The Art of Meditation
by Katie Stringer
One of the biggest take-homes I got from reading this book is the idea of Christian meditation. An idea that in my twenty odd years of following Jesus I hadn’t really heard of before, but one that I think is so important I’m going to devote this blog post to thinking about.
What is Meditation?
If you’ve grown up like me doing yoga for school sport even hearing the word, “meditation” has a certain set of connotations: The smell of incense; hard wooden floors; hands relaxing; feet relaxing; lying still; listening to the sound of your own breathing. Relax your jaw, relax your tongue; let your body sink through the floor as you empty your mind. Thoughts pop into my mind and I let them go. In this kind of meditation the emphasis is on relaxation and detachment. The kind of meditation Keller is talking about however is different.
Keller defines Christian meditation as “not quite Bible Study and not quite prayer”, but a bridge between the two. He writes, “[I]f prayer is to be a true conversation with God, it must be regularly preceded by listening to God’s voice through meditation on the Scripture.” (p.145) Meditation then, is a kind of super listening in, a close reading (after the first one) that sits with the text long enough to have not just penetrating insights but a shift in our inner being, in our hearts.
Rather than emptying the mind this is a focused time on a few thoughts. Christian meditation has at its heart a deep engagement with a word that is “living and active”. “Sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12 ESV) When we wait upon God in this kind of meditative contemplation we are waiting on God to let his word do its work!
God’s Picture of Meditation: Psalm 1
For the ultimate picture of Biblical meditation Keller takes us to Psalm 1. The Psalms are often referred to as ‘The Prayer Book of the Bible’. However Psalm 1, Keller points out, is a meditation and not a prayer. In fact, to use his words, “it is a meditation on meditation.” His textual analysis of the Psalm proves the point and provides hard evidence for Keller’s theory that deep meditation is the gateway to prayer - this Psalm is, after all, the first of all the rest. Eugene Peterson provides a lovely description of the role of meditation in prayer and of the particular placement of this Psalm :
The text [of the Psalms] that teaches us to pray doesn’t begin with prayer. We are not ready. We are wrapped up in ourselves. We are knocked around by the world. [Psalm 1 is] pre-prayer, getting us ready. (Eugene Peterson Answering God as quoted by Keller p. 146)
Keller does a great job of showing how we might use a meditation on a passage of the Bible, to get right down there and start setting roots, much like the tree in Psalm 1. Keller sinks deep wells into Psalm 1 and lists in detail the promises of meditation for: stability, substance, fruit, and blessedness.
The Blessings of Meditation
There are many blessings in store for the meditator. It may seem the most obvious point but it is critical: Biblical meditation will give us a sharper view of the whole text. Traditionally, ‘quiet times’ include questions so that we may mine the text for details, notice things and pause to contemplate and then to pray. At this point it is worth mentioning that Keller does not view meditation as a replacement for academic study of the Bible, which he regards as essential, particularly for new Christians so that they have a clear understanding of the overarching story of the Bible (the meta narrative) as well as its main themes.
Keller quotes British theologian John Owen for a helpful definition of meditation that distinguishes itself from Bible study and prayer:
It is distinguished from the study of the word, wherein our principal aim is to learn the truth, or to declare it unto others; and so also from prayer, whereof God himself is the immediate object. But...meditation...is the affecting of our own hearts and minds with love, delight, and [humility].” (p.152, John Owen The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded)
In other words, meditation is a time for savor, where we swallow the delicious truths served up to us in God’s word.
One of the fruits of meditating is insight. One of the best practical illustrations of what Keller means by finding insight through meditation can be found in the introduction to another of his book’s, Encounters with Jesus. Here Keller recalls a conference he attended for Bible Study leaders where he was given one short verse from the gospel of Mark (v17) and asked to spend 30 minutes studying it. You read right. One verse. Thirty minutes! As you might expect, Keller thought he had his verse licked after ten minutes. Nevertheless, the instructor challenged them all to keep going, “Write down at least thirty things you see in or learn from the verse.” (pp. x-xi) So Keller stuck with it. Bored and probably wanting to leave he pushed on. To his surprise he finds there was more. At the end of the time the instructor asked people to look over their notes and circle their single best insight. She then asked them to raise their hand at the point at which they found it. How many hands do you think were raised at five minutes? At ten minutes? As you can probably guess, most people in the room found their best insight at around the twenty-five minute mark. What do we learn from this? Deep insight takes time. It takes pushing on through our first responses, through boredom, through sitting and waiting, through thinking we’ve seen all there is to see, through stillness, until the text unfurls itself and we have a chance to really sink down into it and possibly, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, get a new perspective and a changed heart.
That’s not to say we will have fresh insights every time we meditate. Sometimes we will be reminded of something. Sometimes we will be rebuked. Sometimes comforted. Sometimes overwhelmed with God’s goodness and love. But it’s difficult if not impossible to get it in a glance so if we don’t make the time for it we miss out on this blessing.
So How Do We Meditate?
Keller suggests four main ways that we might build the habit of meditation into our devotional lives:
1. By asking questions
2. Through memorization
3. By keeping a journal
4. Through self-talk to your soul
All four of these activities are complimentary and lead quite naturally from Bible reading into prayer. I’ll go through each one briefly.
Keller provides some fantastic historical examples of private devotional questions to borrow from. In a nutshell, there are two basic textual analysis questions that need to be satisfied first. One, who the author and the original audience were and what the message was. And two, how this text fits into the bigger puzzle of the whole Bible Story, that has at its culmination salvation through Jesus. Once you have a satisfying answer to both those questions, Keller says:
To meditate is to ask yourself questions about the truth, such as: “Am I living in light of this? What difference does this make? Am I taking this seriously? If I believed and held to this, how would that change things? When I forget this, how does that affect me and all my relationships? “ (p.148)
Keller includes a helpful template at the back of the book with different versions of these type of questions that can be used with any Bible passage. These can be found on page 253.
As Keller says, it’s not for nothing that memorization is called learning ‘by heart’. One of the simplest (and nowadays oft neglected) ways we can know God’s truth intimately is by memorizing it. Memorization becomes much harder the older you are, so if you are looking for practical help in this area, The Gospel Coalition website and facebook page have recently posted some excellent practical articles on the art of memorization with great tips and techniques for improving our skills in this area. Knowing that memorization has such powerful potential to shape us should also encourage us to give our children lots of opportunities to memorize chunks of the Bible. Planting those seeds will bless them for the rest of their lives.
I can’t help but think of the book, Angel in the Rubble (Allen & Unwin 2012) by Genelle Guzman-McMillan - The story of the last survivor pulled from the 9/11 Ground Zero debris. As Genelle lay helpless, trapped under boulders, what did she call to mind? The scripture her mother had taught her. The things she had memorized as a child! Finally, God had given her a situation in which she had time (ample as it turned out) to meditate. Her thoughts were very dark and they were the only light thing she could think of. As it turned out those memorized words became life saving for her and in the hours before she was rescued she recommitted her life to Christ.
Keeping a Journal
Keller’s book begins with extracts from the famous American writer, Flannery O’Connor’s handwritten prayer journal. At the age of twenty-one she writes with incredible honesty about her struggle to become a great writer, but unlike other aspiring young artists, she doesn’t just vent her feelings she prays them:
Dear God, I cannot love thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and myself is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon… I do not know you God, because I am [getting] in the way. (p. 11 A Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor)
If you are that way inclined, writing your intimate thoughts down in a diary and praying through them before our heavenly Father has the potential to bear much fruit. Queen Elizabeth II, a confessing Christian, in her 2013 Christmas Day address encouraged the habit of contemplation, prayer and keeping a diary as a means of personal reflection, and spoke from experience of discovering greater spiritual depth through the exercise. I’m keen to watch that address again.
Self-Talk To Your Soul
It makes sense that internalizing the great truths of the Bible means that we are able to talk ourselves through difficult situations. One of the best places to see this in action is in the Psalms. As one example, Keller uses Psalm 4 to show David “self-communing” or meditating as a means of working on his own troubled heart. He is being slandered by men and facing danger from his enemies. In an anguished tone he cries out to God with boldness for an audience before Him in his heavenly court. David is able to pour his concerns out before God and by the end of the Psalm feel peace enough to say, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7, ESV) Keller writes:
He is saying something like this: “If I have the privileges of the gospel - assurance of and access to the love and grace and friendship of God, then all other prosperity and treasure pales by comparison.” (p.232.)
This is an excellent example of a troubled heart comforting itself before God in heaven with the truth that Christ in his heart is better than all the riches or comforts of life others rely on. Or as Spurgeon says in his commentary on the Psalms: “It is better,” said someone, “to feel God’s favor one hour in our repenting soul, than to sit whole ages under the warmest sunshine that this world affords.” (p.13, Psalms volume 1, Spurgeon, The Crossway Classic Commentaries)
In the age of the instant we need encouragement to create structures in our lives for meditative Bible reading and prayer - to open out our ‘quiet times’ into a richer, deeper contemplation of what it means to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The daily benefits are immense: we will have a deeply peaceful sense of who we really are before God and where we fit into the world.
As Keller writes, looking back on the ways he reshaped his prayer life in search of a deeper relationship with God:
The result was a spiritual liveliness and strength that this Christian minister, for all my preaching, had not had before. (pp.17-18)