Last week I began this short series on the practices of Christian devotion or what have long been called the “spiritual disciplines” with an introduction to the practice of meditation. You may be interested to learn that even what practices ought to be considered among the spiritual disciplines is a matter of long-standing debate. We would all accept that meditation and prayer ought to be there, but what of silence or fellowship or chastity or journaling or evangelism? [Cf. K. Boa, Conformed to His Image, pp. 82-86; D.S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 5] You’ll find out what makes my list as we proceed but, in general, I am restricting such practices of devotion to the private instruments of personal dealing with God that are explicitly commended to us in Holy Scripture. If this is a somewhat artificial limitation, at least I have the consolation that it is one commonly employed in the Christian tradition.
We said last time that meditation is the careful consideration, contemplation, or mulling over of the teaching of the Word of God. In the definition of Joseph Hall, the 17th century Anglican, this taken from his The Art of Divine Meditation,
“…divine meditation is nothing else but a bending of the mind upon some spiritual subject…until our thoughts come to an issue…” [F.L. Huntley, Bishop Joseph Hall and Protestant Meditation, 72]
Meditation is, in other words, the effort made to apply one’s mind to the meaning of any teaching until we have understood its application to one’s present circumstances. Some prejudice against meditation has understandably risen in Christian circles as a result of the new popularity of meditation as a technique of eastern mysticism or psychotherapy. But the meditation of yoga or transcendental meditation is not at all the same thing that the Bible is speaking about. In those forms of meditation the goal is to empty the mind. In the Bible the intention is to fill the mind with the truth. In those other forms of meditation – if meditation is really the proper term – the intention is to create one’s own reality. In biblical meditation the goal is better to understand and appreciate the one actual reality; the way things really are in God’s universe and what that means for me.
But it is also a practice I think harder for Christians today than it has been in former days. We have more distractions and there is a more pervasive superficiality in modern culture as we flit from sound to sound and thought to thought and image to image, not taking much time to consider any of them in turn. It was easier for Christians a hundred years ago to take time to consider what they had read of the Bible that morning or that evening. They didn’t have to answer the telephone, they were not tempted by videogames, they were not always listening to music on their i-pods, there was no 24 hour cable news, there was no television of any kind. They sat in a quieter world, they read, and their imaginations were more highly refined from constant use.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that we may encounter less spiritual greatness than would have been the case in generations past. We tend to be more shallow as a people and so as a Christian people. We are too impatient to stop and ponder and go down deep in the things of God. We are too eager to get on to the next thing, as we do every day in a thousand ways. Unhurried meditation is necessary for spiritual greatness, but the practice is more alien to us nowadays.
I commended the practice of meditation upon the truth of Holy Scripture last time by giving you examples of how through meditation the power of gospel truth came flooding into the heart; how one can be made by means of meditation to feel the power and glory and the joy of the truth. Take, for example, David’s assertion in Psalm 39:3:
“My heart grew hot within me, and as I meditated the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue…”
In other words, the more he thought and considered, the more deeply he felt. Or, as Matthew Poole has it, “his thoughts kindled his passions.” Would that it were always so. But we do not always get an “emotional charge or a feeling of quiet peace” when we read the Bible. [Geoffrey Thomas, in Whitney, 38-39] You will get that sometimes, but we live by faith and not by sight. The blessing of meditation is not always immediately experienced and, as with the blessing of preaching, its primary effect is felt gradually, over time, in the reshaping of the mind and heart, in the deepening of one’s understanding and conviction, and in the change of one’s behavior.
When, for example, the Lord commanded Joshua:
“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….” [1:8]
He did not promise him a mountain top experience every time he stopped to ponder the promises and the commandments of the covenant God made with his people. What he promised him was that by considering and pondering God’s Word it would take root in his life and become the transcript of his daily living. In that way it would be a means to great blessing his life. The Bible rarely commends the practices of devotion to us by promising ecstasy as a result. What it promises is a greater faithfulness. Joy and peace will come from that, of course, in some measure, and from time to time we will be surprised and delighted by powerful experiences of the joy of salvation or conviction of sin or the swell of commitment. But it is the former – the building of godliness in the character – not the latter – powerful emotional experiences of the truth – that is the Bible’s actual promise.
Indeed, Bishop Hall distinguishes between extempore meditation and deliberate meditation. The former is meditation that comes upon us as a result of our circumstances, of something that we witness or experience. We are carried along into thinking more carefully about some teaching of the Word of God. But most of our meditation is supposed to be of the deliberate kind: the kind in which we set out to get a better grasp of what God has told us in Holy Scripture. Matthew Henry in a similar way distinguished the tears shed by Christians. Some tears simply flow, the effect of our circumstances. Other tears, Henry said, are deliberate, as in the 137th Psalm: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” There was a deliberate act of meditation leading to an act of mourning.
Tonight we are concerned to discover precisely how deliberate meditation such as the Bible commends to us is to be done. What does it mean to meditate upon the Word of God day and night? And what I propose to do is to set before you four pieces of wisdom in regard to the practice of meditation as it is taught and illustrated in the Word of God and as the art has been learned to be practiced through the ages by experienced Christians and then apply those to a particular instance of meditation.
- First¸ true meditation requires the personalization of the Word of God.
Alexander Whyte used to say that we ought to read the Bible as “autobiographic of ourselves.” [Lord Teach Us to Pray, x] Thomas Boston put it more simply. We should read the Bible “as if it were written for me.” We should avoid all abstraction and all generalization. The message is for me. What, therefore, does it mean? God said this to me. Therefore, what is it that he is saying? What message does heaven have for me? Alfred Edersheim, one of a group of young Hungarian Jewish converts to Christianity, the fruit of Scottish Presbyterian missionary work among the Jews, said that the missionaries and these young men would gather to read the Bible and that they read the Epistles of Paul as if they had come in that morning’s post! [Moody Stuart, Life of John Duncan, 71]
In other words, meditation is the taking personally and to heart the truth of God’s Word as truth of immediate importance and relevance to me. It is not simply figuring out what the Bible says, it is figuring out what God is saying to me.
- Second, true meditation involves the comparing of Scripture with Scripture.
The reason we have to ponder the Word of God is two-fold. One because it requires faith of us. We cannot see the truth with the eyes of our body and so we have to consider what it means. Obviously, as we saw recently in our studies in Revelation, the Bible’s depiction of both heaven and hell is image-laden and metaphorical. There is very little in the way of a literal description. So we have to gather the Bible’s teaching together to form an accurate picture of what the Bible intends to tell us about the eternal destinies of mankind.
But the second reason – one we have often had occasion to notice – is that the Bible’s teaching is tension-filled. There is hardly any biblical topic or theme or doctrine that does not require us to hold side-by side truths that are not easy to reconcile with one another. And so we are required to work our way through to a biblical mind about something by making sure that we have the whole picture before us, no matter how tension filled the final product may be.
- Second, true meditation involves turning the biblical teaching into prayer.
This is what we find so often in the Psalms. The truth of God is taken to heart but it is not finished when the intellect has done all that it can do to plumb the depths of the truth. When the truth as been remembered and explored it is made the basis of thanksgiving to God, or an appeal, or a cry for help. A classic example of this movement from meditation to prayer and praise is found in Psalm 8. The Psalmist was “considering the heavens, the work of God’s fingers” and that meditation or consideration led him to sing “O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” And that thought then led him to realize what an honor the Almighty has bestowed on man, so small among the creations of God, but crowned nonetheless with glory and honor.
- Third, true meditation involves turning the biblical teaching into a sermon: one becomes a preacher of the Word of God to himself.
You find this again very often in the Psalms. Take, for example, the 103rd Psalm. The entire psalm is a man preaching to himself, making a case for the praise of God to his own soul. He considers the goodness of the Lord to him and to others – much of which is known only by faith on the strength of God’s Word – and then forms that consideration into an argument that he makes to his soul. We are reminded that meditation is never an exercise for its own sake. Like all the spiritual disciplines, its purpose is to produce godliness in us: whether gratitude and love or faithfulness and obedience or humility and repentance or faith and hope.
- Then, finally, true meditation involves the exercise of the imagination.
The Bible itself is full of imaginative representations of the truth. It invites us constantly “to see” the truth. Your witness to the world is like a lamp shining in a dark room or like a city perched on a hill. Think of the Lord’s parables and how wonderfully they picture the truth of the gospel and the kingdom of God. And then consider how much of the Bible is narrative, historical accounts that we are invited to “see” in our mind’s eye. From Aaron and Hur lifting Moses’ hands in prayer over Israel’s battle below against the Amalekites to Gehazi seeing the angels of God surrounding Dothan. From Elijah on the top of Mount Carmel to the Assyrian army dead in its tents outside Jerusalem.
The more clearly we see the truth, the greater will be its effect on us. Consider this from Alexander Whyte’s sermon on the Lord’s parable of the man who knocked on his neighbor’s door at midnight.
“It is night. It is midnight. The night is dark. All the lights are out, and everybody is in bed. ‘Friend! Lend me three loaves! For a friend of mind in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him!’ He knocks again. ‘Friend! Lend me three loaves!’ He waits awhile and then he knocks again. ‘Friend, friend! I must have three loaves!’ ‘Trouble me not: the door is now shut; I cannot rise and give thee! He is dumb for a time. He stands still. He turns to go home. But he cannot go home. He dare not go home. He comes back. He knocks again. ‘Friend! He cries, till the dogs bark at him. He puts his ear to the door. There is a sound inside, and then the light of a candle shines through the hole of the door. The bars of the door are drawn back, and he gets not three loaves only but as many as he needs.” [Lord Teach Us to Pray, 169]
Now the Lord’s parable was much more cryptic. There was much less detail. But with his imagination Whyte helped us to consider what the Lord was saying and to enter into his meaning. “…until the dogs barked at him…” Suddenly the scene is much more vivid and the point sharper. And it is with that same perseverance and determination to be heard that we are to pray our prayers. We should try to see the truth in our mind’s eye as much as possible. The more vivid the truth, the powerful its impact.
Now let me apply all of this to a particular biblical theme and consider or meditate upon that theme together with you all. The theme I propose for us to think about, to ponder, to consider, and to mull over is this: “delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” It is a biblical theme, Psalm 37:4 merely gives it a particularly memorable expression. But all through the Bible we are promised that those who are faithful to the Lord will ride on the heights of the land and feed on the inheritance of their father Jacob. “He who honors me, I will honor,” the Lord says. We are given long lists of the blessings that the Lord will bestow upon those who are faithful to his covenant. In the keeping of God’s commands there is a great reward! And the teaching is found as memorably and emphatically in the NT as in the OT.
Of course, there would be little need to ponder this teaching or to attempt to get to the bottom of it if in fact a believer’s life was an unending succession of happy days, of spiritual and material prosperity, and unbroken joy. But it is not so; we know it is not so; and the Bible teaches us very clearly not to suppose that it will be so. So precisely what does it mean for the Bible to say: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart,” if, in fact, you have desires the Lord has not fulfilled even though you have sought to walk faithfully before him, have trusted his love and Word, and have honored him in your life. Indeed, it is precisely because of the shocks and disappointments of life that Christians through the ages have devoted themselves to sustained meditation on this very point. It is trouble and sorrow that have provoked their thinking. The fellow with four aces never asks for a new deal. It is the man or woman whose life has turned out to his or her great sorrow who wonders if he or she can believe what the Scripture says.
I will never forget a conversation with a young mother and her pastor over her kitchen table in Greenville, South Carolina. She was a woman in her early thirties whose young husband, a local doctor and member of the PCA church had just died. They were earnest Christians, they delighted themselves in the Lord, but the Lord’s promise to grant them the desire of their hearts seemed now a cruel joke. Her pastor said that he felt that the promise must be taken as a generality, as proverbial. Delight yourself in the Lord and more often than not, but not always, will you be given the desires of your heart. How else could the Word of God be taken to be true and all of God’s promises yea and amen in the face of the death of a young Christian husband and father? There must be no absolute promise of blessing to the faithful.
But I said that I couldn’t take the text that way: as a proverb, often but not always true. And I reasoned out my conclusion that the promise was absolute and always true in this way.
- First, the promise of God’s blessing upon his faithful people was part of the covenant; it was, in other words, not a proverb but the theology of the Bible. It belonged to the Bible’s fundamental message of God’s love and mercy to sinners, taking them up into fellowship and family love with himself. We treat no other such promise in a proverbial way. We never say that if we believe in Jesus Christ we will often but not always be saved. We never say that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him shall run a better than average chance of not perishing but being saved. The promises of blessing in the salvation of God, whether OT or NT in form, are put in an absolute form and are part of the fiber of the Bible’s entire teaching of salvation. We can’t extract this promise from all the others without the entire system of salvation by grace unraveling. When Jesus says that those who trust him and demonstrate that trust by their love and obedience – those who lose husbands and children and fields for him and for the gospel’s sake – I say, when he says that they shall receive a hundred times as much in this life and in the life to come eternal life, he weaves this very promise of earthly blessing into the fabric of the promise of salvation and eternal life. If it is not an absolute promise we can always count on, then the other promises of salvation are not either and they are surely promises we can count on.
- Second, I said, we can’t take the promise about the Lord granting us the desires of our hearts only as a kind of proverb because the Bible is perfectly honest and candid about the fact that it is through many afflictions that God’s people must inherit the kingdom of God. It is not the case that anyone can fairly read the Bible and think that it promises believers unbroken prosperity and happiness. Quite the contrary. It prepares us for the worst again and again and then shows very godly men and women suffering every manner of earthly trial. Whatever Holy Scripture means by saying that the Lord will give us the desires of our hearts, it manifestly does not mean that we won’t suffer many sorrows and disappointments in our lives.
- Third, I said, the people who wrote the statements about the Lord giving us the desires of our hearts were themselves men who had suffered greatly. They knew life’s realities but they still said what they said. They obviously did not think that their experience had contradicted their faith.
- Fourth, I said, we have the example of our Lord Jesus who delighted himself in the Lord his God as no man had ever done before him and as no man has ever done since. Surely God kept all his promises to him! But we see him in the Gospels as the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and we hear him in Gethsemane crying out against what he must face in life but accepting that calling for himself nonetheless. At the same time we read that he faced his trials and his sorrows for the joy that was set before him. So those trials that he endured were for the sake of a lasting joy. None of us would think it wise to take a temporary joy over a lasting joy, would we? Might that not be what is at work often in a Christian’s life: sorrow that lasts for a night so that joy may come in the morning!
- Then, I said that it seemed to me that when the Lord assures us that “in all of our afflictions he is afflicted to,” that he suffers when we suffer, and that our troubles are a sorrow to him – the Almighty, the Omnipotent God – we are being taught that when we suffer as the children of our heavenly Father, we are suffering for no other reason than that it is necessary. The God who loves us with an everlasting love, who feels our sorrows keenly, does not order trouble and disappointment for us without very good reasons. We may not know what they are but he does! And it is because he loves us and wants us to be happy forever that he appoints the troubles through which we must pass. But if that is the case, if our true felicity and our eternal happiness require terrible trials, then surely no Christian can think that God is being untrue to his promise to bless us and prosper us because we suffer in this world. No! The desires of our hearts are precisely what the Lord our God is seeing to giving us – perfectly and forever – when he appoints the trouble and sorrows of our lives. And how often are we reminded that the afflictions of this life are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to follow.
- Taking all of this together, I said, it seemed to me that however hard it was to understand or appreciate at a time of such terrible loss, the fact is that when we suffer as the Lord requires us to suffer and for the purposes for which he requires us to suffer, by faith we know that we are receiving the desires of our hearts, more so than we can possibly appreciate. All things are working together for our good as the Scripture assures those who love God and are called according to his purpose. We want, of course, the right to determine what the good will be moment by moment, but that is God’s business not ours. His ways are far beyond ours and past finding out, but it is our good that he is after and our good he will not fail to accomplish.
- And, then, finally, I said that if we could see the young doctor now in heaven with the glory of God shining upon him and with everlasting joy upon his head, taking his place among the spirits of just men made perfect, we would shake our heads and say that no desire of a Christian heart had ever been so perfectly granted as was granted to that happy and now perfectly holy man.
All of that led me to conclude that the promise that the Lord would give us the desires of our hearts if we delighted ourselves in him was absolute and we should not doubt that it will always be kept. But, then, perhaps, we would have to conclude that the young couple did not delight themselves in the Lord. The reason the young doctor died and the young wife was made a widow and the little children were left without a father was because one or the other or both of the adults had not fulfilled the condition of the promise. God did not give them the desires of their hearts because they had not delighted themselves in him.
We had no reason to think that. Their pastor had commended the couple to me for their Christian faith and service. And it is perfectly obvious that very godly men and women suffer in the Bible for other reasons than for their failure to trust the Lord and obey his commandments. Job is introduced to us as a very righteous man, and his sufferings were the furthest thing from punishment for his faults. David suffered a great deal because the Lord had him anointed king while Saul was still ruling. Jeremiah endured great trials because he was such a faithful prophet. So did Paul. And, of course, we have supremely the example of our Savior himself, who suffered greatly though he was sinless. Indeed, much of the anguish expressed by the writers of Scripture over the suffering of God’s people is prompted precisely because it is the righteous, the godly who suffering, sometimes much more than the wicked.
Indeed, even in Psalm 37 itself, where we read that if we delight ourselves in the Lord he will give us the desires of our heart, we read:
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.”
“Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked…”
Even Psalm 37 doesn’t promise a trouble free life even to the most godly among us.
That is the way meditation proceeds. You add Scripture to Scripture, you compare text with text; you look at the various ways in which the particular theme is addressed in the Bible; you consider what each statement must mean, being careful to respect the context, be willing to live with tension – our minds being too small to grasp all of reality, and especially the great depths of God’s ways, as a simple harmony of truth – and you come to a more complete understanding. Then you personalize it. You aren’t thinking about life in general, you are thinking about your life and the life of your loved ones. What does this mean for me and for them? Then you turn all of this into prayer: “Lord, grant me to delight in you and give me then the desires of my heart; work out all things for my good and for theirs, but let me accept my place as a mere creature who understands very little of your ways, and help me to believe that you always intend my good, are always seeing to my happiness, are always intending the night to be followed by the morning. And then turn the same into a sermon to yourself about the Lord goodness in promising so much to you, urging yourself to take confidence in the Lord’s sovereignty, his fatherly pity, his sympathy for you in your troubles, and the absolute impossibility than anything that happens to you has not been filtered through your heavenly Father’s fingers. What hope and what spirit of submission this should create in your heart.
And then attempt to see it: your father in heaven, your Savior in Gethsemane and then as he is now at the Right Hand; the angels encamped around you, your Father’s hand upon you in your trials – the quiet waters and the green pastures – the blessings that are to come and the heavenly city. See how your life will look when you look back upon it from heaven.
That is what meditation is and that is what it does. And will it bring you help and blessing and peace and joy? Here is Richard Baxter, who knew a great deal about the Christian life and it is to be lived. He is speaking of such meditation as I have just described.
“If, by this means, you do not find an increase of all your graces, and do not grow beyond the stature of common Christians, and are not made more useful in your place, and more precious in the eyes of all discerning [people]; if you soul does not enjoy more communion with God, and your life is not more full of comfort…then forget what I have told you and exclaim against me for ever as a [liar].”
Whew! Baxter must be pretty sure meditation is really worth a Christian’s time and effort!