Gary writes in: “Pastor John, back during Tim Keller’s week of APJ episodes on prayer, he encouraged us to make time for meditation on the Scriptures before prayer, so as to ‘warm our hearts to God.’ Can you give some advice/tips on how this looks practically for you?”
I think the best way for me to answer this is with the help of George Mueller, because what he taught me years ago, many years ago, is still the way I function in the morning. And I just think it will be significant to let Mueller talk here with me just sticking in a comment here and there.
So, George Mueller is famous for establishing orphanages and being a great man of faith. He died in 1898 and in 1841 — so, I think he was 36 years old when he made this life-changing discovery — here is what he wrote:
While I was staying at Nailsworth it pleased the Lord to teach me a truth irrespective of human instrumentality, as far as I know, the benefit of which I have not lost, though four years have since passed away. The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have a happy soul in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord, how much I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. . . . Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as a habitual thing to give myself to prayer, after having dressed in the morning.
A Crucial Course Correction
Now, notice here — this is my insertion — that that is the opposite. He had been doing for years the opposite of what Keller was suggesting. Now, he says, “I saw that, the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditation on it,” — like Keller suggests — “that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus . . . whilst meditating, my heart might be brought into an experiential communion with the Lord. I began therefore to meditate on the New Testament from the beginning early, in the morning. The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord’s blessing upon his precious word,” — pause.
“The most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditation on it.”
Notice: he does actually begin with prayer, a brief, short, “God, open your word to me. God, help me.” And this has been very important to me because, even though I know Bible reading precedes praying in a significant way that he is explaining, I have found it important to do my little I O U S — incline my heart, O God; open my heart, oh God; unite my heart, oh God; satisfy my heart, oh God — or else I might blunder into God’s word in a spiritually self-sufficient frame of mind, in which I am not at all listening to God or hearing God. So, just a short word. I am talking about one minute, one minute. You say to God: I am about to read your word, and I need your help.
And then he goes on and says he would “begin to meditate on the word of God, searching, as it were, into every verse, to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of public ministry,” — oh, how important that is! — “not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon; but for the sake of obtaining food for my soul.”
What Drives Fellowship with God
That is crucial. This is John Piper talking again. That is crucial. Meditation is not a professional thing. It is a hunger thing. I am here to eat. I am not here to stockpile arguments. I am not here to get a lesson. I am hungry for you, God. I need to eat truth here. That is a huge difference between the way you might read to get a sermon ready. He goes on, “The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication: so that, though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer” (italics original).
“While you are eating for your soul, you won’t not be able to pray.”
Now, here is a caution. Don’t be so mechanical in responding to Keller — which he doesn’t want you to be — don’t be so mechanical or categorized that you think, Okay, first we do a little meditation, then we pray. That is not the way it works: not for Mueller, not for me, I am sure not for Keller either. Like, first we think on the Bible, then we launch into prayer. No, no, no. While you are eating for your soul, you won’t not be able to pray. Things will start to happen in your soul that will cause you to cry out in confession or in longing or in intercession for someone or in praise, and you won’t be able to put that off until 10 minutes or 20 minutes later — and that is really good.
He goes on: “When thus I have been for awhile making confession, or intercession, or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the word may lead to it; but,” — here is a crucial point: this is what Keller was getting at, I think — “but still continually keeping before me, that food for my soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened, and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not a happy state of heart.”
“The first thing the child of God has to do morning by morning is to obtain food for his inner man.”
And then he ends like this: “Since God has taught me this point, it is as plain to me as any thing that the first thing the child of God has to do morning by morning is to obtain food for his inner man” (italics original). And I would end with one last thing. When you are done with that meditation part and, yes, all mingled with prayer, there probably will be serious prayer work yet to do, because you have got a list of things that never came to your mind. Some of those things are going to happen this very day. Some are urgent for your family or for the church or for the world that are coming down the line and you didn’t think of them while you were praying and you do want to pray. But now you are in a frame of mind that is far better to take them to the Lord than before.