LCN Article
How to Meditate

November / December 2023

Jonathan McNair

This is the final entry in our four-part “how to” series, where we have expounded on basic approaches to the spiritual disciplines: Bible study, prayer, fasting, and meditation. We hope that, whether you are new to the faith or have been walking in the way of God for some time, you have found these articles beneficial.

In previous articles, we’ve reviewed the importance and practical application of Bible study, prayer, and fasting. Another component to being a follower of Christ is equally important, but often neglected.

The Bible is full of scriptures using the words meditate and meditation. Yet, when we hear the word meditation, we may think of a person sitting cross-legged on the floor, repeating a mantra, with eyes perhaps closed or glazed over, as if under the sway of an occult power. If we have the Eastern religions’ idea of “meditation” in our minds, we may struggle to understand what the Bible means when the word is used. In this article, we will consider the meaning and importance of meditation as God defines it.

In the book of Joshua, we read that God spoke to Joshua and told him, “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. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8). If we want to be successful as Christians, the skill of meditation must become part of our lives.

Secular meditation is often promoted as a tool to promote relaxation, reduce stress, and even bolster self-esteem. But biblical meditation has a deeper purpose meant to achieve more profound results. Proper meditation as the Bible describes it is fundamental to what we must do to come “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Popular classes instruct meditators to direct their attention toward deliberately controlling one’s breathing or counting numbers, for example. Eastern meditation techniques often involve predetermined sets of words, repeated mentally to induce an emptying of the mind. Even in mainstream “Christianity,” we find the use of rosary beads to give the meditator something to focus attention on while praying in an endless loop. But these attempts take people off track. Christ addressed this type of meditation when He said, “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).

Repeating a mantra or short phrase may discourage distraction and promote focus, but this doesn’t draw a person any closer to God. Our desire is to follow the Apostle Paul’s admonition in Philippians: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Our desire is to fill our minds with God’s words and precepts—pondering the words of God and how to apply them to the situations that confront us in life.

The Value of Focus

How many believe that “multitasking” is not just possible, but desirable? The idea of focusing on one priority—becoming absorbed in an activity—is often looked down upon in our busy world. Yet focusing, absorbing ourselves in reflection on the things of God, is what God asks us to do in practicing what the Bible calls meditation.

Today’s older generations grew up in a world where smartphones were not everywhere. Many older people remember the days before cable television and streaming media, when many cities had access to just a handful of over-the-air broadcast television stations. Researching a topic meant a trip to the library, likely including a careful search through a card catalog before wandering along row after row of books.

By contrast, many young people today have never known a world without literally hundreds of cable television stations and streaming media sources. “Research” often amounts to typing a few words into a web browser. In one sense, this is remarkable technological progress, making once-difficult tasks far easier to accomplish. But a side effect of this ease is that younger generations have not had as many opportunities to develop their attention span—their ability to focus on a task for an extended period of time. Meditation can help us develop that ability to focus, but its practice may be especially difficult for those who have grown up in a world that makes so many competing demands on our attention. Still, meditation is no less important a skill and practice for older people—it is vital for people of all ages.

The word “meditate” occurs in a number of passages in the Old Testament. Isaac “went out to meditate in the field” (Genesis 24:63). Joshua was commanded to meditate on the Book of the Law, as mentioned earlier (Joshua 1:8). The word meditate appears six times in the New King James Version translation of Psalm 119. But what is the sense of the word? As we’ve been reviewing, it reflects the importance of focus.

In the Old Testament, there are two primary Hebrew words for meditation: hāḡâ and śîḥâ. They broadly carry the sense of musing, speaking to oneself, contemplating, or diligently considering. Pondering, rehearsing in one’s mind, and intensely dwelling on a thought also reflect the sense of these words. Said more succinctly, the meditation that we find described in the Bible implies a period of concentrated, laser-like focus on God, His precepts, and His handiwork. 

David wrote, “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your works; I muse on the work of Your hands” (Psalm 143:5). Notice that David was choosing to focus his attention on the things of God. Let’s consider the implications of this.

God has created mankind with a spirit that differentiates him from the animals. An attribute of that spirit is the ability to choose—especially to make moral choices. We often recall the decision that Adam and Eve made to rebel against the command of God not to take from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Animals, functioning on instinct, are driven to act based upon what they see, smell, and hear. Dogs have a phenomenal sense of smell, and when a new scent greets them, their attention is totally focused on the source of that smell. But, like other animals, dogs don’t make reasoned, far-seeing choices that guide their actions. If they smell a squirrel, unless they are trained not to chase it, they will!

But humans are different. We can certainly be distracted by what we see, hear, or smell around us, but we can also purposefully and intentionally choose to focus our attention in a way that is uniquely human. That ability to intentionally focus is something that sets us apart from the rest of God’s physical creation. This ability is the basis of our ability to meditate and to choose the things upon which we will focus our mind.

Routine Renewal

In Genesis 24:63, we read that “Isaac went out to meditate in the field in the evening; and he lifted his eyes and looked, and there, the camels were coming.” It can be assumed that meditating was a regular part of Isaac’s life—perhaps he would often walk into the nearby field to think. Perhaps the smell of the grass and the cool evening air inspired him and prompted contemplation of the day’s events and the future. Do you have a favorite “thinking time and place”? I love to sit by a fire and think. Sometimes this includes thoughtful conversation with others and sometimes it’s simply personal quiet time, as I consider the blessings God has provided for me. Sometimes it’s more tumultuous, as I wrestle with how to understand God’s mind on a decision or course of action. We can meditate as we sit in a favorite spot, as we walk in a quiet place, while doing routine and “mindless” chores, or in the privacy of our room. We can meditate as we read and study God’s word, and we can even meditate in conjunction with our prayers to God.

But meditating is not just daydreaming. Meditating refreshes and renews our minds. Paul wrote, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1–2). Christian meditation is anchored in a focus on God’s words. In Colossians 3:2, we read that we are to set our minds “on things above, not on things on the earth.” And we’re told to focus our minds on the things of God, bringing us closer together: “Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:1–4).

Let’s now consider some specific objectives of biblical meditation.

Goals of Meditation

As we meditate, we can focus our thoughts on God, His glory, His creation, and His plan for mankind. In Matthew 6:9, we read that Christ instructed His disciples in the proper approach toward prayer. He said, “In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.” When we pray, giving honor to God should be front and center in our minds. We can extend this to our time in meditation; we should focus our thoughts on God, His plan, His creation, and what He has done in our lives. Psalm 77:12 gives us a window into David’s thoughts: “I will also meditate on all Your work, and talk of Your deeds.”

We find opportunities to meditate as we read Scripture, such as when we read passages like Hebrews 2:10: “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” We can meditate on the implications of this statement for us and for all of mankind, and in doing so, we can be inspired to praise and give honor to God. But if we don’t take the time to consider this statement, we might simply rush over it in our effort to complete our Bible reading for the day.

As we read God’s words, recorded for us over many centuries, we also have the opportunity to receive instructions that apply directly to us and how we live our lives. But unless we think about how those instructions apply to us, we don’t benefit from God’s words. In Psalm 1, we read, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1–2). Another psalm reads, “My mouth shall speak wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall give understanding” (Psalm 49:3). And yet another says, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

Again and again, we’re reminded of the connection between God’s instructions and meditation. The reason is this: Unless we proactively focus on thinking about what we read and how it applies to our daily lives, we’re not fully benefitting from God’s instructions as we should. God’s instructions to us are amplified by our meditation. Reading the instructions is not the final step—it is the first step. When we ponder those instructions and how they apply to us, with the help of God’s Spirit, we gain understanding. With experience and more meditation, and more learning, we continue to change.

Focusing our thoughts on God’s words, allowing them to deeply soak into our being, can also help us overcome discouragement and negativity. God spoke to Joshua, saying, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). The springboard for that sense of courage and motivation is found in the previous verse, in which God commands Joshua to meditate “day and night” on God’s laws. Studying God’s laws and principles, then meditating on them, gives us motivation and encouragement through God’s Spirit.

Paul was inspired to provide this description of how God motivates and encourages us despite our weaknesses: “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). This process of God helping and strengthening us happens as we focus on our heartfelt meditation.

Contemplating in a focused, directed way brings us closer to taking on the mind of God, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Notice the process: In Psalm 4, we read, “Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still” (v. 4). Anger is a natural, human emotion—and it doesn’t have to result in sin. But if we act as the animals do, without engaging our ability to think about our choices and their long-range impact, we might lash out. The Christian way to deal with anger is to stop, meditate on God’s instructions regarding the matter, and then act accordingly. 

We can’t simply wish away the different emotions we have; we go through sadness, anger, grief, and frustration as part of the human experience, and we need to learn to handle those feelings. With God’s help, we can learn to experience life without giving those emotions the unrestrained go-ahead that ultimately leads to sin. Focused meditation is the bridge between reading God’s instructions and applying them to our lives. Rehearsing in our minds a proper, godly way of acting and reacting helps us to practice for real life. As time goes by, with the help of God, our goal is to reach the point at which we will reflect Paul’s words: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).

Meditation is not optional if we are to grow as Christians. We live in an age of distraction, so it will take our concentrated, proactive, and determined focus to apply the knowledge that God gives to us so abundantly in His word. Paul encouraged the Philippians to be mindful of what they focused their attention on when he wrote, “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). We should do likewise as we use the tools of Bible study, prayer, fasting, and meditation.