One sad feature of our modern culture is that meditation has become identified more with nonChristian systems of thought than with biblical Christianity. Even among believers, the practice of meditation is often more closely associated with yoga, transcendental meditation, relaxation therapy, or the New Age Movement. Because meditation is so prominent in many spiritually counterfeit groups and movements, some Christians are uncomfortable with the whole subject and suspicious of those who engage in it. But we must remember that meditation is both commanded by God and modeled by the Godly in Scripture. Just because a cult uses the cross as a symbol doesn’t mean the Church should cease to use it. In the same way, we shouldn’t discard or be afraid of scriptural meditation simply because the world has adapted it for its own purposes.
The kind of meditation encouraged in the Bible differs from other kinds of meditation in several ways. While some advocate a kind of meditation in which you do your best to empty your mind, Christian meditation involves filling your mind with God and truth. For some, meditation is an attempt to achieve complete mental passivity, but biblical meditation requires constructive mental activity. Worldly meditation employs visualization techniques intended to “create your own reality.” And while Christian history has always had a place for the sanctified use of our God-given imagination in meditation, imagination is our servant to help us meditate on things that are true (Philippians 4:8). Furthermore, instead of “creating our own reality” through visualization, we link meditation with prayer to God and responsible, Spirit-filled human action to effect changes.
In addition to these distinctives, let’s define meditation as deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture for the purposes of understanding, application, and prayer. Meditation goes beyond hearing, reading, studying, and even memorizing as a means of taking in God’s Word. A simple analogy would be a cup of tea. You are the cup of hot water and the intake of Scripture is represented by the tea bag. Hearing God’s Word is like one dip of the tea bag into the cup. Some of the tea’s flavor is absorbed by the water, but not as much as would occur with a more thorough soaking of the bag. In this analogy, reading, studying, and memorizing God’s Word are represented by additional plunges of the tea bag into the cup. The more frequently the tea enters the water, the more effect it has. Meditation, however, is like immersing the bag completely and letting it steep until all the rich tea flavor has been extracted and the hot water is thoroughly tinctured reddish brown.
Joshua 1:8 and the Promise of Success
There is a specific scriptural connection between success and the practice of meditation on God’s Word found in Joshua 1:8. As the Lord was commissioning Joshua to succeed Moses as the leader of His people, He told him, “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.”
We must remember that the prosperity and success the Lord speaks of here is prosperity and success in His eyes and not necessarily in the world’s. From a New Testament perspective we know that the main application of this promise would be to the prosperity of the soul and spiritual success (though some measure of success in our human endeavors would ordinarily occur as well when we live according to God’s wisdom). Having made that qualification, however, let’s not lose sight of the relationship between meditation on God’s Word and success.
True success is promised to those who meditate on God’s Word, who think deeply on Scripture, not just at one time each day, but at moments throughout the day and night. They meditate so much that Scripture saturates their conversation. The fruit of their meditation is action. They do what they find written in God’s Word and as a result God prospers their way and grants success to them.
How does the Discipline of meditation change us and place us in the path of God’s blessing? David said in Psalm 39:3, “As I meditated, the fire burned.” The Hebrew word translated “meditated” here is closely related to the one rendered “meditate” in Joshua 1:8. When we hear, read, study, or memorize the fire (Jeremiah 23:29) of God’s Word, the addition of meditation becomes like a bellows upon what we’ve taken in. As the fire blazes more brightly, it gives off both more light (insight and understanding) and heat (passion for obedient action). “Then,” says the Lord, “you will be prosperous and successful.”
Why does the intake of God’s Word often leave us so cold, and why don’t we have more success in our spiritual life? Puritan pastor Thomas Watson has the answer: “The reason we come away so cold from reading the word is, because we do not warm ourselves at the fire of meditation.”
Psalm 1:1–3—The Promises
God’s promises in Psalm 1:1–3 regarding meditation are every bit as generous as those in Joshua 1:8:
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 prospers.
We think about what we delight in. A couple who have found romantic delight in each other think about each other all day. And when we delight in God’s Word we think about it, that is, we meditate on it, at times all throughout the day and night. The result of such meditation is stability, fruitfulness, perseverance, and prosperity. One writer said it crisply: “They usually thrive best who meditate most.”
The tree of your spiritual life thrives best with meditation because it helps you absorb the water of God’s Word (Ephesians 5:26). Merely hearing or reading the Bible, for example, can be like a short rainfall on hard ground. Regardless of the amount or intensity of the rain, most runs off and little sinks in. Meditation opens the soil of the soul and lets the water of God’s Word percolate in deeply. The result is an extraordinary fruitfulness and spiritual prosperity.
The author of Psalm 119 was confident that he was wiser than all his enemies (verse 98). Moreover, he said, “I have more insight than all my teachers” (verse 99). Is it because he heard or read or studied or memorized God’s Word more than every one of his enemies and his teachers? Probably not. The psalmist was wiser, not necessarily because of more input, but because of more insight. But how did he acquire more wisdom and insight than anyone else? His explanation was,
Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
for they are ever within me.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes. (Psalm 119:98–99)
It is possible to encounter a torrential amount of God’s truth, but without absorption you will be little better for the experience. Meditation is absorption.
I believe meditation is even more important for spiritual fruitfulness and prosperity in our day than it was in ancient Israel. Even if the total input of God’s Word were the same, we experience a flash flood of information that the psalmist could never have imagined. Combine this with some of our additional modern responsibilities and the result is a mental distraction and dissipation that choke our absorption of Scripture. I’m told that due to the information explosion, which doubles the total sum of human knowledge every few years, we’ve now reached a point where the average weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than Jonathan Edwards would have encountered in his entire eighteenth-century lifetime. Granted, he had many time-consuming responsibilities (such as care for his horse) that we don’t have to worry about. On the other hand, he never had to answer a telephone once in his entire life! Despite his inconveniences, his mind, like the psalmist’s, was not as distracted by instant world news, television and radio, portable and car telephones, personal stereos, rapid transportation, junk mail, and so on. Because of these things, it’s harder for us today to concentrate our thoughts, especially on God and Scripture, than it ever has been.
This is part of a long-standing mystery that has begun to clarify for me. I have often wondered how men who lived hundreds of years ago were often able to produce more by pen than most modern men can with typewriters and computers. I recently received a copy of Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory, a practical guide relating to just about every imaginable aspect of the Christian life. This astonishing book consists of almost one thousand pages of tiny print and contains one-and-a-quarter-million words. If that isn’t enough to impress you, realize that Baxter researched and wrote by hand most of this in less than two years (1664–1665). And he wouldn’t have had the help of electric lights, either, much less an electric typewriter or word processor. I realize that he had no other responsibilities except his family during this two-year period, but it’s still an amazing achievement. I’ve imagined having no other responsibilities except research and writing for two years, but I still don’t think I could come close to Baxter’s output. Furthermore, I’m not sure I know of anyone else who could, either. How did he do it? Did the people born then have more natural brainpower than all succeeding generations? I don’t think so.
I do think men like Baxter were exceptions even in their own day. And I think the Lord’s anointing was on him for this enduring task even as it was on Handel when he wrote the Messiah in less than a month. But I also think there is a practical difference between people like Baxter and people like us. His mind wasn’t as distracted as ours, having less general information and fewer facts to clutter his thinking.
So what do we do? We can’t return to the days of Richard Baxter unless we move to the jungles of Papua New Guinea. And even then we have already lived too long in the information age to escape its influence. But we can restore an order to our thinking and recapture some of the ability to concentrate—especially on spiritual truth—through biblical meditation.
In fact, this is exactly the way men like Baxter and Edwards disciplined themselves. In her winsome biography of Sarah Edwards, Elisabeth Dodds said this about Jonathan:
When he was younger, Edwards had pondered how to make use of the time he had to spend on journeys. After the move to Northampton he worked out a plan for pinning a small piece of paper to a given spot on his coat, assigning the paper a number and charging his mind to associate a subject with that piece of paper. After a ride as long as the three-day return from Boston he would be bristling with papers. Back in his study, he would take off the papers methodically, and write down the train of thought each slip recalled to him.
We don’t have to walk around bristling like a paper porcupine, but we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) through disciplined meditation upon Scripture. We may not be as fruitfully productive as a Richard Baxter or as spiritually successful as a Jonathan Edwards. But we can be wiser than our enemies, have more insight than our teachers, experience all the promises of Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1, and be more Godly if we will meditate biblically.
Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991), 29–31.
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