All the exhortations listed in Scriptures are focused on one thing: helping us persevere by keeping our focus in the right place. Namely, on Christ and his work. And the disciplines we see listed (explicitly or implicitly) in the New Testament are all beneficial.
However, I cannot help but put three above the rest.
The Inward Disciplines
I like the way Richard Foster breaks down the different disciplines in Celebration of Discipline. He lists them as the inward, outward, and corporate disciplines.
- Inward: meditation, fasting, study, and prayer
- Outward: simplicity, solitude, submission, and service
- Corporate: confession, worship, guidance, and celebration
Again, these are all highly valuable to our walk (no matter how you categorize them). But I put special emphasis on the inward disciplines, and specifically on study, meditation, and prayer. I find the three are in many ways intertwined and, without them, I do not imagine we will do well at any of the remaining disciplines.
We must start with our minds, how we see and think about the world. As Paul points out in one of the pillar verses for my own walk (Romans 12:2 NET):
Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God - what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.
Where the mind spends its time, the heart follows.
How do you describe meditation? I find it to be one of the most interesting, fascinating, and enjoyable of the disciplines, partly because it's difficult to practice, partly because it’s so interrelated with several other disciplines.
How do we define it? Most dictionaries will say something like this:
to think deeply or focus one's mind for a period of time
That may be the opposite of how many think of meditation. In eastern religions, meditation is often used as a means of clearing the mind, of removing all thoughts. Using the great app Headscape, you’ll get a sense of this as you listen to Andy’s soothing tones and he will at times guide you to an empty state.
However, this is the opposite of what the Bible gets at when it speaks of meditation. Christian meditation is the filling of the mind, an effort to completely focus on God. On his character and his works and his word. I cannot think of a better picture of this than the 1st Psalm (verses 1–2 ESV):
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
The Hebrew word used in Psalm 1:2 is to mutter. The same word describes the murmuring of kings in Psalm 2 and the chattering of doves in Isaiah 59. In Psalm 1, it's indicative of a muttering. It indicates a vocal aspect.
Let’s consider a few questions that may come to mind.
Is meditation easy? No, not for most people. Especially in our day and age. Kenneth Boa alludes to the work required in Conformed to His Image:
The discipline comes in the effort to deliberately choose that upon which we will set our minds and in the skill of gently returning to it when we find that we have wandered.
How is meditation related to the other disciplines? For one, it requires silence and solitude (at least at first … in time a person can get good enough that they can focus on a subject for a period of time even in chaotic, noisy environments).
Back to Psalm 1: how can the Psalmist meditate day and night without internalizing the Word? Memorization of Scripture is another related form of discipline, one I would put in an overlapping circle between study and meditation.
Most important, how can a person start meditating? First, it can take different forms. One may be the purposeful time of focusing on something intensely, like one line of Scripture, or a characteristic of God.
Other times, it might be a longer session of pondering a problem or application of Godly wisdom. Our pastor is fond of stating, “Here’s what I’ve been wrestling with this week” during a sermon. This “wrestling” is a form of meditation. I do this often as I take a walk. Those familiar with Deep Work may think of the section titled Meditate Productively: this is the idea I’m getting at here.
And so I would postulate that meditation is two sided. One is a time of focus, in solitude and silence, where you bring your mind to bear on the Word. The second comes later; you can meditate on that Word through your day as you go about your activities.
And so there are a few things required to get into this habit.
- Desire: you can start with just a touch of this, but unless it grows over time, you’ll only be following a system. Ask for this desire by praying for it.
- Whitespace (aka margin): this is needed in order to give yourself the opportunity just be still for a period of time
- Silence: this also make the habit easier to adopt, and must be present both internally and externally. Internal silence is a result of the whitespace mentioned above: without any margin, your mind will struggle to be still. The same will be true if you do not create some external silence: this is not just audible noise, but input of all types (including all internet enabled input).
- Solitude: there is so much value in creating a space in the home for quiet, inner activities. Another good option is quiet path to walk
Once you have all these in place, find a verse, a short passage of Scripture, a thought about God or one of his characteristics, and focus on that for a time. Over time, memorize a longer passage of Scripture so that you can meditate on it during different breaks in your day. Maybe that 15 minute walk to the café for your afternoon coffee is better spent going through the sermon on the mount or Romans 8 than reading Twitter.
How many of us faithfully read through our Bible each year, but it’s a speed reading 10–15 minute session each morning? We should not mistake familiarity with the Biblical narrative and themes as intimacy with our Father. His word is not spiritual fast food, to be gulped down between entries on our calendar. It’s meant to be chewed slowly, to be savoured.
Developing a habit of meditation helps us with just that.