Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.
This week we read chapter 55 which discusses the Puritans and meditation. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and the way they practiced meditation.
TC: The word “meditation” has found use in true Christianity, in Catholicism, and in many Eastern forms of spirituality. Along the way it has been used to describe many different practices. What did the Puritans mean by it?
JB: In religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, meditation involves breathing techniques, posture, and chanting certain repetitive sounds (a mantra) to empty the mind and achieve a feeling of tranquility and connectedness with an impersonal divine being. Roman Catholicism has promoted meditation especially in the form of imagining the physical sufferings of Christ in a way that stirs sympathetic emotions, or repeating set prayers to Mary and the saints. The Puritan practice of meditation is quite different from any of these.
Puritan meditation engages the mind with God’s revealed truth in order to inflame the heart with affections towards God and transform the life unto obedience. Thomas Hooker defined it like this: “Meditation is a serious intention of the mind whereby we come to search out the truth, and settle it effectually upon the heart.” The direction of our minds reveals the truest love of our hearts, and so, Hooker said, he who loves God’s Word meditates on it regularly (Ps. 119:97). Therefore, Puritan meditation is not repeating a sound, emptying the mind, or imagining physical sights and sensations, but a focused exercise of thought and faith upon the Word of God.
TC: How deliberate were the Puritans when it came to meditation? Would they ensure they had time in their schedules for deliberate meditation, or did they consider meditation what happened through the course of daily life?
JB: The Puritans did seek to meditate throughout life, as a complement of praying without ceasing. Hooker said that meditation is “the main trade that a godly man drives”—his greatest occupation day and night (Ps. 1:2). Joseph Hall said, “Lord, . . . that man is truly holy, whose understanding is enlightened with right apprehensions of thee and heavenly things; whose will and affections are rightly disposed to thee, so that his heart is wholly taken up with thee, his conversation being in heaven; who thinks all time lost, in which he doth not enjoy thee, and a sweet and holy communion with thee; walking perpetually with thee, and laboring in all things to be approved of thee.” Thus Hall encouraged people to see all the world around them as a “stage” to see God’s wisdom and glory, just as Solomon learned from the ant (Prov. 6:6–8) and our Lord taught us by the lilies of the field (Matt. 6:28–30). Thus, Hall said, “There is no creature, event, action, speech, which may not afford us new matter of meditation.” This kind of brief meditation that takes place in the hustle and bustle of daily life they called occasional meditation. Several Puritans wrote entire books of examples of occasional meditation to teach their church members how to do this.
However, the Puritans also called people to definite times of what they termed deliberate meditation, especially in the morning and evening (Ps. 4:4; 16:7; 63:6; 119:147), and on the Sabbath. If two times a day sometimes proved too much, deliberate meditation should be done at least once a day, they taught. Today we have largely lost the Puritan “art of meditation.” We need to discipline ourselves to engage in daily, deliberate meditation. Our lives are full, and our minds cannot settle into divine meditations without setting aside time for focused thinking to really benefit from the Bible. William Bates says that a passing glance at the night sky only reveals a few stars, but take time to gaze upon the heavens and you see “the whole heaven bespangled with stars in every part.” He reminds us that we aim at “the kindling of a fire in wet wood,” and therefore must keep at it until we experience “some sensible benefit,” that is, “a flame of holy affections that goes up towards God.”
TC: If the Puritans could spend a day with us, what do you think they would identify as hindrances to meditation in our lives?
JB: The Puritans would mention a host of hindrances, such as our love affair with the entertainment media and our physically-oriented world, our worshiping of Hollywood stars and sport-heroes, our worldly pride, and our lack of love for doctrinal truth and the Sabbath. But most of all, they would be concerned about our massive blind spot towards heaven. We think little of it. We are people preoccupied with this world. We surround ourselves with earthly amusements and earthly business. Even ministers tend to be focused on programs and measurable results instead of eternity. Yet Christ, our life, is in heaven, all our solid hopes are there too, and God commands us to set our mind upon it (Col. 3:1–4).
The Puritans made heaven the special focus of their meditation. In the preface to Christopher Love’s book, Heaven’s Glory, Hell’s Terrors, several Puritans wrote, “Nothing hath greater influence into a Christian’s practice here in this world, than the serious consideration of our everlasting estate in the world to come; the glory and happiness which is prepared for the elect, and those eternal torments which are reserved for workers of iniquity. . . . It is the greatest folly in the world for men . . . to be busied about many things that little concern them, and in the mean time neglect the one thing necessary.”
TC: How might one of the Puritans offer us basic instruction in meditation? What are the most important things to keep in mind?
JB: Here is a method for meditation based on Puritan writings. First, pray for the power to focus your mind on the Word with faith. Second, read the Bible and select a verse or two. Third, repeat those verses to yourself in order to memorize them. Fourth, think about what those verses say and imply, probing the book of Scripture (other verses on the same topic), the book of conscience (how you have believed or disbelieved, obeyed or disobeyed), and the book of nature (how this truth appears in experience and the world). Fifth, stir up your affections unto love, desire, grief, hope, zeal, and joy as appropriate. Preach the text to yourself with powerful application. Sixth, arouse your soul to the specific duty which the text requires, making holy resolutions for the glory of God. Seventh, conclude with prayers for divine assistance, thanksgiving for graces given, and singing psalms of praise to God.
In the midst of your efforts to meditate, remember that we do not exercise spiritual disciplines in order to deserve God’s grace, but we do these things because of God’s grace and under God’s grace. We will frequently fail in meditation, and so let us frequently meditate on the blood of Christ which cleanses believers from all sin (1 John 1:9).
If you are reading along with us, be sure to read Chapter 56 (“The Puritans on Conscience”) by next Thursday. Then simply check in here to see what Dr. Beeke has to say about it.
The purpose of this project is to read classics together. Please feel free to leave a comment below or to provide a link to your own blog if you have discussed this week’s chapter there.