By Joanna Kimbrel
Staff Writer for The Daily Grace Co.
Meditation has risen significantly in popularity in recent years. It doesn’t take much time wandering through a bookstore or scrolling through social media to see the countless exhortations to practice meditation an essential part of self-care for emotional and mental health. You may be surprised to hear that the Bible commands believers to meditate, but biblical meditation looks different than popular meditation practices today.
Many popular meditation techniques in the West today find their origins in eastern religious traditions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism. Although many popular forms of meditation like mindfulness meditation do not have identical objectives or methods to the traditional religious forms, much of the thinking behind popular meditation stems from these beliefs. Traditional eastern meditation has many variations that differ in technique and intention. Most meditation begins by focusing the mind on one thing, such as a repeated single syllable mantra, an object, or a sound, and emptying the mind of all else. Religious leaders advise those practicing meditation to cease self-criticism and self-improvement, or to stop thinking about the past and future and focus solely on the present moment. Some of the many goals of meditation can be to remove suffering, to enter a place of non-thinking, or to achieve the enlightened and omniscient state of Nirvana, in which the enlightened one ceases the karmic cycle of reincarnation. The western adapted version of eastern meditation may not have the goal religious enlightenment or oneness with an ultimate reality, but it takes its cue from the methodology behind these practices. Popular meditation tends to focus the mind on one thing, such as breathing, a mantra for the day, or an object in hopes of letting go of the competing thoughts, feelings, and anxieties then enter our brain.
The Bible offers a very different view of meditation. In Psalm 1, David exhorts all believers to practice meditation:
“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.”
What is immediately evident is that the object of biblical meditation is vastly different from other types of meditation. Biblical meditation is not emptying the mind, but filling it with the truth of God’s Word. The method of biblical meditation is not to cease from thinking, but to ponder the glorious truths of God that He has revealed to us in Scripture. The Psalmist exhorts us to meditate on the law of the Lord, His Word, day and night. Eastern meditation is inward focused, but Biblical meditation is God focused. Pema Chödrön, contemporary Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher, describes the process of meditation as,“trusting the basic goodness of what we have and who we are, and of realizing that any wisdom that exists, exists in what we already have.” Conversely, biblical meditation acknowledges the truth that as fallen, sinful human beings, any goodness or wisdom that we have must come from outside of ourselves—it must come from God. The process of self-improvement, what the Bible calls “sanctification,” does not happen digging out a goodness from within, but by saturating our minds and hearts in God’s Word (John 17:17). We don’t have to climb the ladder of self-improvement to achieve a state of perfection. Instead, we can receive the righteousness of Christ as our own and grow in holiness by God’s power, not our own.
Biblical meditation has a very specific goal in mind: To apply the truth of God’s Word in our lives. When God makes a promise to Joshua that He will lead the Israelites into the promised land, He commands him to meditate on the Scripture.
“Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:7-9
In the face of huge privilege and responsibility, God commands Joshua to meditate for a particular purpose: to do what God’s Word says. The natural result of doing God’s Word is a prosperous life, but not necessarily prosperity in the way we tend to think of it in our culture. The prosperity God is concerned with is a life that flourishes in holiness as it walks in obedience to God’s commands, like a tree by a stream the abounds with good fruit as it soaks in the nourishing Word of God (Psalm 1:3). The way to this kind of prosperity, God says, is meditation on His Word.
In his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald Whitney describes scripture meditation as the missing link between hearing the Word and doing the Word. As we meditate on God’s Word, we consider what God has revealed about Himself, what He is revealing about our own sin nature, and how He might be calling us to change. How many times do we read our Bibles only to walk away and forget what it said moments later? As we meditate on scripture, the truths there transform our minds and permeate our hearts.
So how practically do we meditate on God’s Word? Scripture meditation is most effective when it accompanies our regular Bible Study. When you study a passage of scripture, choose a verse or a concept from that day’s reading to meditate on. Try meditating on a characteristic of God that has been revealed in the passage, a command from that day’s reading, or a verse that the Holy Spirit impresses on your heart. Designate time to focus on that single verse or idea. Read the verse over and over. Paraphrase it. Memorize it. If you enjoy creative expression, try hand lettering or painting the verse you are meditating on. Journal about it. Ask God to apply the truth of His Word to your heart and to give you practical ways to respond to what He has revealed to you. Pray.
One of the beautiful things about scripture meditation is that it overflows naturally into prayer. Puritan Thomas Manton said, “What we take in by the word we digest by meditation and let out by prayer.” As we meditate on scripture, we are not only transformed by it, but it also transforms our prayers. We would be hard pressed to find someone who has not struggled with prayer feeling impersonal and unnatural. Perhaps the answer to a stale prayer life is not trying harder, but immersing ourselves in Scripture in such a way that our hearts can’t help cry overflow in gratitude and desperation to the one who spoke its glorious words.
As we approach God’s Word, let us not view it as an item to check off a to-do list, but let us treasure and cherish it as we experience it’s transforming power to change us into the likeness of Christ. Let us join the Psalmist in declaring, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” -Psalm 119:97 (ESV)