The English word “meditate” comes from the Latin meditari, which connotes deep, continued reflection. It involves the narrowing of consciousness to a single theme, symbol, or doctrine, as well as thinking deeply about a particular religious subject.1
Meditation as practiced in eastern traditions is distinct from the biblical notion because of the difference in the understanding of reality.
In Buddhism, meditation is a pathway that is supposed to lead to liberation from the round of karmic cycles and the achievement of ultimate freedom in nirvana.2 In Daoist Chinese religious tradition it is a path to attain inner illumination through abandoning learning in favor of looking directly into the inner self.3 In Hinduism the Sanskrit word usually translated “meditation” stands for “a state of contemplative absorption” on the way to “complete absorption in the supreme Brahman.”4
Christian understandings of meditation have been significantly shaped by Greek philosophies. When the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rationalized and systematized meditative and contemplative processes, this movement looked back to meditation methods developed by the Franciscans. A major figure in that movement was Bonaventure (c. 1217-1274), whose De Triplici Via gives an exemplary statement for Western Christianity on the three processes of meditation: purgation, illumination, and union, which are essentially relics of Neoplatonism.5
The Bible’s understanding of reality begins with a personal, knowable God who reveals Himself and works in time and space, though His transcendence is not limited by these. The Bible’s God has revealed Himself immanently in human history. So biblically speaking, meditation on God is meditation on a person.
Because the Bible assumes that humans can know and understand God’s revelation, meditation is no mind-emptying activity. It is intelligent reflection upon God’s self-revelation of through nature/history and His Word.
Two Hebrew roots translated as “meditate” or “meditation” in the Old Testament are s´hgh and s´ych. Hagah carries shades of meaning from “mutter” to “roar.”6 However, it also carries the notion of meditation.
In Joshua we read: “Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night” (Joshua 1:8).7 The psalmist also writes concerning the experience of the godly: “But they delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night” (Ps. 1:2). He further writes, “I lie awake thinking of you, meditating on you” (Ps. 63:6). The above incidents focus on God’s special revelation through Scripture. But occasionally creation is also an object of meditation: “I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works.” “I ponder all your great works and think about what you have done” (Ps. 77:12; 143:5).
The root s´ych may be translated as “pray” (Ps. 55:17), “commune” (Ps. 77:6), and as “talk” (Ps. 105:2; 119:27). Elsewhere it speaks about meditation. “I will study your commandments and reflect on your ways” (Ps. 119:15); “I will meditate on your decrees” (verses 23, 48); “I will concentrate on your commandments” (verse 78); “I stay awake through the night, thinking about your promise” (verse 148).
Biblical meditation is upon a personal living Being, by personal, living human beings. By contrast, mystical experiences most frequently presuppose a body/soul dichotomy. Interestingly, this dualistic anthropology is now being challenged “in recent years as much from science as from anywhere else. In science and philosophy of science, there is increasingly the conviction that the ideal agent of knowledge is not a disembodied mind, but one located in culture and history, not detached from the world but deeply attentive to it”8 Biblical meditation is anchored in biblical wholism as opposed to a dualistic anthropology.
Though sin has marred our ability to perceive God in nature, “the heavens” still “proclaim the glory of God” and “display his craftsmanship” (Ps. 19:1). But an even grander object of meditation is Scripture, referred to variously as precepts, statutes, commandments, and law. By instructing Joshua to focus on Scripture (Joshua 1:8), God indicates how crucial this activity is in our relationship with God. For the goal of our contemplation is a deepening relationship with God our Creator and Father.
Different strands of religious traditions have unique focuses. Zen Buddhism “takes no fixed object of meditation, but seeks to hold the mind in a state of awake, thought-free attention, out of which state spontaneous enlightenment is finally to emerge.”9 Islam’s Sufi movement, with its radical understanding on spirituality, aims at “an attitude of ecstatic love of God and hope of union with him through a transcendence of the phenomenal self. Meditative and contemplative practices became an important part of this quest.”10
In Christianity, Neoplatonic views of reality pushed the purpose of meditation into a noncognitive union with God. Writing in the sixth century A.D., Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite remarked, “Leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it that transcends all being and all knowledge.”11
As opposed to these goals, biblical meditation leads to a closer personal relationship with our personal God.
It would be misleading to conclude that communion with God is exclusively rational and objective. Indeed, any attempt to reject the place of emotions and intuition is but one more diabolical effort to distort the reality of God and the reflection of His image in ourselves.
One wonders if people have sometimes turned to mysticism because official constructions of Christian experience have seemed no more than cognitive and rational. Modernism may have taught us to neglect or dismiss emotions and intuition in our Christian experience. However, can we deny that something happens in our meditative experience beyond propositional/rational appropriation of truth?
Known to Unknown
The Bible elaborates on the “what” of meditation: reading God’s Word and musing over His creation. We begin by filling the mind with and musing over Scripture. This is a cognitive activity. But as we meditate on God through His Word and nature, something happens that we can’t always put into words, though we feel and experience it.
As Jesus said to Nicodemus: “The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Trying to rationally explain meditation is like trying to glance into the core of God’s transcendence.12
The Results of Meditation
Though the encounter with God is mysterious, its results can be tested with the revealed Word. When fallen humans encounter God, “the things they once hated they now love, and the things they once loved they hate. The proud and self-assertive become meek and lowly in heart. The vain and supercilious become serious and unobtrusive. The drunken become sober, and the profligate pure.”13
The fundamental beliefs statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Church recognizes that any claimed experience of God is testable by Scripture. It states: “The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history.”14
Meditational experiences that claim direct communication with God unmediated and unaccountable to Scripture are dangerous. Thus the Bible provides the litmus test for evaluating all experiences, whether mystical or cognitive: “Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world” (1 John 4:1).
Biblical meditation has its distinctive earmarks: It begins from the known—the self-revelation of a personal God, and proceeds at times into the unknown—the reality of God beyond human articulation. But meditation, like all of human experience, is always tested by the known, the Word of God. There is a proper and appropriate place to experience the mystery of God, subject to the guidance and framework of Scripture. Accordingly, meditation is simultaneously objective and subjective, and its fruits must always be in harmony with the revelation of Scripture.
- Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), vol. 9, p. 5816.
- Ibid., p. 5820.
- Ibid., p. 5821.
- Kathleen Taylor, “Meditation,” in Denise Cush, Catherine Robinson, and Michael York, eds., Encyclopedia of Hinduism (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 498.
- Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 9, p. 5818.
- “Mutter” (Isa. 8:19; 59:3); “speak” (Ps. 35:28); “imagine” (Ps. 2:1; 38:12); “mourn” (Isa. 16:7); “roar” (Isa. 31:4).
- Scripture quotations in this article are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
- Janet Martin Soskice, “The Ends of Man and the Future of God,” in Graham Ward, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), p. 75.
- The Brill Dictionary of Religion, ed. Kocku von Stuckrad (Boston: Brill, 2006), p. 1200.
- Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 9, p. 5818.
- Consider Paul’s description of the man caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4).
- Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 58.
- Seventh-day Adventists Believe (Silver Spring, Md.: Ministerial Assn., General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1988), p. 4. (Italics supplied.)