Mystical Union

I’ve had several recent conversations that converged on the same basic truth.  It’s at once the very core of the Christian faith, and a drastically under-acknowledged and under-emphasized point in conservative circles.  I don’t even know how to talk about it without setting off alarm bells among my colleagues.

But this is the truth that underlies the person/proposition discussion, and it’s something we need to discuss directly.

Here it is: the core of the Christian life, the very center of it all, is mystical union with Christ.

Paul talks of this in Romans 6: we are buried with Christ in baptism that we might be raised with Him to walk in a new life.  He talks of it in Galatians 2: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”  It’s how unbelievers become converted, according to Romans 10: “How shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?”  (Note, the Greek does not say “of whom” — Paul is asking how they can believe in Jesus if they haven’t heard Jesus.  Then he goes on to ask “How will they hear [Jesus] without a preacher?”  In the faithful preaching of the gospel, the unbeliever hears Christ.)

It’s not just Paul, either.  Jesus talks of it in John 17: “I do not pray for these [the 11 disciples] alone, but for all who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You….And the glory that You have given Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them and You in Me….”

I could go on with the proof texts, but you get the idea.

I figure I might as well out myself now: It’s taken me a long time to get to this point in my Christian life, but I’m now an unabashed mystic.  Actual contact with the living Christ is the sine qua non of the Christian faith, and if you haven’t got it, you haven’t got anything.  If you have got it, you can still be wrong about various factual matters — just like a man can be married to a woman for years and still not know the color of her toothbrush — but you have the relationship, and that’s what matters most.

Most of us know this instinctively.  When a friend or loved one dies, or you lose your job and you can’t pay the bills, or your child is sick in the hospital, hovering between life and death — all your theological knowledge (in itself) isn’t worth ten cents right then. What you need is comfort, the personal comfort of a God who is really there.  Certainly this can come through Scripture, but it’s not the ideas in the Scriptures that comfort you, but the God behind them, the One who says them to you.  You hear His voice, and it is in trusting Him, in clinging to Him, that you make it through.  If your Bible knowledge doesn’t help you toward that, you might as well have memorized the manual for your DVD player.

I remember once reading the testimony of a seminary professor who came to this realization when his child was ill.  I thought it was an amazing, thought-provoking article, and recommended it to a friend.  He was underwhelmed: “If he really believed what he taught, his theology ought to have been enough for him.”  Sadly, many of us think that way, even under really trying circumstances.  These are people who have managed to build the theological house of cards in their heads to the point that they can escape into it for hours, days if necessary, the way some socially awkward teenagers used to escape into D&D or an addict escapes into getting high for as long as possible.  Sadly, their theology is enough for them.  It is enough for them to think of the idea of God’s presence; they don’t actually need Him to be present.  These same people tend to be a bit devoid of human feeling, and have stilted, awkward relationships as a result of their preoccupation with their own fantasies.  If you’re going to be preoccupied with fantasies, I suppose theological truth is better than D&D — but not by a whole lot.  Preoccupation with your own fantasy — any fantasy — still inhibits loving God and your neighbors, and the fantasy still becomes an idol.

Unfortunately, people mistake this fantasy-worship for faith, just because the theological house of cards has a great deal of propositional truth in it.  The Pharisees had just as much propositional truth in their theological fantasies.  What they lacked was actual relationship with God — and the problem is as real in the church today as it ever was in first-century Judaism.

I recognize that a lot of the things that have happened under the banner of mysticism are wrong.  Conservatives are suspicious of anything with the label “mystical,” and not without reason.  But we can’t allow the various abuses to stop us from seeing the truth.  There is no substitute for actually walking with God.

Besides, the fact remains that we do need some word to describe the thing that the various proof texts above are talking about, the experience of actual contact with the living Christ.  Jesus and Paul are not just building theological castles in the air.  They are describing something that really happens, the real experience of actual Christians.  How are we to describe this?  Our fathers used the phrase “mystical union with Christ,” and if there’s a better term, I haven’t yet heard it.

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15 Responses to Mystical Union

  1. Jim Reitman says:

    OK, here’s a proof text that we were actually made for this, even before we encounter Messiah:

    Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.

  2. Jim says:

    Another excellent article, its interesting that the Lord Jesus told the “theological” crowd of His day (making the same point), “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” John 5:39–40 NKJV

  3. Missy says:

    I’m an emotional mess after wrestling with God in prayer the last few days, to the point of telling Him I can’t pursue Him anymore – He’s bigger than me and He’ll have to speak first. Yeah, I know… 😉 Of course, now I’ve repeatedly been bombarded with this message of relationship in a variety of ways. Hmmm…?

    I just don’t know how to respond.

  4. Tony L Smith says:

    I once asked the Lord what should our responce be to such an awesome love. His answer was ‘spontaneous’ kinda let you emotions love him too

  5. Bobby Grow says:

    Nice, I knew you would come around, at some point, and see it Calvin’s way (unio mystica) 😉 .

  6. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim and Jim: YES!!! Thank you both for excellent additions.

    Bobby: Aw, shucks, Calvin ain’t so bad. Some of my best friends are Calvinists. 😉 In all seriousness: in a number of areas I owe quite a debt to Calvin, and I’m grateful.

  7. Tim Nichols says:

    Missy: You’re in my prayers, sister. I’ve certainly been there. When I don’t know how to respond, I pray the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Prayer of the Publican. Not knowing what to say, I fall back on the words He gives me, and lay siege to the throne with them. “The violent take it by force.”

  8. Bobby Grow says:

    @Tim,

    Not to derail this thread, but just to clarify; you can be a Calvinian and not a Calvinist. I would say what we are calling Evangelical Calvinism, would actually be better framed by calling it the former, Calvinian (and that’s not to say blindly following him either, just to clarify 🙂 ).

  9. Tim Nichols says:

    Bobby,
    I’ve toyed with “post-Calvinist” in the sense that I’m admittedly and gratefully (albeit selectively) downstream of Calvin. The problem is that “post-” has overtones of “sooo over it” that I don’t want to convey.
    But yeah — however we say it, I’m in debt to the Nicene fathers, the Chalcedonian fathers, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and a whole bunch of others.

  10. Gary says:

    Hi Tim:
    8th paragraph, “You hear His voice”. Please elaborate.

  11. Tim Nichols says:

    Gary L,

    Scripture, ministry of Christ’s Body in your life, etc.

  12. Gary Lincoln says:

    Thanks, Tim.

  13. Brian Ritchie says:

    Hi Tim,
    At some point I’d like to take the time to appropriately introduce myself, and express appreciation for some specific work you’ve done, for now, though, I’m just looking for some further clarification of your last comment. I’ve recently heard in a sermon, “Prayer is how God communicates to us,” and, “It is in prayer that we hear the voice of God.” I say this to illustrate that the “etc” in your response is not significantly bounded by the other two items in your list – at least not for me. For that matter, I would also ask for clarification of the sense in which you say you hear the voice of God in the ministry of Christ’s Body in your life, and on what basis you give that ministry the label “the voice of God.” Since I’m laying my sensitivity in this matter out there, I’ll go ahead and add that I find your use of “mystical” in this series acceptable, and, though I have more reading to do, I’ve found that I agree with much of what I’ve read so far in this series. I do have some questions, but it seems to me that your main point is a good one.

  14. Tim Nichols says:

    Brian,

    Thanks for commenting. I understand why you’re posing the question you are, but I’m not sure I have a lot of clarification to offer. This is the sort of theology that’s not really amenable to being reduced to a tidy set of principles. I’m pretty sure if I dreamt up a set of constraints, they’d rule out talking bushes and sacrificing your son on top of Mount Moriah. God has a way of being…surprising. The duty and privilege is to walk with God, and God does crazy things.

    I would label the ministry of Christ’s body in my life as the voice of God because I’m not sure who other than God speaks through Christ’s Body. I mean, it is Christ’s Body.

    The constraints I’d propose are more practical and character-oriented than principled and formulaic. Walk with God. Seek the company and counsel of others who walk with God. If you know God, then you’ll be the sort of person who can tell when He’s talking to you, because you know His voice.

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