From time to time you hear of people commending the benefits of meditation. Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, Novak Djokovich – they all say they find it a tremendous help. Are they to be followed? Is it something Christians should engage in?
When we scratch below the surface, we find that the sort of meditation advocated is of the eastern Buddhist or Hindu sort. It usually advocates emptying the mind rather than filling it.
Christian meditation eschews mental passivity and calls on us to actively exert our mental energy.
A biographer said of the 19th-century Princeton professor Archibald Alexander: ‘From our earliest recollections, he had been accustomed to sit and muse in the evening twilight, often prolonging these hours far beyond the time when lights are usually demanded. These moments, though solemn, appeared to be pleasurable. In these he pursued his most fruitful trains of thought.
‘As he grew older, this sort of exercise was more frequent and protracted; and in no instance did it seem to merge into anything like slumber. It was a period to be gratefully remembered, as one of singular peace.’
Meditation of that sort is not always easy but it should be frequent and focused. Adequate time must be set aside for it. It is encouraged in Scripture: Psalm 119:15 speaks of meditating on God’s precepts and considering his ways; Philippians 4:8 encourages us with the words, ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely… think about such things.’
One Christian writer suggests a method for meditating along the following lines.
1. Focus your attention on the inescapable presence of God, his intimate nearness. Issues of time and place are secondary, though important. The rule is to do whatever is most conducive to concentration.
2. Peruse: read, repeat, write out, etc. (if it is Scripture). We do not want simply to learn things, but to get these things to take hold of us.
3. Engage your imagination; use your senses. Reflect deeply on the truth, brood over it, absorb it, and soak in it as you turn it over in your mind.
4. Pray, personalise, praise, practice. Meditation must always lead to adoration and celebration. Further, commit yourself to acting in line with your meditation.
Speaking on meditation, Spurgeon says it is not enough to gather grapes, we need to tread them out so that the juice is preserved and used to make good wine.
He likens it to a wrestler putting embrocation on his body to warm himself up for the match. It is also like a cow ruminating as it passes food through all four stomachs – we must slowly meditate on God’s Word and on similar matters.
Puritan William Bates said that our meditations are like eggs which need to be kept warm in the nest: ‘If the bird leaves her nest for a long space, the eggs chill and are not fit for production’, whereas ‘holiness and comfort to our souls’ will be the result of regular time with God.
At the beginning, meditation is like trying to build a fire from wet wood. He encourages us to persevere ‘till the flame doth so ascend’.
Another Puritan, George Swinnock, lists subjects for meditation. He includes the nature or attributes of God, the states and offices of Christ, the three-fold (better four-fold) state of man, the four last things, the vanity of the creature, the sinfulness of sin, the love and fullness of the blessed Saviour, and the divine word and works.
‘Out of these’, he says, ‘we may choose sometimes one thing, sometimes another to be the particular subject of our thoughts.’
God’s nature and attributes
But how do I begin to meditate on God? First, you have to know what he is like, something found in Scripture and experienced in life.
A good catechism will be a big help. In the Shorter Catechism, Question 4 asks, ‘What is God?’ and gives an eleven-part answer: ‘God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.’
If you learned that answer you could very profitably spend time thinking about God’s nature and attributes for a good while. Alternatively you could meditate on Psalm 145 or another suitable Scripture.
The states of Christ
We ought to think about Christ, of course. If we do not discipline our thoughts, we will think only vague thoughts. We must discipline ourselves to think of Christ as he is described in Scripture.
One way to do that is to think about what theologians call his states, including Christ’s humiliation and then Christ’s exaltation.
The two states can themselves be divided up to some extent. Humiliation includes his actual incarnation as he is conceived in Mary’s womb, is born, matures, serves, and ultimately gives his life on the cross.
Christ’s exaltation begins with his resurrection from the tomb. Six weeks later he ascends back to heaven from where he pours out the Holy Spirit. He now sits at God’s right hand and intercedes for his people. From there he will one day come to earth again in glory.
Picture a pair of staircases: on one side steps descend to the grave, on the other they rise again to the point where Christ has the name above every name.
The offices of Christ
Christ holds the threefold office as Prophet, Priest, and King. First described by the church father Eusebius, it was more fully developed by Calvin during the Reformation.
The doctrine states that Christ performed three functions (offices) during his earthly ministry – those of Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:14-22), Priest (Psalm 110:1-4), and King (Psalm 2).
In the Old Testament, people were set apart to these offices by being anointed with oil. Messiah means ‘anointed one’ and is readily associated with the threefold office.
While the office of king is most frequently connected with the Messiah, the role of Jesus as Priest (involving intercession before God) is also prominent in the New Testament. It is most fully explained in Hebrews chapters 7–10. The Shorter Catechism would again be a great help for meditation on this theme.
The fourfold state of man
We should meditate on God. We should meditate on Christ. We should also meditate on ourselves. There is a danger here of being introspective and self-centred, but there are ways of thinking about ourselves (self-examination if you like) which are both God-honouring and profitable.
We can think of man’s states in various ways. In his book Human Nature in Its Fourfold State, the Scottish Puritan Thomas Boston writes of the state of innocence; the state of nature (where he delineates the sinfulness, misery, and inability of humanity); the state of grace; and the state of glory. To put it simply, there is before the Fall; after the Fall; after regeneration; and after glorification.
The four last things
What is in mind here is the last four things concerning mankind: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. We are talking about the four last stages of the soul in life and the afterlife. These things are often commended as a collective topic for pious meditation.
St Philip Neri apparently said, ‘Beginners in religion ought to exercise themselves principally in meditation on the Four Last Things.’ Traditionally, sermons on the four Sundays of Advent would be on this subject. The Puritans liked to write on the subject. The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven by Robert Bolton appeared in 1639 and Four Last Things – Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell by William Bates in 1691.
In 1683 John Bunyan published a poem, One thing is needful or Serious meditations upon the Four Last Things. The four last things have also become a common theme for artists and writers.
The vanity of the creature
In a 17th century treatise on this subject, the Anglican bishop Edward Reynolds focused on Ecclesiastes 1:14 and wrote of the need for a right perspective on life and the insufficiency of earthly things to satisfy the soul.
He highlighted the vast disproportion between the soul and the creature – indeed the relative vanity of our creaturely nature. He discusses how the creature can be kept in its place and how to deal with vexations.
John Newton once wrote a poem beginning Honey though the bee prepares, an envenomed sting he wears; he points out that such things are a result of the Fall. However, these things can work for our good if we are willing to look to the Redeemer, as they help us to set our hearts on heaven where nothing is vain. These are the sorts of meditation we have in mind here.
The sinfulness of sin
Whenever we think of sin we need to be careful. We are like dry wood that can catch fire in a moment. If we are not careful, thoughts of sin will quickly turn to sins and that will be no advantage to us at all. In certain laboratories they keep strains of different diseases like smallpox, Ebola, or anthrax. You can just imagine the extreme precautions taken when these strains are handled by scientists.
We must proceed in a similar way when we think of sin. Several Puritans wrote on the sinfulness of sin. Jeremiah Burroughs’s book The Evil of Evils is an example. By way of example, in one chapter he reminds us that all sin’s promises are delusions and cannot be the object of a rational creature. Nothing that is good, he says, should be ventured for sin or made serviceable to sin.
To make sin the chief good is a great mistake and all time spent in sin is time lost. There is never a need to debate whether to do it or not.
There is ample material like that to help us meditate on the subject of sin.
The love and fullness of the blessed Saviour
The love of Christ is a central element of Christian belief and theology – both Christ’s love for his people and the love of his people for him and to others. These are distinct Christian teachings.
The theme of love is the key element in John’s writings; the well-known words of John 3:16 are typical of the apostle.
He also writes of the Good Shepherd in John 10, and love is a theme in the Upper Room discourses (John 13–17).
The love of Christ is also a motif in Paul’s letters, Ephesians being a prime example. Many Christians have written on the love of Christ – it merits careful meditation.
The divine Word and works
Most Christians are perhaps familiar with the idea of meditating on God’s Word, but we should meditate on his works also.
In Psalm 145:5 for example, David says, I will meditate on your wonderful works. We can meditate on God’s ways directly. Think about your hand or your eye or about water and its properties. Or we can meditate on Scriptures such as the closing chapters of Job, the lions in Daniel, the great fish in Jonah, or the various animals in Proverbs 30.
These are examples of subjects on which to meditate. No doubt there are others, but these will keep us busy for a while.