Allan Chapple makes the case that ongoing personal meditation on the words and works of God is an integral part of the Christian way of life, and teaches us how to approach it. Allan is Senior Lecturer in New Testament at Trinity Theological College, Perth.
More and more I find myself the odd man out. Whether it’s on the bus or the train, or even walking down the street, more often than not I am the only one not gazing in silent adoration at a shiny flat rectangle over which the head is bowed reverently. However, I don’t mind being an oddity here, because I still enjoy thinking! What does trouble me is the fact that all of the devotees around me don’t seem to do any. Somewhere at the back of all this, mixed up with the old fogey within, is the awareness of how much importance the Bible attaches to thinking—enough to expect that I will do some every day.
Willing to be persuaded, you pull out your much-thumbed concordance and look up ‘think’—only to find that the first two New Testament entries say ‘do not think …’ (Matt 3:9; 5:17)! So where do we find this alleged biblical imperative to put thinking on the daily agenda? Have look at Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:2, where it is hard to miss ‘day and night’! And then look at Psalms 77:11-12 and 143:5: in company with remembering and considering, ‘meditation’ has to be a kind of thinking. This means that the Bible is heading in a very different direction from mystics of all stripes, for whom meditation means stilling the mind and even shutting it down in order to experience a deep inner reality beyond cognition. The Bible, by contrast, is talking about a way of filling the mind and stirring it up to do its job, so that I live my life every day with God and to honour God.
So what thinking does meditation involve? The Bible wants us to be recalling and reflecting on the works of God (Ps143:5; 145:4-6): primarily what he has done to save his people (Ps 77:10-15, 20), but also his work as creator and ruler of all (Ps 104:34, referring to the whole Psalm). I am also to remember and consider God's word. This is made especially clear in Psalm 119, which can be read as an extensive meditation on meditating. Because there are so many riches waiting for you there, I won’t spoil it by telling you what they are—but I will list where the Psalm focuses, with each item in the list needing another careful read through all 176 verses to find everything it says on that topic. Psalm 119 registers the fact that God speaks words of many kinds, all of them important; it gives many reasons that make meditating on these words necessary; it identifies how I will come to regard them as a result and also what else I should be doing with them every day; it refers to a range of benefits I will receive by meditating on them; and it alerts me to the various ways this will shape how I respond to God.
This is obviously important, especially if I should be doing it daily—but how does it work? How do I go about meditating? Here is a method I can’t recommend:
‘Alarm clock exploded dead on 5.30 a.m… Crawled downstairs and knelt, bleary eyed, in the sitting room. Put my watch on the floor in front of me so as not to carry on past seven thirty. Started contemplating eternity at exactly 5.34 a.m. Kept my eyes shut and tried to concentrate on things going on for ever and ever. Not easy. Found my thoughts drifting off to holidays, and why don’t you see those wicker waste-paper baskets any more … I remembered what I was supposed to be thinking about. Clenched my mind and tried really hard. After about an hour, opened my eyes to check the time. It was 5.44 a.m.'1
So where can I go to get the help I need? One possibility is to look to the Puritans, who published many guides to meditating on the works and words and worth of God.2 While usually full of good things, these are often so thorough they can make it seem too complex and daunting for a novice. Then what about the Bible? If it tells us what meditation is, does it give us any tips on how to do it? Indeed it does—but before we go there, we must first make an important correction. It is the mystics who offer training for novices; the Bible does not need to do so because there are no novices: we have all been thinking for a very long time! What we do need to learn is where to direct our thinking and how to stay focused—and that brings us to the first tip the Bible gives.
We find it in Joshua 1:8, where meditating goes hand-in-hand with keeping God’s words on our lips. The Hebrew word behind ‘meditate’ here is the most frequent of the three the Old Testament uses. It refers to the sounds made by lions or doves, and also to human speech, especially muttering or talking to myself. In a world where silent reading was unknown, Joshua would mutter as he read God’s words of instruction to himself and also when he recalled and repeated them. Your meditating could be as simple as that: thinking your way into God’s words by muttering them so that you slow down enough to register them and consider them. But you might be someone who gets more clarity and depth in your thinking by writing it all down—or by both muttering and writing. Some of us will focus best on God’s words by looking at them in our Bible, while others will do better by seeing them on our inner screen with our eyes closed. What matters is not how we fasten onto God’s words but that we do so—and do so frequently. But why is this important?
It needs to be done so God’s words can get to work as they should. When I am reading the Bible, and when I am hearing it read and explained, I am like a cow grazing. This is essential—but there is no point in making the trip to the milking-shed unless the cow goes from grazing to chewing the cud. And that is what meditating is: digesting the words I have taken in so that I am nourished by them—because God’s words give me life (Deut 8:3). The best way of chewing on his words is to question them, not like a sceptic determined not to believe but like a barrister intent on getting at the truth. Once I have understood the meaning of the words, I need to grasp their significance—so I will be asking such questions as these: Why does the Bible say this? What implications does this truth have? How is it meant to impact me? What changes should it make—and where should they happen? And perhaps most important of all, What should I be saying to God in response to these words of his?
While every believer needs to be doing this, it is especially important for the preacher—and it means that I should expect to prepare my sermon over two separate sessions rather than at one go.3 In the first, I find out what the passage means, and in the second, I work out how to preach it—and in between these sessions, I need to give myself at least a day to chew over what I have discovered. I do this by asking the significance questions we have just looked at. If I don’t do so, my sermons will impart lots of raw biblical data without showing why this truth matters and how it should shape us and change us. To prepare and preach a good sermon I need to preach the passage to myself first—which happens as I am meditating on it, taking in what I found out by doing my exegesis.
One last question: Is meditation really that important, when there are less than 20 references to it, and all of them are in the Old Testament? Since people who know and believe 2 Timothy 3:16-17 won’t have any difficulty in accepting the Old Testament as our tutor in Christian devotion, I think the question must mean, if meditation were important, wouldn’t the New Testament put it on our agenda? It would—and does, although it never uses this word. Here are some of the ways it does, with plenty more to be found once you see how to look for them.
Meditation is what Paul expects Timothy to do when he tells him, ‘Reflect on what I am saying’ (2 Tim 2:7). The ‘for’ that precedes the assurance that follows—'the Lord will give you insight’—indicates Paul’s awareness that Timothy’s meditations are the means by which this insight will be given to him.
Paul has the same expectation of the readers of Ephesians. When he tells them what he asks God to do for them (Eph 1:17-21), it is clear from all of the words and ideas the two passages have in common that the primary way they will gain this enlightenment is by chewing on what he has just said about the riches of God’s grace (1:3-14). He does not come right out and say it, but there is no doubt that his words to Timothy apply here as well: Paul prays for them because God will give them the understanding they need, and he teaches them because their meditating on his words is the primary means by which God will answer those prayers.
Meditating is also what Peter wants his readers to do. He is writing to remind them of crucial truths they must remember—and go on remembering (2 Pet 1:12-15). And remembering is not important for its own sake but because it leads to considering, the major part of meditation. Why, then, is Peter so concerned that his readers remember—and consider—what he says? They need to do so because the consequences of forgetting are very serious (1:8-11), because false teachers are bound to spread their poison among them (2:1-3, 18-19), because meditating on his teaching—'wholesome thinking’ (3:1)—will enable them to be stable and persevering in the face of ridicule (3:1-4, 11-14), because they need to keep growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (3:17-18)—and because all that they need for doing so has already been given to them (1:1-4), and the way they appropriate those riches was by returning to Peter’s teaching again and again, recalling and reflecting on all that said about the grace and glory of their great Saviour.
Where does all of this take us? It is just too important to leave off my agenda every day, but if I am to spend time thinking—thinking with God about God, in order to live for God—I will probably need to put that shiny flat rectangle in the bottom drawer for a while.
1. Adrian Plass, The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass (37¾) (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1987), 89-90.
2.You will find information about these guides in chapter 11 of my book, True Devotion: In Search of Authentic Spirituality(London: Latimer Trust, 2014).
3. I have made this case in my book, Preaching: A Guidebook for Beginners (London: The Latimer Trust, 2013).