“I’m just not feeling it today.”
How often have you reached for that excuse? Many of us can be quick to cast ourselves as the victim of a sluggish heart.
Now, making peace with a pokey heart is a very strange phenomenon, even as it now is a widespread assumption and typically goes unquestioned. It may be no big deal if we’re talking about whether you want peanut butter on your breakfast toast. But far more is at stake when this becomes an excuse for neglecting God, whether in his word, prayer, or Christian fellowship.
Specifically, this excuse has served to undermine habits of spiritual health related to beginning each day with the voice of God in Scripture. Some of us are gaunt, frail Christians because we’ve learned, like our world, to cater to the whims of our own fickle hearts rather than direct them and determine to reshape them.
Your Pliable Affections
In what may be his most insightful and deeply spiritual book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (2014), the late Tim Keller introduces us to a side of the great English theologian John Owen (1616–1683) that is especially out of step with modern assumptions. Owen, according to Keller, would not be so quick to grant the excuse, “I’m just not feeling it today.” In fact, he likely would respond forcefully — and many of us might be better for it.
Owen would at least challenge whether our initial feelings determined anything significant at all. He surely wouldn’t say to skip God’s word (or prayer or church) to cater to whatever unspiritual inclination you woke up feeling. Rather, he might say, as Keller summarizes, “Meditate to the point of delight.” Don’t give in to your heart’s first inclinations. Rather, take hold of them, and direct them. Open the Bible, and turn your attention to the one who is supremely worthy, and keep your nose in the Book, and your mind on Jesus, until your sluggish heart begins to respond like it should.
That’s striking counsel for a generation conditioned to “follow your heart” and, in time, presume to reshape our external, objective world based on the subjectivity and flightiness of our own desires.
How often do we hear even Christians concede, as a veiled excuse, to be “wired” a certain way? Indeed, God has wired us in certain ways. But how often do we resign ourselves to being hardwired in ways we’re actually far more pliable? And the world’s not helping us with this. Our society has come to feign plasticity in precisely the places we’re hardwired (like biological sex) and to pretend hard-wiring in the places we’re actually plastic (desires and delights).
Long before anyone talked about neuroplasticity, Owen believed in what we might call “affectional plasticity” — that is, your desires and delights are not hardwired. They are pliable. You can reshape and recondition them. You can retrain them. You may be unable to simply turn them with full effect in the moment to make yourself feel something, but you can reshape your heart over time. Oh, can you. Your desires, good and bad, are not simple givens. Stretched out over time, as the composite of countless decisions, they are wonderfully (and hauntingly) chosens.
Recondition Your Heart
In chapter 10 of Prayer, Keller adds his commentary to Owen’s premodern insights for a much-needed perspective on the wedding of God’s word with our prayers through meditation. It’s a perspective on forming and reforming our pliant hearts that will challenge readers today. It will frustrate many, but certainly inspire a few.
In general, we are far too easy on our minds and hearts. We grant we can train the body. In fact, you’re always training the body, whether for the better or the worse. And most will agree that you can train the mind — “the mind is a muscle,” so to speak. You can set it on a particular object and learn to keep it there. It will take practice. Such training is vital for engaging with God’s word as we ought, and few skills are more difficult or important to cultivate.
And far more controversial, you can train your heart— not just in sinful emotions to avoid but also in righteous emotions to entertain. With a Bible open in front of you, you can learn, as Keller summarizes Owen, to “meditate to the point of delight.”
Three Stages of Meditation
Some well-meaning Christians set out to read their Bibles, don’t feel much (if anything), move on swiftly to pray a few quick, shallow petitions, and then embark on their day. Owen would say, with C.S. Lewis, you are far too easily pleased — that is, if you’re even pleased at all. Rather, Owen would have us wrestle like Jacob across the Jabbok, until light dawns. Wrestle with your own sluggish soul. Direct it. Turn it. Grapple with it until it does what it’s supposed to do, and feels more like it’s supposed to feel about the wonders and horrors of the word of God. Say, in effect, to the God of the word, “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” and discipline your heart to receive the joy for which God made it.
Now, a few clarifications are in order to recover this lost art of meditation. Owen distinguished between study, meditation, and prayer. Meditation is the bridge between receiving God’s word (in reading and study) and responding back to him (in prayer). Meditation, says Owen,
is distinguished from the study of the word, wherein our principal aim is to learn the truth, or to declare it unto others; and so also from prayer, whereof God himself is the immediate object. But . . . meditation . . . is the affecting of our own hearts and minds with love, delight, and [humility]. (quoted in Keller, Prayer, 152)
Meditation, then — distinct from study and prayer, though overlapping with them — might be parsed into three sequential stages.
1) Fix Your Mind
Begin with Bible intake, through reading, and rereading — the slower the better. And as we encounter various knowledge gaps in what the passage says and means, we might turn briefly to some “study” to “learn the truth” or rightly understand the text. Beginners will have more questions and need to navigate how frequently to stop and study or just keep reading and pick up clues as they go. But the main point is that meditation begins with immersion in the words of God.
Unlike Eastern “meditation,” which seeks to empty the mind, biblical meditation requires the filling of the mind with the truth of God’s self-revelation in his Son and Scripture. We don’t just up and meditate — not in the deliberate sense. We begin with Bible, fixing our thoughts on God and his Son through the content of his word.
2) Incline Your Heart
Fixing our thoughts can be difficult enough, but inclining the heart is imponderable for many. Not because it can’t be done, but because we have been socialized to assume it can’t. So, this is where Owen (and Keller) seems forceful, and surprising. But Owen counsels us, having fixed our minds on God’s word, to “persist in spiritual thoughts unto your refreshment” (Works of John Owen, volume 7, 393). That is, meditate until you begin to feel the word. Preach to yourself until you begin to feel more like you ought. Does the word declare God’s majesty? Feel awe. Does it warn sinners? Feel fear. Does it announce good news? Feel joy.
The goal is not to meditate for a particular duration of time, but to meditate until the point of delight, to persist “unto your refreshment.” The apostle Peter speaks of the present, not merely the future — of joy the Christian experiences now, in this age, not only in the one to come — when he says, “Though you do not now see [Jesus with your physical eyes], you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Inexpressible, glorified joy is offered even now, and by no better means than fixing our minds on the word of God himself and meditating until he smiles on us, and warms our souls, with some real measure of delight.
Owen offers hope for those who think this is impossible: “Constancy in [this] duty will give ability for it. Those who conscientiously abide in its performance shall increase in light, wisdom, and experience until they are able to manage it with great success.” Keller then comments, leaning on Psalm 1, “Trees don’t grow overnight. Meditation is a sustained process like a tree growing its roots down toward the water source. The effects are cumulative. You must stick with it. We must meditate ‘day and night’ — regularly, steadily” (161–162).
Questions arise not only because of our sin but our humanity. Owen knew this every bit as much as we do, if not far better. Anticipating our objection, Keller writes,
Owen is quite realistic. He admits that sometimes, no matter what we do, we simply cannot concentrate, or we find our thoughts do not become big and affecting, but rather we feel bored, hard, and distracted. Then, Owen says, simply turn to God and make brief, intense appeals for help. Sometimes that is all you will do the rest of your scheduled time, and sometimes the very cries for help serve to concentrate the mind and soften the heart. (Prayer, 161)
A huge difference lies between occasional realism and a daily pattern of resignation. There’s a world of difference between a lazy beginner and the wise veteran, who has learned the lost art and come to experience the third stage with regularity, despite the “sometimes” of dryness and distraction.
3) Enjoy Your God
In the final stage, we give vent, or give space, to the enjoyment (or crying out) begun in the second. We fan the flame of fitting affection for the truth in view. This is the high point of meditation — enjoying God in Christ — which fills our souls with “an answering response.” As Keller comments, we “listen, study, think, reflect, and ponder the Scriptures until there is an answering response in our hearts and minds” (55, emphasis added) — which leads us to prayer. According to Keller,
meditation before prayer consists of thinking, then inclining, and, finally, either enjoying the presence or admitting the absence and asking for his mercy and help. Meditation is thinking a truth out and then thinking a truth in until its ideas become “big” and “sweet,” moving and affecting, and until the reality of God is sensed upon the heart. (162)
And this “sensing of God on the heart,” through meditating on his word, issues in our response of prayer.
Without immersion in God’s words, our prayers may not be merely limited and shallow but also untethered from reality. We may be responding not to the real God but to what we wish God and life to be like. Indeed, if left to themselves our hearts will tend to create a God who doesn’t exist. . . . Without prayer that answers the God of the Bible, we will only be talking to ourselves. (62)
So, we want our prayers to be prompted by and tethered to the intake of God’s word. “We would never produce the full range of biblical prayer if we were initiating prayer according to our own inner needs and psychology. It can only be produced if we are responding in prayer according to who God is as revealed in the Scripture” (60).
Not Just Truth but Jesus
Keller ends this blessed tenth chapter with Jesus himself as the chief focus of our meditation. Not only did the God-man delight in the word of God like the happy man of Psalm 1, but he himself is “the one to whom all the Scripture points” (163). As Christians, we learn to meditate both with him and on him.
In our reading and rereading and study and lingering over Scripture, we persist to know and enjoy not just truth but the Truth himself. For Christians, the final focus of our meditation is personal, and both perfectly human and fully divine in the person of Jesus Christ.