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The lost art of biblical meditation

August 2018 | by Stuart Fisher

When you mention the word ‘meditation’, people react in different ways. This is because, sadly, the term has become rather plastic, capable of meaning different things.

For most it speaks of Eastern religion, relaxation techniques and New Ageism. For Christians there is a puzzling divide between a christianised form of Eastern meditation and true, biblical meditation. While confusion reigns, most Christians feel safer having nothing to do with the subject, preferring to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water.

But the fact remains that ‘meditation’ is a biblical term and can’t be ignored. We are commanded to meditate: ‘This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe 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).

Dispelling confusion

The word ‘meditation’ is derived from the Latin meditatio, with its verb meditari, meaning to think, contemplate, devise or ponder. This is very much the biblical view and has little to do with the imported idea, which gained momentum in the 1960s and hijacked the original meaning, creating a reference point for all things Eastern and mystical.

That the second meaning should be popular is not surprising when so many people have largely turned their back on traditional, biblical Christianity to seek alternatives. This spurious ‘meditation’ has become one of many things to fill the spiritual vacuum.

It will be helpful to see the two divergent ideas set against each other in the following way:

Biblical meditation                                            Religious meditation

Focus on biblical, objective truth               Focus on non-biblical religious and mystical

Intellectual process of filling the mind     Induced process of emptying the mind

Purpose: to know God                                 Purpose: to experience ‘god’ in self

Brings soul nearer to God                           Takes soul away from God

Gives greater light                                        Gives greater darkness

Humbles a person                                        Elevates a person

They are clearly complete opposites and, on the face of it, you might assume no Christian would want to become involved in the non-biblical model. Yet the tragedy is, many sincere believers have been drawn into a ‘meditation’ that, in effect, christianises Eastern-style meditation in the mistaken belief that it is biblical meditation.

Many well-known speakers have promoted this hybrid form that misses the point and is misleading and even sinful. At root, it is a kind of religious syncretism.

Biblical meditation

There are many references to meditation in the Bible. The first is found in Genesis 24:63, where Isaac went out into the field to meditate. A second is found in Joshua 1:8, when Joshua is commissioned and told to meditate on God’s law, day and night. The psalms have the most references, particularly Psalm 119.

There are also closely related words such as ‘pondered’ (Luke 2:19) and Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:8 -9, ‘Finally brothers whatever is true, noble … right … pure … lovely … admirable … if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think on such things’.

The root idea is obviously to ‘dwell on these things’ in order to meditate on them. The basis for meditation must be what is in the Bible, which means, in essence, the revelation of the character of God and his works.

The next questions are, ‘What is meditation and how do we meditate?’

Definition

J. I. Packer states, ‘Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God’.

It is, therefore, an active, thinking process. For Packer, the best exponents of its method were the Puritans. He writes: ‘Knowing themselves to be creatures of thought, affection, and will, and knowing that God’s way to the human heart (the will) is via the human head (the mind), the Puritans practised meditation, discursive and systematic, on the whole range of biblical truth as they saw it applying to themselves’.

It is to the Puritans we too should turn. It is no coincidence that the richest spiritual periods of Christianity were ones when meditation was highly prized. The Puritan period was a golden age for preaching, biblical thoroughness and godliness. No surprise that it is also a period rich with studies on meditation.

Joseph Hall (1574-1656) affirms that ‘true piety is contingent upon meditation’, which cultivates the ‘best improvement of Christianity’. He speaks of ‘bending the mind upon a spiritual object until our thoughts come to an issue’.

Another Puritan, George Swinnock, speaks of ‘applying the mind’ until the affections ‘be warmed and quickened’. Nathaniel Ranew puts it in typical Puritan fashion: ‘Meditation is that happy influence; it makes the mind wise, the affections warm, the soul fat and flourishing and the life fruitful’.

So, we may say that biblical meditation is taking divinely revealed truths and thinking deeply upon them until the soul is warmed and the will affected.

Analogies

There are some helpful analogies that throw light on the process of meditation:

Crocodiles and cows

Meditation is not quite the same as eating. Nutritionists tell us how we take in our food is important. Crocodiles are opportunist hunters. They snatch at food and tear off large lumps of flesh that are then swallowed without chewing or tasting.

Cows, on the other hand, are constantly grazing and chewing the cud. This is a slow, unhurried process unlike the frenzied eating of the crocodile. Thomas Watson simply says, ‘Meditation is chewing the cud’.

So, our meditation should be like the cow chewing the cud, rather than is often the case, the snapping and devouring chunks of Scripture with small benefit to our souls.

The diamond expert

The connoisseur of precious jewels has an expertise and technique. He will use a loupe or hand lens and hold the diamond up to natural light. He will slowly turn it over, again and again, examining its colour, clarity and cut, looking at its different facets as he makes his assessment. So too, we should hold truth up to the light, turning it over to examine its beauty, light and glory.

The preacher in us

Another way of considering meditation is to think of it as preaching to ourselves. David, in Psalms 42 and 43, had to take himself in hand and preach to himself, ‘Why are you cast down my soul?’ ‘By meditation we preach to ourselves, and so we come to understand more than our teachers, for we come to understand our hearts, which they cannot’ (Matthew Henry).

We take some Bible verses, or maybe a longer passage, and identify what the text is actually saying, keeping in mind its wider context. We then ask it questions. We find what key points the passage calls to your attention, then take each point, turning it over in our mind and praying for further understanding.

The relationship between the Bible, meditation and prayer is crucial. They form a devotional trilogy. The source must always be the Word. Joshua was commanded to meditate on the Word. Psalm 1 speaks of the blessed man who meditates day and night on the law of God (verse 2). As we meditate on Bible truth, so our prayers should be inspired. Spurgeon says, ‘Meditation is the fuel that sustains the flame of prayer’.

Benefits

Why meditate? What are the benefits of meditation? This is what the Puritan masters of biblical meditation tell us: ‘Meditate on our making that we may fall in love with our Maker’ (David Dickson); ‘truths are concocted and ripened by meditation’ (Thomas Manton);

‘Meditation will keep your hearts and souls from sinful thoughts. When your vessel is full you can put in no more … If the heart be full of sinful thoughts, there is no room for holy and heavenly thoughts; if the heart be full of holy and heavenly thoughts by meditation, there is no room for evil and sinful thoughts’ (William Bridge); ‘meditation keeps out Satan. It increases knowledge, it inflames love, it works patience, it promotes prayer, it evidences sincerity’ (Philip Henry).

One of the crying needs of the church today is to recapture this lost art of meditation. Do you meditate?

Stuart Fisher is a member of  Moordown Baptist Church, Bournemouth.