Saturday, November 23, 2013

The art of meditation

In our youth group a couple of weeks ago, one of our kids mentioned something about meditation. Another kid said, "That's idolatry!" I corrected him and said that meditation, just like prayer, is only idolatry if used incorrectly or toward the incorrect God. We moved onto another subject, but that has stuck with me since that time.

You see, meditation has gotten a bad name in Christian circles, particularly in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. Meditation is viewed as connected with pagan religions like Hinduism, or unbiblical philosophies like New Agism and Buddhism. But of course this is silly: all of those people pray, worship, and give charity as well--that does not mean that prayer, worship, or generosity are pagan!

Rather, meditation is in fact a wholly Biblical concept: indeed, one could argue that meditation in Judeo-Christianity far predates it in any other religion.

Consider the following verses:

  • Gen 24:63 - Isaac is out meditating in the fields when God brings him Rebekah
  • Joshua 1:8 - The Jewish people are commanded to meditate on the law each evening and morning
  • Job 15:4 - It is frowned upon to hinder people from meditating before God
  • Psalm 1:2 - The sign of a righteous man is that he meditates on the Law day and night
  • Psalm 19:14 - David prays that the meditations of his heart will be acceptable to God, that is, meditation is seen as a type of prayer
  • Psalm 49:3 - The heart should meditate to bring understanding
  • Psalm 63:6 - David promises to meditate on God in the night
  • Psalm 77:3 - When David remembers God is during his meditation
  • Psalm 77:6 - Meditating in the heart is how David gets close to God 
  • Psalm 77:12 - It brings God honor to meditate on His deeds
  • Psalm 104:34 - A prayer that God will find the psalmists' meditations pleasing
  • Psalm 119 - 8 different times it tells us the importance of meditating on God's law and His works
  • Psalm 143:5 - The psalmist will meditate on what God has done for him
  • Psalm 145:5 - same
  • Luke 21:14 - Jesus tells them that they shouldn't be spending their time meditating about what they should say, that the Spirit will give them the words
  • 1Tim 4:13-15 - Meditate on doctrine and Biblical readings

As you can see, meditation--when done properly--is not only Biblical but is actually presented as a critical part of a daily prayer life.

What Meditation is...and isn't

The concept of meditation (haga) in the Bible is that of a deep sighing or groaning of the spirit--distinct from vocal prayer, it is a focused internal effort at contemplating and applying the word of God. It is a term also used to describe the deep growling of a lion...whereas vocal prayer is primarily a mental exercise, meditation is primarily an emotional/spiritual exercise.

The key question becomes--what separates "wrong" meditation from "right" meditation? I would argue that there are three primary differences between Biblical meditation and Eastern meditation:

  1. The Goal:  The goal of eastern meditations is to empty the mind. The goal of Christian meditation is to fill the mind with contemplation on God's word.
  2. The Object: The object of meditation in eastern religions is aloneness, disconnection from the world. The object of Christian meditation is God--His character, His promises, and His past actions.
  3. The Process:  Eastern meditations rely on yoga or repeating of mantras in order to focus or clear the mind. Christian meditation techniques all differ greatly and are intended to improve one's personal relationship with God.
In other words, Eastern and New Age meditation techniques try to empty the mind and disconnect it from reality, whereas Christian meditation attempts to focus the mind on the Law of the Lord. And this is a big deal: Isaiah 8:19 warns against going to mediums and spiritists who will meditate for you, instead of praying to God.  

So you see, meditation to or about the Christ is not only allowable but encouraged in the Bible; meditation to or about other gods or nothingness is explicitly opposed in the Bible. The object of your meditation is the key difference between "right" and "wrong" meditation. 

(Which should be no surprise, since the same is true of anything: prayer to God is good, prayer to false gods is bad; worshipping Christ is good, worshipping Brahma is bad, etc.).

Many Christians throughout the years have spoken of "levels" of Christian prayer, with the three levels looking something like this:
  • Level One - Ordinary prayer:  Our "typical" method of praying, where we talk to God either out loud or in our mind, as we would talk to one standing next to us. This is the primary way that we pray.
  • Level Two - Meditation:  A deeper, David-like mental reflection upon God in which (as Tim Keller puts it) the mind subverts below the heart during the prayer process.
  • Level Three - Contemplative prayer:  Unplanned, Holy-Spirit led connection which grows out of meditation. It is that rare time when one's entire soul and body become completely and truly centered on Christ during prayer.
This tradition of meditation and contemplative prayer being "higher level" prayer dates back to some of the most ancient of all Christians. Unfortunately, we have allowed New Agers and pagans to steal the word from us, scaring off many Christians from doing the very thing that the Bible talks about dozens of times. 

How to use Biblical meditation

There is not a single, "thou shalt" method of Biblical meditation. Remember that meditation is a type of prayer--and its methods are just as varied as our different prayer methods. Some people's vocal prayers include following prayer books (Anglicans, Catholic, Orthodox), some involve spontaneous prayer (Evangelicals, Fundamentalists), and many involve a combination of both. In the same way, Biblical meditation differs greatly from group to group. 

There is not one "right" way, but there is definitely a "wrong" way--repeating meaningless or mindless mantras to clear your mind of thought, as the eastern religions do.

Of all the "right" ways that people do Biblical meditation, there are three common basic steps:

  1. Create a distraction-free, sacred place:  Christian ordinary prayer (either out loud or in our mind) can happen anywhere: on a crowded bus, in our car on the way to work, in a small group, etc. Even in a distraction-filled environment, one can pray to God as one might talk to their neighbor. But meditation cannot happen this way. Meditation must involve some method of freeing yourself from distractions. Some follow Jesus' advice and choose a quiet inner room (Mt 6:6), shutting the door to isolate them from the outside world. Some create darkness and use a scented candle to create something which looks, smells, and feels different from our daily life, to help focus the mind. Some use an object to help them focus, such as a bookmark with steps on it, or a journal. Many use deep breathing techniques to help force the mind to quiet down and listen to the spirit. I know others who have a prayer rock in the woods to help them focus. Whatever it is, you need this "quiet" distraction-free environment to have any hope of Biblical meditation.
  2. Focus on a Biblical passage:  Christian meditation is always based around a Biblical passage. David spoke of the Law (Deuteronomy) as the focus of his meditation. Many Orthodox use the Lord's Prayer as their passage in every meditative act. Many evangelicals choose the Psalms, using a different one each day (which makes sense, as the Psalms is the Bible's prayer book). Others simply choose a book of the Bible and go through it one story at a time. The great American preacher Jonathan Edwards would do this method but often said his entire time of meditation would be focused on one or two words and it would take months to cover even a short passage.
  3. Gazing at God:  Having focused your mind and having read the passage, it is time to reflect on the passage. But this part is the most important difference from ordinary prayer. In ordinary prayer, you do the talking: in meditation, you just keep your mind focused on Him and His story, and primarily you are listening for His voice. You do not constantly break down or analyze the passage as you would if teaching it to someone else: rather you keep the passage present in your mind and let God speak to you through it. This is what I call "gazing at God"--you keep yourself focused on Him and let His word speak to you, rather than you breaking down the text. This is another reason that so many evangelicals like praying through the Psalms--they are not written to be exegetically analyzed, but rather are primarily emotional.  This is the stage that Keller describes as lowering the mind beneath the heart.

Three Examples for Illustration

How to accomplish those three steps differs greatly from person to person. I want to tell you about three examples, including my own.

I used to attend a fundamentalist church, and the associate pastor there is a very godly man whom I greatly respect. He would be horrified at the things I've written above: to him, meditation is clearly devilish stuff and the work of pagans. He would definitely not approve of the concept of meditating. And yet, do you know how he describes his 'quiet time with God'? He goes into the woods behind his house, taking a five or ten-minute walk to this one particular rock. This one rock for some reason helps him focus--he calls it his "prayer rock." He just always can focus when he's there. So he goes to this one place and he reads a passage of the Bible. After reading it, he doesn't pray out loud--he just closes his eyes and listens for God to speak to him. Sometimes it takes five minutes, sometimes nothing happens. But this is his approach. Do you know what that is called? Meditation! He doesn't know it, but that is exactly what Biblical meditation is all about.

My closest friend is also a pastor, and he is a brilliant theologian and speaker. But for much of his Christian life, he has struggled with having effective prayer times. He had the discipline part down fine, but really didn't get much out of it. He started reading about how to have more effective prayer. Now, every morning before his wife and kids awake, he makes some coffee and sits at his table in his pajamas (he's an early-morning guy). He reads a different Psalm each day--and he chooses the Psalms because, as a guy who studies Scripture as a job, the Psalms are the only part of Scripture that he can easily turn off the part of his mind that wants to analyze the themes and literary structure of the passage. The Psalms are pure emotional prayer, which is so different from, say, Romans, that it helps him focus. After reading the Psalms, he has a period of quiet where he listens for God--this is his meditation period. At the end, he closes with ordinary prayer back to God.

I also struggled throughout my life with having a vibrant, disciplined prayer life. I never have any issue taking time for Bible study--that's how I'm wired--but prayer was always a struggle. Ever since I started involving Biblical meditation, though, this has changed dramatically. I have had the best prayer in my entire 15-year Christian life, and my kids have begun to join me. Here is what I do:
  • I go into my kids' school room, close the door, and turn off the lights. Sometimes (but not always) I light a candle, because I never smell that scent in regular ordinary days. It is absolutely amazing how the brain immediately shifts gears from my "day to day" concerns when I do this. A quiet, dark room with a single candle lit is so physically different from my day-to-day, that it helps my mind forget the things which normally distract me. As soon as I do that, it is as though all of the things which normally battle for supremacy in my mind fade into the darkness, and I can focus almost immediately on God. It is truly amazing--and again, this is why so much of Christian meditation involves creating a physically different quiet time which is different from your day to day. (Some use prayer rocks, some go to the woods, some choose a very early time of day, some hold a cross; for me the candle is valuable.)
  • Next, I choose a passage of Scripture. If the boys are with me I use the Jesus Storybook Bible; if not, I pick a passage from Luke (which our church is currently studying). I read only one passage--one parable or one healing, etc.
  • Next, I meditate. I close my eyes and breath slowly and deeply, keeping my thoughts utterly focused on listening for God's voice. I do not (as the easterners/New Agers would do) try and clear my mind of everything; rather, I try to hyper-focus my mind on only one thing...listening for His voice. I continue doing this until He speaks to me. Sometimes it is 30 seconds...sometimes it is 30 minutes. 
  • After I feel that God has spoken to me, I close in ordinary prayer to thank Him for His word.

Sometimes I come away with how to apply that passage to my life. For example, the other day my 6-year old and 8-year old did this together. Our passage was about the woman with the flow of blood who touched God's garment. We read the very simple, two-paragraph version of the story from the Jesus Storybook Bible. Then we spent about 20 minutes in meditation before I began to pray, and they followed. 

The amazing thing is that God spoke to each of us so differently from the same passage.  

I prayed about how I had to stop being like the disciples, wishing to rush ahead to solve the problem at Jairus' house and, thereby, overlooking those who were right in front of me and needing help: just like them, I let my goal-oriented brain stop me from helping those in need. 

My eight-year-old prayed to thank God that He had time not only for the important people (like Jairus' daughter) but also for the unimportant people that no one wanted to be around. How amazing is this, folks? This isn't in the story at all, but is a very valid interpretation/application! An eight year old, through this prayer time, had revealed to him by God a very important point that he needed to hear--that God loves him and cares for him even if he isn't a mayor or an important official.

My six-year old got something totally different: he prayed to ask God to heal those who are sick, so that people will know and believe He is the real God. So again--through a period of meditation, God revealed something totally different to him, that the healings of the sick are primarily to teach people about Jesus.

These are children, whose prayer lives are now becoming better than mine were for over a decade. They, like David, are learning to meditate day and night on the actions of the Lord.

So do not fear meditation -- as long as it is Biblical meditation, and not eastern meditation. Meditation is, in fact, according to the Bible a very important part of a healthy and vibrant prayer life. I know mine has never been better since starting to use meditation in a focused way.


  1. Thank you, I needed this. I have spent the last couple hours going through your website and appreciate the posts tremendously. This was to be my last post to read and it was exactly what I needed.
    I feel like my prayer life is missing something very important. I often "feel" like praying, only ending up not knowing what to pray about and end up praying nonsense(in my opinion). Perhaps what I should have been doing is entering into meditation and allowing God to speak, not always me.

  2. Thankyou for this Brother this is one of the things the world needs to hear and I intend to do my part.