“Tom, what is apophatic prayer, and is it biblical?" - Lynn
Thank you for asking this question. Some people may look at this question and wonder, along with you, what apophatic prayer is. This is not a term which is familiar to most Christians. So, let me tackle your question first with a brief description of apophatic prayer and then provide you with some scripture about prayer and how Jesus instructs us to practice it.
Here’s how Wikipedia defines apophatic theology. “Apophatic theology, also known as negative theology, is a form of theological thinking and religious practice which attempts to approach God by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God.”
That’s a bit convoluted, so let’s take this simple description of apophatic prayer, provided by author Jim Manney who states, “Apophatic prayer has no content. It means emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of God.”
Many Christians practice this kind of prayer today. This is the kind of prayer where a person wants to hear God speak, so they feel they must empty his or her mind of any thought, waiting to hear God speak. Now, in one sense this seems logical. This is what we sometimes do when we listen to another person who is talking to us. We shut up and listen. But even then, we are forming thoughts to respond to whatever it is that someone is saying to us.
While I don’t want to discourage anyone from slowing down to listen to God, I will say that I think the normal example we see in scripture is of the person to whom God speaks doing whatever it is they are doing and then God interrupts them and grabs their attention. Search the scriptures, when did God speak to people? Was it when they were silently listening, emptying their minds of all useful thought like a zombie? Not at all. Consider: God spoke to Adam when Adam was trying to avoid him (Genesis 3:8-10). God spoke to Abraham after he grieved his father's death (Genesis 11:32-12:1). God spoke to Moses when he was shepherding the sheep (Exodus 3:1-6). God spoke to Jacob when he was sleeping on a rock (Genesis 28:10-17). God spoke to Joshua when he was scared out of his wits (Joshua 1:6,7,9). God spoke to Manoah's wife when she was sitting in a field (Judges 13:9). God spoke to Gideon when he was beating out wheat (Judges 6:11). God spoke to David when he was shepherding the sheep (I Samuel 16:11-13). God spoke to Paul when he was riding a horse. I could go on. I could go on for a long time. But I trust the point is made. God usually speaks when we are engaged in doing other things; and they don't have to be "spiritual" things. These people were just living their ordinary lives when God broke through to them and made his presence known. Chances are, that's exactly what he will do to you as well, if he decides to speak.
Now, let me go a little further about why I think it is a mistake, in terms of regular practice, to always empty your mind when you pray. First, I can find no scripture that commands us to empty our minds. We may slow down and contemplate (Psalm 27:14), but not empty our minds. Why? Because God prefers that we fill our minds. Filling our minds is intentional and is obedience to Christ.
We must recognize that we often fill our minds with things that have no eternal value or are sinful. This is part of our sin nature. It is natural for us to think of sin because we have a sin nature. In order to defeat this tendency we must intentionally fill our minds with things pleasing to God. The Apostle Paul described this when he said that we must, “Take every thought captive to obey Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5). Jesus warned us about our thought lives spilling out into our physical lives. “The evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” ( Luke 6:45). God’s solution for this problem is for us to intentionally take control of our thoughts and fill our minds with good things. Paul said, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Elsewhere Paul tells us what we should fill our minds with, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). When he commands us to “think about these things,” he is commanding us to engage in an intentional act.
Notice that Paul never said to empty our minds. Neither did Jesus. When his disciples asked him how to pray, Jesus responded with this model: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:9-13). Sitting in silence was never mentioned.
It’s one thing to try and clear your mind and be more rested so that you can pray effectively. There is nothing wrong with this. But to try and maintain an empty mind isn’t really modeled in scripture. When we pray, when we read, when we talk, even when we interact with others, we are filling our minds with whatever it is in the moment that we are engaged in. Paul (and Jesus), therefore, want our minds to engage in godly things, not ungodly. Remember these words of Job, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman” (Job 31:1). Instead, we should dwell upon the things of the Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These are the things that please God.
I hope that this answers your question, Lynn. I hope that you will find comfort and increased dedication to Christ through the process of filling your mind with the things that please the Lord.