Learning to Meditate on Scripture

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The word meditation sounds an alarm in some Christian minds, evoking images of gurus sitting cross-legged amid chants and incense smoke. When I’ve taught on Scripture meditation, I’ve occasionally even been met by pushback, a wariness of anything that seems Eastern or mystical.

Notwithstanding the reality that the Christian tradition has its origins in the Ancient Near East, and that any religion claiming direct contact with the divine is by definition mystical (personal relationship with Jesus, anyone?), Scripture meditation is a very orthodox practice that has its origins in Scripture itself.

The traditional Christian practice of meditation on Scripture is distinctly different than the image I depicted earlier. Writer and professor Donald Whitney draws helpful distinctions between the Christian practice of Scripture meditation and the forms of meditation that are often “associated with yoga, transcendental meditation, relaxation therapy, or some New Age practice.” He writes:

The kind of meditation encouraged in the Bible differs from other kinds of meditation in several ways. While some advocate a kind of meditation in which you do your best to empty your mind, Christian meditation involves filling your mind with God and His truth. For some, meditation is an attempt to achieve complete mental passivity, but biblical mediation requires constructive mental activity. Worldly meditation employs visualization techniques intended to “create your own reality.” And while Christian history has always had a place for the sanctified use of our God-given imagination in meditation, imagination is our servant to help us meditate on things that are true (see Philippians 4:8). Furthermore, instead of “creating our own reality” through visualization, we link meditation with prayer to God and responsible, Spirit-filled human action to effect changes.

When practiced as Whitney suggests, and as the ancient Christian tradition teaches us, meditation is a safe and healthy practice. And for Jesus, Scripture meditation was not only safe and healthy but also a normal practice, as normal as Sabbath and sacrifice. He stood in a long line of Jews who were commanded to meditate on Scripture. His prayer book, the Psalms, begins with one of many encouragements for Scripture meditation:

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

but his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

Scripture meditation grounded God’s people in truth, shaping their imaginations and forming their character. It was through Scripture meditation—on their sacred stories and spiritual wisdom—that one generation inherited the mindsets, customs, and practices from the previous generation. When ancient stories were passed from one generation to the next, Israel retained and solidified its identity and its sense of place and meaning in the world.

When, however, is vital, for when they did not meditate on Scripture, on their core narratives, they failed to remember who they were, and they forgot God’s goodness and became ungrateful. They failed at their vocation as the people of God, seeking instead to become like all the other nations of the world. And likewise, when we do not meditate on Scripture, we forget who we are and lose the plot that provides structure, shape, direction, and meaning for our lives.

But when we meditate on Scripture, God’s words shape our minds, showing us who we are and who God is. Scripture reminds us that we are not left to our own devices to create, out of whole cloth, some sense of meaningfulness in our lives, to construct our own stories from scratch, for our stories are part of God’s story. And it reminds us of God’s many blessings in our lives, for which we should remain grateful. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton encourages us,

We wish to gain a true evaluation of ourselves and of the world so as to understand the meaning of our life as children of God redeemed from sin and death. . . . These are the aims and goals of [meditation].

We need a true evaluation of ourselves. When we immerse our minds and hearts in truth, the silly and flippant arguments and opinions flooding our minds fall silent. We develop a slow and deliberate thoughtfulness, becoming more protected against the temptation to perform for others’ approval. No longer do we seek to leap from one metaphorical temple after the next to ensure we measure up. Instead, we grow grateful as we meditate on what is true about God, true about the world, and true about ourselves. We find peace in wisdom, and we find this wisdom as we immerse our minds in the Holy Scriptures.

While I’d prefer you think you’re sitting at the feet of a master Scripture meditator, the truth is, my meditating mind can resemble a tree full of preadolescent, caffeinated, hyperactive orangutans. I’m a work in process, and I’m writing not from a place of meditation mastery but from what I know to be true based on my experience and the experiences of trustworthy guides.

The best way that I’ve come to think about meditation is that it simply means to think deeply about something. You can meditate on a candle, a fingernail, a box of cereal, a paper clip, a conversation you had, a word, a song, a trip you’ll take, a friend you miss, a fear that grips you—anything. From this perspective, whether you realize it or not, you are already an accomplished meditator. The issue is whether what you are meditating on has beneficial or harmful effects on your soul.

Alan Morinis, again citing Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, illustrates the impact of meditation on the soul:

The intellect is not the most profound aspect of the soul; it is not the root. But impressions—

Wholesome as well as unwholesome—gathered in the mind do pass down to the root, and color and shape the soul.

The things we see, the things we think deeply on, imprint on the deepest place of our being and cleanse or taint the well from which flows our words and actions, our dreams and aspirations.

Because we are all indeed proficient meditators, the issue then becomes: How do we go about meditating on a subject that has the power to shape our souls in healthy ways? Let’s consider a few practical guides to Scripture meditation.

First, when we meditate, the goal is not to get through the Scriptures but to get the Scriptures through us. Before we unpack this statement, understand that I am absolutely an advocate of Bible reading and of Bible memorization. I’m a proponent and promoter of the plans that take you through some portion of, or indeed the whole sweep of, Scripture over a defined period, like read-the-Bible-in-a-year plans. These have their place and are beneficial. We need to read through the whole of Scripture to gain a perspective of how its various pieces work and weave together.

But when we meditate, we are not reading for information—we are reading for transformation. And transformation is slow and deep work. We’re not seeking to merely interpret the text but to allow it to interpret the deep places of our hearts and lives to us. We’re not even seeking to master the text but rather to be mastered by it.

Seventeenth-century French mystic Madame Guyon illustrates this point well:

If you read quickly, it will benefit you little. You will be like a bee that merely skims the surface of a flower. Instead, in this new way of reading with prayer, you must become as the bee who penetrates into the depths of the flower. You plunge deeply within to remove its deepest nectar.

To take the plunge, we need to give ourselves permission to sit with just a few lines, or perhaps even just a word or two, and to think deeply about them. We allow this small portion of Scripture that we have found meaningful to roll around in our hearts and minds like a cough drop in our mouths. When we do, the taste lingers long. Scripture continues its work as we go throughout our days, available for us to draw upon as needed.

Second, Scripture reading is done with the eyes, but Scripture meditation is done with the ears. I’m not referring to listening to Scripture being read aloud but rather to the mindset and awareness with which we approach Scripture as we seek to meditate on it. Eugene Peterson wrote:

Listening and reading are not the same thing. They involve different senses. In listening we use our ears; in reading we use our eyes. We listen to the sound of a voice; we read marks on paper. . . . Listening is an interpersonal act; it involves two or more people in fairly close proximity. . . . The listener is required to be attentive to the speaker and is more or less at the speaker’s mercy. . . . When I read a book the book does not know if I am paying attention or not; when I listen to a person the person knows very well whether I am paying attention or not. In listening, another initiates the process; when I read I initiate the process. . . . I can read by myself; I cannot listen by myself. In listening the speaker is in charge; in reading the reader is in charge.

Peterson went on to explain that listening to Scripture, of course, presupposes that we read Scripture. While we cannot listen to Scripture without reading it, we can read it without listening to it. And when we do, we miss out on the depth of transformational work that Scripture can do as it works its way to the roots of our soul, alive, active, and transforming us all the way down.

Third, an important goal of Scripture meditation is application—to live it out in your daily life and interactions. We’re not meditating just so we can have aha! moments of insight or revelation (though we’re open to them); we’re seeking to have our minds renewed and our souls transformed so we can live as more effective disciples, resisting the temptations that make their way to us.

Joshua 1:8 admonishes us, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.” We leave our time of meditation seeking to embody and practice the truth that captivated our attention.

When we meditate on Scripture, we come to it ready to be changed, seeking to hear what it has to say to us personally so that we can live it out publicly. We’re not coming to it with the intention of getting the whole story, or covering large amounts of the text in a sitting, or analyzing it. We’re coming to it with the slow and inefficient purpose of an intimate listening. As we listen, we do not leave the words on the page. We take what we have heard, and we move forward into our days.

Adapted from Ache for Meaning by Tommy Brown. Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.

Tommy Brown is the pastor for spiritual and community formation at Generations United Church in Freeport, Florida. He has a BA in pastoral ministry and master’s degrees in divinity and management, and he is the author of The Seven Money Types: Discover How God Wired You to Handle Money. Tommy's newest book, The Ache for Meaning, will release on September 9, 2023 from NavPress.

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