Meditation. Say the word and some will hold their hands up in horror, others will look bemused, perhaps a few will nod in understanding. All will have a different meaning for it. For some, it conjures up images of stressed-out people sitting in lotus positions, monotonously mumbling a mantra in attempts to de-stress. For others, meditation is somehow related to God’s Word, but they’re not sure how or whether it’s even necessary for Christian growth and mindfulness. Confusion would be an accurate description about meditation. Sadly, the result of this uncertainty often means that many Christians ignore it and thus miss the benefits of meditating on God’s Word.
Despite the confusion, meditation is one of the most ancient spiritual disciplines, practiced by all the classic world religions, including Judaism and Christianity. It’s considered by all religious groups to be a means to connect with “the Holy,” however that is defined. For Christians, who are a people group of primary interest to me, meditation is about meaningfully connecting with the Triune God. In this article, I highlight its biblical basis, meaning and practice in the Christian tradition.
The most frequent reference to meditation is in the Psalms where the focus is on God, God’s Word, and acts. The only time the word is used outside of the Psalter is when God commands Joshua to meditate day and night on ‘the book of the law’ (Joshua 1:8). The New Testament never uses the terms meditate or meditation. However, Paul urged the Colossian church, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16), which meditation helps us do. Biblical meditation has to do with becoming more mindful of God and God’s Word so that the person lives in accordance with God’s ways.
Meditation: Its meaning
With such infrequent references to meditation, it shouldn’t surprise us that Scripture neither defines its meaning nor gives suggestions for practice. However, over the millennia, saints have done both and we today can learn from them about its meaning and practice.
Meditate, from its Hebrew roots, “means ‘to murmur,’ ‘to whisper,’ or ‘to recite softly’.”1 Since it’s almost always used in relation to Scripture, this means that, for the ancient Hebrews, meditation involved ‘murmuring’ God’s written revelation. Obviously, the repetitive murmuring led to memorization and mindfulness—a mind filled with God’s word. Murmuring the words of Scripture over and over leads to living with them so that they drop into the heart and transform the lives of those who meditate. Meditation, in essence, requires ‘thinking with the mind in the heart.’ God speaks and his words, written in Scripture, resound within and penetrate deep into our hearts, affecting all of life.
The purpose of meditation is to be formed by this Word so that we live lives narrated by God’s Story. Meditation, as Eugene Peterson maintains, helps us move “from looking at the words of the text to entering the world of the text.”2 When we enter the world of the text as active participants, the Word begins to shape our lives. Our responsibility is to open our minds and hearts to receive God’s Word and become more aware of God’s presence in our lives and the world. Only as we take in the Word and experience encounters with the Living Lord will we experience the transforming power of the Spirit.
There is no right or wrong way to meditate, but there are different forms meditation can take in practice, depending on the type of genre we read. Some genres lend themselves well to the repetitious murmuring of a word, phrase or line of a text, something brief that caught attention as we read; repeating it over and over until it enters the heart. This can be likened to a cow chewing the cud. The cow grazes over the grass then lies down and regurgitates little bits, chewing each bit thoroughly before swallowing it again to be fully digested and assimilated. Meditation is ‘regurgitating’ and ‘chewing on’ little bits, carefully attending to them, discerning their meaning and message, letting them sink to the heart and be absorbed into our whole being.
Sometimes I’m drawn to a single word and sometimes to a short sentence. A single word that caught my attention was the word ‘see,’ repeated a few times, in the story of Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 2 and 3). I wondered about its frequent use and importance. Repeating the word gradually led me to ask myself the challenging question: ‘What do I see; or what am I not seeing because I’m too distracted to turn aside and really look, as Moses did?’ Another time I was struck by a line from Jeremiah 31:6, “they shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.” I read this one Easter and it has become the verse I use as encouragement each Easter to rejoice in Jesus’ resurrection. It also became the guiding verse for a joy-filled retreat I led, “Join the Dance.”
Narrative genres of scripture lend themselves to imaginative and creative participation in the story. Read the story and then imagine yourself in it. Identify with a character or event, visualizing the scene. Imagine feeling the dust kicked up as a crowd walks past blind Bartimaeus begging at the roadside (Mark 10:46-52). Improvise by ‘being’ Bartimaeus, paying attention to your reactions in thought and emotion. Wonder how you’d respond to the question Jesus asked the blind beggar: “What do you want me to do for you?” The point is to experience your own living encounter with Jesus through this story.
These are two possible ways to begin a practice of regular meditation with Scripture. Practices are merely a means to the end of knowing God in Christ in ways that transform lives. For this to happen, there must be regular practice. The children’s chorus still rings true: Read your Bible, pray every day and you’ll grow, grow, grow.