Warm Yourself at the Fires of Meditation
We were made to meditate. God designed us with the capacity to pause and ponder. He means for us to not just hear him, but to reflect on what he says.
It is a distinctively human trait to stop and consider, to chew on something with the teeth of our minds and hearts, to roll some reality around in our thoughts and press it deeply into our feelings, to look from different angles and seek to get a better sense of its significance.
The biblical name for this art is meditation, which Don Whitney defines as “deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture for the purposes of understanding, application, and prayer” (Spiritual Disciplines, 48). And it is a marvelous means of God’s grace in the Christian life.
Meditation Made Christian
Since we were made to meditate, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that world religions have seized upon the activity, and new schools try to make use of its practical effects, whether to cultivate brain health and lower blood pressure. Christian meditation, however, is fundamentally different than the “meditation” popularly co-opted in various non-Christian systems. It doesn’t entail emptying our minds, but rather filling them with biblical and theological substance — truth outside of ourselves — and then chewing on that content.
For the Christian, meditation means having “the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). It is not, like secular meditation, “doing nothing and being tuned in to your own mind at the same time,” but it is feeding our minds on the words of God and digesting them slowly, savoring the texture, enjoying the juices, cherishing the flavor of such rich fare. Meditation that is truly Christian is guided by the gospel, shaped by the Scriptures, reliant upon the Holy Spirit, and exercised in faith.
Man does not live by bread alone, and meditation is slowly relishing the meal.
Meditation Day and Night
Maybe it’s the multiplied distractions of modern life, and the increased impairments of sin’s corruption, but meditation is more the lost art today than it was for our fathers in the faith. We are told, “Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening” (Genesis 24:63), and three of the more important texts in the Hebrew Scriptures, among others, call for meditation in such a way that we should sit up and take notice — or better, slow down, block out distractions, and give it some serious consideration.
The first is Joshua 1:8. At a key juncture in redemptive history, following the death of Moses, God himself speaks to Joshua, and three times gives the clear directive, “Be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9). How is he to do this? Where will he fill his tank with such strength and courage? Meditation. “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night” (Joshua 1:8).
God means not for Joshua to be merely familiar with the Book, or that he read through sections of it quickly in the morning, but that he be captivated by it and build his life on its truths. His spare thoughts should go there, his idle mind gravitate there. God’s words of instruction are to saturate his life, give him direction, shape his mind, form his patterns, fuel his affections, and inspire his actions.
Meditation in the Psalms
Then, two more key texts come in the first Psalm and the longest. Psalm 1:1–2 echoes the language of Joshua 1 — “Blessed is the man [whose] delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The blessed one, the happy one, who delights in God’s word, doesn’t avail himself of the words of life with some quick breadth reading, but “meditates day and night.”
And meditation nearly dominates Psalm 119 and its celebration of the words of God, as the psalmist says he meditates “on your precepts” (Psalms 119:15, 78), “on your statutes” (Psalm 119:23; 48), “on your wondrous works” (Psalm 119:27). He claims, “Your testimonies are my meditation” (Psalm 119:99) and exclaims, “O how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97). If God’s old-covenant instruction could be so precious to the psalmist, how much more should the new-covenant gospel captivate our meditation.
Meditation Is the Missing Link
And so meditation on the Scriptures has occupied a deep and enduring place in the history of the church as one of the most enjoyed means of God’s grace for his people. In particular, the Puritans celebrated the gift of meditation as much as any, and drew attention to its vital relationship with hearing God’s voice (Bible intake) and having his ear (prayer). Whitney quotes several prominent Puritans to the effect that meditation is “the missing link between Bible intake and prayer” (71–76), and in doing so, he moves us into some practical counsel for Christian meditation:
“Begin with reading or hearing. Go on with meditation; end in prayer.” (William Bridge)
“The word feedeth meditation, and meditation feedeth prayer. . . . [M]editation must follow hearing and precede prayer. . . . What we take in by the word we digest by meditation and let out by prayer.” (Thomas Manton)
“The reason we come away so cold from reading the word is, because we do not warm ourselves at the fires of meditation.” (Thomas Watson)
“The great reason why our prayers are ineffectual, is because we do not meditate before them.” (William Bates)
Meditation, then, for the Christian, is a discipline that has a certain function related to the other disciplines. It doesn’t stand alone, hermetically sealed from God’s revelation of himself in the Bible and our reverential response to him in prayer. Rather, meditation bridges the gap between hearing from God and speaking to him.
In meditation, we pause and reflect over his words. We roll them over in our minds and let them ignite our hearts — we “warm ourselves at the fires of meditation.” We pose questions and seek answers. We go deep in God’s revelation, take it into our very souls, and as we are being changed by his truth, we respond to him in prayer. As Matthew Henry says, “As meditation is the best preparation for prayer, so prayer is the best issue of meditation.”
Christian meditation is less about the posture of our bodies, and more about the posture of our souls. Our main pointers aren’t, sit on the floor with your legs crossed, or sit on a chair with both feet on the floor and your back straight, palms facing upward. Christian meditation begins with our eyes in the Book, or ears open to the word, or a mind stocked with memorized Scripture.
Perhaps we start with some broader Bible reading from which we select a particular verse or phrase that caught our attention, and carve out several minutes to go deep in it. Then, with intentionality and focus — often best with pen in hand, or fingers on the keys — we seek to better understand God’s words and warm our soul at his fire, and let it lead us into prayer and then into the day.
In our restless and stressed-out society, it very well may strengthen our brain and lower our blood-pressure to practice the art of Christian meditation. But even more significant will be the good that it does for our souls.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines (Crossway, 2016).