I am always amazed at the depths awaiting us in both study and meditation on Scripture.
We easily understand the concept of studying the Bible. The most basic method for personal and group study is often called the inductive Bible study method. It is based on three steps. Observation: What does it say? Interpretation: What does it mean? And application: How do I apply what I learn in my life? We could call study “cognitive meditation” because it uses the analytic functions of the left hemisphere of our brains to come to understanding.
Meditation, however, is a different approach to God’s Word. Meditation is a word that often makes Christians nervous. They rightly think of the problems of “eastern mediation.” “Eastern religions… usually stress the painstaking discipline by which one detaches oneself from the world, losing personhood or individuality and merging with the Cosmic Mind to become one with pure consciousness” (Morton T. Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence, New York; Paulist Press, 1976, p. 1). I heartily agree that Jesus’ followers do not follow that path. We do not empty our minds; we fill our minds and hearts with God’s Word.
Christian meditation is different from study. To meditate means to “murmur” over and over. We could also use the metaphor of rumination, like a cow chewing its cud over and over. Meditation moves from analysis to encounter. Like Mary (Luke 2:19), we ponder God’s word in our hearts.
The Lord clearly call us to meditate on Scripture.
Oh, the joys of those who do not
follow the advice of the wicked,
or stand around with sinners,
or join in with mockers.
2 But they delight in the law of the Lord,
meditating on it day and night (Psalm 1:1-2 NLT).
In discursive meditation (‘discursive’ because it a type of dialogue with God’s Word) we tap the intuitive functions of the right hemisphere our brain. Discursive meditation is visual and symbolic, connected to stories, art, the physical body, and movement. My own definition of discursive mediation is “encountering the living Lord through the written Word by the power of the God-given faculty of imagination.” (SoulShaping: Taking Care of Your Spiritual Life, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996, p. 254).
What does it look like when we use our holy imaginations to enter into God’s Word? We slow down and imagine the scene. We consider the characters and may even have an imaginary dialogue with one of them.
Let me share an example from my meditation on Luke 18:1-8, when I entered into a brief imaginative dialogue with the desperate widow who persistently “pestered” the unjust judge.
DOUG: Why did the judge refuse you?
WIDOW: Look at me. I’m an old woman. What favor could he gain? He chose cases that served his ends.
DOUG: How could you keep going after being rejected time after time?
WIDOW: This wasn’t a matter of convenience for me. Without justice, I could not survive. I was not asking for riches, nor for ease, comfort or vengeance; only for the justice of receiving what was mine.
DOUG: What would you say to me?
WIDOW: You value too little too lightly. You have so much that your true desires run shallow. You want– you get. You lose– you replace.
DOUG: Is something wrong with me?
WIDOW: You are distracted
DOUG: And I have rarely faced my helplessness. I run from situations where it’s exposed.
WIDOW: You aren’t running now, but sometimes you start to coast or divert your energies. Focus and persist.*
The power of this meditation was the insight I “received” from the widow. I don’t fully understand how this happens. And I certainly do not believe I was in dialogue with any true being. But the Holy Spirit, working through my meditation, revealed insights that “ring true,” calling me to repentance and faith. That’s the “test” for a useful meditation.
Holy imagination can break the spell of boredom and disinterest, leading us into ever-fresh encounters with the Lord in Scripture.
*(I first published this dialogue in my book, What About Spiritual Warfare?, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000, p. 78).