I’m often asked by pastors and others what I think about “mysticism.” Usually someone in their church has encountered this and has expressed concern that it is not Biblical. I know pastors in conservative Bible churches who have been harshly criticized, even run out of their pulpit, for encouraging “contemplative prayer” or the reading of “spiritual formation” books.
Are these books and the spirituality they encourage a good thing for Bible-believing Christians?
To answer this question let’s turn to Christian Missionary & Alliance pastor A. W. Tozer. He is one of the most widely respected conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical pastors of the 20th Century. He read Christian mystics, had his own mystical experiences of God, and encouraged this in others.
His classic little book The Pursuit of God was one of the first mystical books I read, back when I was a college student. I’ve turned to it many times since then. He inspired me to read the Biblical writers, especially the Psalms, in a mystical way in which I tuned into my feelings and experience of God and listened for his voice.
Years later I came to call this “abiding prayer” (a term I prefer to “contemplative prayer” because of the link to John 15). To “abide” in prayer as I teach it is to practice quiet prayer of the heart that starts with meditating on Scripture and fosters personal connection with Christ. I also read from the classic writings of Christian devotion, including those written by men and women who are Christian mystics and promote a deeper spirituality.
In The Christian Book of Mystical Verse A. W. Tozer shares with us his favorite hymns and poems that invite us into a mystical experience of God that is Biblically sound and Christ-centered. His introduction to this book gives his statement as to what genuine Christian mysticism is and why it’s a good thing to read books by Christian mystics. (For Soul Shepherding’s recommended reading list see “Reading Classic Devotional Books.” It includes The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer.)
What follows are A. W. Tozer’s words from his personal treasury of Christian hymns and poems in The Christian Book of Mystical Verse.*
The purpose of The Christian Book of Mystical Verse is to gather in one convenient volume some of the best devotional verse the English language affords, and thus to make available to present day Christians a rich spiritual heritage which most do not now enjoy.
I have not hesitated to apply the term “mystical” to the material I have collected here, though I readily admit that fewer than half a dozen of the men and women who would be called true mystics in the strict classical sense will be found here…
Many of the contributors who are included (like Isaac Watts, John Newton, and Charles Wesley) might have balked at being called mystics but their writings, nevertheless, reveal unmistakable traces of purest mysticism and are the better for it. And for that matter the same thing may be said of the inspired writings of Moses and David and Isaiah and Daniel and Paul and John. The works of John (especially the Gospel of John and Revelation) show more than traces of the mystical spirit and are charged full with it.
A. W. Tozer’s Definition of a Christian Mystic
Previously the words “mystic” and “mystical” were altogether unacceptable in evangelical circles. Among the gospel churches the words suggested someone who was emotionally unstable, visionary, and worst of all, unsound theologically.
…Persons with a temperamental fondness for the fantastic may have a psychic bent that predisposes them toward the occult or bizarre religion; they have an incredible capacity for self-deception… Such as these have sometimes been called mystics, but they most surely are not.
The term “mystic” as it occurs in The Christian Book of Mystical Verse refers to that personal spiritual experience common to the saints of the Bible times and well known to multitudes of persons in the post-Biblical era. I refer to the evangelical mystic who has been brought by the gospel into intimate fellowship with the Godhead.
Their theology is no less and no more than is taught in the Christian Scriptures. They walk the high road of truth like the old prophets and apostles, and down through the centuries the martyrs, reformers, Puritans, evangelists and missionaries of the cross.
They differ from the ordinary orthodox Christians only because they experience their faith down in the depths of their feelings while the other does not. They exist in a world of spiritual reality. They are quietly, deeply, and sometimes almost ecstatically aware of the Presence of God in their own nature and in the world around them.
Their religious experience is something elemental, as old as time and the creation. It is the immediate acquaintance with God by union with the Eternal Son. It is to know that which passes knowledge.
The hymns and poems found here are mystical in that they are God-oriented; they begin with God, embrace the worshipping soul, and return to God again. And they cover almost the full spectrum of religious feeling: fear, hope, sorrow for sin, aspiration, the longing to be holy, yearning after God, gratitude, thanksgiving, pure admiration of the Godhead, love for Christ, worship, praise, and adoration. The mood runs from near despair to near ecstasy, and the twin notes of utter sincerity and deepest reverence may be heard throughout.
How to Read “The Christian Book of Mystical Verse”
This is a book for the worshiper rather than the student. It has been carefully and lovingly prepared for those God-enamored persons who, while they feel as deeply as the enraptured poet, yet lack the gift that would enable them to express their feelings adequately. They will sense a kinship with the gifted souls they find on the pages of this book and will join them as they mount on high to pour out their hymns at heaven’s gate.
In making these suggestions I have largely followed my own bent, though I have been guided somewhat by a few simple rules. First, all sentimental verse was excluded… The only healthy emotions are those around by great ideas, and even these must be restrained and purified by the Spirit of God or they will spend themselves in weak and sterile rhymes…
Second… some of the standard classics of English religious verse have been omitted because I felt they would not contribute to my purpose…
Third, everything selected for inclusion in this work had to be judged theologically sound. While considerable latitude was allowed, even welcomed, in doctrinal outlook and emphasis, to be accepted every hymn and poem had to meet the test of faithfulness to the Christian Scriptures.
Though almost everything here is pure lyric poetry and may easily be sung, yet this book is not mean for use in public worship… Everything here is for use in private devotion…
I would respectfully you not to “read” it as another book. Rather enter into its mood, to capture and be captured by its spirit. How many pages you get through in a day is of no importance; what one poem or even one single stanza does to you and for you and in you: that is everything.
Admittedly much pure gold has been left out of this treasury. The chief reason is lack of space. I have tried to keep the book small enough to be portable so you may carry it with you and turn any bus or train or airplane into a sanctuary…
Excerpt from the Introduction to The Christian Book of Mystical Verse by A. W. Tozer
* I made minor edits for gender neutral language, simplifying a few complex sentences, and adding paragraph breaks and section headings.