“Be Still and Know that I Am God”: A “Closer Read” of the Contemplatives’ “Poster Verse”

Phyllis Nissila

THE POSTER VERSE
It has been said that Psalm 46:10, that is to say the first half of it, is the poster verse of contemplative prayer advocates. The portion reads, “Be still, and know that I am God […]” (KJV).

Apparently, by using just this piece of the verse contemplatives have been successful in promoting self-validating presumptions about the entire context of the verse, specifically, the presumption that by “silencing” or “quieting” the mind and awaiting an affirming feeling of some sort one can know God better if not become one with Him in some kind of “mystical state.” [1]

Believers, on the other hand, verify knowledge of God through His Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and we have the help of the Holy Spirit, sent of Jesus, Who said that the Spirit would “guide (us) into all truth, for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will (show us) things to come./He shall glorify (Jesus); for he shall receive of (Jesus’), and shall (show) it unto (us)” (John 16:13-14).

But if Scripture in context is rarely taught anymore in our church; and if we’ve been bowled over by popular new/ancient practices that hype feelings and promise special, experiential knowledge of God; and if we come from a religious system that applies equal parts sacred to Scripture and Tradition, how to discern?

YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT CONTEXT AND ELEPHANTS
There’s a saying that comes to mind when parting out the written word for purposes other than was originally intended: “A text out of context is a pretext.” [2]. Nibbling on a dollop of an idea here, a wedge of an argument there (or half of one verse in a psalm comprised of eleven verses) does not a full-meal-exposition make. Readers are likely to get a bad taste, or the wrong taste of what’s on the plate especially if they don’t take a few minutes to reference the text in its plain meaning.

The relevancy of the old anecdote about several visually impaired people each describing an entire elephant by just one body part also comes to mind. One version goes like this: ”The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.” [3]

Truncating Scriptures (like truncating the elephant) and assigning doctrine to hand-selected bits and parts does not leave something for everyone; rather, it leaves gaps of information and interpretation that are hazardous to intellectual, not to mention spiritual, health.

A “CLOSE READ”
To help our literature and writing students think critically and write analytically my colleagues and I pose a number of questions students must answer in order to accomplish what’s called a “close read” of a text and/or to write an adequate paper. Applying just three of the questions to the half-verse in Psalm 46 that contemplatives stand behind, as well as the Psalm in its entirety, will, I hope, encourage discernment—and discourage presumption. And although most of us don’t think in terms of applying specific questions to what we read, as may be required in the classroom, we do it naturally anyway, on some level.

The mind wants comprehension, as we teach in effective learning classes. It wants to be able to connect new “dots” with at least some “old dots” to maintain or create coherence. It wants to make immediate sense of a “differently shaped” thought, so to speak. That’s why radically new ideas require a complete paradigm (or worldview) shift, which takes time. But if everyone is in a hurry to change, new ideas (or re-cycled old ideas) require some pretty potent payoffs such as, say, a feeling of “ecstatic union” with the most powerful force in the universe, God. And if one is convinced that the first requirement of the new idea or experience is to silence the naturally analytical mind “things” can progress at an alarming rate. Whatever those “things” really are. But, to the essential questions:

THE QUESTIONS
# 1: What does the author hope to accomplish through writing the piece?
David’s motives in writing “Be still, and know that I am God” are found in the second half of the verse, “[…]: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” David’s plain motive is to speak in a prophetic tone of God’s ultimate exaltation over His enemies.

David’s motives are also plain in the Psalm, or song, as a whole which is about God helping His people in hard times. Verse after verse reminds the “chief Musician for sons of the Korah” and reminds us that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (1).

The psalmist also verifies that the God he writes of is the same God of “old,” the God of Jacob (7, 11).

In addition, Psalm 46 is a song, and good lyrics, like good poetry, develop a unifying theme. Any sub-themes present are crafted carefully to expand the primary message. Each verse is a key to the whole, like puzzle pieces make up a picture. In this song, David the lyricist is telling us, by means of plain language as well as metaphor, that we can trust God to help us in even the most trying times.

Nowhere in the context of this Psalm is there any reference to clearing one’s mind by means of chanting or “quieting” until a “mystical union (with God) reaches a degree of “ecstasy” which may lead to “visions” or “miraculous bodily phenomena.” [4]. Miraculous bodily phenomena occur elsewhere in Scripture, two quite spectacular examples being the account of Elijah being “taken up” into heaven (2 Kings, 2:11) and the account of Philip who was “caught away” and seen “no more” immediately after he finished ministering to the man from Ethiopia (Acts 8: 26-39), but a contextual reading of these passages (and other examples) indicates no mind-numbing pre-requisite.

#2: What is the author’s purpose in writing?
To remind his listeners and readers of God’s power, His nearness, and His faithfulness.

#3: What does the author want the reader to do as a result of reading the piece?
The author wants the hearers/readers to remember that we can rely upon God and take refuge in Him because “the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (7). In other words, we don’t have to seek Him by means of extra- and non-biblical means. And because He is already here with us, we can forsake fear though “the earth be moved, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea” (2).

David wants us to “take away” encouragement, confidence, and courage because of the greatness, goodness and Lordship of our God.

OUT OF CONTEXT AND INTO TROUBLE
Nothing in the plain, in-context reading of Psalm 46 suggests supporting an updated version of a centuries-old form of “(Roman Catholic) contemplative meditation to offset the movement of young Catholics toward Eastern meditation techniques.” [5]

Nothing in the plain, in-context reading of Psalm 46 suggests “a belief system that uses ancient mystical practices to induce altered states of consciousness (the silence) and is often wrapped in Christian terminology; the premise of (which) […] is pantheistic (God is all) and panentheistic (God is in all).” [6]

And, nothing in the plain, in-context reading of Psalm 46 suggests an attempt to “return to a more intuitively received knowledge (of God),” or to “move beyond the intellect, beyond doctrine, and beyond words to a deeper union with God (by achieving a) […] mystical union with God through contemplation (wordless ‘prayer’) […].” [7]

In short, the selection of one half of one verse in an entire Psalm in an attempt to validate a spiritual practice that resembles more New Age prayer than the prayer of a new age is to torture the text, at best.

“Spiritual highs” are very seductive, and our main adversary, the “angel of light,” is very opportunistic. I believe contemplative prayer, a.k.a. centering/soaking prayer, is an opportunity Satan is NOT refusing. And it is potent.

Having grown up in Roman Catholicism and during that time having studied, both in school and out, various books on the lives and practices of the Catholic saints I can verify that many very strange and highly unusual manifestations occurred when the ancient monks and nuns “contemplated” in ways now re-emerging in the so-called Emergent Church. And contemporary practitioners “ain’t seen nothin’ yet” (as it were).

But aside from concerns over the bizarre nature of some of the “events,” the most important question is this: do such experiences glorify Jesus, which is the role of the Holy Spirit, Who, contemplatives claim, is the originator of such mystical experiences?

Or is there another entity who wants the glory and attention…if we would only suppress what the mind is designed to do…for just a little while…and wait for “it”…whatever “it” may manifest…

IFs, ANDs, AND BUTs
Contemplatives argue:
But if David danced naked in HIS ecstasy, then why can’t we laugh and swoon and achieve our own ecstasy in unique ways today? (From the contemplatives I’ve talked with, this seems to be a popular comeback.)

And, says another, all those old rituals and dogmas and works systems just don’t get the young people in the doors today. We need something new and fresh and appealing because, like the priest said in reference # 5, young folks are turning to other religions. We’d better get some pew cred or we’ll lose them! Besides, even though this kind of prayer resembles Hindu meditation, everybody’s religion is okay, now, in the postmodern era, no? That’s what the postmoderns claim, anyway. We just want the kids to come back.

And from yet another contemplative, these questions: But can’t God do anything He wants because he’s God? Anyway, doesn’t the Bible advise us to meditate?

ANOTHER LOOK
Compelling arguments. But consider:

Was David really nude?
For a studied look at David’s “nakedness,” which is easy to visualize as David sans apparel of any sort, see reference # 8, below for a good discussion of the related passages. As it turns out, David wasn’t really completely naked, as presumed by contemplatives and used to suggest worship with some kind of wild abandon. He was still, as Scripture notes, “girded with a linen ephod,” that is to say, a common covering that had religious significance, just not the social significance of a king’s garb.

Which is not to say, however, worshippers might not feel joy and happiness as a result of praising God and considering what he has done for us and for Who He is. It’s just not the goal of worship. Feelings may result from praising and worshipping God, and often do, but not necessarily. In addition, there are all kinds of circumstances, and all kinds of physiological and psychological phenomena and manipulative mechanisms that cause emotional responses and many have nothing to do with God.

Is new necessarily better?
To respond to the concern that old systems just don’t work, now, it depends upon the “system.” We can replace worn out musical instruments, outdated technology, old, Word-based lyrics for new, Word-based lyrics if we desire. But not classic Christian prayer that glorifies God and makes our requests known, with “new” forms of prayer that alter consciousness and produce New Age “fruit”. And, of course, the core tenets of Christian doctrine remain. Consider: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever. /Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines […]” (Hebrews 13:8-9).

Just another circular argument?
And yes, God can do anything He wants because He is God, but He has chosen to remain within the parameters of His own Word. Consider Matthew 4:4, “But he (Jesus) answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” Consider also, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (1 John 5:7). In other words, the Holy Spirit will not lead God’s people off into some practice or experience that is not also “agreed upon” by God the Father, and God the Son, Jesus.

Some might counter that the term “Trinity” is not used in Scripture either, just as the practice of emptying the mind to achieve ecstatic union with God is not explicitly stated. But the evidence of God as Triune is there (see reference #9 for a lengthy but good discussion of this topic).

It is hard for us to understand the concept of the Trinity via human intellectual abilities alone, but God has given verification of the concept throughout the Scriptures and scholars and apologists through the centuries have verified this through a careful exegesis of the text.

Therefore, the absence of the literal word “Trinity” in Bible lexicons does not justify artificially imposing an alien idea such as contemplative prayer on a scrap of Scripture torn from its original context and re-purposed to suggest something contemplatives want it to suggest.

Jesus Himself testified to His own alignment with the law and the prophets in context; He testified to what IS there: “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, (Jesus) expounded unto them (the travelers on Emmaus road) in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24: 27). Jesus never taught contemplative, soaking, or centering prayer as was developed in part by the so-called desert fathers and mothers in the early centuries, A.D., nor did the apostles or the prophets teach it.

As for meditation, Scripture endorses this practice for several purposes, all based on the Word of God: to worship God, to learn of Him, to be encouraged and corrected by Him, and to be transformed into the image of Christ. For a good treatise on biblical meditation, see http://bible.org/article/biblical-meditation.

BACK TO THE BOOK
Neither emptying one’s mind to achieve a nebulous “ecstatic union” with God nor awaiting some sort of spiritual manifestation that produces miraculous bodily phenomena are found in a methodical, appropriate study of, or meditation on, the Scriptures.

And contemplative prayer experiences cannot be justified via a discordant interpretation based on a mere one-half of one verse in an eleven-verse psalm, itself one entry in a book of one-hundred fifty psalms, itself one book in a sixty-six book anthology of writings in multiple genres that have been proven through the centuries to be cohesive in both the literary sense [10] and the spiritual sense [11].

MY PLEA(S)
To contemplatives: please give the partial verse another read in its full context.

To those just now considering this “alternate prayer experience”: step aside and investigate. Thoroughly. And don’t turn back.

Or how I prefer to put it: “Run, screaming!”

[1] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04324b.htm
[2] D.A. Carson
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_contemplation
[5] http://www.contemplativeprayer.net/
[6] http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/cp.htm
[7] http://www.faithalone.org/journal/1997ii/Caddock.html
[8] http://www.doesgodexist.org/JulAug06/DancingNakedorUnderstandingBadly.html
[9] http://bible.org/article/trinity-triunity-god
[10] http://www.bible.gen.nz/amos/literary/literat.htm
[11] http://www.2pi.info/bible/theoffer/WhatsInTheBible.html
(The references above are just a few of many that can help clarify this issue.)

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2 Responses to “Be Still and Know that I Am God”: A “Closer Read” of the Contemplatives’ “Poster Verse”

  1. Andrew says:

    Hi Phyllis

    Thanks for posting the truth, I used to be involved in “soaking prayer”, fortunately God showed me the truth and I stopped attending it and has not been involved for the past 6 months. My wife got involved at first and I started 3 or 4 months after her and it went on for more or less 2 years. To be honest, I was stupid when we started and did not question anything, although it was different when we started, we met and discussed a lot of different topics and the Word was shared, almost like a home church.

    Some of our group met up with people from another group and after that everything changed. It was all about getting drunk in the “spirit”, we did not spend any time in the Word, they would start the music and everyone got silent and then the weird manifestations would start. They would change with every meeting and became more and more outrageous; fortunately I was never influenced too much by these manifestations.

    One night it was almost as if God pulled me out of the meeting and told me to have a look at the people around me, I was shocked and He also said that it was not of Him. I started questioning things and started my research and it was an eye opener. My wife is unfortunately still involved and it is a huge source of conflict in our house at the moment, she is really into feathers and gold dust and all that nonsense. I have seen a huge change in her over the last 3 years, she used to have a passion for God’s word and for other people, but lately it is all about being drunk in the spirit and having all these experiences. They don’t want any people in the group who have personal issues because they would be a hindrance to them getting “into” the “spirit” and getting the “anointing”. I always thought we had the Spirit and the anointing in us so we don’t need to press into anything. We have been praying hard for her to get out of it and I trust God will deliver her from this deception.

    Thank for your blog, it is great to see that there are like-mined Christians out there.

    Like

    • pnissila says:

      Andrew,
      I am so sorry to hear about your wife. Thank God you are out. Keep praying for her, and I will pray, too. Besides my intensive Roman Catholic upbringing and work in a counseling ministry to help ex-cultists (years ago), just last summer I found out some very old and dear friends of mine had gotten deeply involved in the Sozo ministry out of Bethel Church in Redding, CA. They are very much into contemplative mysticism, theophostics, and more. This shocked and amazed me. Those friends and I were part of a prayer and Bible study group from about 1979 until about 1990. I hadn’t known they were into something like this. And then my sister and I discovered a church around here into the New Apostolic Reformation stuff that includes the feathers and gold dust and the sort of thing you referenced. It juse seems like there’s a lot more going on now than ever before. When I worked in the ministry in the eighties, the cults and the occultic influences were outside the church and easy to spot. Now, so much of this is right in the middle of the church. We really, really, have to stay in the Word of God, as you also illustrated, and even then pray daily for discernment. And, by the way, there are many excellent sources of information on all of this phenomena, online. I recommend the following sites if you haven’t already accessed them:
      Lighthouse Trails Research (they have a topical index of articles on a variety of issues)
      Apprising Ministries (he gets a little sarcasm on from time to time, but it’s a great site)
      Sola Sisters (another research site)
      Herescope
      And I have listed other sites after various blogs entries.
      God hears and is answering your prayers, brother.I hope your wife responds soon.
      In Christ,
      Phyllis

      Like

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