Christian meditation should be embraced as good and developed as a discipline. Here are five levels to guide you.
David calls those “blessed” who meditate in Psalm 1. It’s a spiritual discipline we’re called to do, according to Scripture. Saints in the Scriptures and throughout church history have done it.
So why don’t Christians more commonly practice this?
Fear, no doubt — perhaps because it’s often associated with Eastern religious practice.
But it’s a Christian practice! So let’s reclaim it as good and make it normative.
You’ve probably heard what pop psychologists say about it: that if you struggle with anxiety, relaxation techniques like meditation are helpful. And while there’s truth to that, there are hidden treasures unique to Christian meditation.
Christians can meditate for 15 to 20 minutes and calm their anxiety down by the power of the Holy Spirit through God’s Word (not just mental techniques). We can alter the physical, chemical makeup of our brain through meditation, but even more by God’s power as we focus on him in this way! These are objective reasons why you should meditate on God’s Word, yes, but there are also examples that encourage us in this practice.
Heroes of the faith practiced meditation. C.S. Lewis meditated on a verse of the New Testament every day for 30 minutes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the underground church in Nazi Germany coordinated and meditated on the same verse no matter where they were during World War II.
Have you developed the skill of meditation? Consider these five levels of meditation to help you get started for the first time or to go deeper, wherever you are in your practice.
Level 1 of Christian Meditation: Meditate by Memorizing
The most basic form of meditation is memorization. Sometimes you just need to get the words in your head, and rote memorization is a simple way to do this.
Take Psalm 5:1, for example: “Give ear to my words, O Lord” (ESV). Start with the first couple of words, the first phrase, and just repeat it over and over again, about 10 times. Look at it, look up, and say it over and over: “Give ear to my words, O Lord. Give ear to my words, O Lord.” You may start sounding like a crazy person. “Give ear to my words, O Lord. Give ear to my words, O Lord. Give ear. Give ear” — that’s weird … that’s what it says … — “to my words, O Lord.”
By doing this, you’re meditating on it — you’re memorizing it. It’s good, there’s a place for it, but it’s just the beginning. Memorization is often the simplest form of meditation, but there’s much more.
Level 2 of Christian Meditation: Meditate on the Words of the Verse
Level two is to ponder on the words of a particular verse. At this stage, you move from rote memorization, which is more on the analytical, cognitive side, to going deeper into the verse:
“Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my groaning.”
You think more about the meaning of those words: “Give ear to my words.” “Consider my groaning.” You may think about a smaller phrase from that. “Consider my groaning.” You think, “Okay, there’s a spiritual form of groaning that the Lord can hear.”
This level is moving from memorizing the words at a rote level to considering the meanings of the words as they are grouped together in a verse.
Level 3 of Christian Meditation: Meditate on the Concept of the Verse
The third level is to meditate on the concept of the words. The concept of verse one is something like “Listen to me, God! Consider my groanings.” There’s an ineffable prayer that our groaning communicates to the Lord. And you can meditate on the concept of praying without words through a spiritual groan. Man, that’s a deep level of emotion. You can just sit in that concept of Psalm 5:1.
Level 4 of Christian Meditation: Meditate on the Concept Outside of the Verse
The fourth level of meditation is to consider a concept from that one verse that connects to other verses and truths beyond that one verse. In our example, you could think about Jesus crying out to the Father as he prayed in the garden, or of Romans 8:26 that speaks of prayers that go beyond words.
As you start thinking about the concept in general terms, your mind can bounce between examples. This is a higher form of conscious meditation. It can be complex and rich and lead to increasing levels of insight and meaning.
As you become more mature in meditation, you will be able to go into deeper levels of productive wandering, moving toward more of an automated experience, in a sense, where God leads you at the deep level of the mind.
Level 5 of Christian Meditation: Meditate on the Concept Spontaneously and Subconsciously
In the fifth level, meditation on a concept can break out spontaneously. Level four of meditation was done with conscious effort — I’m trying to meditate. But it’s also possible to begin subconsciously meditating on a concept. This could be considered the “highest” level, because the groundwork laid by levels one through four now allow your mind to continue meditating at a subconscious level.
The deeper you go into levels one through four, the more easily and the more often you’ll go into level five. And this is the goal, because then it can pervade your whole life. At this level, ideas from Scripture that you previously read or studied will come to mind while you are doing a regular activity.
The Holy Spirit can use these opportunities to instruct you more deeply.
Here’s an example about how this happened to me while I was doing yard work.
I really went to town on my yard the last year and a half. I was laboring over the soil, planting seed and putting fertilizer down, to the point of activating my carpal tunnel syndrome and having numb arms at night! I mean, I was deep into this.
I tried to hire it out, but I was too late. I had to do it myself. As I worked, I kept thinking about the parable of the soils. As I tried to get the seed in the grass, I spilled a bunch on the concrete. As I was making mistakes, I thought of how Jesus was a generous sower. Some of his seeds fell in the thorns or on the path. Why? Because he’s indiscriminate and wants everyone to hear the Word.
Now, I did not set out to academically study Mark 4 while I worked in my yard that day. But, because I’ve spent time with those actual, literal words, reading them and talking about them and understanding them, they became subconscious for me. To the point that:
The Lord amazingly revealed things to me through this higher level of meditation while I was working on my yard — not consciously trying to meditate!
Some of my best insights have come at these higher levels of meditation, and they’ve made a personal and lasting impact in my life — not separate from the other forms but as the culmination. I’ll study or memorize Scripture, and then later the “aha” moment comes.
When we make room for God to work in our minds, we experience the payoff.
Of course, be aware of any lies that can creep in — by checking your “insights” against the Word, asking the Lord in prayer and reflection afterward, and even sharing your insights with other believers.
The Five Levels of Meditation at Work
That season of working on my lawn was also the first time I finally understood the passage where Jesus talks about faith as small as a mustard seed.
My train of thought led to the scripture about asking the Lord to uproot a mulberry tree and throw it in the ocean. I started thinking, “You know, that’d be kind of hard to uproot a mulberry tree. I’m uprooting grass right now, and that’s hard too!” And then I thought about where Jesus talked about asking the Lord to move a mountain and throw it in the heart of the sea. I thought, “That’s never happened….
“No one’s ever, in the history of mankind, prayed, asking the Lord that a mountain would be uprooted and thrown in the heart of the sea.”
So what does that mean? Do we not have faith? Was Jesus being a jerk and saying things that don’t make sense?
Then I remembered where he was when he said that: right next to Jerusalem and the temple mount — a mountain! And do you know what the apostles, to whom he was speaking, were about to do? They were about to turn that mount, which represented the Jewish establishment, upside down with the kingdom come! It was a metaphor! Jesus was saying, to paraphrase, “Look, this is gonna get crazy, but with faith as small as a mustard seed, you can ask the Lord to move a mountain (like that one right there).” The kingdom that Jesus brought was like moving a mountain for his apostles. I think that that’s what that means.
This insight didn’t come just from my studying the Word, although it started there. It came from my meditating at the deepest level, bringing new levels of understanding as I was simply going about my day, attending to my responsibilities. You can learn more about developing deeper spiritual understanding by reading Your Spiritual Formation Plan.
Find further help with reading the Word through Chad Harrington’s course “How to Read the Bible.”
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