Transformational Transfer: On Bible Meditation

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It’s mid-January at the writing of this post. Many of you are holding on with some sense of a grip to your 2017 Bible reading plan. Bible reading plans have become their own entity of sorts. In fact, searching the amazingly generic term “reading plan” in Google leads users to thousands of pages on different Bible reading plans. In other words, it’s no secret that anyone using a plan to get through a book is likely 1) a Christian, and 2) reading the Bible as the book of choice.

I like Bible reading plans. When used correctly, they are immensely helpful guides for keeping us on track in the Word, holding us accountable, teaching us discipline, and inspiring us to grow. I specify here, because I don’t want what I’m about to say come off as an anti-plan mindset.

In a culture that seems to struggle enough just to take up and read God’s Word in and of itself, I understand the emphasis on getting the job done. I understand the continuous efforts of local churches and parachurch ministries to push people to simply get in the Word. It’s highly likely that you, as you read this, are at a point in your Bible reading plan where you’re trying to press through. If you’re going through the Bible chronologically or in a year, you’re probably spending time in the Pentateuch, and at this point, you just want to be done with it so you can move on and stay the course in your plan. I only speak this way of you, because I have live there sometimes, too. But it’s this exact tension that makes me worry. I worry that in our efforts to discipline ourselves to Bible reading plans, we are rigorous at getting through it, but lazy in meditation.

Would we be willing to sacrifice our Bible reading plans if that meant less structure and a keener awareness to what God is teaching us day to day? Would we be willing to leave the checkboxes behind if we were promised a richer understanding of Scripture at the expense of efficiency and timeframe? I would like to believe we would, but I am not convinced.

It doesn’t matter where you are in your spiritual journey – a skeptic, a new Christian, a healthy Christian of 40 years, or a Christian in a season of hurt and pain – what you need more than efficient transfer of information is meaningful transfer of information; a “transformational transfer” as you may call it.

Meditation can be a very heady, ethereal word, so let’s bring it down to earth: What does this mean, practically, to pursue “transformational transfer” in our time in God’s Word? I like Don Whitney’s explanation in his classic book on the Spiritual Disciplines:

Meditation is not folding your arms, leaning back in your chair, and staring at the ceiling. That’s daydreaming, not meditation. Daydreaming isn’t always a waste of time; it can be a much-needed, well-deserved respite for the mind as important as relaxation often is for the body. Our gracious Father is not always goading us to “produce,” and, as I’ve written elsewhere, it is possible to daydream, to “Do Nothing—and Do It to the Glory of God.”

As opposed to daydreaming wherein you let your mind wander, with meditation you focus your thoughts. You give your attention to the verse, phrase, word, or teaching of Scripture you have chosen. Instead of mental aimlessness, in meditation your mind is on a track—it’s going somewhere; it has direction. The direction your mind takes is determined by the method of meditation you choose.

Here are some tips I am in the process of learning in my own studies. These aren’t pointers from an experts; read them more as small insights from a simple pilgrim.

  • Summarize what you’ve read. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I got from a friend in ministry is to incorporate chapter summaries into my studying. As I currently work through the book of Isaiah, I am working to take the chapter I’m reading for the week and before I do anything else (literally anything else), summarize it. Below you can see a screenshot of what I’ve done. I am attempting to summarize the chapter in 1-2 sentences, then taking the time to summarize the chapter in my own words by briefly expositing the entire text at hand. This has helped me so much in understanding the movement and themes authors use in Scripture. Don’t move on to journaling, commentaries, or any other step before you summarize.
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The text on the left, my notes on the right. I try to summarize the chapter as best as I can in one sentence, then make some expository observations as I journey through the chapter. Some time after that, I verify my findings and add some insights from helpful commentators. Consider this also as a plug for the new ESV.org!
  • Use Paul’s meditation method. In Philippians 4:8, Paul gives us his very own exhortation in the way of meditation. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (emphasis mine). Use these eight points in your studies. Draw out what rings out as truth. Write down what is just. Pray the things that are worthy of praise in the passage.
  • Transfer your information to another medium. To me, there’s no better way to make the information you’re consuming take root than to take what you’re studying and using it to create. This looks different for everyone. Perhaps you draw a picture illustrating the text. Maybe you write a blog post. Maybe it’s a journal you keep, full of poems or reflections. Even a song written to music. Whatever your avenue, taking God’s Word and letting it it take shape in these other mediums is extremely beneficial to making the truth come alive inside of us.
  • Care more about quality than quantity. It really all comes down to this point. Think about the last time you read your Bible and just sat there and processed what you’ve read. I’ve spent far too many days approaching my Bible in the vein of, “I only have thirty minutes to read.” Perhaps what would be better is, “Why don’t I spend fifteen minutes reading and fifteen minutes reflecting?” I know that presents a rub to our obsession with getting things done, but God never meant for His Word to be something that “got done.” It is living and active, not a task. A life-long process, not a project. So, maybe it takes you a couple of years to get through the entire Bible. Maybe you spend 8 weeks, or 8 months, in Mark. The point is, no matter your pace, care about the quality first.

There is no magic in the meditation itself. But in the same way we ask of God to give ear to our words, He asks us to give our ears to His words. We need to do more than read it; we must hear it, and listen to it. We must focus on it. This is where transformation is born.

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