES FROM THE HEART IS NOT INTERRUPTED BY THINKING!" (p.4).
So Guyon believes the mind (thinking) can get in the way of the "heart" when praying. And this belief in a distinction between the "mind" and the "heart" (and the resultant anti-intellectualism) pervades her book. But are these ideas Biblical?
To answer this question requires a study of the use of the word "heart" in the Bible. The Hebrew words translated "heart" in the Old Testament are leb and lebeb.
These two words are used to refer to, "... the seat of man's spiritual and intellectual life, the inner nature of man." This statement is from an article in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (edited by Colin Brown).
The article goes on to state:
(a) THE HEART IS THE SEAT OF EMOTION, whether of joy (Deut 28:47) or pain (Jer 4:19), of tranquillity (Prov 14:30) or excitement (Deut 19:6; KJV).
(b) THE HEART IS THE SEAT OF THE UNDERSTANDING and of knowledge, of rational forces and powers (1Ki 3:12; 4:29), as well as fantasies and visions (Jer 14:14). But folly (Prov 10:20f) and evil thoughts also operate in the heart.
(c) THE WILL ORIGINATES IN THE HEART, also the carefully weighed intention (1Ki 8:17) and the decision which is ready to be put into effect (Exod 36:2).
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated "heart" is kardia. And, "The NT use of kardia coincides with the OT understanding of the term.... it is the person, the thinking, feeling, willing ego of man, with particular regard to his responsibility to God ...." In short, "The heart stands for man's ego. IT IS SIMPLY THE PERSON" (Matt 15:7-9,16-20; Acts 15:8,9; Rom 10:8-10).
Moreover, "A striking feature of the NT is the essential closeness of kardia to the concept of nous, MIND. nous CAN ALSO HAVE THE MEANING OF PERSON, a man's ego. Heart and mind (noemata, Lit. thoughts) can be used in parallel (2Cor 3:14,15) or synonymously" (Phil 4:7; Sorg, pp.181,182; see also Heb 10:16).
So the words "heart" and "mind" in Scripture are simply two different ways of referring to the inner person. They are not somehow two distinct entities within a person. As such, the mind (or thinking) cannot "interrupt" the heart in prayer.
"Praying the Scripture"
Guyon next explains how to perform the kind of prayer she advocates:
But in coming to the Lord by means of PRAYING THE SCRIPTURE, you do not read quickly; you read very slowly. Do not move from one passage to another, not until you have SENSED the very heart of what you have read. You may then want to take that portion of scripture that has touched you and turn it into a prayer. After you have SENSED something of the passage and after you know that the essence of that portion has been extracted and all the DEEPER SENSE of it is gone, then very slowly, gently and in a calm manner begin to read the next portion of the passage (pp.7,8).
Guyon continues, "Of course, there is a kind of reading the scripture for scholarship and for study - but not here. THAT STUDIOUS KIND OF READING WILL NOT HELP YOU WHEN IT COMES TO MATTERS THAT ARE DIVINE. To receive any deep, inward profit from the scriptures, you must read as I have described" (p.8).
So Guyon taught Scripture has a "deeper sense" which can only be discovered by "sensing" it. Furthermore, a "studious" study of the literal words of Scripture are said to be useless in "matters that are divine."
But, it must be asked, why did God inspire a Book with distinct, propositional statements if a study of its actual words is a useless endeavor for getting to know and learning how to serve Him? (compare Luke 1:1-4; John 20:31; 2Tim 3:16,17).
Moreover, an anti-intellectual attitude toward Scripture can be very dangerous. Dr. Gordon Lewis (Senior Professor of theology and apologetics at Denver Seminary) warns, "We need not look for hidden meanings. IN THE NAME OF 'GETTING A BLESSING' FANTASTIC IDEAS HAVE BEEN READ INTO THE BIBLE" (p.59; 1Tim 1:5-7; 2Pet 3:14-16).
As Calvin writes, "Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning, and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only reject as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions which lead us away from the natural meaning" (Commentaries, p.136; Rom 15:4; 1Cor 4:6; 10:11; 2Pet 1:16-21).
Moreover, Biblical prayer is based on what the Bible has revealed about the nature of God, His works and promises, and our relationship to Him. Examples of prayers containing these elements are recorded in 1Kings 8:22-61; Neh 9:1-38; Dan 9:1-19 and Eph 1:15-23.
The Purpose of Prayer
Guyon presents more of her ideas on prayer, "Do not be too surprised if you find you are NO LONGER ABLE TO OFFER UP PRAYERS OF PETITION.... Give up your own prayers, give up your own desires and your own requests" (pp.81,82).
This attitude is common among "Christian" mystics. Donald Bloesch writes in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, "Mystics often speak of a ladder of prayer or stages of prayer and petition is always considered the lowest stage" (p.867).
Guyon further states, "OUR ULTIMATE PURPOSE IS TO ENJOY GOD ... In this life. To enjoy God! This is the very purpose for which we were created!" (p.92).
But is petitionary prayer really inferior to other forms of prayer? And is enjoying God truly our "ultimate purpose?" First, Scripture teaches us to offer petitionary prayers (James 5:13-18; 1John 5:14,15).
Also, the Bible does not indicate there are "stages of prayer." Paul makes prayers of request in his first and last epistles (1Thes 3:9,10; 2Tim 1:3,4).
Further, Calvin writes in reference to the prayer Jesus Himself taught us to pray, "THIS FORM OR RULE OF PRAYER CONSISTS OF SIX PETITIONS ... the first three petitions have been particularly designed to God's glory .... The three others are concerned with the care of ourselves" (Institutes, p.898; Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4).
As for our "ultimate purpose," notice Calvin says Jesus' prayer form includes petitions designed to glorify God. Compare this attitude with the often repeated, first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, "What is the chief end of man? Answer: MAN'S CHIEF END IS TO GLORIFY GOD, AND TO ENJOY HIM FOREVER" (Schaff, p.676).
Please note, glorifying God comes first. Our enjoyment of God hinges on Him being glorified in our lives (Matt 5:16; 1Cor 10:31; Phil 1:11; 1Peter 2:12; 4:10-16).
"The Ultimate Christian Attainment"
"The Ultimate Christian Attainment" is the title of the last chapter of Guyon's book. She explains:
We come now to the ultimate stage of Christian attainment. Divine Union.... The purpose of this book is not to show you prayer, or even experience, but to bring you to the final Christian state: UNION WITH GOD.... The effort of the self must be stilled. But even more! THE VERY EXISTENCE OF THE SELF MUST BE DESTROYED.... It was the entrance of self, which came into the soul as a result of the fall that established a difference between the soul and God.... It is at this point that you begin to yield yourself up to the impulses of the Spirit UNTIL YOU ARE TOTALLY ABSORBED with Him .... This is union. Divine Union.... (pp.125,126,133).
Is this annihilation of the self and union with God the same as that promoted by the Hindu practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM)? The following quotes should enable the reader to make a comparison.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of TM, wrote in On the Bhagavad-Gita, "It is because the Self is joined in UNION WITH BRAHMAN that man enjoys eternal happiness" (quoted in Martin, p.116; Note: "Brahman" is the impersonal god of Hinduism).
Dr. Gordon Lewis further describes the goals of one practicing TM:
The ultimate goal of a mediator is not freedom from stress, happiness or additional creativity. It is, like a yogi, TO LOOSE HIS INDIVIDUALITY in pure Being.... The ultimate experience of TM may also be called "fulfillment," meaning that fulfillment in the God-conscious life comes when a person is indistinguishable from God.... In effect, THE INDIVIDUAL IS ABSORBED IN BRAHMAN and no longer is distinguishable from "That" (pp.39,41).
Annihilation vs. Relationship
Guyon probably did not fully adhere to pantheism (belief everything is part of an impersonal god) as TM theology does. There are other statements in her book which show she recognized the distinction between the Creator and His creation. However, the above quoted passages do seem to parallel each other.
What is possibly happening is, as a Catholic, Guyon was taught monotheism (belief in one personal, creator God); however, her mindless, mystical experiences were pantheistic. Hence, she was left in a dilemma between the two. And this dilemma arose as a result of her eliminating thinking from her prayer and devotional life.
C.S. Lewis describes the situation well, "Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind; the permanent ordinary level below which man sometimes sinks, under the influence of priestcraft and superstition, but above which his own unaided efforts can never raise him for very long" (pp.82,83).
Only by being transformed by the renewing of our minds can this natural bent of our fallen natures be overcome (see Rom 12:2). And this renewing occurs as we study the Bible, meditate on its precepts, understand its objective teachings and apply them to our lives (Psalm 119; 1Tim 2:15; James 1:22).
Dr. Gordon Lewis describes what a true RELATIONSHIP with God entails:
The filling of the Holy Spirit DOES NOT ANNIHILATE THE EGO.... The Holy Spirit FREES THE MIND to think true thoughts, THE EMOTIONS to rejoice in that which is good and lovely and THE WILL to do what is right.... the Christian's consciousness of ACCEPTANCE WITH GOD IS BASED ON CONCEPTUAL TRUTH....
Christianity offers an experience in which THE I/ THOU DUALITY REMAINS and the fallen self is regenerated from above (pp.46-49; John 3:3; 8:32-36; 17:3,17-19; Phil 4:8,9; 1John 5:9-13).
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Bibliography: Note: all emphases in quotes are added.
All Scripture references from: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.
Bloesch, Donald G. "Prayer" in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.
Calvin, John. Calvin's Commentaries, Vol.XXI. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, reprinted 1979.
Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol.2. Philadelphia: Westminster, reprinted 1960.
Guyon, Madam. Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ. Augusta, ME: Christian Books, reprinted 1981.
Hope, N.V. "Guyon, Madam" in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.
Johnson, Arthur. Faith Misguided: Exposing the Dangers of Mysticism. Chicago: Moody Press, 1988.
Lewis, C.S. Miracles. New York: Collier Books, 1960.
Lewis, Gordon. What Everyone Should Known About Transcendental Meditation. Glendale, CA: Regal, 1975.
Martin, Walter. Martin Speaks Out on the Cults. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1983.
Schaff, Philip. Creeds Of Christendom. Vol.III. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, reprinted 1985.
Sorg, T. "Heart" in The New International Dictionary of NT Theology. Vol.2. Grand Rapids: Regency, 1986.
"Christian" Mysticism. Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light
newsletter in 1994.
It was posted on this website in July 1996.
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