What Is Biblical Meditation?
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While many Christians know that spending time in Scripture must become a priority—a valuable discipline—in our lives, we will keep ourselves from much blessing if we don’t also make the discipline of meditation an essential part of our worship.
The moment I mention the word meditation, however, it is possible that you are immediately drawn to images of people sitting in the Lotus Position: eyes closed, legs crossed, with palms up on one’s knees, with the thumb and middle finger on each hand slightly touching. That’s because our culture is fascinated with Eastern meditation and, most recently, something called “Mindfulness” (although mindfulness experts do not all insist on one specific kind of posture, even though they would say posture is important).
What Biblical Meditation Is Not
This kind of meditation is generally characterized by the use of repeated mantras, the constant act of releasing one’s “bad” or “harmful” thoughts or the clearing of one’s mind of any “thinking” whatsoever. Mindfulness is not meditation per se but is usually achieved through a kind of meditation that focuses on controlled breathing and fixing all of one’s concentration on the “now” of one’s experience. “Mindfulness,” we are told, “is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
It is not an exaggeration that biblical meditation is almost completely antithetical to the brand of meditation described above. First, we know that biblical meditation doesn’t include the use of repeated mantras, for Christ himself tells us to not multiply thoughtless words in our prayers to God (Matt. 6:7).
Second, biblical meditation is best understood, not as mind-emptying, but mind-filling; not thought removal, but thought replacement. Nor is biblical meditation mere “mindfulness,” for without the instruction of God’s Word our act of being “fully present” may leave us vulnerable to deceitful spirits (Eph. 6:12); and our endeavor not to be “overly reactive or overwhelmed” will merely be an act of our will, unguided and unprotected by divine wisdom.
Finally, the effectiveness of biblical meditation is not dependent on a certain kind of posture. In fact, it’s not dependent on posture at all. You can meditate on your bed (Ps. 63:6), or you can meditate in the midst of your preparations for battle (Josh. 1:8). You can meditate day and night, no matter what you are doing (Ps. 1:1-6).
What Biblical Meditation Is
Meditation, very simply, is ruminating on, thinking over, and pondering God (Ps. 63:6), his works (Ps. 72:12; 119:27, 148; 145:3, 5), and his Word (Ps. 1:1-6; 119:15, 23, 48, 78). In Hebrew, the word for meditation literally means to mumble to oneself; speaking to oneself audibly or in one’s heart. But it is not a mindless activity or the repetition of a mantra. Biblically, to meditate means to ponder, consider, chew on, and mull over the word of God. Biblical meditation is full of content, not void of it; it is thoughtful, not thoughtless.
Why Is Biblical Meditation So Important?
The central reason why meditation is vital in the life of the believer is that meditation is the bridge between knowledge and obedience (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 119:98-100). How many of us have our minds filled with a broad knowledge of biblical truth, but have remained, for the most part, superficial and spiritually immature because we don’t allow the truth to go deep into our hearts through meditation?
Meditation is how the word of Christ dwells in us richly (Col. 3:16a), which leads to a life of joy and gratitude (Col. 3:16b), of universal obedience (Col. 3:17), and of being filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:15-17; cf. Col. 3:16). Meditation, according to John Owen, is one of only two disciplines (prayer being the other) that have “a special tendency towards the ruin of the law of sin” (Temptation and Sin, 224). As Maurice Roberts wisely observed years ago,
It is not the busy skimming over religious books or the careless hastening through religious duties which makes for a strong Christian faith. Rather, it is unhurried meditation on gospel truths and the exposing of our minds to these truths that yields the fruit of sanctified character. (Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 55)
Meditation plants the truth of God’s word deep into our souls so that we are genuinely changed and enabled to walk in faith and obedience. I am willing to risk exaggeration at this point by saying that the primary reason most Christians plateau in their spiritual growth is for lack of true meditation. Install meditation firmly into your arsenal of spiritual disciplines, and you will do much to promote intimacy with Christ, spiritual maturity, and wisdom in your life.
How Can I Meditate on God’s Word?
If meditation is so important, how do I make it happen? Here are a few practical suggestions to help you establish this important discipline.
1. Read less (if necessary) to meditate more. Donald Whitney offers this advice: “If you could not possibly add more time to your devotional schedule for meditating on your Scripture reading, read less in order to have some unhurried time for meditation” (Spiritual Disciplines, 55).
2. Make observations and ask questions about the text. One of the best and simplest ways to meditate on Scripture is to observe what’s there and ask questions about the text as you seek to understand the author’s meaning. Observe and ask questions about the words used, connections between sentences, and specific points of application. This last point is crucial because we want to be doers of the Word, not mere hearers (James 1:22).
3. Meditate on a single verse for the good of your soul. I’ve written about this practice before. Suffice it to say here that you might find it spiritually nourishing to choose one verse (e.g., John 14:6; Rom. 4:5), write it down on a sheet of paper, and think about that verse over the course of weeks, writing down observations, questions, and points of application on that same sheet of paper. During the course of the week, you might take a couple of one-hour sessions to simply sit with that verse and think over it. It is simply amazing how much we grow from spending much time—even several hours—over one verse.
4. Keep a journal. Does the Bible command us to keep a journal? No. Yet, for many of us, a journal is a useful tool in the practice of meditation. Why? Because writing in a journal helps you exercise sustained thought over the Scripture, which allows you to ask and answer questions, synthesize this particular text with other biblical texts, all of which enables you to better apply the truth, solidify your convictions, and deepen your affections.
“Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That!”
If you think you don’t have time for regular Bible reading, meditation, and prayer, consider the following chart.
I’ve allowed a total of sixty-five hours for your work (time at work and your commute) and given you eight hours of sleep a night. You have a little over an hour and a half each day for meals and for getting ready for the day. You have about forty minutes a day, six days a week, to get some exercise, and seven total hours for corporate worship and fellowship. You also have fourteen hours a week for family time, friends, or other miscellaneous activities. That leaves you with an “extra” ten hours a week. Perhaps you only work fifty hours a week. Well, now you’ve got a discretionary twenty hours a week.
Granted, this table above reflects the schedule of one whose work is outside the home, but a mom could fit her own categories into this chart and find a similar result (besides, it is the husband’s job to make sure his wife has time alone in the Word and in prayer). My point is simply to show you that you do, in fact, have time during the week to devote to the Lord in biblical reading, meditation, and prayer.
Spending Time Alone with God in His Word and Prayer Is Essential to Our Spiritual Lives
But framing it the way I just did with the above chart is actually a little backward. We’ve noted in the last few posts that spending time alone with God in his Word and in prayer is essential to our spiritual lives. When we think of “all the things we need to do” during the course of our week, the spiritual disciplines of prayer and the Word should already be on the list.
John Owen is right when he reminds us: “It is certain that God gives us time enough for all that he requires of us” (p. 230). If it is essential for our Christian life, God will ensure that we have time for it.
Derek J. Brown is Academic Dean at The Cornerstone Seminary in Vallejo, California, and associate pastor at Grace Bible Fellowship of Silicon Valley where he oversees the college and young adult ministry, online presence, and publishing ministry, GBF Press. Derek blogs at fromthestudy.com.
This article is adapted from "Spiritual Disciplines, Part 4: What Is Biblical Meditation?" at fromthestudy.com.
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney; foreword by J.I. Packer