Brian Zahnd

I practice contemplation. It’s important. We either gain new perspectives or we forever look at the world the same way — which is to say, we never change. In order to see the world the way God sees it we need contemplative breakthroughs.

In the tenth chapter of Acts we find the story of the Apostle Peter’s contemplative breakthrough — a breakthrough that altered the entire course of Christianity. The fisherman apostle was staying in the seaside town of Joppa. At noon he went up on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house to observe one of the designated hours of prayer. While in prayer Peter went into a trance (ekstasis) and saw something — a great sheet filled with non-kosher animals being let down from the sky. A voice instructed him to “kill and eat.” Peter refused saying, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice from heaven replied, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times. As a result of this mystical experience Peter was willing to accept an invitation to enter the home of a Gentile — something he had never done before. When Peter arrived at the home of Cornelius, a military officer in the occupying Roman army, Peter said—

You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean…I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:28, 34–35)

The implications of this breakthrough are incalculable. Peter’s new perspective opened the door for the gospel of Messiah to be preached to Gentiles. But how did Peter arrive at this new perspective? Peter had a limited ethnocentric worldview. For Peter, Yahweh was the God of Jews only. Jesus was the Messiah for Jews only. The community of Messiah was for Jews only. If Gentiles wanted to be accepted by Yahweh and be saved by Messiah they had to become Jews first — be circumcised, keep kosher, observe the Torah. Peter was locked into a Jewish-only perspective of God, Jesus, and the gospel. This was not just Peter’s theological perspective, it was his personal identity — how he understood his place in the world. What Peter knew for sure was that to be accepted by God one had to be a Jew!

But Peter’s ethnocentric perspective began to change when he had a contemplative breakthrough while praying on Simon the Tanner’s rooftop. In a trance he was shown non-kosher food and told by God to break the law and eat it! Peter was being instructed by God to break the law of Moses! Talk about cognitive dissonance! But Peter got the message — he was to stop classifying other people as non-kosher and unacceptable to God. Now Peter would break the Jewish law he had always observed and enter the home of a Gentile. Without a contemplative breakthrough this would have been impossible.

When news of Peter’s new radical inclusive theology reached Jerusalem, the circumcision party threw a fit! I find it interesting that only ten years into the history of Christianity there were already exclusivist factions. Their obsession was to make sure no one was admitted into the church who was not first circumcised and properly vetted as Jewish. Later the Apostle Paul will go toe-to-toe with the circumcision party.

When Peter arrived in Jerusalem and was challenged by the arch-conservative circumcision party, Peter defended himself by recounting his mystical experience and the change in perspective it produced. Eventually the first church council would settle the matter in favor of including Gentiles in the community of Messiah. (See Acts 15)

What Peter experienced on the rooftop in Joppa is what has long been understood as contemplative prayer. Christian mystics and monks as early as the third century have spoken of contemplative prayer. It’s something I stumbled upon in my own experiments with prayer. I simply thought of it as “sitting with Jesus.” I found that when I was in prayer, if I would just sit with Jesus over things that were troubling or perplexing that often I would begin to gain a new perspective. I would acknowledge the situation or person or question or issue that I was troubled or perplexed about and sit with it in the presence of Jesus. The three of us — Jesus, “it”, and I — would sit together. What tended to happen over time was that anger, fear, and prejudice would subside enough to allow for the possibility of a new perspective.

I knew this was a good practice. It was producing good fruit in my life. Eventually I discovered that what I called “sitting with Jesus” is what others had been calling contemplative prayer for centuries. It changed me. The ideas on forgiveness and beauty and peace that would later become my books Unconditional?, Beauty Will Save the World, and A Farewell To Mars were born during these times of contemplation.

Contemplative prayer is prayer without agenda, and largely without words. But this is not to be confused with just “thinking” about something. This is bringing the issue into the presence of Jesus — the Light who coming into the world enlightens every person. (John 1:4) It’s during contemplative prayer that we can begin to move out of the darkness of fear-based bias into the light of Christ.

When we feel hurt, threatened, angered by a person, people-group, opinion, or situation, we instinctively view it through the lens of self-defense. It’s like looking at something through the sights of a gun — it’s a narrow perspective framed in fear and hostility. Such a perspective is certainly not the full or true perspective. But if we are non-contemplative we will think of our highly limited perspective as total truth. It’s all we can see. This is the black-and-white world where everything is framed as win-lose, us-vs-them. This was the perspective of the circumcision party when they heard the audacious claim from their preeminent apostle that Gentiles were acceptable to God. As long as they viewed the world through the lens of win-lose and us-vs-them, Peter’s claim that Gentiles were accepted by God would be deeply unsettling. All they could see was a loss of privilege and a threat to their sense of identity. This is why debates between non-contemplative people are so intractable and fruitless.

Peter said that his new perspective came to him while he was in a trance or ecstasy. The Greek word is ekstasis and it means to stand outside of yourself. Ekstasis is precisely the goal of contemplative prayer — to gain a perspective that is outside your self-interested, self-defensive, egocentric perspective. As long as we look at the world through the eyes of self-interest and self-defense we will never see the world as God sees it. Contemplation can lead us to a breakthrough. But you can’t rush into contemplation. You first have to really be in the presence of Jesus. People who try contemplation without first being properly formed in prayer just end up thinking their same old thoughts and calling them Jesus. Prayer that reinforces our egocentric tendencies is entirely counterproductive.

But you may not want a contemplative breakthrough. You may not want to gain a 360º perspective. You may prefer viewing the world through your gun sights. It’s simpler that way. Every conflict can be framed as good versus evil..and you always get to wear the white hat. Contemplation will change that. And once you gain a new perspective beyond the cherished opinions of groupthink hostility you have to decide what to do with it. If you choose to go public with your new perspective you may very well be subject to vicious criticism from the old guard. There’s always a circumcision party who will angrily defend their exclusivist position. Paul called them dogs and said, “Beware!” (Philippians 3:2)

The ultimate goal of contemplation is not just a new way of seeing, but love. Everything about God tends toward love. God is love. The highest form of knowing is not empiricism or rational thought — as the Enlightenment told us — but love. For the Christian the true Enlightenment doesn’t come from empiricism but from Christ. Christian enlightenment is not about rationalism, but about love. You don’t really know a thing until you love it. You don’t really know a person until you love them. But if you see a person or group primarily as a rival posing a threat to your self-interest, you cannot love them. You will only fear them, and in fear lash out. A contemplative breakthrough makes love possible. This is what happened to Peter.

So why didn’t the Holy Spirit give Peter his contemplative breakthrough ten years earlier? Because Peter could not experience a contemplative breakthrough until he was ready to see it. These things take time. Sometimes it takes years of formative prayer before a contemplative breakthrough is possible. Many never reach the point where they are willing to see excluded others as accepted by God. They have too much fear; too much of their identity is invested in a dualistic us-vs-them perspective. Excluding those who they view through the sights of their guns is the organizing principle of their life. It tells them who to love and who to hate, who to embrace and who to fight. Through a contemplative breakthrough the Apostle Peter got beyond his us-vs-them dualism and was able to see that the kosher and non-kosher division of humanity was a fear-based construct not authorized by God. Peter’s breakthrough changed the world. Over the next few centuries the Gentile world of the Roman Empire would be converted to Christ. It began with Peter’s contemplative breakthrough.

Our own contemplative breakthrough may not change the course of world history, but it will change the course of our lives! Contemplation is the way out of the tunnel vision of fear and anger. Prayer is not about getting God to do our bidding, prayer is about coming to see the world through God’s eyes of love.

God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall. –Julian of Norwich


(The artwork is Moment of Contemplation by Judy Mackey.)