Over the centuries, the Christian church has developed and has practiced several disciplines that help us to focus on Christ and turn from the secular world. Called spiritual disciplines, these are physical and mental methods that have helped Christians in the discipleship as they follow Jesus including such this as fasting, prayer, meditation on God’s Word, confession, sacrificial giving, and others. In this article, we will explore the ancient Christian discipline of meditation, a discipline with a long history, but it also has many misconceptions.
When most Westerners hear the word, “meditation,” they think about methods and practices that are foreign to historic, Christian meditation. Often inspired by eastern religions like Buddhism or Hinduism. These kinds of meditation are often called by such names as “mindfulness meditation” or “centering meditation.”
These kinds of meditation focus the person inward. One centers the self on a thought, a word, or a phrase. One might focus on your breathing, your pulse, or being aware of your body. As you do so, you supposedly explore your “self” and come to know your “being” better. Practitioners suggest that it offers a form of enlightenment or spiritual knowledge.
Christians, however, do not turn inward for spiritual enlightenment. We know what lurks in the heart of a man. Sin. As Jesus said in Matthew 15, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Sin lives in our hearts, in our inward being, and exploring sin is never a good idea for a Christian. These kinds of meditation can even be harmful for a Christian.
Instead, Christians turn outward for spiritual enlightenment. We look to our Father in heaven, to our Savior, Jesus Christ, or to the Holy Spirit who guides and enlightens us. Good does not come from within. Good comes from God, a gift to us through Jesus Christ by grace. For meditation to be Christian, it must turn outward rather than inward.
We should start this exploration where Christians start with most things, Holy Scripture. The Psalms help us to see how Christians meditate. We begin with Psalm 1:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
When the blessed man meditates, he is not being mindful or centering. He meditates on something external to himself, on the law of the Lord. He delights in it.
Psalm 119:15-16 also mentions meditation:
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
Hebrew poetry frequently pairs words and phrases to explain and expand on each other. In this Psalm, the phrases that follow can help us understand the whole. We can learn about what the Psalmist means by “meditation” by looking at the phrases that follow. The Psalmist repeatedly describes fixing the mind on God’s word, on his laws, and on his ways. Meditation is not empty. It is filled with God and his word.
Again we read about meditation in Psalm 143:
I remember the days of old;
I meditate on all that you have done;
I ponder the work of your hands.
This time, the Psalmist meditates not on Scripture but on God’s mighty works. The Old Testament Christian would have meditated on how God saved his people. He would have thought about how God acted toward Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He would meditate on how God took them out of Egypt, how he guided them through the wilderness, and how he brought them to the promised land. The New Testament Christian thinks on the greatest work that God has done, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So, Christian meditation focuses on understanding God by pondering his word and understanding his works. Rather than focus inward, we focus on God.
One Christian author once wrote something like this: If you know how to worry, you know how to meditate. Everyone has lain awake at night worrying about something. They think about all the bad things that could happen or about all the barriers to overcoming the problem. They roll the problem around in their minds until that is the only thing they can think about.
Christian meditation is like that, except the Christian things about God’s word the way we worry about our problems. We think slowly on each word and passage. We let the words roll around in our minds, over and over until that is all we can consider. It fills our mind and heart.
Meditation is not reading for knowledge. It’s not studying. It is a slow, sometimes painstakingly slow, method of consider a short passage in God’s word.
Christian meditation, as with most things, should begin with prayer. We pray for God’s guidance as we meditate on his word. We all rely on God’s grace for everything, so we continue to rely on his grace to guide us in considering his word. Consider using this prayer, common for preachers to pray before a sermon, from Psalm 19, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
Choose a short passage from God’s Word. You could take a story from one of the Gospels, read a short passage from an epistle, or consider a short psalm or a phrase from the psalm. The Psalms are a good place for a Christian to begin. They are written as devotions, prayers, for the faithful.
After you have chosen a passage, you let your mind dwell on it. It’s really easy to become distracted and turn to something else. If you do, don’t worry. Return to thinking about God’s word. There are a few easy tricks that can help you stay focused.
Christians have long chanted the psalms. The act of singing focuses you to mull each word individually and then release it as you move to the next.
I have also found that the methods for memorizing a passage can lead to meditation. When I memorize, I repeat the passage over and over, from the beginning. I read the passage, and then I repeat as far as I can. I read again, and then I repeat. In this way, you can meditate on God’s word.
Don’t think that you must meditate for long periods of time to start. Just like any discipline, it will take time and practice to master. Start with a short period, only a few minutes, and then lengthen your sessions as you are able.
Once you have finished meditating, close with a prayer. Give thanks to God for his word and for all the grace that he gives you. Ask him to guide you through the word that you have pondered.
When a Christian meditates, we do not turn inward like the eastern religions do. We know that God is the only source for knowledge, for understanding, and for grace. We must meditate on him, his word and his works. Then, by his Holy Spirit, he guides us to live in faith and hope.
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