Contemplating the Mystery
We long in all theological teaching to embrace the true goal of all instruction – that is, to have our hearts engaged by the presence of God.
Let us disperse with the notion that theology has no place in the fields of devotion. Many argue that theology benefits only the mind, rather than the heart. Of course there is always the peril of cold, nominal intellectualism. But most of the church – either for laziness or disinterest in exploring its own treasures – draws a false dichotomy between so-called “head faith” and “heart faith.” In fact, the same Greek words for heart and mind are consistently interchangeable!
In truth, I no longer see a real distinction between theology (“God knowledge”) and inspirational material. Either can be infected with grace, or on the contrary, legalism. As long as we remember that theology is always on a measured leash. It must always stop short at the door of Mystery. Good theology can drip with the substance of freedom, just as easily as bad devotionals can shackle on the religion. C.S. Lewis writes, “I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”
I have always enjoyed an eclectic spectrum of writers … contemplatives, theologians, early church fathers, medieval mystics, modern grace teachers – Reformed, Catholic and Charismatic alike. By embracing a collective of voices, it is not that I endorse each writer as a whole, but rather long to extract gems from their respective works that contribute to a full, robust experiential interaction with the Person of God.
A Contemplative Journey
I was first drawn to the contemplative stream many years ago as a result of frustration. The wooing of His presence pulled me away from the shallow waters of incomplete pat answers and into the depths of Mystery.
I had an insatiable hunger to simply be with Him.
“… where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. ... For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:8-13).
It is impossible to see Him as He is when our minds are muddled with our own distorted ideas about Him. But man’s thoughts are silenced in the awe of His tangible majesty and splendor. He’s bigger than our mental roadblocks, and opinions are irretrievably altered by His real presence. We learn to let go. We transcend the limitations of human understanding, which give way like a wet tissue under the enormous weight of Mr. Reality Himself. Robert Capon says this about theology:
“Christian theology, however, never is and never can be anything more than the thoughts that Christians have (alone or with others) after they have said yes to Jesus. Sure, it can be a thrilling subject. Of course, it is something you can do well or badly – or even get right or wrong. And naturally, it is one of the great fun things to do on weekends when your kidney stones aren’t acting up. Actually, it is almost exactly like another important human subject that meets all the same criteria: wind-surfing. Everybody admires it, and plenty of people try it. But the number of people that can do it well is even smaller than the number who can do it without making fools of themselves.
“Trust Jesus, then. After that, theologize all you want. Just don’t lose your sense of humor if your theological surfboard deposits you unceremoniously in the drink.”
The contemplative and the theologian must be one interchangeable man. For the contemplative – virtuous as he is for his refusal to settle for lifeless answers – need not stay in a perpetual state of hunger and unknowing. Nor should he foster a distaste for knowledge, simply because imperfect knowledge has run him up many a blind alley in days past. The fact is, we shall one day know fully. True Knowledge is more than data – He is a Person. And our life of discovery is a life of feasting as the scales of unknowing are stripped away in experiential, face-to-face communion by the end of Emmaus’ road.
Paul never says we will fully, intellectually grasp the Mystery. He says we have fellowship with the Mystery (Eph. 3:9). You may not have all the answers, but the Answer has you. The Mystery is a Person with whom we forever interact. A Mystery whose very goal was to expose Himself – to be stripped bare and plainly published. In fact, the apostle Paul uses the word musterion more than any other New Testament writer, and almost exclusively in the sense that the Mystery has been revealed. Here in Ephesians 3:9, he wanted to “explain” or “make plain” and “bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” Paul was entrusted with an “administration of this secret,” saying also “we are guides into God's most sublime secrets, not security guards posted to protect them” (1 Cor. 4:1, MSG).
The Secret does not exclude. It is self-revealing. Even the pagan King Nebuchadnezzar was amazed, saying to Daniel, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery” (Dan. 2:47).
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not complex, shrouded or veiled in any sense of the imagination. Children are quickest to recognize it. Yet its simplicity does not truncate its eternal depths. Easy enough for a child understand is this Gospel which is searched out as the glory of kings. We grow in depth as we grow in simplicity.
Growing in Simple Depth
The contemplative journey is not a path of becoming. It is a path of realization of what we’ve already become in Him. An awakening to a transformation that has already taken place. Our journey is one of discovering the True Self. And this is but a byproduct of something much greater – the real discovery of Christ in us – the only means by which we would ever know ourselves anyway. Self-discovery in itself is vanity. A chasing after the wind. What self? He is your Life. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. … “ (Gal. 2:20). Beyond simple – the gospel is an absolutely effortless unveiling of the truth of the Godhead in you.
We are not arriving into Him, but realizing He arrived into us. This is the drastic difference between a process of frustration and a process of never-ending fun.
Frustration, as a helpmate, may be a catalyst to leave former, unfulfilling things behind, but our journey is not one of continual hunger and futility. No, that is the fruit of an unrevealed mystery. If frustration was a starting point, it is surely not the goal. On the contrary, our journey is a continual plunge from satisfaction to satisfaction for we realize that we fully possess the One our heart desires. Rooted in union, yet leaving open the door of intrigue. Two things brought about our former frustration: either never knowing this Gospel or being bored spitless in thinking we knew it all.
But frustration has now given way to the fun of having it all now, yet forever discovering.
Paul desired that we “may become progressively more intimately acquainted with and may know more definitely and accurately and thoroughly that mystic secret of God, [which is] Christ (the Anointed One)” (Col. 2:2, AMP).
And so here, we find a journey into the knowledge of the gospel. Not a never-ending chase for the illusive carrot. Our journey, instead, is the never-ending Disneyland of exploration. Theology becomes a friend of discovery – serving the word – though she is easily hijacked by foreskin hunters. And contemplation finds her true calling as well – not as an endless, sweaty ladder of mental ascent – but as an enjoyment of the One who has forever been right here reclining within us with His feet kicked up on the couch.
Be clear that our growing in knowledge (gnosis) is never to divorce from intimacy. That’s the primordial slime religion came from. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Knowledge does not save us, Jesus did. The Secret is not a mental accumulation of concepts. The Secret is a Person. The Secret doesn’t teach us to be saved, but saves us. He is our very Union with Himself. No tactics for catching Him through study or prayer. He is the God-Man Bridge, who in His very being and substance is Connectivity. He is Relationship. Love that binds Lover and Beloved. This is why salvation is not simply something He did as an action … salvation is the very person of Christ Himself. The essence of His very being is incarnation – oneness between Heaven and earth. He mediates not as a mere action but simply by being God and humanity in the same package.
Jesus Christ is perfect theology.
Truth is a person. Truth is not changing. It is not relative, but it is alive. Our theological foundation must be solid – but it is not cold, stoic, lifeless dogma. We have a living Foundation. In the world of theological complexity, we can rest in two things for sure … that God is Love and that Jesus Christ is the Word of God. Rest solid in these two pillars my friend, and you will never be swayed by confusion. In fact, herein lies the very unfolding of the scriptures. For centuries man has been divided over scripture. How often do you hear someone militantly say, "I only believe the Bible!" Or "I don’t need theology. I only believe what's in the Bible." What they are really saying is that they only believe their interpretation of the Bible. Everyone has a theology – a perception of God. Again, let us not vilify theology – only lets see its valid role and its limitations. It can be a dark angel or a fun drinking partner. Again, we must keep two things in mind: God is Love, and Jesus Christ is the Word of God.
Christ the Ultimate Text
What I am saying is this: Christ is the ultimate text.
We do not read that "in the beginning there was the Bible," but "in the beginning there was the Word and the Word was God." Christ is the Word of the Father. The Person of Christ is the Text by which we read everything else.
Jesus said, “You search the scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the scriptures point to me!” (John 5:39 – NLT) We don't worship the book; we worship a person. When we look at the person of Jesus Christ – He is the lens through which all the other scriptures fall into place.
Likewise, when we read the scriptures through the lens of God is Love, we can never go wrong because love never fails. In every instance I must see His love – even in the most difficult, traumatic, genocidal passages – it is there, even if only in a hidden way. I may only see a glimmer of grace – but it is enough to sanctify the whole. His love and wrath are not separate, diametric aspects of His nature … His wrath is but a hot extension of His love for me. A wrath that has always been positively for me, and always against the sinfulness that was destroying me. Love is bigger than heaven and hell and everything in between. Love is the victor.
Christ is the ultimate text. I must see Him and his finished work in every passage. In the scriptures I can no longer see regulations and legalisms that seem to come “in addition” to Him. For even the regulations placed upon me were ultimately designed to be placed upon Him who took my place as my substitute. Grace must become the lens through which I see all else. I begin to see Him – the fulfillment of the law – jumping off every page of the most obscure passages … in Leviticus and Jeremiah, in Job and Deuteronomy … there He is! Not a big finger pointing at me with rules, bondage and listing off shortcomings. No. Instead, every finger of the text points to Christ. The Psalmist says His lips are like lilies dripping with myrrh – His every word is a beautiful trumpet flower prophetically heralding the intoxicating ointment of his sacrificial death. Every verse ultimately points to Him and His cross.
I don’t narrowly see the cross to the exclusion of all else. The cross has become my lens through which I now see all else.
Spirit and Word
We are saved through trusting Jesus, not by figuring Him out. Scripture is a springboard for experience. There is interdependency. For how would we know the Christ of the scriptures except by the scriptures? And how would we understand the scriptures apart from knowing Him? The Spirit and Word – Grace and Truth – are inseparable. The letter left alone can kill, but the letter finds its true consummation in the one who fulfilled all things – among them the law. No theologian is worth his weight in paperclips as a theologian unless he is also a contemplative. And no contemplative is really a lover without a ravenous appetite for the word.
Revelation comes as the word is breathed upon. Not merely memorized – a parrot can do that. Paul depended for the validity of His divine knowledge on a vital mystical union with the living Christ. He did not spout Torah. Christ embodied True Torah and spoke through and beyond Paul’s own comprehension. The theological mind must live beyond itself. Paul tells us of an ecstatic encounter in Paradise, which he records as an “incomprehensible” experience. Some wrongly translate the passage to indicate it was “illegal” for Paul to discuss his third heaven encounter. But it is never illegal to reveal God’s heart … it was just impossible for Paul to describe it. He saw things too great for human language to convey. Beyond mental comprehension.
“Fourteen years ago I was the subject of an incomprehensible ecstasy, in which truths too great for human language were imparted to me. I will base my boast on such experiences, in which I was but the dependent, passive instrument of the Lord” (2 Cor. 2:5, George Barker Stevens)
Paul was undoubtedly well studied. But He encountered the reality of the Good News in such an experiential way. He was radically overmastered by love. This transcended his mind, yet quickened the mind. What he saw in this place of ecstatic union was more than he could describe. But in a simple word, I can tell you what he saw … he saw the Gospel. Gripped to the core of his heart, it took all of his earthly language, all of his life of teaching and proclamation, every one of his letters written in an attempt somehow articulate that simple message.
God on Human Lips
Human language is insufficient. Yet humanity is His chosen vessel. Scriptures, divorced from the God of those scriptures is impotent. No … it’s deadly. We do not question the infallibility of the text ... but we must realize it is a "dependent" infallibility. When Christ is given His place, then the scriptures fall into place. Otherwise, you're looking at an impossible, conflicted and illogical rulebook of haircut patterns and genital mutilations.
Human language, no matter how inspired, can help you apprehend God ... but not fully comprehend Him. You may catch the football, but you’re not going to fully wrap your hands around it. We're knowing the unknowable. Searching the unsearchable. The Spirit guides us into all Truth. The words themselves are not the ultimate revelation of God. Christ Himself is the revelation of God. His life, work and existence are the clearest portrayal of the heart of the Father we will ever know. Moses wrote five books of scripture - the Torah - but Paul says to this day when the Jews read it, there is a veil that shrouds their eyes. The scriptures are so majestic that if one letter fell out of place, the entire universe would crumble apart. Scripture is the means of grace by which we see Him. And yet, when improperly handled, it becomes an object of Biblio-idolatry that blinds us to its very Author.
Augustine said: "The supreme excellence of the divinity exceeds the capacity of our customary speech. For God is more truly contemplated than spoken of, and exists more truly than he is contemplated."
In your highest experience of enjoying Him, He is still more real the experience itself. Language is insufficient to communicate His incommunicable nature. God breathed through human lips. Oh the joys of articulating the Mystery!
So our contemplative journey is not the impossible task of pulling Him down, but unraveling the glorious word of faith that is already on our lips – forever inexhaustible, incalculable Mystery!
“Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.”
Christ is the object of our contemplation. Our intersection between the seen and the unseen, the finite and the infinite. Our contemplation is not navel-gazing our way to salvation. Drinking, soaking, meditating, contemplating, being “Spirit filled” – whatever you want to call it – it is not a price tag for divinity. It is an addiction more than a choice. It is a mistake to think, “I need to be more like Mary.” The whole deal with Mary was that she let go of statements like “I need to” … she was lost on the object of her affection.
“One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
“Your eyes will see the king in his beauty and view a land that stretches afar” (Isa. 33:17).
Creed and Contemplation
The rich history of contemplative Christianity has rightly sought to bridge us outside the limitations of creed. And the creedal, confessional church has always reminded us there is only one grace by which He is truly seen – the Christ of the scriptures. Without creed, we are lost in an illusive, fleeting cloud of unknowing. Creed – detached from Presence – quickly becomes the dusty breeding ground of lifeless hypocritical recitations. Contemplation - detached from creed - becomes lost in itself, forgetting the True Object of its delight. Again … Spirit and Word are inseparable – this is the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God.
Contemplation – as a mode of enjoyment – is never an end in itself. It does not exist if it is detached from the Person who is contemplated or enjoyed. C.S. Lewis put it this way. To enjoy something or someone as an "object," we focus solely on the object. We become lost in the object itself. But if we begin contemplating the enjoyment itself that we derive from the object (i.e. focusing on joy, rather than the object of our joy) then we lose both the object and the joy. And so if we are to enjoy an object – a friend, a song, a party – we must focus on the actual object itself. Lewis writes, "... one essential property of love, hate, fear, hope, or desire was attention to their object. To cease thinking about or attending to the woman is, so far, to cease loving; to cease thinking about or attending to the dreaded thing is, so far, to cease being afraid." And again, he writes, “In other words the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope's object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning around to look at the hope itself."
Christ is our Joy. Christ is our Life. The fountainhead and incarnation of all that is truly lovely and all that we truly long for. Forever without end. Amen.