SHOULD CHRISTIANS PRACTISE MEDITATION?
© 2012, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.
It seems not long ago that the greatest perceived spiritual threat in the minds of Evangelicals was the New Age Movement, an amorphous constellation of beliefs and practices focused on developing the divine potential of human beings. In essence, it was the basic worldview and practices of the Eastern mystic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism) packaged for a modern Western audience. The degree to which the different packages delved into the concept of attaining to godhood varied widely, with much of the offerings simply talking about mastering limitless power, which many Western consumers found more palatable.
The fundamental ideas of the Eastern mystic religions are monism and pantheism. Monism is the belief that “all is one,” so that all distinction is an illusion. You may think you are separate from the fork on the table or the tree in your backyard, but you are fooling yourself; fork, tree, and you, we are told, are all part of the same Universal One. Furthermore, that Universal One is seen as a divine, though impersonal, force or essence of which all consists, so that All is God (pantheism).
The goal of these religions, then, is to transcend the illusion of distinction and so merge into the universal god force (or, more correctly, to realize you’ve been merged all along). This is accomplished by attaining an “altered state of consciousness,” emptying your mind so that the god force can merge with you, which is known as “enlightenment”. A variety of techniques have been developed to achieve such an altered state of consciousness, most notably meditation.
There are different forms of meditation, but the commonality to them is to focus the mind, usually by intense concentration upon a word or phrase (mantra), which may be repeated continuously in the mind, or breathed, or chanted, or by visualization (e.g. of a deity or of one’s own deity) in the hope of “blanking” the mind and opening it to communion with the divine.
Εvangelicals naturally recoiled from such practices. Christians understand that the distinctions we see are in fact real. The living God, who is not merely an impersonal force, created the physical world and us in it as distinct from Himself, and that reality of distinction will endure forever. We will never become gods; indeed the claim that we could become like God was the lie that brought mankind into sin (Genesis 3). Furthermore, our minds are to be used for rational thought and knowledge (Matthew 16:23; Mark 12:30; Acts 17:11; Romans 12:2, 14:5; 2 Timothy 1:7; 2 Peter 3:1-2), and are not to be turned off.
In addition, Christians understand the reality of demonic activity, that demons seek to deceive (1 Timothy 4:1), and that they will come in whatever appealing form is most likely to deceive you (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). An empty mind is a prime target for demonic attack (Matthew 12:43-45). Even the practitioners of Eastern mysticism knew this:
Certain Buddhist sects that rely heavily on meditation for eventual enlightenment speak of monks who were attacked by hungry ghosts and other bad spirits while experiencing out-of-body meditation … Some lost their minds and became insane, conditions attributed to attacks by hungry, opportunistic ghosts.
The Bible is clear; we seek God through His word (Scripture) and prayer (e.g. Acts 2:42, 6:4; 1 Peter 2:2). Meditation of this sort is to be strictly avoided. We are not to empty our minds to seek an immediate experience of Him; the God-breathed Scriptures, after all, tell us all we need to know to be “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work,” and it does not recommend meditation of this sort. A Christian who would practise such may indeed come in contact with spiritual forces who may present themselves as Jesus, but you can rest assured it will not be Jesus, but a demon in masquerade.
Christians used to understand all this, yet, incredibly, meditation has been making huge inroads even into the evangelical church lately, under the rubric of “spiritual formation.” We are told that meditation is a good spiritual discipline, and that even Jesus meditated (though, on the contrary, nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus ever meditated). Meditation is enjoined frequently, especially in the Psalms, so Christians should practise meditation, we are told. Yet this is very misleading.
First, it cannot be emphasized strongly enough that a word can be used in many different ways by different people or groups, and it is a huge mistake to assume that all usages are interchangeable. For example, “gay” meant something very different in 1950 than it does now, so if you enter a gay bar thinking it is a place for happy, cheerful people, you are in for a surprise.
This is also the case in theology and spiritual matters, where we have to be especially careful to understand exactly what a person means by the terms he uses. For example, while to evangelicals (and to the Bible), “grace” means the unearned favourable disposition of God towards us, to Roman Catholicism “grace” is a quantity that must be accumulated through sacraments and meritorious deeds, and if one has enough when he dies, he may go straight to heaven.
Τhis raises the key question: When the Bible speaks of meditation, is it speaking of the same thing that is practised in Eastern mysticism? It is a huge mistake to hear the word “meditate” and assume that what the person means by it is necessarily the same as what the Bible means by it.
Τhis brings us to the crux of the matter: The Bible certainly speaks of meditation. Indeed, the term “meditate” or “meditation” occurs in the Bible, 29 times in the NKJV (21 times in the NIV). But is it speaking of the practice that is found in Eastern mysticism? The answer is: certainly not!
Of the 29 occurrences of “meditate” or “meditation” in the Bible, 21 are in the Psalms, five are elsewhere in the OT, and three are in the NT. Among these, there are enough passages in which the context makes clear what is meant by the term for us to understand it. Consider:
“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it.” (Joshua 1:8a)
My mouth shall speak wisdom, And the meditation of my heart shall give understanding. (Psalm 49:3)
I call to remembrance my song in the night; I meditate within my heart, and my spirit makes diligent search … I will also meditate on all Your work, and talk of Your deeds. (Psalm 77:6, 12)
I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways … Princes also sit and speak against me, but Your servant meditates on Your statutes … Make me understand the way of Your precepts; so shall I meditate on Your wonderful works … My hands also I will lift up to Your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on Your statutes … I will meditate on Your precepts … Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. (Psalm 119:15, 23, 27, 48, 78b, 97)
I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your works; I muse on the work of Your hands. (Psalm 143:5)
Your heart will meditate on terror: “Where is the scribe? Where is he who weighs? Where is he who counts the towers?” (Isaiah 33:18)
What is clear from these passages is that meditation in the Bible is careful rational thought designed to achieve cognitive understanding, and with a view to acting upon that understanding and even sharing it. (That, in fact, is what is indicated by the Hebrew words siyach (= ponder, study, talk about, consider) and hagah (= muse), which are the words translated “meditate” in the OT). It should be abundantly clear that this is the diametric opposite of Eastern meditation, which involves focusing on a word or small group of words not to gain understanding but to empty the mind.
This is even more clear in the NT, where “meditate” appears only three times:
“Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer …” (Luke 21:14).
- The Greek word translated here as “meditate beforehand” is προμελεταω (promeletao), which means “to prepare beforehand by giving careful thought and attention; practice beforehand; prepare.”
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. (Philippians 4:8).
- The Greek word translated here as “meditate” is λογιζομαι (logidzomai), which means “to give careful thought to a matter; think (about); consider; ponder; let one’s mind dwell on.”
Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. (1 Timothy 4:13-16).
- The word translated here as “meditate” is μελεταω (meletao), which means “to improve by care or study; practise; cultivate; take pains with.” The context makes it clear that meditation here is about studying the Scriptures in order to achieve a clear and correct detailed understanding of the doctrine it teaches.
It is clear, then, that the meditation taught in the Bible is the careful, rational study of the word of God and His deeds in order to understand it, with a view to practising and teaching it. If a pastor or church leader is teaching people to do this, he is to be commended. Regrettably, however, an examination of the teachings of the leading advocates of “Christian” meditation shows that this is not what they are doing. They are teaching Eastern mystic meditation – the intense focus on a word or phrase, often in the form of a “breath prayer” – to achieve an immediate communion with God.
The error here cannot be overstated. The Christian led into such a practice may feel good from it (which is not surprising; after all, Eve ate the forbidden fruit because “saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise.” We do not often fall into the temptation to do something wrong unless it feels good). Nevertheless, it is to be shunned, and anyone teaching such a thing should not be listened to. One cannot have communion with God through meditation, since He has not allowed that to us. One may indeed have communion with a spiritual being, but it will be a demon and not God, and the Bible tells us that
I do not want you to have communion with demons. (1 Corinthians 10:20b)
Feeling good about something is not the test for whether it is good or not; the Bible is the standard by which all things are to be judged (e.g. Acts 17:11), and the Bible does not allow Christians to practise meditation of the Eastern mystic form, which is what is being brought into the church now in the guise of “spiritual formation.” If one wants to meditate in Biblical fashion, let him study the whole word of God carefully and with a rational mind, not an empty one.
 Hallander, Jane. “Beware of Hungry Ghosts.” Karate and Fitness International 2(3) 1992, p. 23