Evangelicalism Meets Gratitude

Evangelicalism Meets Gratitude May 26, 2012

Tim Challies thought it was his duty to defend the truth and that meant taking down Ann Voskamp. He ends up calling into question the Bible’s mysticism, the church’s mystics, and those in his own circle. Challies went too far this time.

Ann Voskamp, in grace and gratitude, offers a brief reminder that Challies’ heroes affirm what she affirms. She meets her critics with grace and gratitude. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.

Piper urges the reading of the Catholic Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and specifically writes that this is one of Chesterton’s gems to mine for: “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health. When you destroy mystery you create morbidity.”…

Piper writes of Joshua “who loved the glory of God! He was a kind of warrior mystic. He loved the mountain and the tent. He loved nature and church. He had a heart for God. Wherever he smelled the aroma of God he lingered.” And Piper asks where are the warrior mystics? ”Where are the Joshuas? The warrior mystics of Bethlehem—the men and women whose hearts are aflame with the conquest and who linger at the tent? Where are the men and women whose knees are as calloused as their hands?

I don’t read “mystics,” I don’t know what the word precisely means, don’t write or speak or own that word, don’t  know of mystics or mysticism—  but only of Christ and His Word and the Cross and real reality — but of Piper’s call to be a warrior mystic? To have a heart for God and have knees as calloused as hands? I pray I know this. Mama and I, we join together and pray for a ninety-one year old woman in a hospital bed. Hearts might be aflame for everything right….


Timothy Keller writes, “Positively, we are called to experience the spousal love of Jesus.”

I once was invited to sit across the table and break bread with Gene Edward Veith, provost of Patrick Henry College and noted author with Crossway, and with Marvin Olasky, editor of WORLD Magazine. When they brought up the subject of the last chapter of One Thousand Gifts, of ” God as Husband in sacred wedlock” my hand trembled so, my fork dropped to the floor. There are things so hallowed and personal and true, it’s hard for the quiet to hear them out loud. The farm girl had fumbled for her fork under the table.

And they waited until my heart stilled, waited until I looked up, waited until my hand stopped its shy, awkward quake. And in a soft and certain voice, Mr. Veith looked me in the eye and assured “It is profoundly biblical.” I nodded, chin trembling, eyes dropping away. And Mr. Olasky encouraged me to change nothing, to stand by Scriptural truth.

Sometimes standing by Scriptural truth can feel a bit like surviving a heart attack.

But what can feel like the exploding of your heart might be the way Truth slams out of your chest like a fireworks of grace.


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  • Brad VW

    I read Tim’s book review and the thing that stood out to me the most was this statement:
    “At heart, mysticism promotes the view that God can be experienced, and perhaps even best experienced, outside of Scripture. This comes in direct contrast to what Scripture itself says, that Scripture is God’s final and sufficient revelation of himself.”
    Is this a common belief? God can only be experienced through Scripture? That seems to put a pretty small box around the Holy Spirit.

  • My continual concern with Challies’ reviews is that he seems discount truth that is not from his camp. So he notes quotes from Catholics whether he agrees with the quote or not. If the author quotes a Catholic, or in this case anyone that he considers a mystic, the entire book is suspect. And rarely does he deal with the content of the quotes.

  • Scott Eaton

    Challies says, “This comes in direct contrast to what Scripture itself says, that Scripture is God’s final and sufficient revelation of himself.”

    Hmmm. I thought Jesus was God’s final and sufficient revelation of himself.

  • Cal

    I have sympathy with Challies. I’m no believer in mystics but I believe in mystery.

    I don’t think he’s write to look at a book (even if it is holy scripture) and say, “well, that’s it!”. Clearly, and I mean clearly, Scripture testifies to events outside of itself. Anyone in the reformation camp believes sola scriptura, not solo scriptura. Jesus is not tethered to Scriptures, He is the Word of God who breathed the words of God (aka. the tradition of the Apostles, aka. the Bible). I don’t even like calling the Bible the “Word of God”, even if it is true in one sense.

    However, the school of mystics we find in many religions is absent from the Bible. Prophets have no ability to access the divine, they’re approached, not the other way around. There is no tapping into God. If we’re in Christ, we’re already before the throne.

    Side note: I’m a bit wigged out to hear the metaphor of God being our spouse. Maybe I’m too cold, but I take that to be a sign of faithfulness in a contractual way whereas we see His love most tenderly in the metaphor of being children and He being father. Maybe that’s just me.

  • scotmcknight

    Cal, any metaphor that takes over distorts, but on spousal love, we merely have to think of Hosea, picked up by others, and then observe that many in the history of the church, including the Puritans, saw Song of Songs as about Christ’s love for us and our love of Christ. Revelation finishes with spousal imagery.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    I love the image of “warrior mystic.” Probably one of the most spiritual books I have ever read is by Deanna Deering called “The Masterpiece of the Wilderness: journeys of a warrior poet.”

  • scotmcknight

    I tweeted something and then took it down, but let me explain an element of this discussion:

    I would not call Ann Voskamp a “mystic,” at least I wouldn’t let Challies get by with his definition and would insist that mystic be defined over time in the history of the church, including “mystical” experiences in the Bible (not the least of whom would be Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, John). Ann, as I read her, is a poet.

    Poets ride the thermals, and they visible only to the poet and not to the outsider. (Watch the raptors soar on the thermals.) The line between a poet and a mystic is blurred. Theologians who are into some approaches to theology — and Challies would be an example — struggle with anyone who rides the thermals and writes about it. Eugene Peterson and Richard Foster have often been criticized by others for their “mysticism.” I thank God for the mystics and know their temptations to go too far are just a variant of the theologians’ temptation to go too far as well.

  • I agree with Adam. I’ve appreciated things Challies has written, but he does often come off with a view that seems to categorically reject the possibility that people who he has deep theological disagreements with can say anything true or helpful and to suggest that their Christianity is suspect at best. He also has a deep hostility to anything he labels “mysticism,” which seems to include practices of spiritual disciplines like solitude and silence. He is very influenced by people like John MacArthur, who seems to me to promote these types of views, as well as the “solo scriptura” view that Cal talks about.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    If N. T. Wright has been about retrieving second temple judaism and understanding the jewish background of the Bible (particularly the Newer Testament), then I would also add that the whole history of the church from the east to the west has had these incredible saints called “mystics.” If the church does not retrieve a robust relational theology of Christian mysticism, then he church does not know what being in trouble is yet!

  • CGC

    . . . “then the church does not know what being in trouble . . .

  • DRT

    Scot – [now that you said it] of course she is a poet.

    Funny, one of the reasons I left the Catholic church was because the mystical element had been drained from it. But from the perspective of evangelicals it seems that the Catholics are made of fairy dust. I can’t even get them to shut up and meditate for 30 seconds.

  • Chip

    Scot, I like your distinction between poets and mystics; I’d never thought of that before. I tend to think of Peterson, Foster, and others as mystics at times, but mysticism is a valid stream running through Christian history, and its excesses in no way invalidate its orthodox expressions (as you point out in your last sentence in #7). I find it ironic that Challies reacts against mysticism when you’ll find plenty of Puritan mystics. I also find it interesting that World magazine editor Marvin Olasky, himself very Reformed, has written a lengthy response to Challies that seeks to correct Challies.

  • I agree with Scot — Ann Voskamp is a poet. One Thousand Gifts is full of what I have described to others as “lyrical prose.” You have to approach her book and blog as you would art, not as you would a theology book. Challis is being defensive…as if he’s the theology police.

  • Cal

    Scot: My thoughts on Hosea are that it is about faithfulness, which I suppose is a form of agape. The sexuality implied in marriage is what always gets me when people talk about “spousal love”. I think to speak that way is going beyond the Biblical metaphor of God being husband to His people.

    Quick follow up on mystics and mystery: Part of the problem is the very word mystic hints at a classifying of Christians. Now, there are clearly different gifts and no cookie cutter model. However, the mystery that was unveiled to us is Christ in us, the hope of glory (vis. Col. 1:27).
    All who are apart of Christ are partakers of that mystery, though it may be processed differently. In word (Scripture), sacrament (baptism, supper) and even in prayer and meditation. The mystery is also processed in dreams and visions and even in the natural world. But instead of saying that all Christ-followers are mystics (which I don’t think anyone would be inclined to say), it may be better to say all apart of the mystery. Challies is wrong in denying other valid expressions, though all of them lead to the same destination (aka. a dream or a meditation won’t contradict what is revealed in holy scripture).

    All in Christ are equally before His throne. There is no strategy, method or practice that gets one closer than anyone else.

  • Scot,

    Thank you for speaking out on this. Ann does a wonderful job of graciously addressing this in her post on 5/24, as you point out. I wish other evangelicals would emulate her graciousness both in private and in public. Instead, we post vitriolic missives; it’s easy to condemn and demonize those we have no relationship with. I think it would be a great testimony if we evangelicals could love and converse with those with whom we disagree. And as far as some of our evangelical mystics like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson–some whom I’ve met in person while spending several weeks under their tutelage–though not perfect (no one is), they are some of he most Christ-like people, saints, I’ve met in this life. They embody what they write.

  • Thank you, Scot, for taking this on. I found that review disturbing in the extreme.

    Even though I might not agree with Ann in some areas (like her view of suffering – I think she comes really close to saying that all suffering comes to us from God for our good rather than suffering is used by God for our good (and maybe that’s a fine point to some, but it isn’t for me at this point in my own journey); and her reliance on Piper for so, so much of what she writes about) – even so…I think she has given the church a beautiful gift with her book and her blog. She is genuine, humble, compassionate and loving. And yes, she has a poetic gift and I believe the heart of a mystic as well. And she loves and follows after Jesus with every fiber of herself.

    I am weary beyond belief of those those who allow no room for mystery, for emotional renewal, for, shall we say, a more cosmic view of our good and gracious God. The only thing I took heart from in that review was the list of authors he linked her with – all of them favorites of mine and of thousands of others. God works in mysterious ways and uses all kinds of troubled, broken, interesting people to further the kingdom. Ann Voskamp is a beautiful example of that truth. Tim Challies? Not so much, at least for me.

  • Joe Canner

    Cal #14: One other difference between parental love and spousal love is that we love our children because we have to, whereas we love our spouses because we want to. (Hopefully, we will also love our children because we want to, but that is not always a given.) Of course, God’s love (spousal or parental) is always because he wants to, but the picture of spousal love reassures of this even if our earthly model of parental love is not up to the task.

  • Matt

    I applaud Ms. Voskamp for her gracious response. At the end of the day, I am not sure why anyone cares what these self-appointed doctrinal law enforcement officers think. This kind of evangelicalism makes me want to vomit. I am so tired of it. So tired of it.

  • Mike M

    Just look up “Christian mysticism” on Wikipedia. A Christian mystic is someonevwho uses disciplined meditation as a means to draw closer to God & Jesus. Yes, I know: “meditation” freaks out most Christians but its a biblically-based discipline. Even David meditated on God’s word.
    Most of the noteworthy mystics were Catholics. Note that the non-trinitarian thrust ended with Justin Martyr but that even one of the “Three Gregs” of trinitarianism was a mystic
    And yes, Scot, you know at least 3mystics: myself, Richard Foster, and Dallas Willard. If you haven’t sat down to discuss the topic with any of us, who’s fault is that? Blessings.
    Oh, what is the first name of the hospitalized woman you are praying for and in which town? We’ll believe with you and your family.
    and your familynu

  • Gary Lyn

    The one phrase or image that Paul uses the most to describe the Christian life, a phrase or image that is found in all of his writings, from earliest to latest, is being “in Christ” and Christ being “in me.” It is hard for me to read that and not have a sense of mysticism or mystery. Paul, the mystic…who would have thought??

  • Luke

    Is he a cessationist? His review makes it look that way.

  • Barb

    I’ll recommend a good book: Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries it is by Gerald Sittser (forward by Eugene Peterson) Sittser is a theology professor that I’ve had the honor of listening to a couple of times. This book is helpful to those of us who have never really understood much about mysticism and who find if very hard to embrace those who those who do.

  • Jessica Williams

    On the spousal love thing… i think it is more than just faithfulness, i mean a spouse knows deep intimate things about you, things that the only other who knows would be God and God still loves and accepts unconditionally, not just sticks by you faithfully.

  • Jeremy

    To be honest, I stopped paying any attention to Challies ever since he wrote that women weren’t allowed to read scripture aloud in his church as it was teaching men. He stays in my MacArthur box – I’m pleasantly surprised when I read something of his that I find helpful, but otherwise, I try to forget he exists.

    I’m also very saddened by the number of Christians that think God really wants nothing to do with them. Maybe it’s my Vineyard roots, but it seems to me that this cerebral, no-contact religion isn’t there….All of scripture is about encountering a God that cares deeply, but a lot of us have convinced ourselves that it stops there.

  • Ben Thorp

    FWIW Tim Challies has since posted an apology to Ann Voscamp on his website ( http://www.challies.com/articles/in-which-i-ask-ann-voskamps-forgiveness )

    Along with Tim and some here (although I have not read the book) I struggle with the idea of spousal love with Christ. My reading of Scripture would seem to suggest that the Bride of Christ is not an individual (or many individuals) but rather the corporate (the church). The modern church seems very keen to individualise many aspects of Christian life, but I’m not convinced it’s always a good idea.

  • CarolJean

    I liked the wording at the end of Tim Challies apology, ” Truth and love are to be held together as friends, not separated as if they are enemies. In my desire to say what was true, I failed to love. I ask Ann’s forgiveness for this.”

    Ben, I think you are advocating a false dichotomy when you distinguish the bride of Christ as the church indistinction to the individuals who make up the church. When one is sick, we all are affected. When one rejoices, we all rejoice. Why not would it be any different concerning the “spousal love of Christ” toward his bride? There is a corollary of the natural world with the spiritual world in almost everything. Spiritual intimacy with God, the ‘oneness’ of spirit, is something to be experienced just like sexual intimacy (two flesh become one) is an experience that happens individually and corporately.

  • Mike M

    Amen, Caroljean. The one thing mystics have always expressed is “oneness” with God and all others. This isn’t some Hindu or Buddhist attempt at extinguishing the self into the void but rather a spiritual communion that ultimatley enhances and empowers individuality. Theses people are genuinely, deeply humble, loving, compassionate, self-sacrificing, graceful, and powerful. As is Jesus.

  • Mike M

    And do Piper, Warren, Jim Baker and millions of other christians remind you of the Christian mystics?

  • Elizabeth

    I’m glad Tim apologized for his tone.

    I still think there is an element of pride or over-confidence in his review and apology. He seems to think that he has the corner on the truth and that the way he understands his relationship with God is how everyone else should relate to God. God is big enough and creative enough to speak to people in different ways. Tim doesn’t happen to like the way Ann understands her relationship with God. Tim (in response to one of his commenters) clearly states that he does NOT think that Ann is a heretic. Why can’t he just leave it at that and conclude that Ann’s poetic writing isn’t his cup of tea?

    I’m not actually the biggest fan of Ann’s style myself but there is no denying she is a woman full of grace, wisdom, love and humility. That fruit in her life speaks volumes. She responded to Tim with SO much grace. It was a lesson to me.

  • I know that people are uncomfortable with the idea of sexual imagery used to describe our relationship with God, but it is a long part of Christian tradition and it is a part of scriptural imagery. I think it is a whole different issue than just Challies, but to dismiss it seems to me to dismiss one of the images that we have of God in scripture.