Faith and mysticism grew in parallel from the first century. However, in many ways they have taken different paths while claiming to be joined. But are they? If we dive deeper into biblical faith and mysticism, we discover their departure from one another at several junctures. Hebrews 11:1 states,
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Two key elements of faith this statement surfaces consist of “substance” and “evidence.” Substance relates to hope or the future. Evidence turns on unseen realities. As we read the illustrations of Hebrews 11, we discover several examples of both substance and evidence with those who encountered God. The unseen God created all that exists (11:3). Abel offered sacrifices to the unseen God (11:4). Noah acted on God’s promise (hope) that God would spare him and his family in the flood He would send on the earth. Abraham obeyed God to move from an idolatrous people in light of the promise of offspring and the Messiah. The passage says, “By faith, he dwelled in the land of promise…for he waited or the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (11:9). The many others mentioned cast their faith on substance and evidence and left us a legacy of genuine faith in the God who delivers on His promises. Accordingly, these historical figures expressed the dual foundations of true biblical faith.
At the root of mysticism are desire and connection. Most people seek some sort of desire for spirituality, authentication of their significance and purpose, or a yearning for the divine beyond human limitations. Limitation combined with alienation from God because of Godward rebellion give incentive to desire and connection with a temporal existence. Even if that divine is internal, it is something that appears elusive at times and beyond our immediate feeling, language, or mental capacities. When asked about a given mystical or spiritual experience, a person having one simply expresses a visual or claims words are not sufficient. It is at this point that the imagination and mental images are sought. Dennis Martin states,
Many attempts have been made to describe the fundamental characteristics of mystical experience. Traditionally it has been asserted that the experiential union of creature and Creator is inexpressible and ineffable, although those who have experienced it seek imagery and metaphors to describe it, however imperfectly. As noted above, it is experienced union or vision, not abstract knowledge. It is beyond the level of concepts, for reasoning, ideas, or sensory images have been transcended (but not rejected) in an intuitive union” (Martin, Denis D., “Mysticism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, pp. 806-808).
Martin highlights several qualities of mysticism: experience, imagery, metaphors, vision, transcendence, and intuition. Often desire becomes sensuality and lust, and connection is grasping for the visible things of the earth and worshipping them instead of the unseen God of hope. They ground faith in the visible and temporal rather than the invisible and eternal. They displace substance and evidence and surface the visible and temporal as authorities for living out our lives. Because we are so connected to our experiences, we cling to them for direction, meaning, and purpose. Experience is inescapable in our present physical and temporal state of being because we live within experience. Experience naturally gives way to the visible even in our dreams.
Therefore, experiences tempt us to lift them up as authority or even divine. Images, metaphors, and the visual amount to the visible whether in the external world or within our imaginations. Our imaginations borrow from the visible world and integrate mental images, dreams, and visions into patterns of worship toward God (or gods). The problem with this scenario is that it begins with oneself and attempts to work its way to God. The authority becomes the experience or imagination. Faith directs its attention on God through the content of His word found in the Scriptures. The Scriptures, as God’s word, serve as the authority for judging experience, feeling, thought, and the things of the world.
The stark differences between faith and mysticism becomes evident in their source and expression. Faith looks to and trusts God. Mysticism focuses on oneself and places trust in the visible things of the world in seeking for spiritual authentication of the divine whether it be the Christian God or some other one. The visible is far more attractive than the invisible and offers a more concrete reality. Because of their close proximity to our lives, they displace the authority of God’s word in favor of the visible things of the temporal world. Faith is a difficult matter and requires divine intervention. In writing to the church in Rome (book of Romans), Paul illustrates this divine intervention in stating,
Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).
That is, the Scriptures give rise to faith. By contrast, genuine faith cannot come to expression apart from the Scriptures. God’s spoken word possesses the power to give birth to faith toward God. God’s word causes a person to look to God and not to oneself for true spirituality and authority for living in the temporal world. Faith enables us to transcend the temporal and visible to the eternal and invisible, that is, its substance and evidence: hope and the promises of God. The word of God guides our experience through faith and acts as a dividing line between right and wrong, righteous and unrighteous, and good and evil. All of these are experienced based, but relying on experience and the visible things of the earth cannot serve to distinguish between them. Some laud evils as good and good as evil. Some turn right into wrong and wrong into right. Conflicting judgments, philosophies, theologies, and societal laws illustrate these inversions. Therefore, experience cannot act as their arbiter and standard.
They must look to that which is beyond the temporal world of the visible and experience, that is, God and His word in the Scriptures. He created all things and gave them foundations for their existence, including a moral compass and the capacity to relate to Him. He alone set the terms for that relationship and revealed them in His word. He and His revealed word offer the only sufficiency for true spirituality, authentic existence, and life with God. Mysticism fails because of its grounding in the temporal and visible world. It has no substance and offers no evidence except for a multitude of conflicting and unique experiences, imagination, and personal yearnings for connection. These are not sufficient for relating with God, because they act from individually established terms, which amount to as many terms as there are individuals, and shift authority from God to oneself. Those who seek mystical experiences are not satisfied with the Scriptures alone for living the life of faith. Continued restlessness draws them to seek out the visible rather than resting in the invisible promises of invisible God and trusting His providence and guidance from His word.
Only the gospel found in the Scriptures is the power of God for true connection and salvation from rebellion against God. That power rises from the God who raised His Son from the dead to close the gap in our alienation with God. Faith in Jesus fulfills authentic living, spiritual desire, and yearning to connect with God. Faith in Jesus Christ offers the only way for eternal life with God.
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