Spending time in Scripture must become a priority—a severe discipline—in our lives. In a previous article, we’ve considered a few practical ways to make that happen. But we will keep ourselves from much blessing if we halt our discussion at the discipline of reading and don’t talk about the discipline of meditation.
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-style 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
Eastern-style 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 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.”1 According to Ellen J. Langer, author of Mindfulness, the practice of mindfulness is a remedy for nearly all that ills our society.2 Mindfulness is viewed by many today as the secret key to health and happiness.3
It is not an exaggeration to say 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 fellowship with 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.” While it is useful to remind people to train their minds to focus on their present experience rather than constantly yielding to the distractions and diversions of personal technology, such instruction is not sufficient for the practice of Christian spiritual disciplines. 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 to not 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, not 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.”4 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.5
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.”6 It is important to keep in mind for our practice of meditation that quality of reflection is more important than quantity of information. While it is useful to have a broad knowledge of the Word of God, we want to make sure that we are pursuing a deep understanding rather than mere acquaintance with the biblical text. It is the seed that is planted deep in good soil that will produce fruit; that which lies near the surface may spring up with some light emotional response, but it won’t bring forth the crop of mature character. Meditation helps plant God’s Word deep into our hearts.
(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, the flow of the narrative or argument, 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).
Some of us may have slowed in our spiritual growth because we’ve imbibed the faulty notion that it is wrong to ask questions about Scripture. We don’t go deep into Scripture because we think there is something irreverent about asking questions about the Word of God. Yes, there is a wrong way to ask questions about the Bible. But there is also a right way. The wrong way is to ask questions as a skeptic attempting to locate errors or contradictions in God’s Word. The right way is to ask questions in the attempt to unearth the meaning of the text for the sake of obedience. These are not the clever questions of a cynic, but the sincere questions of a child looking to his daddy for real answers to his inquiries. Often, as we will see in the next suggestion, it is useful to use a pen and paper to make observations and ask questions.
(3) Meditate for a while on a single verse. 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 days and weeks, writing down observations, questions, and points of application on that same sheet of paper or on another sheet of paper. During the course of the week, you might take a couple one-hour sessions to simply sit with that verse and think over it. It is amazing how much we grow from spending much time—like several hours— over one verse.
Several years ago, I took a high school youth group through the book of Proverbs. Soon after we started our study into the book of Proverbs, I gave the students an assignment. I told them to find one verse from the Proverbs, write it on a regular-size sheet of paper, set the paper on their desk or nightstand—somewhere they would see it every day—and begin the practice of meditating on that one piece of Scripture, day and night. Then, as they turn the Scripture over and over in their minds, they were to write down their thoughts, observations, questions, cross references, illustrations, and the ways they were applying the verse. At the end of the summer, we would gather and share the fruit of our meditations.
The reason I gave this assignment is because I have enjoyed the fruit of this process in my own life. I have found that meditating on a single verse for days, weeks, even months, causes that truth to find its way deep into my heart and, inevitably, into my life. A friend of mine and I also used this practice in college. One day my friend, with hope and joy in his voice, said to me, “I finally feel like I am applying the Scripture.” I could say the same thing in my experience.
My friend and I were attending an excellent Bible college while attending a great church, so we were constantly receiving deep, biblically-saturated teaching. While the opportunity to attend such an excellent college was certainly a blessing, we got somewhat frustrated, however, because we didn’t feel like we were spending extended time on any particular section of Scripture. At church we would hear from the Gospel of Luke in the morning, then from the book of Genesis at night, then we would learn theology proper and Greek in the classroom, while hearing chapel messages on the attributes of God and Christian living. As a result, our minds and hearts, while being exposed to much wonderful truth, were not landing for any length of time on any one truth.
But thank God for Howard Hendricks. In his helpful book on personal Bible study and interpretation, Living by the Book,7 Hendricks encourages his readers to sit for a while with a single verse, writing down observations, insights, and questions. This approach to Bible study was reaffirmed by one of my favorite Bible professors who would exhort us to sit down with a piece of Scripture for a few hours. Go on a walk and meditate on that verse. Come back and write down more observations and questions. Just get let that verse soak into your soul!
(4) Keep a journal. Does the Bible command us to keep a journal? No. But 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.
(5) Memorize Scripture. Finally, make it a priority to memorize Scripture. Memorization is the way we follow the Psalmist’s example when he confessed to God, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I may not sin against you” (Ps 119:11). Memorization is vital because it enables you to meditate throughout the day when you are unable to sit down at your desk or write in your journal.
1. “What is Mindfulness,” at Mindful.com. October 8, 2014. https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness/.
2. Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness, 25th Anniversary Edition (Philadelphia, PA, 2014), xiii.
3. Mary Elizabeth Williams, “Why Every Mind Needs Mindfulness,” Time, Special Edition, Mindfulness: The New Science of Health and Happiness.
4. Owen, Temptation and Sin, 224.
5. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 55.
6. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 55.
7. Howard Hendricks, Living By the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible (Chicago: Moody, 2007).