Meditation, Part 1


Some time ago I made passing reference in an evening service to the fact that no one can meditate on the amount of Scripture that one must read each day to read the Bible through in a year. I have long had the habit of reading through the Bible in a year – and have profited immensely from that exercise – but it is not meditation on the Word of God. Taking the Scripture in large gulps, as one must do to keep up the pace, one cannot pause and ponder and think about what he is reading. That remark prompted one of you to ask me to devote an evening sermon to meditation on the Word of God and out of that request has come this short series on the practices of Christian devotion.

I have heard a number of times of late that it is becoming a standard practice in many parts of the evangelical church to begin the sermon with a joke. It has almost become a fixed part of the liturgy: the prayer for illumination, “the joke,” the sermon, the hymn, and so on. So, in keeping with the new evangelical custom, I begin this evening with a joke, but one that will illustrate our evening subject. The following is a newspaper column by humorist Dave Barry on the subject of the difference between men and women. It was published some years ago. I’ve made a few editorial changes.

Let’s say a guy named Roger is attracted to a woman named Elaine. He asks her out to a movie; she accepts; they have a pretty good time. A few nights later he asks her out to dinner, and again they enjoy themselves. They continue to see each other regularly, and after a while neither one of them is seeing anybody else.

Then, one evening when they’re driving home, a thought occurs to Elaine, and, without really thinking, she says it aloud:

"Do you realize that, as of tonight, we’ve been seeing each other for exactly six months?"  There is silence in the car. To Elaine, it seems like a very loud silence. She thinks to herself: [Gosh], I wonder if it bothers him that I said that. Maybe he’s been feeling confined by our relationship; maybe he thinks I’m trying to push him into some kind of obligation he doesn’t want, or isn’t sure of.

And Roger is thinking: Gosh. Six months. And Elaine is thinking: But, hey, I’m not so sure I want this kind of relationship either. Sometimes I wish I had a little more space, so I’d have time to think about whether I really want us to keep going the way we are, moving steadily toward….I mean, where are we going? Are we just going to keep seeing each other at this level of intimacy? Are we heading toward marriage? Toward children? Toward a lifetime together? Am I ready for that level of commitment? Do I really even know this person?

And Roger is thinking: So that means it was…let’s see…February when we started going out, which was right after I had the car at the dealer’s, which means…lemme check the odometer….Whoa! I am way overdue for an oil change here. And Elaine is thinking: He’s upset. I can see it on his face. Maybe I’m reading this completely wrong. Maybe he wants more from our relationship, more intimacy, more commitment; maybe he has sensed – even before I sensed it – that I was feeling some reservations. Yes, I bet that’s it. That’s why he’s so reluctant to say anything about his own feelings. He’s afraid of being rejected.

And Roger is thinking: And I’m gonna have them look at the transmission again. I don’t care what those morons say, it’s still not shifting right. And they better not try to blame it on the cold weather this time. What cold weather? It’s 87 degrees out, and this thing is shifting like a…garbage truck, and I paid those incompetent thieves $600!

And Elaine is thinking: He’s angry. And I don’t blame him. I’d be angry, too. …I feel so guilty putting him through this, but I can’t help the way I feel. I’m just not sure. And Roger is thinking: They’ll probably say it’s only a 90- day warranty. That’s exactly what they’re gonna say, the scumballs.

And Elaine is thinking: Maybe I’m just too idealistic, waiting for a knight to come riding up on his white horse, when I’m sitting right next to a perfectly good person, a person I enjoy being with, a person I truly do care about, a person who seems truly to care about me. A person who is in pain because of my self-centered, schoolgirl romantic fantasy.

And Roger is thinking: Warranty? They want a warranty? I’ll [show ‘em what to do with their warranty…]…

"Roger," Elaine says aloud. "What?" says Roger, startled. "Please don’t torture yourself like this," she says, her eyes beginning to brim with tears. "Maybe I should never have….Oh…I feel so…." (She breaks down, sobbing.) "What?" says Roger.
"I’m such a fool," Elaine sobs. "I mean, I know there’s no knight. I really know that. It’s silly. There’s no knight, and there’s no horse."

"There’s no horse?" says Roger. "You think I’m a fool, don’t you?" Elaine says. "No!" says Roger, glad finally to know the correct answer. "It’s just that….It’s that I…I need some time," Elaine says. (There is a 15-second pause while Roger, thinking as fast as he can, tries to come up with a safe response. Finally he comes up with one that he thinks might work.) "Yes," he says. (Elaine, deeply moved, touches his hand.) "Oh, Roger, do you really feel that way?" she says. "What way?" says Roger. "That way about time," says Elaine. "Oh," says Roger. "Yes."(Elaine turns to face him and gazes deeply into his eyes, causing him to become very nervous about what she might say next, especially if it involves a horse. At last she speaks.)

"Thank you, Roger," she says. "Thank you," says Roger. Then he takes her home. She lies on her bed, a conflicted, tortured soul, and weeps until dawn, whereas when Roger gets back to his place, he opens a bag of Doritos, turns on the TV, and immediately becomes deeply involved in a rerun of a tennis match between two Czechoslovakians he never heard of. A tiny voice in the far recesses of his mind tells him that something major was going on back there in the car, but he is pretty sure there is no way he would ever understand what, so he figures it’s better if he doesn’t think about it. (This is also Roger’s policy regarding world hunger.)

The next day Elaine will call her closest friend, or perhaps two of them, and they will talk about this situation for six straight hours. In painstaking detail, they will analyze everything she said and everything he said, going over it time and time again, exploring every word, expression, and gesture for nuances of meaning, considering every possible ramification. They will continue to discuss this subject, off and on, for weeks, maybe months, never reaching any definite conclusions but never getting bored with it, either.

Meanwhile, Roger, while playing racquetball one day with a mutual friend of his and Elaine’s, will pause just before serving, frown, and say: "Norm, did Elaine ever own a horse?"

Now here is my point: what Elaine did and what she did together with her friend is what the Bible calls meditation. She mulled over in her mind what she had heard. She thought about it and considered what it might mean. She tried to get to the bottom of what her boyfriend had said. She tried to figure it out. That’s meditation. And the funny column serves another purpose. It reminds us that this is a practice that women find more natural than men. Even in the spiritual life of a Christian, women find this more natural, more instinctive than men. It may be because of their more tender affections that they need more to understand, to get to the bottom of something. The truth is something that affects their feelings! But, whatever the reason, I have found it true many times. Women are more natural meditators and musers than men. Men must do it; they are commanded to do it in the Word of God, but they find it harder to do and do well and do at length than women do. Dave Barry can make a joke of this but in a much more serious and important way it is a fact of life and of Christian devotion.

Let me give you an example of this that I’m sure many of you will be able very easily to identify with. When my daughter lost her babies the devastation and heartbreak was as you can well imagine. But then in the aftermath there comes the inevitable confusion and fear and uncertainty. What did the Lord just do? Why did he do it? What am I to think about this? What does he expect of me? How can I not worry as the Bible commands when worry is precisely what I can’t help but do as I look to the future, when so much is at stake, and when I now know that I have already had my heart broken once and don’t know that it won’t be again? And on and on the questions come. And like any faithful Christian, she turned to the truth of God’s Word, sometimes by herself and sometimes with the help of others, and tried to plumb its depths, to get down to the bottom, to understand more than she had before. She lived in certain portions of Scripture, internalized them, turned them into prayer. That’s meditation. Her husband is a thoughtful, principled Christian man and minister and he thought deeply about the same things, but he would be the first to tell you that his wife mused and thought and considered and mulled over the truth of God’s Word still more than he did.

Sometimes the deepest and most successful meditation we ever practice is that meditation that is forced upon us by our circumstances. We find ourselves facing a great difficulty or danger or sorrow and we need to know, to understand, to feel the force of some truth and we can’t help but think it all through. My father, in the early hours of Good Friday, 1951, was sitting in a plane with 43 other paratroopers, all of whom had had experience of jumping into combat. He looked at their faces and saw the fear and began to feel himself being overcome by panic. He had never jumped out of a plane in his life, much less into combat. If those experienced men were afraid, what was in store for him? And then the text from Psalm 23 shot up in to his heart: “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” And he began to think about that text – to meditate in other words – and began to work out what that meant.

“The Lord was telling me that He was with me, and was going to be with me. As I thought about what He had said, I realized that if my Savior were sitting physically on my right where Cliff sat or upon my left where Sergeant Streaby was sitting and He whispered in my ear that he was going to jump out of that plane with me I would have no fear whatsoever. Yet that was just exactly what He was telling me. His personal, abiding presence was that real. I remembered also that He had promised that the angels would be there to bear me up in their hands. The Lord and the angels! That was wonderful company. Certainly I needed no one else. As the full realization of the Lord’s promise swept over me, such peace flooded my soul as I have never experienced under any other circumstances.”

The panic never took hold; his fears dissipated; and as he continued to pray he fell asleep, the only man in the airplane so at peace that he slept all the way to the drop zone! [Fight the Good Fight, 44-45] That was meditation: considering a statement in the Word of God and working out its meaning in that moment; its meaning for me.

But meditation is not something that is to take place only when it is forced upon us by our circumstances. We are commanded to meditate, to think our way down deep into the truth of God and to apply it to our own circumstances.

The word “meditate” means what it has always meant. Look up meditatio in a classical Latin dictionary and it will tell you that it means “to think over something” or to “contemplate.”

In Psalm 119:97 we read:

                  “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.”

The Hebrew word, actually the noun meditation, but here, at least in the NIV, translated as a verb, “to meditate,” means “musing” or “studying.” In the poetry of the Psalms the word group is paralleled with such terms as “consider,” or “understand,” and it is said to lead to “insight” (119:99). When David says to the Lord, “I think of you through the watches of the night” (Ps. 63:6) he is describing the act of meditation.

All through the Bible we are given to see people thinking, thinking deeply about what God has said and done. All through the Psalms we find men lying awake at night thinking about God’s love and God’s ways and what God has said in his Word and pondering what all of it means for their lives at that moment. God has given us both great things to think about, to ponder, to mull over, and a mind with which to do that thinking. Man is made to think and, as Pascal put it, it is possible to sum up man’s entire duty as simply thinking about God and about himself and about his life as he ought to think. Because, as we read in Romans 12:2, it is by the renewal of the believer’s mind, by his giving himself to sound thinking that the Christian life advances and God’s love is realized in life. And, on the contrary, as we read in Isa. 44:19, the problem with the idolater is that “no one stops to think…”

A great many experts on the Christian life have rung the changes on the importance of meditation, of pondering, of mulling over for living the Christian life. Richard Baxter said that meditation was the “duty by which all other duties were improved.” [Saints Rest, (Practical Works ed., 90f.)] That is, if you want to advance in the life of prayer or worship, if you wish to surmount some sin of yours, meditation is the way forward.

Here is Charles Simeon who was an expert at giving practical advice to Christians. Here he is answering the question: “What is the way to maintain a close walk with God?”

“By constantly meditating on the goodness of God and on our great deliverance from that punishment which our sins have deserved, we are brought to feel our vileness and utter unworthiness; and while we continue in this spirit…everything else will go on easily. We shall find ourselves advancing in our course; we shall feel the presence of God; we shall experience his love; we shall live in the enjoyment of his favour and in the hope of his glory. Meditation is the grand means of our growth in grace… You often feel that your prayers scarcely reach the ceiling; but…get into this humble spirit by considering how good the Lord is…and then prayer will mount on wings of faith to heaven.” [Cited in Moule, Charles Simeon, 137-138]

Hear that again: meditation is considering, thinking about such things as God’s love and goodness. In Henry Scougal’s classic of Christian devotion, The Life of God in the Soul of Man he lays it down as fundamental to the practice of a holy life what he calls “the deep and serious consideration of the truths of our religion…” [115] He goes on to point out that our assent to these truths is often very weak and ineffectual. We believe them, to be sure, but they are not a power in our minds and hearts. Meditation is the means of blowing coals into a flame or of shining a bright light upon gospel realities until they no longer remain in shadows. He goes on to describe how pondering the perfections and wonders of God’s nature creates love and confidence in us; mulling over his love for us, how patient and generous and indefatigable it is, assures us, gives us peace, and consoles us in the midst of life’s troubles. But truth left on the outskirts of the mind will not have these powerful effects. It must be pulled into the center and meditation is the means of doing that.

Luther is said to have spent an hour one day pondering the Lord’s word from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “God forsaken by God; who can explain it,” he finally said. But no doubt the impression of the Lord’s terrible abandonment for our salvation was fixed in his heart in a still more powerful way.

We are going to speak next time about the method of meditation, how it is done, or, at least, how many have done it, but for now I want simply to commend the practice to you in this general way.

John Bunyan speaks often in his spiritual autobiography of his musing over some subject or another – his sin, or the nature of faith, or the righteousness of Christ – and about the effect that such musings often had. The truth came boiling up in his heart and he wonderfully felt its power. Take, for example, this noble passage from Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:

“As I was musing and in my studies how to love the Lord, and how to express my love to Him, I felt my soul greatly to go out in love…to Him….  For I saw that He was still my Friend and did reward me good for evil. Yea the love and affection that did then burn within me to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, did work at this time such a strong and such a hot desire…that had I had a thousand gallons of blood within my veins, I could freely then have spit it all at His feet.”

That is what meditation and mulling over and musing can do for a Christian! The greatest biblical scholar, with all of his learning of Hebrew and Greek and the history of biblical interpretation, will not know the Bible as well as the simplest Christian who takes time to think Holy Scripture’s statements through and apply them to his or her own situation. John Newton, in a fine passage, describes the difference between the scholar who knows 20 words for “broom”, in Latin, Greek, Spanish, Dutch, and so on, and his maid who knows only one word for broom but knows how to use the broom to do what it was intended to do. It is the maid, is it not, who knows and understands the broom?

And in the same way, regarding beautiful, wonderful things, one does not really come to understand the power and glory of what is supremely beautiful – whether a landscape, or a human face, or the glory of God – by hearing someone else describe it. Understanding comes from personal experience. One of the illustrations that reoccurs most often in the preaching of Jonathan Edwards is this:

“…it is not he that has heard a long description of the sweetness of honey that can be said to have the greatest understanding of it, but he that has tasted.” [Cited in Marsden, 96]

Well, in the same way, it is the man or woman, boy or girl, who has entered into the actual reality of a biblical text, who genuinely knows it; not the scholar who can discourse about it but has no experience of its power or pain or glory or encouragement or consolation. Those blessings of the truth typically come from meditation; from thinking the matter through with the texts of Holy Scripture in front of you.

We all want to feel the love of God more often and more powerfully. We know what a difference it makes to feel loved by God. We all want to feel the presence of God more immediately. We all want fully to enter into the knowledge of the forgiveness of our sins, the wiping clean of our slate. We all want to experience the freedom from sin and the power to live righteously that is promised us in the gospel.

All of these things are realities. They are truth. They are facts. But how do we bring them to the center of our thinking; how do we unleash the power of these truths in our hearts? That is the work of meditation.

We’ll consider next Lord’s Day evening, Lord willing, how that holy and important work is done. But let us end with this tonight. Meditation is almost certainly how the Lord Jesus himself grew into the full godliness of his manhood. He was a man who thought deeply over the Word of God. It remains, of course, one of the most interesting questions of Christian theology and biblical study: how did Jesus come to the knowledge of his calling, even of his true identity? When did he realize who he was and what he was to do? The Scripture tells us that he learned; he didn’t know everything all at once. As a man he had to learn what he would eventually know; even what he would know about himself.

And given his use of Holy Scripture, as we read of it in the Gospels, he was clearly a man who had internalized the Word of God. It lived in his heart and its truths were always present as a power in his mind and heart. But as understanding began to dawn in his heart, imagine his eager interest in getting to the bottom of all of those Scriptures that spoke of the Messiah and of the work he would perform when he came into the world. He would pore over those messianic texts in Genesis and the Psalms and the Prophets and think about them and what they must mean and what they would mean for him: “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” “by his stripes we are healed,” “of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end,” “they divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing,” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” and so many more texts like those. He pondered them until they were his and as his life continued and as his ministry began those texts, so thoroughly assimilated in his mind and heart, began to take on still new life and to direct his steps in new ways until he had got from them all there was to get.

That is meditation. It was his way of holiness. In this he also left us an example that we should follow in his steps. So we should give ourselves to meditation on the truth and Word of God as our Savior did and the more we do the more like him we will become.