What Kind Of Meditation Are We Talking About?


prayer-159064-mI’m disturbed by the tendency in Christian circles to mimic the ways of other religions, as if we can learn something fresh and vibrant to spice up our flagging “religious experience.” In reality, mimicking other religions puts us in the same place Israel was when they started drawing on the nations around them to inform them of how they should worship Yahweh.

God didn’t want Israel to build altars on every high hill or sacrifice their children or neglect the Sabbath or the feast days He had set aside.

So today, Christians have “figured out” what God wants from us by peeking at what the Eastern mystics do. I suppose it seems so religious. Plus, what they’re doing, in part at least, is actually in the Bible. Or is it?

I’m referring to meditation, more popularly referred to today as contemplation. Of course contemplate means think deeply and meditate means think deeply, so the language ought not change the actual practice.

But that’s presupposing that Christians actually did meditate before this new wave of Eastern influence. Some did, I’m sure. But when anyone discussed the spiritual disciplines, meditation got the short shrift, I fear.

Now meditation—or contemplation—is leading the way. I don’t hear much talk about Scripture memory today, and actual prayer meetings where Christians get together for the purpose of praying seem to be on the endangered species list.

No big deal. Meditation is awesome . . . Except, contemplation seems to be muddying the water. You see, contemplation has another meaning, one that seems more suited to the Eastern mystic approach to meditation: “look thoughtfully for a long time at.”

Look thoughtfully at? For a long time? For what purpose?

The president of the Christian college where I graduated mentioned spiritual disciplines in one of his recent articles: “Richard also suggested I meditate for 24 hours. That worked for about two hours . . .”

So “long time” means, twenty-four hours, and two was a dismal failure.

But what is it he was supposed to be meditating about? I mean, the definition says, “think deeply or focus one’s mind for a period of time,” so focus on what?

Apparently there are people going around now holding seminars and retreats to teach people how to mediate this contemplative way (including, apparently, special classes for children). In fact in a different article in my alumni paper, one former student wrote about his meditative experience. I may not have the details right, but it was something like spending two hours looking at an apple and contemplating its appleness.

I don’t think that’s what God had in mind.

I don’t think He had “centering prayer” in mind either. This activity takes meditation a step farther. Again there are those who teach this technique—which of course suggests Jesus didn’t do a good enough job teaching us how to pray when His disciples asked.

Be that as it may, there’s also a web site that lays out centering prayer in four easy steps. It all starts like this: “Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.” Further along the steps are “unpacked.” Now examples of the “sacred word” are offered: “Examples: God, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Mary, Amen.” With other possibilities: “Other possibilities: Love, Peace, Mercy, Listen, Let Go, Silence, Stillness, Faith, Trust, Yes.” The minimum time for this is twenty minutes.

There are so many problems with this, but the bottom line is that God states quite clearly in Scripture what meditation is supposed to be. Through the psalmists, He said frequently we are to meditate. One Hebrew word used to communicate the idea is siyach translated like this:

I. to put forth, mediate, muse, commune, speak, complain, ponder, sing
A. (Qal)
i. to complain
ii. to muse, meditate upon, study, ponder
iii. to talk, sing, speak
B. (Polel) to meditate, consider, put forth thoughts

Everything about the word seems to be about engaging the mind, and much of it has to do with putting thoughts into words.

But there’s more. Besides the different action, there’s also a different object. Meditation as Scripture discusses has God and His glory as the focal point:

On the glorious splendor of Your majesty
And on Your wonderful works, I will meditate.
Men shall speak of the power of Your awesome acts,
And I will tell of Your greatness.
They shall eagerly utter the memory of Your abundant goodness
And will shout joyfully of Your righteousness (Ps. 145:5-7)

Meditation doesn’t seem at all like an activity that is designed to produce spiritual goosebumps—experiencing God’s presence or deepening our faith in his presence. It’s designed to help us know Him better by thinking about all He’s done.

Things like sparing Noah and his family from God’s judgment on wickedness. And leading Abram away from the security and familiarity of Ur to the land He intended to give his descendents. Or how about speaking to Moses from a burning bush. And then speaking to the people of Israel from a burning mountain.

Scripture is all about those “wonderful works” and “awesome acts.” How different this kind of focus is than the kind that mulls one word over and over in the “centering prayer” way. From the tips section of how to do centering prayer:

* The sacred word is sacred not because of its inherent meaning but because of the meaning we give it as the expression of our intention and consent.

* Having chosen a sacred word, we do not change it during the prayer period because that would be to start thinking again.

Horrors that we should start thinking again!

But, in fact, the very goal of this kind of “prayer” is letting go: “During the course of Centering Prayer, the sacred word may become vague or disappear.”

So you’re not to think about anything but the sacred word, and it may disappear . . . leaving . . .? Emptiness.

Which is, in fact, the goal of the meditation of Eastern mysticism.

Clearly there are Christians who are taking the concept of centering prayer and using it in conjunction with Scripture. For instance, the guest speaker we had at church Sunday mentioned his centering prayer (to which I at first reacted with some horror) in regard to a phrase of Scripture (“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us” – Eph. 1:7-8a, emphasis mine).

Actually he said he thought about the word “lavish” for twenty minutes, I believe. But it was clear he wasn’t doing it to empty his thoughts or give a symbol of his “consent to God’s presence and action within.”

He maybe called it “centering prayer” but I think it was really old fashioned meditation. He was thinking about God’s wondrous work.

I think it’s important to keep things straight: when the Bible talks about meditation and prayer it is so very different from the mystic meditation and the “centering prayer” that is a Christianized version of a mantra.

How Satan likes to beguile. He would love to see people emptying their minds and NOT thinking about God’s wondrous works and awesome acts. The Christian discipline will take our active minds to God in contemplation of how great He is. We’ll meditate on His wonders, His precepts, His words, His statutes, His doings—all found in the Psalms.

I’m pretty sure we complicate our relationship with God with all our ideas about how to make it better—but that’s a post for another day. Suffice it to say today, that we don’t need to be conflating Scriptural meditation and Biblical prayer with the practices of the false religions around us.

We may use some of the same words, but the meaning is very different.

Published in: on January 26, 2015 at 6:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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Loving God with Our Minds


Last night I heard the tail end of a televised sermon by some preacher I didn’t recognize. What caught my attention was one line. In essence, he said we need to put our minds on hold and believe God with child-like faith.

Well, sure, I know the last part of that statement is true, but put our minds on hold?

If that’s what Jesus meant when he said “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it {at} {all}” (Mark 10:15, NASB), then why did he say we need to love God with all our mind?

And [Jesus] answered, “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.

– Luke 10:27 (NASB – boldface emphasis is mine)

True, Jesus was quoting from the Old Testament (thus the “all caps” in this translation), but plenty of times in the book of Matthew, He said, You have heard it said …, but I say to you ….

The fact that Jesus left this “love God with all your mind” statement (also quoted in Matthew 22:37) alone implies He agreed with the passage He was quoting.

But last night on the TV screen standing before an audience drinking in his words as he supposedly expounded on Scripture, this preacher was telling those listening to disengage their minds.

Actually that rang a bell.

Several weeks ago, I read about “centering prayer,” a practice that apparently is becoming more and more common. And why wouldn’t it? There are people who teach the technique in workshops and training programs, and there are writers who write about the “discipline.”

Here’s what Mike Morrell said about centering prayer in “Is God ‘A Recovering Practitioner of Violence’?”:

Part of the ‘inner reflex’ is [sic] Centering Prayer is letting go. For 20 minutes twice a day, it’s a continuous letting go of thoughts and emotions that well up inside – kind of like a fisherman catching fish but not to eat – just for fun. He’s sitting in a boat (the mind) and his pole rests in the water (the field of consciousness). Little fish (thoughts, ideas, emotions) come up and nibble on the line (ordinary awareness) – the fisherman doesn’t shoot the fish with a revolver or cut the line. Instead, he pulls the little fish up, but doesn’t keep them in the boat – it’s catch & release.

Catch and release, catch and release, gently, graciously – because you recognize that even the lake is situated in a much larger ecosystem (God). You can let go because the earth is abundant; you will be fed. Centering Prayer is a journey of trust in God, even on the unconscious level, where all kind of mis-trustful thoughts bubble up to the surface.

While the practice as described above comes closer to Buddhist meditation, it’s cousin, Christian existentialism, isn’t much different:

[Adele Ahlberg] Calhoun [in Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, InterVarsity Press] tells us to select a simple word or phrase from Scripture that expresses your desire for God. She gives examples of love, peace, grace, Jesus, great Shepherd. Let this word guard your attention. …

During this time, become quiet. You will probably have many thoughts rushing through your head at first simply because you are thinking about a time limit and getting back to your day. However, you must remain quiet and let these thoughts go. Keep repeating the phrase from above until they do. Calhoun says, “Be with Jesus. Listen. Be Still.”

“Prayer disciplines part 2-Centering Prayers” by Frank Jenkins

So I wonder, if Jesus thought this was a good way to pray, why, when His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, didn’t He give them this model?

And why are we so quick to run to some other source to learn how to enhance our relationship with God than the one He gave us?

Like all false teaching, there is an element of truth in some of the descriptions of centering prayer, thus giving it the sheen of spirituality, but when I look in Scripture to see what God says about prayer, I find that He wants our minds engaged when we meet with Him.

Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 2:33 pm  Comments (7)  
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