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Meditation: a lost Christian privilege?

June 2014

Dear Friends,

At most meetings of the Crieff Fellowship, William Mackenzie, Director and Founder of Christian Focus Publications (whose visit on 11th May we are looking forward to very much), gives book reviews. From time to time he will throw (paperback!) books for the ministers to catch. Whether he targets any individuals with his aim is something he has not yet disclosed. However, departing from his normal practice, he said he wanted virtually to give away to everyone a book by Edmond Smith on A Tree by a Stream as he felt that it addressed a major problem in all Christian churches: how to unlock the secrets of active meditation. The fact that I had to leave reading of the book until train journeys is probably in itself a revealing comment on one of the most significant challenges today: the lack of time. The book itself charts the importance of meditation in the lives of John Calvin, Murray McSheyne, John Newton and Martyn Lloyd-Jones and 4 Puritans (Richard Baxter, John Flavel, John Bunyan and Nathaniel Mather). While the focus below in this letter is different, the book stimulated me to think more about a subject which is mentioned some 20 times in the Bible, and was not considered as an optional extra in the normal Christian life.

A lost discipline

There are many reasons for the absence or relative unimportance of meditation in our daily lives. The first is probably the culture we live in, dominated by the need for instant gratification and the love of the sensational. Electronic access on a scale that our forebears could never have imagined, while providing so many benefits, can distract us from thinking about God. That request on Facebook, that text or email, or that tweet, get an instant reply which makes us prioritise this mode of communication over the waiting on God in prayer and the contemplation of his Word.

The distractions we face, however, were no less challenging in earlier days. As Blaise Pascal, the famous French mathematician, physicist and amateur philosopher said, with the rhetorical exaggeration characteristic of Christian apologetics, we do not naturally want to think about God or our chief end: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. (Pascal was not advocating we live as a recluse, as he was conscious of the need of distraction to avoid the bedrock of despair.)

Our busy lifestyles too leave much less time for disciplined study of the Word than those cited above seemed to have had. Yet this is perhaps an illusion. All of these men were perhaps no less busy than we. Most of them would not have had the comfort of trains or even Ryan Air to take them to engagements overseas. John Wesley, who would, even at an advanced age, go to meetings on horseback, records how he would withdraw from time to time to seek communion with God. Joseph Alleyne (he of the Alarm to the Unconverted fame) was challenged to hear the blacksmith’s hammer in the early hours of the day before he had spoken to his Master.

Another reason for our reluctance to engage in meditation is the confusion surrounding the subject. So much of the literature on meditation deals with Eastern practices and not the biblical examples. Christian meditation does not require us to adopt particular yogic postures or exercise controlled deep breathing or to utter mantras. We do not have to sit cross-legged or stare fixedly at a candle or at whatever symbol. Such meditation can start and end with ourselves and may be characterised by self-centred objectives. Christian meditation starts with God.

More disconcerting is the belief that some forms of meditation lead to a ‘higher consciousness’ in which the source of salvation is found within us and not in the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. No amount of physical or verbal gymnastics or bodily contortions can take away the sin which separates us from our Creator.

We can also sometimes think that meditation is the sole province of mystics like Theresa of Avila or of San Juan de la Cruz.

Another mistaken view is that meditation entails emptying our minds and bypassing our rational faculties. While other types of meditation may suggest the suspension of rational thought, Christian meditation aims to fill the mind with thoughts related to passages from the Bible.

The two words for meditation in the Old Testament have been susceptible of different interpretations. Hāgâ (e.g. Joshua 1: 8; Psalm, 1:2; 63: 6; 77:12; 143: 5) literally means to ‘mutter’, and by extension to repeat God’s words to ourselves. Sîḥâ (e.g.Genesis 24: 63; Psalm 119: 15, 23, 48, 78, 148, and Psalm 104: 34) means to ‘muse’ or to ‘rehearse in one’s mind’. In both words, the mind is clearly engaged. Obviously, our emotions are also stirred as we contemplate the character of God and what He has done for us.

Subjects of meditation

In the examples in the Bible the focus of meditation is on:

God Himself. One of the ways in which we may bring glory to God is to think about his character and his attributes. Our meditating on God decentralises self. Martyn Lloyd-Jones would suggest that many of our problems stem from our starting with ourselves and not with God.

God’s Word. So many of the references to meditation are centred on God’s law. The link between meditation and obedience is reiterated, right from one of the earliest exhortations in Joshua 1: 8:

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.

God’s Works. As the Psalmist records (77: 12): ‘I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds’. How awesome God’s works, from creation, redemption to glorification!

God’s Providence. How many times the people of God reminded themselves of God’s goodness in the past. All the ‘ebenezers’, the times when we can say ‘hitherto has the Lord helped us’, should stimulate fresh confidence in us to face the future with God, whatever the particular difficulties we may encounter. John Flavel, who suffered much persecution, was able to sustain his faith by the awareness that his circumstances were moulded by God’s good providential hand. In fact, such meditation enabled him to overcome the ‘natural atheism’ in his heart, at times when the present trial seemed like the greatest he had ever faced.

What is good. Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians outlaws the negative approach to life, and the glass-half-empty mentality:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable

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