Why Christian Meditation is Different

When most of us think of meditation, we tend to think of Buddhist monks and other Eastern Mystics. I certainly did, and that has caused me no end of difficulty in trying to develop a habit of Christian meditation.

In the Eastern way of thinking, meditation is not about controlling our mind as much as becoming an outside observer. The frequently-used analogy is that of sitting on the bank of a stream. When an unwanted thought comes in, we are to simply observe it and allow it to flow away. In so doing, we are preventing the thought from becoming too much of an issue so that it will go away as quickly as possible without disrupting our peace.

Perhaps after years of a monastic life that even works.

I have been on a silent retreat for several days now at the Abbey of Gethsemani, trying to calm my spirit and develop better meditation, peace, and communion with God. I spent much time attempting to find a calm center and allow my own mind to quiet enough to hear the voice of God. In the process, I have found that—at least for me—in trying to see those thoughts as leaves that disappear down the stream, they become rather large turds that foul the river completely. As Goll says in The Lost Art of Practicing His Presence, “One of the enemies of Communion with God is a mind busy with other things. It’s hard to hear the voice of God when you’re constantly hearing your own thoughts.”

I read a great deal of Merton, Nouwen, Foster, Guyon, and others, and found myself wondering what was wrong with me. They seemed to have achieved a state of serenity to which I can only dream. And, to be honest, envy.

This morning I tried something different. Instead of reading from these great contemplatives, I went to the Bible. (Oh, like you’ve never looked for answers in human writing rather than God’s Word!) There I learned that while it may indeed be as simple as letting thoughts flow by once you have achieved skill at meditation, that technique is not described in the Bible for beginners. Rather than a passive practice and hoping for the best, the Bible describes it as a much more aggressive practice. For example, aren’t the words of 2 Cor.10:3-5 just as applicable to our mental state as more external spiritual warfare?

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.

Our inappropriate thoughts are not things that we simply hope will go away, they are mental strongholds that we must war against. The Bible doesn’t tell us to passively observe our thoughts, but to take them captive! Why, then, should we not take advantage of our mighty power by calling on the name of Jesus to eliminate these thoughts and allow us to commune in peace?

Surely when we are consciously trying to eliminate our own thoughts to listen for the voice of God, the thoughts that continue to interfere are sent to us from the Enemy. Of course he doesn’t want us hearing clearly from God! But James 4:7 tells us to “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” This is not a passive state, but an active one.

In Romans 12, Paul calls us to “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” We tend to think of this as a passive thing, since it is up to God to transform us. But did you notice that Paul calls us to “let” that happen? In other words, it doesn’t necessarily happen automatically. God is willing, but gives us the freedom to prevent it. When inappropriate thoughts intrude on meditation, we need to actively reject them to call on God to change the way we think. In Ephesians 4:23-24 Paul tells us to “let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.” Again, we see that we have an active responsibility to ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in renewing our thoughts. We don’t await a new nature, but actively work with the Spirit to “put on” our new nature.

Yes, these great Christian contemplatives make it sound easy. And after we have practiced as much as they have, it will likely come far more easily. But I believe Goll was right in saying, “Sometimes we have to fight before we can obtain an inner peace and serenity.” Otherwise, why would we need to follow the Ephesians 6:10-18 details for putting on the full armor of God and staying “alert” in our prayers?