This article is by Scott Hubbard and published by Desiring God
In Christ, God made our hearts to burn for him. Though our affections rise and fall, and our zeal boils hotter on some days than others, coldness is not the Christian’s heritage. We are those who walk on the Emmaus road, our souls catching fire as Christ opens, again and again, the Scriptures that speak of him (Luke 24:32). We belong to the fellowship of burning hearts.
Yet we also know what it feels like for the fire to burn low, for a coldness to settle over a heart once aflame. Some of us feel that way most mornings. Our hearts, like campfires untended, cool overnight. We wake up ashen, needy for the Spirit to breathe on us again.
What do we do when our hearts grow cold? Many Christians of old, themselves burning and shining lamps, would advise us not only to read God’s word, and not only to pray God’s word, but also to slow down, take a deep breath, and meditate on God’s word.
What Is Meditation?
In common forms of meditation today, people sit or kneel for a set time, paying attention to inhaling and exhaling breath. The mind is engaged, but not particularly active. Biblical meditation, however, calls for thought and feeling more than posture and breathing. And most importantly, biblical meditation focuses not on our breath but on God’s: we give ourselves, with rigorous reflection, to his breathed-out word, until our hearts begin to warm.
Tim Keller, summarizing John Owen, offers a concise and helpful description of meditation:
Meditation is thinking a truth out and then thinking a truth in until its ideas become “big” and “sweet,” moving and affecting, and until the reality of God is sensed upon the heart. (Prayer, 162)
Keller’s description finds classic expression in Psalm 1, Scripture’s preeminent passage on meditation. Here, the psalmist thinks the truth out, filling his mind with “the law of the Lord” rather than “the counsel of the wicked” (Psalm 1:1–2). He thinks and thinks, at specific times and also “day and night” (Psalm 1:2), bending his energies toward understanding God’s revealed truth.
He also thinks the truth in, pressing it into his soul until Scripture becomes the sap running through every limb (Psalm 1:3). He not only understands God’s word, but relishes it: “His delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:2). The truth has become big and sweet to him, crowding out the alternative delights flanking him on every side (Psalm 1:1).
Finally, having worked the truth out in his mind and into his heart, the truth works itself out in his life, setting him on a path of spiritual prospering that is the prelude to a happy judgment day (Psalm 1:4–6). No wonder he is “blessed” (Psalm 1:1), supremely happy in the God who speaks such wonderful words.
Psalm 1 has already given us several reasons to meditate: Meditation warms and delights our hearts (Psalm 1:2). Meditation protects us from the fate of the wicked (Psalm 1:1, 5). Meditation makes us strong and fruitful as trees fed by rivers (Psalm 1:3). The first verse of the next psalm, however, offers another compelling reason.
“Biblical meditation calls for thought and feeling more than posture and breathing.”
Psalm 2, which records the futile fury of unbelievers against God’s anointed king, begins, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” (Psalm 2:1). Strikingly, as Derek Kidner observes, the Hebrew word for plot here is the same as the word for meditate in Psalm 1:2. The blessed man meditates; so do the godless nations; so does everyone else. We will meditate one way or another, and if not on God’s words, then on words supplied by our flesh, the world, or the devil.
In a world like ours, godly meditation is a form of resistance, a retaking and renewing of a mind that once rebelled against God. Kidner writes of Psalm 1, “The mind was the first bastion to defend, in verse 1, and is treated as the key to the whole man. . . . Whatever really shapes a man’s thinking shapes his life” (Psalms 1–72, 64). In other words: capture the mind, capture the man.
How Do We Meditate?
Practically, then, how can we meditate? What steps might we take, with God’s help, to think his truth out and think it in such that we are formed by the words of God rather than the words of man?
Consider one modest approach: prepare your mind and heart, pause and ponder, press it home. To these we might also add the brief but necessary prequel to pick a place and time, probably as part of your daily Bible reading. Though meditation is not only a discrete act but a lifestyle (“day and night”), the lifestyle develops from regular (even daily) uninterrupted times of focused meditation. Some may find such times in short supply, but those who make the needed sacrifices for even brief periods of meditation will find more than enough benefits to compensate for their losses.
Having picked our place and time, then, we are ready to prepare our minds and hearts.
1. Prepare your mind and heart.
John Owen describes a familiar experience in meditation: “I began to think of God, of his love and grace in Christ Jesus, of my duty towards him; and where now, in a few minutes, do I find myself? I am got unto the ends of the earth” (Works of John Owen, 7:382). Meditations on the love of God can quickly become meditations on lunch or chores or emails. Part of our preparation, then, is to expect difficulty.
Meditation requires spiritual resolve, the kind that says, “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (Psalm 119:15). The psalmist fixed the eyes of his mind on God’s word, refusing to look at shiny objects in the periphery. He riveted his attention, barred the doors against distractions, and expelled intruding thoughts. And when he found his mind wandering, his eyes unfixed, he didn’t give up or roll over, but lassoed the wanderer and reset his gaze.
More than that, he prayed. Past and present experience revealed his insufficiency for meditation. So he pleaded: “Open my eyes,” “Give me life,” “Make me understand,” “Teach me,” “Enlarge my heart,” “Lead me,” “Incline my heart,” “Turn my eyes,” and so on (Psalm 119:18, 25, 27, 29, 32, 35–37). Those who attempt prayerless meditation refuse not only Saul’s armor, but also David’s sling: unarmed, they wrestle the Goliath of distraction alone.
Mature meditators learn not to faint at the first temptation toward distraction (or at the tenth), and they also learn not to rely on resolve alone.
2. Pause and ponder.
Meditation and Bible reading are not the same activity. If Bible reading brings us beneath the stars, meditation puts our eye to the telescope and bids us to study Orion or Sirius. Meditation begins when we pause over a particular glory and begin to ponder. Perhaps the glory arrested us right in the middle of our Bible reading, or perhaps we return to it once we’ve finished a passage; either way, we begin to think the specific glory out — to search, examine, observe, understand.
Thinking a truth out can take any number of forms. If we have just finished Psalm 1 and want to meditate on the first part of verse 2 (“His delight is in the law of the Lord”), we might, for example, write the verse slowly. Or we might read the verse repeatedly, each time emphasizing a different word: “His delight is in the law of the Lord,” “His delight is in the law of the Lord . . .” Or we might force ourselves to ask questions: How does “the law of the Lord” relate to “the counsel of the wicked” in verse 1? Why does the psalmist say his delight is in the law of the Lord rather than in the Lord himself?
“Meditation is not only for burning, zealous Christians, but for those who know they are not.”
Don’t be afraid to speak out loud. The word for meditate carries the idea of speech; hence why translators sometimes render it as tell, utter, or mutter (Psalm 35:28; 37:30; Isaiah 8:19). Hence also why God says to Joshua, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night” (Joshua 1:8). So try speaking God’s word as well, which, if nothing else, may at least help to focus your attention.
3. Press it home.
Some may be tempted to stop here. But thinking a truth out is only part of meditation, because a heart that understands God’s word may still feel cold to God’s word; it may experience light, but without heat. So, after thinking a truth out, we think it in, pressing it home to our hearts.
“Preach to yourself” may sound by now like a well-worn application. But for all of our familiarity with the idea, I wonder if the actual practice is largely untried, or perhaps tried briefly and then laid aside. Either way, one of the most powerful methods of pressing God’s truth home is heralding it home. As Richard Baxter writes, “Imitate the most powerful preacher you ever heard” (A Quest for Godliness, 13).
How regularly do you stand in the pulpit of your soul during your devotions? How often do you take a truth in hand, and play the role of prophet or psalmist, not for someone else but for yourself? How frequently do you rebuke your unbelief, declare God’s fixed truth to your fluctuating feelings, and strive to preach fire into your cold heart?
‘I Will Meditate’
Meditation is not only for burning, zealous Christians, but for those who know they are not. Meditation is for those who, like the author of Psalm 119, can say, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep” (Psalm 119:176) — whether for a day, or a week, or a month.
The same prone-to-wander psalmist says four times to God and himself, “I will meditate” (Psalm 119:15, 27, 48, 78). I will meditate, because I know my heart needs warmth. I will meditate, because I know how easily I stray. I will meditate, because I need to see his glory. I will meditate, because he alone can rekindle my delight.
Blessed — happy! — are those who say the same (Psalm 1:1–2).