The Bible does speak about meditation. It basically means thinking about God and His Word in His presence. We can look at a few verses that shed some light.
The Old Testament patriarch Isaac once “went out to the field one evening to meditate” (Gen 24:63). It appears that Isaac was used to meditating out in the solitude found in the fields in the evening (when nobody would be working and people would be resting from their labours).
Joshua was told to read and meditate on God’s law (Josh 1:8). The Hebrew word for “meditate” is hagah, the same word used in Isaiah 31:4 referring to the sound of a lion growling over its prey (perhaps referring to hunger pangs). Here the concept of meditation is the practice of chewing on God’s Word. It is like the way cows eat grass, sitting and chewing the cud.
This is biblical stillness that is connected with meditation upon God and His Word. In our solitude, silence, and stillness we become connected with God as we think about Him and become aware of His presence, precepts, purposes, and promises. This can be seen often in many of the psalms.
“On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.” (Ps 63:6)
“I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.” (Ps 119:15)
“My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.” (Ps 119:148)
“I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.” (Ps 143:5)
We can read God’s Word in different ways, but it is in silence and stillness that we are able to meditate on what we read as we think of God. Theologian J I Packer helps us to understand what is involved in Christian meditation and what its result is.
“Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purpose and promises of God. It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God as a means of communication with God. Its purpose is to clear one’s mental and spiritual vision of God, and to let His truth make its full and proper impact on one’s mind and heart. It is a matter of talking to oneself about God and oneself; it is, indeed, often a matter of arguing with oneself, reasoning oneself out of moods of doubt and unbelief into a clear apprehension of God’s power and grace” (emphasis added).
Note the content of meditation is God as we bring into focus our thoughts and attitudes and emotions. It results in clarity, which results from practising stillness in God’s presence as we learn to set our hearts and minds “on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1).
It is a place of quiet rest in which we find true peace, where our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). It is for this reason that Jesus told His disciples (and us) that while in this world we will have trouble, in Him we can have peace (Jn 16:33).
The ancient practice of reading God’s Word, meditating on it and responding to it through prayer is called lectio divina (literally “spiritual reading”). Elsewhere I have explained this process (Till Christ be Formed In Us, 2019, ch 30). Here we only need to note that following meditation on God’s Word and prayer is the experience of contemplation that can be described as resting quietly and lovingly in God.
Christian meditation is the “laboratory of the soul” (Morton Kelsey) that provides, as Richard Foster explains, “the emotional and spiritual space that allows God to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart”.
Mindfulness and How It Differs from Christian Meditation
Christian meditation is not the same as the modern concept and practice of mindfulness, a movement that began with the work of medical doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn who introduced the techniques of mindfulness in the 1980s as a natural way to combat stress and illness.
Today, it is widely practised in medical services, business, education, and for self-care. Even churches have adopted this practice, the religious roots of the movement notwithstanding.
According to mindfulness.org, “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
It is true that mindfulness helps people to connect with their bodies and minds, and to focus on the present experience. It is an antidote in part to the highly stressful lives that modern people live. It might bring better physical and mental health. However, it is not the same as biblical Christian meditation.
While mindfulness helps you to focus on your body and your biofeedback, and your present thoughts and feelings without any judgement, Christian meditation turns its central attention elsewhere.
Mindfulness produces self-awareness while Christian meditation produces awareness of the other (more specifically, God). Mindfulness is self-referenced, while Christian meditation is relational in approach.
Most specifically, meditation, as the church father John Cassian (360-435) wrote in the early church, is “divine contemplation” (pondering over divine things) something the Lord considers as the “chief good.”
Scripture urges us to “pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1).
In mindfulness we are mindful of ourselves, while Christian meditation makes us pay attention – we become attentive to others; in the case of God, we become more worshipful, and in the case of others, we become more compassionate.
Together with this, we become more aware of ourselves in relation to God and others. The central experience in Christian meditation is love (cf. the Christian calling to love God and neighbours).
Mindfulness can help people to de-stress and find relief, but it does not go far in our search for God and in developing our relationship with Him. The Bible calls us to have the “mind of Christ” (Phil 2:5).
This includes thinking thoughts about God; it is when we do so that we experience true and lasting peace. “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. (Isa 26:3, ESV).
Such attentiveness to God and, through Him, to others will help us to live a life of worship, obedience, compassion, and love. We will thus be able to please God and serve others.
Modified excerpt from Robert M Solomon, Spiritual Disciplines for Urban Christians (Singapore: Genesis, 2021), 193-197.