The word “meditation” has developed something of a bad reputation in certain Christian circles. In this article I want to reclaim it as one of the essential spiritual disciplines for all believers.
(1) Meditation begins, but by no means ends, with thinking on Scripture. To meditate properly our souls must reflect upon what our minds have ingested and our hearts must rejoice in what our souls have grasped. We have truly meditated when we slowly read, prayerfully imbibe and humbly rely upon what God has revealed to us in his Word. All of this, of course, in conscious dependence on the internal, energizing work of the Spirit.
(2) Meditation, then, is being attentive to God. It is one way we “keep seeking the things above where Christ is” (Col. 3:1). It is a conscious, continuous engagement of the mind with God. This renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:1-2) is part of the process by which the word of God penetrates the soul and spirit with the light of illumination and the power of transformation.
(3) Meditation on Scripture is essential to Christian living. Just consider a handful of texts that make this clear.
“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8).
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:1-2).
“I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11).
“I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways” (Ps. 119:15).
In addition, consider numerous other exhortations and examples of meditation on God’s word from Psalm 119:23, 48, 78, 97, 99, 103, 148.
(4) We should also train our souls to meditate on the glory and majesty of God as revealed in natural creation. Jonathan Edwards describes the impact of one particular encounter with the power and wonder of creation:
“And as I walking there [in his father’s pasture], and looked up on the sky and clouds; there came into my mind, a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. . . . The appearance of everything was altered: there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the day time, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the mean time, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce any thing, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning. Formerly, nothing had been so terrible to me. I used to be a person uncommonly terrified with thunder: and it used to strike me with terror, when I saw a thunder-storm rising. But now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God at the first appearance of a thunder-storm. And used to take the opportunity at such times to fix myself to view the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder: which often times was exceeding entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. And while I viewed, used to spend my time, as it always seemed natural to me, to sing or chant forth my meditations; to speak my thoughts in soliloquies, and speak with a singing voice” (Extractions from his Private Diary, 27-28).
(5) We should also regularly reflect and meditate on God himself and his many works.
“One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire [meditate, NASB] in his temple” (Ps. 27:4).
“when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night” (Ps. 63:6).
“I consider the days of old, the years long ago. I said, ‘Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart. Then my spirit made a diligent search. . . . I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder [meditate] all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds” (Ps. 77:5-6, 11-12; see also Psalm 111:2; 119:27; 143:5; 145:5).
(6) Christian meditation must be distinguished from the sort that we find in eastern religions or more recent new age fads. For example, unlike eastern meditation, which advocates emptying the mind, Christian meditation calls on us to fill our mind with God and his truth. Nowhere in the Bible is the “mind”, per se, described as evil or unworthy of being the means by which God communicates with us. What the Bible does denounce is intellectual pride, but not the intellect itself. It is humility that we need, not ignorance. I stand opposed to arrogant and cynical intellectualism. But that is not the same thing as using the mind God has given us, with the help of the Holy Spirit and the instruction of Scripture, to evaluate and discern and critically assess what is happening in both the church and the world.
Thus, unlike eastern meditation, which advocates mental passivity, Christian meditation calls on us to actively exert our mental energy. This is nowhere better stated than by Paul in Philippians 4:8. Here he encourages us to “let our minds dwell on” whatever is “true,” “honorable,” “right,” “pure,” “lovely,” and of “good repute.” Those things that are “excellent” and “worthy of praise” are to be the targets of our mental aim. It isn’t enough merely to acknowledge that things and ideas of moral and mental excellence are important. Merely affirming such truths and virtues will avail little in a time of testing. We must energetically reckon, take into account, and give deliberative weight to these things. Our minds must be captivated by them in such a way that the tawdry, sleazy, fictitious, and fanciful fluff of the world loses its appeal.
Unlike eastern meditation, which advocates detachment from the world, Christian meditation calls for attachment to God. If the believer disengages from the distractions and allurements of the world, it is in order that he/she might engage with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unlike eastern meditation, which advocates visualization in order to create one’s own reality, Christian meditation calls for visualization of the reality already created by God. Unlike eastern meditation, which advocates metaphysical union with ‘god’, Christian meditation calls for spiritual communion with God. Unlike eastern meditation, which advocates an inner journey to find the center of one’s being, Christian meditation calls for an outward focus on the objective revelation of God in Scripture and creation. Unlike eastern meditation, which advocates mystical transport as the goal of one’s efforts, Christian meditation calls for moral transformation as the goal of one’s efforts.
(7) So how should the Christian go about developing the discipline of meditation? The first step is to rehearse in one’s mind the presence of God. Perhaps reading and reflecting on Psalm 139:1-10 will help. Focus your attention on the inescapable presence, the intimate nearness of God. Issues of posture, time, and place are secondary, but not unimportant. The only rule would be: do whatever is most conducive to concentration. If a posture is uncomfortable, change it. If a particular time of day or night is inconvenient, change it. If the place you have chosen exposes you to repeated interruptions and distractions, move it. I enjoy watching football on TV as much as the next guy, but trying to engage with God’s Word during the huddle is hardly an effective way to experience its power!
(8) The second step is to peruse. By this I mean read, repeat the reading, write it out, then re-write it. We must keep in mind the difference between informative reading of the Scriptures and formative reading. The former focuses on the gathering of information, the increase of knowledge, the collection and memorization of data. The purpose of the latter is to be formed or shaped by the text, through the work of the Holy Spirit. With informative reading, I am in control of the text. With formative reading, the text controls me.
(9) It also helps to apply your imagination and senses to the truth of the text. Envision yourself personally engaged in the relationship or encounter or experience of which the text speaks. Hear the words as they are spoken. Feel the touch of Jesus on a diseased body. Taste and smell the fish and bread as they are served to the multitudes. See the truths that God has revealed by mentally recreating the scene with yourself present. There is nothing magical or mysterious in this. The purpose of the imagination is not, as some have argued, to create our own reality. Our imagination is a function of our minds whereby we experience more intimately and powerfully the reality God has created. As you are doing so, reflect on the truth of the Word; brood over the truth of the text; absorb it, soak in it, as you turn it over and over in your mind.
(10) The final steps can be summarized in four words: pray, personalize, praise, and practice.
It is difficult to know when meditation moves into prayer. It isn’t really that important. But at some point, take the truth as the Holy Spirit has illumined it and pray it back to God, whether in petition, thanksgiving, or intercession. In other words, take Scripture and turn it into dialogue with God.
Where possible, and according to sound principles of biblical interpretation, replace proper names and personal pronouns with your own name. God never intended for his Word to float aimlessly in impersonal abstractions. He designed it for you and for me.
Then worship the Lord for who he is and what he has done and how it has been revealed in Scripture. Meditation ought always to lead us into adoration and celebration of God.
Finally, practice. Commit yourself to doing what the Word commands. The aim of meditation is moral transformation. The aim of contemplation is obedience. And in obedience is joy inexpressible and full of glory.