Saturday, December 30, 2023

Biblical Meditation and Spiritual Transformation

When I pray, I meditate. Here are some thoughts about biblical meditation.

There is a close relationship between biblical meditation and spiritual transformation. God works through meditation to change the human heart. It’s like this: meditate on something, and that something “becomes you.” You get changed. 

If the subject matter of your meditations are God’s thoughts, then those thoughts get inside you and have a transforming effect on you. Meditation, therefore, is a main spiritual discipline leading to soul renewal and transformation.

The practice of meditation is found in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. For example, in Genesis 24:63 we read that Isaac went out into a field to "meditate." What did he do? I once asked my seminary Old Testament professor this question to which he answered, "Isaac mumbled." This "mumbling" was a repetitive activity using some word or message from God. Biblical meditation is an “over and over” kind of thing.

Repetition is not something to be scorned, as when someone complains, “Why are we repeating the same thing over and over and over again?” The answer is: Because God wants to get this truth deep inside you. From a God-perspective, repetition is cool, and needd.

We see the repetitive, ongoing nature of meditation in a passage like Psalm 1:1-3:

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked 
or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord, 
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water, 
which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. 
Whatever he does he prospers.

Here meditation is a "day and night" activity. If it’s not “day and night,” then it’s not “meditation.” You’re not meditating if you just look at something quickly, and then move on. 

In Psalm 1 meditation’s object is "the law of the Lord." Imagine the depth in the psalmist who made God’s law his continuous meditation. Contrast this to the superficial life that only skims over the surface of things. Meditation’s purpose is to go deeper.

What is meditation? Meditation is to reading as digestion is to eating. Think of a cow chewing its cud. Biblical "food" chewed over and over becomes more assimilable to the body. In the end, this "food" becomes one's body. When the food we take in becomes us we are nourished and transformed.

To be transformed by God requires going slow. Biblical meditation takes time. It’s a slow cooker, rather than a microwave. Conversely, "Mc-meditation" is "fast food" that, when wolfed down, doesn’t stay with you. Meditation requires chewing slowly on things, looking at them from many perspectives. To meditate is to dissect the scripture or moment piece by piece, and then to examine each piece.

Psalm 1 promises that meditation's result is a fruitful, prosperous life in whatever one does. My experience is the more I prayerfully meditate, the more God's thoughts and desires become my thoughts and desires. To do this is to enter deeper waters.  In terms of what God wants my life becomes more fruitful and prosperous. One’s “depth of soul” is increased.

Biblical meditation is not another form of self-help. Rather, it is essentially for the sake of God, not for the sake of self. While meditation can bring personal fruitfulness, its telos or purpose is God. A correct theo-logy is always centered on God (theos) and not on persons. Thus Psalm 19:14 petitions, "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer." Meditation brings personal reward, but its raison d'etre is to please God.

Historically, there are at least five objects of Christian meditation.[1] The first is meditation on the Scriptures. Psalm 119:97 reads, "O, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long." An example of this would be to take a passage such as Psalm 23 and carry it with you day after day, morning and evening, saying it over and over and over. I often write verses on 3 X 5 cards and carry them with me to meditate on during the day. I pull them out, even if only for a moment, and repeat them as if memorizing them. I want them to get inside of me. I pray the kind of prayer Henri Nouwen once prayed: “Lord, let this truth descend from my mind into my heart.”

Secondly, there is meditation on the creation. Psalm 8:3 says, "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place..." Jesus asks us to consider the lilies and look at the sparrows. To "consider" takes time. It’s much more than just a passing glance. God has much to teach us when we ponder the creation. Meditation on the creation often leads to a clarity about life and death. I wonder how much attention I would pay to life and death if I didn’t take time to meditate on God’s creation, since in it there is the constant theme of life vs. death?

In the third place, Christian meditation makes the world, and the activity of God in the world, its subject matter. Psalm 77:11-2 reads, "I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds." Personally, this means three things for me: a) I will ponder the history of the activity of God in the Scriptures; b) I will meditate on the current condition of the world and discern God's activity in it; c) I will remember often all that God has done in my life.  

Fourth, and historically, we see that deep followers of Jesus take much time meditating on Jesus, and on the things and mysteries of Christ. A classic example of this in Christian history is The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. For example, many have taken extended time to simply meditate on the Cross – its meaning, its significance, its application, its splendor.

A fifth object of meditation is on one's self in the light of God's searching Holy Spirit. Here we pray with the psalmist, "Search me, O God, and know my heart. See if there are any wicked ways or anxious thoughts in me." Here, for me, persons like Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, and Richard Foster lead the way.

The human heart is a fragile instrument, easily put out of tune with God. Meditation "retunes" our heart to God's heart. Meditating on God's thoughts in Scripture, or on the creation, are main ways of getting back in tune with God. To be "in tune" with God is to be in God's presence. 

Meditation is a spiritual discipline that escorts us into the presence of God. It's in that place that prayer becomes effective.

[1] From Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline