Tuesday, June 24, 2008

On Meditating

Adjusted Living in a Maladjusted World

By Pastor Larry DeBruyn

One writer describes the "silence" of mystical prayer: "When one enters the deeper layers of contemplative prayer one sooner or later experiences the void, the emptiness, the nothingness . . . the profound mystical silence . . . an absence of thought."[1] In his new book Life with God, Richard Foster describes Spiritual Disciplines to be activities Christians engage in so that they might become the athletae dei, the athletes of God. Foster pairs some of the disciplines to be, "fasting and prayers, study and service, submission and solitude, confession and worship, meditation and silence . . ."[2] Both authors associate spirituality with contemplative prayer, meditation, and silence. These aspects of spirituality do seem to connect with one another. But biblically, do they? Does the Bible ask us to approach God through a spirituality of silence?

To answer the question, we must go to the Old Testament where, especially in the book of Psalms, meditation, which contemplative spiritualists presume should be silent, is portrayed as a path to quality living, both spiritual and material. For example, the first Psalm exclaims, "How blessed is the man who . . . [delights] in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night . . . And . . . whatever he does . . . prospers" (Psalm 1:1-3; See 119:15, 23, etc.). In that meditation appears to be such an important avenue to "blessing," it would be well to understand from a biblical perspective what the activity is, and its relation, if any, to silence.

The word "meditate" (Hebrew, haga) occurs approximately twenty-five times in the Old Testament. Though the activity of meditation is not as specific in the New Testament as it is in the Old, Paul does encourage believers to "think upon" the positive values of life, things which are "honorable . . . right . . . pure . . . lovely . . . [and] of good repute" (Philippians 4:8). But integral to meditation under the Old Covenant dispensation was the law of God for it defined the conditions of God's relationship to and presence with His people. For example, after having broken the divine law, David pleads with God, "Do not cast me away from Thy presence, And do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me" (Psalm 51:11). Thus, believers in the ancient nation of Israel found spiritual communion with God through meditation concentrated upon God's law, which focus then stimulated their obedience to the law, and which compliance then created a favorable spiritual climate in which God would rain blessing upon their lives (See Deuteronomy 28:1-68.). Meditation upon and obedience to God's law affected prosperity.

Therefore, the Psalmists encouraged meditation upon the "law, precepts, statutes, word, and commandments" of God (Psalm 1:2; 119:15, 23, 48, 78, 148).[3] Indicating the role that mediation played in Hebrew spirituality, one inter-testamental apocryphal book advises: "Let thy mind be upon the ordinances of the Lord, and meditate continually in his commandments" (Sirach 6:37). But how are we to understand "meditation" (Hebrew, haga or siah)? Did Hebrew meditation involve cultivating silence? On this point, the Old Testament meaning of meditation becomes instructive. Several lines of evidence argue that Old Testament meditation did not involve seeking to enter a state of subjective silence.

First, that mediation was to concentrate upon the law indicates that biblical meditation did not involve cultivating a wordless void. Words comprised the law (See paragraph preceding.). For a moment, let's assume that meditation involves cultivating a silence in which the mind is emptied, self-creating, as it were, a tabula rasa (i.e., a hypothetical blank state of mind that must be achieved before the contemplator receives outside impressions). If by meditation the Psalmist meant that the devout were to enter into a zone of suspended thought, a tabula rasa, then there would have been no need to pray, "Let . . . the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer," (Psalm 19:14), for there would have been nothing there for God to be either pleased or displeased with!

Second, the word "meditation" (Hebrew, haga) does not connote silence. As the word's usage in the Old Testament indicates, "meditation" can refer to the growling of a lion (Isaiah 31:4). Such meditation hardly qualifies as a state of silence!

Third, some scriptures indicate that "meditation" involved the "mouth." For example, in one classic passage on meditation, the Lord told Joshua, "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy MOUTH; but thou shalt MEDITATE therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success" (Emphasis mine, Joshua 1:8, KJV). In this verse, note the association of "mouth" and "meditate." In the 19th Psalm the Psalmist prays, "Let the words of my MOUTH and the MEDITATION of my heart / Be acceptable in Thy sight, / O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer" (Emphasis mine, Psalm 19:14, NASB). Again, the Psalmist juxtaposes "words" with "meditation." In that "the meditation of my heart" parallels "words of my mouth," Wolf notes that "the psalmist compares his own speech with what God communicates in nature and in Scripture."[4] The Old Testament portrays meditation to be different than the spirituality of silence. Of the process, Wolf concludes, "Perhaps the Scripture was read half out loud in the process of meditation."[5]

Fourth, according to the Old Testament, meditating involves thinking or devising. The 2nd Psalm begins with a question: "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?" (Psalm 2:1, KJV). Interestingly, the word "imagine" means "meditate." Thus, one version translates the verse, "Why do the nations rage, And the peoples MEDITATE a vain thing?" (Emphasis mine, Psalm 2:1, ASV 1901). In other words, unrestrained by God's Word, the heathen were meditating (i.e., devising, plotting, conspiring) a vain thing; namely, that they could build a messianic kingdom without Yahweh, who is the Lord Jesus Christ. According to the second Psalm, meditation can become a fertile state of mind in which to hatch plans for rebellion against God. Such is the commentary of God upon our sinful state of soul (Genesis 6:5; 11:6; Jeremiah 17:9). Such antagonistic meditation hardly qualifies as a silent void of mind. In this regard, John Calvin warns: "If Scripture does not direct us in our inquiries after God, we immediately turn vain in our imaginations."[6] But God has not called us to build imaginary spirituality through silent meditation.

More ominously, when not concentrated upon the Word, meditating can even facilitate spiritualism. Regarding the meditations and mutterings of mediums, Isaiah the prophet warned Israel, "When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter (i.e., haga, or "meditate"), should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?" (Isaiah 8:19, NIV). If devoid of God's Word, meditation can describe an activity by which people enter into the forbidden zone of the occult. (See Deuteronomy 18:9-14.) Seemingly, even Richard Foster was aware of this danger, for he warned regarding the practice of silent contemplation: "I also want to give a word of precaution. In the silent contemplation of God we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm, and there is such a thing as supernatural guidance that is not divine guidance . . . there are various orders of spiritual beings, and some of them are definitely not in cooperation with God and his way!"[7]

Foster's warning highlights exactly why biblical meditation demands the sights and sounds of Scripture. As when the devil tested Jesus - when in His humanity, Jesus experienced solitude and starvation in the wilderness - at the moment of His temptation He fought off silence by audibly quoting the Code of Deuteronomy (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10), what stood "written." Of Jesus' response, thrice Matthew records that Jesus, "answered and said . . . Jesus said . . . [and] Jesus said . . ." Though Jesus often practiced solitude, there is no evidence in the Gospels that, in His life and ministry, He practiced a spiritual discipline of silence.

As one authority characterized the activity,

"[M]meditation means active contemplation, not wandering reverie [i.e., a state of dreamy or fanciful musing). It depends on purposeful concentration of the mind on the subject of meditation and deliberate expulsion of discordant thoughts and images. Later mysticism describes a further stage of meditation in which personal activity is inhibited, rational thought transcended, and the individual is carried on a current of contemplative feeling into a state of ecstasy which marks the summit of religious experience. Of this there is no trace in the Psalter . . ."[8]

It might be added that, neither is there a trace of it in the rest of Holy Scripture.

In summary then, biblical meditation does not necessitate cultivating silent silence.[9] The Hebrew words for "meditation" (haga and siah) do not suggest it does. As we have seen, meditation in the Old Testament is a conscious activity whereby devout souls think and speak the "law, precepts, statutes, word, and commandments" of God. Thus, the meditation is objective, not subjective; is active, not passive; is conscious, not unconsciousness; and is even spoken, not quiet. Biblical meditation is neither silent nor empty-headed. As believers focus their minds upon the words of Scripture, meditation involves the participation and response of the whole person, body (speaking and hearing) and soul (cognition, feeling, and obedience), to God's communication, a communication that comes through the words, works, wonders, ways, and wisdom of the most holy and beauteous God (See Psalms 1:2; 63:6; 77:11-14; 119:15, 23, 27, 48, 78, 148; 143:5; 145:5).

Silent contemplation, as least as defined by many contemporary spiritualists, does not qualify as biblical meditation. Our silence does not invoke His Presence. But according to the Old Testament paradigm of spirituality, thinking upon and reciting God's Word does. As Scripture is intellectually engaged and willfully obeyed, they are meditated. As always, Word mediates meditation.

The Truth:

"That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But SPEAKING the TRUTH in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ;" (Ephesians 4:14-15)

[1] Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing, How Ancient Mystical Practices are Uniting Christians with the World's Religions, 2nd Edition (Silverton, Oregon: Lighthouse Trails Publishing Company, 2006) 33, citing William Johnson, Letters to Contemplatives (Orbis Books, 1992) 13. Johnson is a Roman Catholic writer.
[2] Richard J. Foster, Life with God, Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation (New York: HarperCollins, 2008) 14.
[3] Herbert Wolf, "haga 467," Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 1, R. Laird Harris, Editor (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980) 205. The Old Testament also uses another word for "meditate" (Hebrew, siah, Psalm 119:15, 23, 27, 48, 78). As with haga, the range for meaning of siah is broad. Gary Cohen notes: "The basic meaning of this verb seems to be 'rehearse,' 'repent,' or 'go over a matter in one's mind.' This meditation or contemplation may be done either inwardly or outwardly. Since English differentiates these two notions, the word is usually rendered 'meditate,' or 'talk.' . . . In the first instance it is used of silent reflection on God's works . . . and God's word . . . In the second instance it is used of rehearsing aloud God's works . . . If the subject, however, is painful, it is translated 'to complain'." See Gary G. Cohen, "siah 2255," Theological Wordbook, Volume 2, 875-876. However else biblical meditation may be understood, it does not qualify to be the attempt by contemplators to create within themselves, by the application of certain meditative techniques, a silent void.
[4] Wolf, "haga," Theological Wordbook.
[5] Ibid. In January of 1984, I was privileged to tour Israel by bicycle. Yes, I pedaled from Dan to Beersheba. But before departure from New York, via El Al Airlines for Tel Aviv, I noticed several Hassidic Jews standing before an airport wall. Holding a book in their hands, they alternately moved their upper torso forward to and then backward from the wall as they read the Torah aloud. What were they doing? Seemingly, and according to an Old Testament understanding of haga, they were meditating!
[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume I, Henry Beveridge, Translator (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972 Reprint) I.14.1, 141-142. Calvin concludes: "Therefore, let us willingly remain hedged in by those boundaries within which God has been pleased to confine our persons, and, as it were, enclose our minds, so as to prevent them from losing themselves by wandering unrestrained."
[7] Richard Foster, Prayer, Finding the Heart's True Home (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992) 157.
[8] James S. McEwen, "Meditate," A Theological Word Book of the Bible, Alan Richardson, Editor (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950) 142.
[9] Trappist monks of the Cistercian order practice silence. Thomas Merton (1915-1968), well known author and contemplative spiritualist who in his later life converted to Buddhism, was a Trappist monk from the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. See "Trappists," Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trappist).

Pastor Larry DeBruyn is the author of Church on the Rise: Why I am not a Purpose-Driven Pastor. This article used with permission.