"How to be 10% happier: Meditate"1
At least that’s what the headline read in yesterday’s USA Today (April 3, 2014). The story concerned ABC newsman Dan Harris, the co-anchor of Nightline and weekend editions of Good Morning America, and his new book, 10% Happier. Following an “extremely embarrassing” on-air panic attack, Harris began to explore the world of meditation. “It’s completely secular,” notes Harris. Continue reading . . .
At least that’s what the headline read in yesterday’s USA Today (April 3, 2014). The story concerned ABC newsman Dan Harris, the co-anchor of Nightline and weekend editions of Good Morning America, and his new book, 10% Happier. Following an “extremely embarrassing” on-air panic attack, Harris began to explore the world of meditation. “It’s completely secular,” notes Harris. He describes it in three steps:
“One, sit down with your spine straight and close your eyes. Second, try to notice where the feeling of your breath is most prominent, and try to focus on what it feels like every time it comes in and goes out. And the third step is the key. Every time you catch your mind wandering, forgive yourself and bring your attention back to the breath. That moment is the bicep curl for the brain.”
So what is the Christian to think about this? Is there any place for meditation in the life of the believer? Yes, I believe there is, but not in the way Harris describes it.
All of us want to not sin. When the apostle Paul said in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he meant that sin is failing to glorify God because of having cherished other things as more valuable and enjoyable than him. The key to not sinning is therefore to enjoy God above all else, for in our enjoyment of him is his glory in us. The psalmist declares that the way not to sin, i.e., the way to enjoy God above all else, is by treasuring his Word in our hearts (Ps. 119:11). Making God’s Word our heart’s treasure is another way of describing one aspect of meditation. More than merely “confessing” his Word, “treasuring” it “in our hearts” means placing ultimate value on its truth, prizing it as something precious and dear and of supreme excellence, and then ingesting it through memorization and meditation so that it flows freely through our spiritual veins. When this happens the Holy Spirit energizes our hearts to believe and behave in conformity with its dictates. In other words, we sin less.
The problem we face is that meditation has become a dirty word in many Christian circles. But meditation is a thoroughly biblical concept, apart from which the believer will never fully embrace and experience the depths of communion with God that he has made available to his children. We simply must not permit the abuse and distortion of this biblical practice to rob us of the delights God intends for it to impart.
Meditation begins, but by no means ends, with thinking on Scripture. To meditate properly our souls must reflect upon what our minds have ingested and our hearts must rejoice in what our souls have grasped. We have truly meditated when we slowly read, prayerfully imbibe and humbly rely upon what God has revealed to us in his Word. All of this, of course, in conscious dependence on the internal, energizing work of the Spirit.
Meditation, then, is being attentive to God. It is one way we “keep seeking the things above where Christ is” (Col. 3:1). It is a conscious, continuous engagement of the mind with God. This renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:1-2) is part of the process by which the word of God penetrates the soul and spirit with the light of illumination and the power of transformation.
Meditation may take one of several forms, depending on the object upon which we focus our mental and spiritual energy. Most important of all is meditation on Scripture.
Spiritual and moral transformation does not descend upon us like dew from heaven. Change is the fruit of fascination with the glory of God as revealed in Scripture. “We change,” notes John Piper, “because we have seen a superior beauty and worth and excellence. If you look into the face of Christ and then look into Sports Illustrated or Glamour and are not moved by the superior beauty and worth and excellence and desirability of Christ, then you are still hard and blind and futile in your thinking. You need to cry out, ‘Open my eyes to see wonderful things out of your Word!’ And your life will show it. Where your treasure is – your desire, your delight, your beauty – there will your heart be also – and your evenings and your Saturdays and your money. We are changed by seeing the glory of God in the Word of God” (from a sermon entitled, “Wonderful Things from Your Word,” January 11, 1998, p. 2).
Consider these statements about meditating on God’s Word:
"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; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success" (Joshua 1:8).
"How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night" (Ps. 1:1-2).
"Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee" (Ps. 119:11).
"I will meditate on Thy precepts, and regard Thy ways" (Ps. 119:15).
"Even though princes sit and talk against me, Thy servant meditates on Thy statutes" (Ps. 119:23).
"And I shall lift up my hands to Thy commandments, which I love; and I will meditate on Thy statutes" (Ps. 119:48).
"May the arrogant be ashamed, for they subvert me with a lie; but I shall meditate on Thy precepts" (Ps. 119:78).
"O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day" (Ps. 119:97).
"I have more insight than all my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my meditation" (Ps. 119:99).
"How sweet are Thy words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" (Ps. 119:103).
"My eyes anticipate the night watches, that I may meditate on Thy word" (Ps. 119:148).
When the seed of the Word sprouts and sinks its roots deeply into our souls, the fruit it yields is sheer gladness. The psalmist declares him “blessed” who “greatly delights” in God’s commandments (Ps. 112:1). In the hymnic celebration of God’s Word, Psalm 119, we read of him finding more joy in God’s testimonies than in all riches and what they might buy (Ps. 119:14). He committed himself to “delight” in God’s statutes (Ps. 119:16,24,35,47,70,77) and to relish the joy they bring even in the midst of affliction (Ps. 119:92,143).
There is also meditation on God’s creative power and beauty in nature.
I’m still growing, often imperceptibly, in my appreciation for the splendor of natural creation. I have to be honest, though, and admit that I’d rather be sitting at my desk with book in hand, under the refreshing breeze of a well-oiled air-conditioner, than on the beach or in the woods or walking in a grassy meadow. I have much to learn from the Scriptures in this regard. Jonathan Edwards has helped me, as he describes the impact of one particular encounter with the power and wonder of creation:
"And as I walking there [in his father's pasture], and looked up on the sky and clouds; there came into my mind, a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. . . . The appearance of everything was altered: there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God's excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the day time, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the mean time, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce any thing, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning. Formerly, nothing had been so terrible to me. I used to be a person uncommonly terrified with thunder: and it used to strike me with terror, when I saw a thunder-storm rising. But now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God at the first appearance of a thunder-storm. And used to take the opportunity at such times to fix myself to view the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God's thunder: which often times was exceeding entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. And while I viewed, used to spend my time, as it always seemed natural to me, to sing or chant forth my meditations; to speak my thoughts in soliloquies, and speak with a singing voice” (Diary, 27-28).
And then of course just thinking about God himself can be a mind-altering, heart-warming, sin-killing experience.
"One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to meditate in His temple" (Ps. 27:4).
"When I remember Thee on my bed, I meditate on Thee in the night watches" (Ps. 63:6).
"I have considered the days of old, the years of long ago. I will remember my song in the night; I will meditate with my heart; and my spirit ponders. . . . I shall remember the deeds of the Lord; surely I will remember Thy wonders of old. I will meditate on all Thy work, and muse on Thy deeds" (Ps. 77:5-6,11-12).
"Great are the works of the Lord; they are studied by all who delight in them" (Ps. 111:2).
"Make me understand the way of Thy precepts, so I will meditate on Thy wonders" (Ps. 119:27).
"I will remember the days of old; I meditate on all Thy doings; I muse on the work of Thy hands" (Ps. 143:5).
"On the glorious splendor of Thy majesty, and on Thy wonderful works, I will meditate" (Ps. 145:5).
"If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth" (Col. 3:1-2).
"Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith . . . for consider Him . . ." (Heb. 12:2-3).
Once more, Edwards writes:
"I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious ways of salvation by Him. I had an inward, sweet sense of these things, that at times came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged, to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ; and the beauty and excellency of His person, and the lovely way of salvation, by free grace in Him. . . . [And I] found, from time to time, an inward sweetness, that used, as it were, to carry me away in my contemplations; in what I know not how to express otherwise, than by a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns of this world; and a kind of vision, or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in God. The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden as it were, kindle up a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of my soul, that I know not how to express” (Diary, 26-27).
Consider a few other texts on meditation:
"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer" (Ps. 19:14).
"Let my meditation be pleasing to Him; as for me, I shall be glad in the Lord" (Ps. 104:34).
"Cease striving and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10).
"My mouth will speak wisdom; and the meditation of my heart will be understanding" (Ps. 49:3).
"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things" (Phil. 4:8).
So how does Christian meditation differ from the way it is practiced in secular, non-Christian circles?
(1) Unlike those forms of meditation which advocate emptying the mind, Christian meditation calls on us to fill our mind with God and his truth. I’ve often heard well-meaning but misguided Christians suggest that the mind is dangerous or at least inferior to the heart. We frequently hear it said that God does not want to lead us or guide us or speak to us through our minds but through our hearts, as if "mind" and "heart" in Scripture are at odds with each other. A careful examination of the use of those words in the Bible will reveal that nothing could be farther from the truth. The Bible repeatedly exhorts us to be renewed and transformed in our minds (e.g., Rom. 12:1-2). Paul prayed for the Philippians that they might "abound still more and more in real knowledge and discernment" (1:9). He prayed for the Colossians that they might "be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding" (1:9).
Nowhere in the Bible is the "mind", per se, described as evil or unworthy of being the means by which God communicates with us. What the Bible does denounce is intellectual pride, but not the intellect itself. It is humility that we need, not ignorance. I stand opposed to arrogant and cynical intellectualism. But that is not the same thing as using the mind God has given us, with the help of the Holy Spirit and the instruction of Scripture, to evaluate and discern and critically assess what is happening in both the church and the world. Whereas some things that God says and does are trans-rational, insofar as they are mysterious and often go beyond our ability to fully comprehend, God never does things that are irrational in the sense that they might violate the fundamental laws of logic or the reasonable and rational truths of Holy Scripture.
(2) Unlike other forms of meditation which advocate mental passivity, Christian meditation calls on us to actively exert our mental energy. This is nowhere better stated than by Paul in Philippians 4:8. Here he encourages us to “let our minds dwell on” whatever is “true,” “honorable,” “right,” “pure,” “lovely,” and of “good repute.” Those things that are “excellent” and “worthy of praise” are to be the targets of our mental aim.
It isn’t enough merely to acknowledge that things and ideas of moral and mental excellence are important. Merely affirming such truths and virtues will avail little in a time of testing. We must energetically reckon, take into account, and give deliberative weight to these things. Our minds must be captivated by them in such a way that the tawdry, sleazy, fictitious, and fanciful fluff of the world loses its appeal. D. A. Carson reminds us that “this is not some escapist demand to avoid the harsh realities of our fallen world. The sad fact is that many people dwell on dirt without grasping that it is dirt. The wise Christian will see plenty of dirt in the world, but will recognize it as dirt, precisely because everything that is clean has captured his or her mind” (Basics for Believers, 116).
(3) Unlike secular expressions of meditation which advocate detachment from the world, Christian meditation calls for attachment to God. If the believer disengages from the distractions and allurements of the world, it is in order that he/she might engage with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
(4) Unlike those forms of meditation which advocate visualization in order to create one's own reality, Christian meditation calls for visualization of the reality already created by God. Christians do not meditate to experience metaphysical oneness with God but to enjoy spiritual communion with him. When believers meditate they do not embark on an inner journey to find the center of their being but look outward and away from themselves to focus on the objective revelation of God in Scripture and creation. It is not some mystical transport that we seek but moral transformation into the image of Christ himself.
May God help us to think deeply and lovingly and gratefully on him and his saving grace to us Christ Jesus!