THE PURPOSE OF GODLINESS discussion

CHAPTER 3

BIBLE INTAKE (PART 2) . . . FOR THE PURPOSE OF GODLINESS

There is discipline involved in Christian growth. The rapidity with which a man grows spiritually and the extent to which he grows, depends upon this discipline. It is the discipline of the means.

 

RICHARD HALVERSON

 

Because you are reading this book, it’s likely that you are a person who, at least to some degree, already engages in hearing, reading, and studying the Word of God as advocated in the previous chapter. Despite this, there is also a strong possibility that you do not perceive a great deal of fruit being produced in your life from these Disciplines. Your experience does not measure up to your expectation, so perhaps you conclude that you are the problem, that maybe you are a second-rate Christian.

 

The reality is that you may not be the problem at all. The problem may simply be your method. I know, for example, many people who read the Bible every day. They may even read multiple chapters of God’s Word each morning. But as soon as they close the Bible, on most days they would have to admit that they can’t remember a thing they’ve read.

 

“I just don’t have a good memory,” they conclude with a sigh. Or they may believe that they can’t remember what they’ve read because they don’t have a high IQ, or didn’t have a good education, or they are just too old. Well, I’ve had some twenty-two-year-old geniuses in my seminary classes who have the same problem. So I would contend that in most cases the reason people can’t remember what they read in the Bible is not their age, mental ability, or training, but their method.

 

Moreover, does anyone want to argue that ordinary people—people with no more than an average intellect or education—are unable to profit satisfyingly from the Bible on a regular basis? Surely not, especially since observation confirms that what the apostle Paul said of the Christians in Corinth is true of Christians everywhere: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26). In other words, since the majority of those God calls are not “wise according to worldly standards,” does that mean most Christians can’t benefit much from Scripture on an individual basis? No, for doubtless God wants all His children to grow in grace and in their knowledge of Him through His Word.

 

So what’s the problem? Why is it that the words of Scripture can go through our ears or eyes and then out of our minds so quickly and commonly, despite the depth of our devotion to the Bible? The problem is that hearing and reading the Bible, by themselves, usually aren’t sufficient for remembering what we’ve received. They are invaluable and irreplaceable Disciplines, but they are incomplete without other Disciplines of the Word. While hearing and reading plant the seed of Scripture into the soil of our souls, other Disciplines are the water and sun God uses to bring the growth and fruit of Christlikeness in our lives. As the previous pages have indicated, studying the Bible is one way to water and warm the seed planted by hearing or reading. In this chapter are three more important Disciplines for the intake of God’s Word that, when rightly practiced, promote the increased knowledge of God and closer conformity to Christ.

 

MEMORIZING GOD’S WORD—BENEFITS AND METHODS

Many Christians consider the Spiritual Discipline of memorizing God’s Word as something tantamount to modern-day martyrdom. Ask them to memorize Bible verses and they react with about as much eagerness as a request for volunteers to face Nero’s lions. How come? Perhaps because many associate all memorization with the memory efforts required of them in school. It was work, and most of it was uninteresting and of limited value. Frequently heard, also, is the excuse of having a bad memory. But what if I offered you one thousand dollars for every verse you could memorize in the next seven days? Do you think your attitude toward Scripture memory and your ability to memorize would improve? Any financial reward would be minimal when compared to the accumulating value of the treasure of God’s Word deposited within your mind.

 

Memorization Supplies Spiritual Power

When Scripture is stored in your mind, it is available for the Holy Spirit to bring to your attention when you need it most. That’s why the author of Psalm 119 wrote, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (verse 11). It’s one thing, for instance, to be watching or thinking about something when you know you shouldn’t, but there’s added power against the temptation when a specific verse can be brought to your mind, like Colossians 3:2: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

 

When the Holy Spirit brings a definite verse to mind like that, it’s an illustration of what Ephesians 6:17 can mean when it refers to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” A pertinent scriptural truth, brought to your awareness by the Holy Spirit at just the right moment, can be the weapon that makes the difference in a spiritual battle.

 

There is no better illustration of this than Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the lonely Judean wilderness (see Matthew 4:1-11). Each time the Enemy thrust a temptation at Jesus, He parried it with the Sword of the Spirit. It was the Spirit-prompted recollection of specific texts of Scripture that helped Jesus experience victory. One of the ways we can experience more spiritual victories is to do as Jesus did—memorize Scripture so that it’s available within us for the Holy Spirit to bring to our remembrance when it’s needed.

 

Memorization Strengthens Your Faith

What Christian doesn’t want his or her faith strengthened? One thing you can do to strengthen it is to discipline yourself to memorize Scripture. Let’s walk through Proverbs 22:17-19, which says, “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge, for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, if all of them are ready on your lips. That your trust may be in the LORD, I have made them known to you today, even to you.” To “apply your heart” to the “words of the wise” spoken of here and to “keep them within you” certainly pertains to Scripture memory. Notice the reason given here for keeping the wise words of Scripture within you and “ready on your lips.” It’s so “that your trust may be in the LORD.” Memorizing Scripture strengthens your faith because it repeatedly reinforces the truth, often just when you need to hear it again.

 

A church I pastored sought to build a new worship center. We believed that in our situation we would most honor God if we built the building without going into debt. There were times when my faith in the Lord’s provision began to sink. More often than not, what renewed my faith was the reminder of God’s promise in 1 Samuel 2:30: “Those who honor me I will honor.” Scripture memory is like reinforcing steel to a sagging faith.

 

Memorization Prepares Us for Witnessing and Counseling

On the Day of Pentecost (the Jewish holiday being celebrated when the Holy Spirit came in great power upon Jesus’ followers), the apostle Peter was suddenly inspired by God to stand and preach to the crowd about Jesus. Much of what he said consisted of quotations from the Old Testament (see Acts 2:14-40). Although there’s a qualitative difference between Peter’s uniquely inspired sermon and our Spirit-led conversations, his experience illustrates how Scripture memory can prepare us for unexpected witnessing or counseling opportunities that come our way.

 

Recently, while I was talking to a man about Jesus, he said something that brought to mind a verse I had memorized. I quoted that verse, and it was the turning point in a conversation that resulted in him professing faith in Christ. I often experience something similar in counseling conversations. But until the verses are hidden in the heart, they aren’t available to use with the mouth.

 

Memorization Provides a Means of God’s Guidance

The psalmist wrote, “Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors” (Psalm 119:24). Just as the Holy Spirit retrieves scriptural truth from our memory banks for use in counseling others, so also will He bring it to our own minds in providing timely guidance for ourselves.

 

Many times when I have been trying to decide whether to say what I think in a given situation, the Lord brings Ephesians 4:29 to my mind: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” I’m sure that sometimes I misunderstand the leading of the Holy Spirit, but His guidance could hardly be more clear than when He brings to mind a verse like that! When it happens, it’s the fruit of disciplined Scripture memory.

 

Memorization Stimulates Meditation

One of the most underrated benefits of memorizing Scripture is that it provides fuel for meditation. When you have memorized a verse of Scripture, you can meditate on it anywhere at any time during the day or night. If you love God’s Word enough to memorize it, you can become like the writer of Psalm 119:97, who exclaimed, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” Whether you’re standing in line, taking a walk, driving the car, riding the train, waiting at the airport, cleaning the house, mowing the yard, rocking a baby, or eating a meal, you can benefit from the Spiritual Discipline of meditation if you have made the deposits of memorization.

 

The Word of God is the “sword of the Spirit,” but if there is no Bible physically accessible to you, then the weapon of the Word must be present in the armory of your mind in order for the Spirit to wield it. Imagine yourself in the midst of a decision and needing guidance, or struggling with a difficult temptation and needing victory. The Holy Spirit enters your mental arsenal and looks around for available weapons, but all He finds is a John 3:16, a Genesis 1:1, and a Great Commission. Those are great swords, but they’re not made for every battle. How do we go about filling our personal spiritual arsenal with a supply of swords for the Holy Spirit to use?

 

You Can Memorize Scripture

Most people think they have a bad memory, but it’s not true. As we’ve already discovered, most of the time memorizing is mainly a problem of motivation. If you know your birthday, phone number, and address, and can remember the names of your friends and family, then you have a functioning memory and can memorize Scripture. The question becomes whether you are willing to discipline yourself to do it.

 

When Dawson Trotman, founder of the Christian organization called The Navigators, was converted to faith in Christ in 1926, he began memorizing one Bible verse every day. He was driving a truck for a lumberyard in Los Angeles at the time. While driving around town he would work on his verse for that day. During the first three years of his Christian life he memorized his first thousand verses. If he could memorize over three hundred verses a year while driving, surely we can find ways to memorize a few.

 

Have a Plan

There are many good prepackaged Scripture memory resources available in print and digital formats. But you might prefer selecting verses yourself on a particular topic where the Lord is working in your life right now. If your faith is weak, memorize verses on faith. If you’re struggling with a habit, find verses that will help you experience victory over it. One man told Dawson Trotman that he was afraid that following his example of Scripture memory would make him prideful. Trotman’s reply: “Then make your first ten verses on humility!” Another option is to memorize a section of Scripture, such as a psalm, rather than isolated verses.

 

If you are using a digital resource to help you with Scripture memory, it probably provides you with plenty of guidance on how to utilize it. But if not, or to supplement your use of that digital guide, the following tips will be helpful.

 

Write Out the Verses

Make a list of the verses on-screen or on a sheet of paper, leaving an inch or so of space between each one, or write each verse on a separate index card.

 

Draw Picture Reminders

Nothing elaborate is needed here, just a few lines or stick figures beside each verse, or some sort of picture or clip art if done on-screen. This makes the verse “visual” and puts the picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words principle to work for you. One simple image can remind you of a couple dozen words. This is especially true if the drawing illustrates some action described in the verse. For instance, with Psalm 119:11, you might make a crude drawing of a heart with a Bible inside to remind you of treasuring God’s Word in the heart. For Ephesians 6:17, a sketch of a sword is an obvious reminder. You’ll find this method particularly helpful when memorizing a section of consecutive verses. I realize that you are probably no more of an artist than I am, but no one else has to see the pictures and they can certainly make Scripture memory easier.

 

Memorize the Verses Word-Perfectly

There’s a great temptation, especially when first learning a verse, to lower this standard. Don’t settle for just getting close, or getting the “main idea.” Memorize it word for word. Learn the reference, too. Without an objective standard of measurement, the goal is unclear and you may tend to continue lowering the standard until you quit altogether. Moreover, if you don’t have the verse memorized exactly, you lose confidence in using it in conversation and witnessing. So even though memorizing “every jot and tittle” is harder in the beginning, it’s easier and more productive in the long run. Incidentally, verses you know word-perfectly are easier to review than those you don’t know so accurately.

 

Find a Method of Accountability

Because of our tendency toward sloth, most of us need more accountability on Scripture memory than on other Disciplines. And the busier we are, the more we tend to excuse ourselves from this commitment. Some, as Dawson Trotman did, develop personalized means of accountability to this Discipline that keep them faithful. Most Christians, however, are more consistent when they meet or talk regularly with someone else—not always another Christian—with whom they review their verses.

 

Review and Meditate Every Day

No principle of Scripture memory is more important than the principle of review. Without adequate review you will eventually lose most of what you memorize. But once you really learn a verse, you can mentally review it in a fraction of the time it would take to speak it. And when you know a verse this well, you don’t have to review but once a week, once a month, or even once every six months to keep a sharp edge on it. It’s not unusual, however, to reach a point where you spend 80 percent of your Scripture memory time in review. Don’t begrudge devoting so much time to polishing your swords. Rejoice instead at having so many!

 

Integrating Scripture memory review into one or more of your life routines leverages the regularity of your habits to strengthen your grip on Scripture. Thus you might want to incorporate a few minutes of review into your daily devotional time. Or you might find that you can review your verses while you are brushing your teeth, working out, or making your daily commute. A great time to review your better-known verses is while going to sleep. Since you don’t need a written copy of the verses before you, you can repeat them and meditate on them while dozing off or even when you have trouble sleeping. And if you can’t stay awake, that’s okay, since you’re supposed to be sleeping anyway. If you can’t go to sleep, you’re putting the most profitable and peaceful information possible into your mind, as well as making good use of the time.

 

As we finish this section on the Discipline of Scripture memory, remember that memorizing verses is not an end in itself. The goal is not to see how many verses we can memorize; the goal is godliness. The goal is to memorize the Word of God so that it can transform our minds and our lives.

 

Jerry Bridges said in this regard,

 

I am very much aware that Scripture memorization has largely fallen by the wayside in our day. . . . But let me say as graciously but firmly as I can: We cannot effectively pursue holiness without the Word of God stored up in our minds where it can be used by the Holy Spirit to transform us. . . . I know it requires work and is sometimes discouraging when we can’t recall accurately a verse we have worked hard to memorize. The truth is, however, all forms of discipline require work and are often discouraging. But the person who perseveres in any discipline, despite the hard work and discouraging times, reaps the reward the discipline is intended to produce.[1]

 

MEDITATING ON GOD’S WORD—BENEFITS AND METHODS

One sad feature of our contemporary culture is that meditation has become identified more with non-Christian systems of thought than with biblical Christianity. Even among believers, the practice of meditation is often more closely associated with yoga, transcendental meditation, relaxation therapy, or some New Age practice than with Christian spirituality. Because meditation is so prominent in many spiritually counterfeit groups and movements, some Christians are uncomfortable with the whole subject and suspicious of those who engage in it. But we must remember that meditation is both commanded by God and modeled by the godly in Scripture. Just because a cult adopts the cross as a symbol doesn’t mean the church should cease to use it. In the same way, we shouldn’t discard or be afraid of scriptural meditation simply because the world engages in something it calls meditation.

 

The kind of meditation encouraged in the Bible differs from other kinds of meditation in several ways. While some advocate a kind of meditation in which you do your best to empty your mind, Christian meditation involves filling your mind with God and His truth. For some, meditation is an attempt to achieve complete mental passivity, but biblical meditation requires constructive mental activity. Worldly meditation employs visualization techniques intended to “create your own reality.” And while Christian history has always had a place for the sanctified use of our God-given imagination in meditation, imagination is our servant to help us meditate on things that are true (see Philippians 4:8). Furthermore, instead of “creating our own reality” through visualization, we link meditation with prayer to God and responsible, Spirit-filled human action to effect changes.

 

In addition to these distinctives, let’s define meditation as deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture, or upon life from a scriptural perspective, for the purposes of understanding, application, and prayer. Meditation goes beyond hearing, reading, studying, and even memorizing as a means of taking in God’s Word. A simple analogy would be a cup of tea. In this analogy your mind is the cup of hot water and the tea bag represents your intake of Scripture. Hearing God’s Word is like one dip of the tea bag into the cup. Some of the tea’s flavor is absorbed by the water, but not as much as would occur with a more thorough soaking of the bag. Reading, studying, and memorizing God’s Word are like additional plunges of the tea bag into the cup. The more frequently the tea enters the water, the more permeating its effect. Meditation, however, is like immersing the bag completely and letting it steep until all the rich tea flavor has been extracted and the hot water is thoroughly tinctured reddish brown. Meditation on Scripture is letting the Bible brew in the brain. Thus we might say that as the tea colors the water, meditation likewise “colors” our thinking. When we meditate on Scripture it colors our thinking about God, about God’s ways and His world, and about ourselves. Similarly, as the tea bag flavors the water, so through meditation we consistently “taste” or experience the reality taught in the text. The information on the page becomes experience in our hearts and minds and lives. Reading the Bible tells the believer, for example, of God’s love. Meditation is more likely to convince him or her of it personally and, in biblically appropriate ways, to cause a person to feel loved by God.

 

Joshua 1:8 and the Promise of Success

A specific scriptural connection between success and the practice of meditation on God’s Word is found in Joshua 1:8. As the Lord was commissioning Joshua to succeed Moses as the leader of His people, He told him, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful 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.”

 

We must remember that the prosperity and success the Lord spoke of here is prosperity and success in His eyes and not necessarily in the world’s. From a New Testament perspective we know that the main application of this promise would be eternal riches and Christ-centered success—the prosperity of the soul and spiritual success (though some measure of success in our human endeavors would ordinarily occur as well when we live according to God’s wisdom). Having made that qualification, however, let’s not lose sight of the relationship between meditation on God’s Word and true success.

 

True success is promised to those who meditate on God’s Word, who think deeply on Scripture, not just at one time each day, but at moments throughout the day and night. They meditate so much that Scripture saturates their conversation. The fruit of their meditation is action. They do what they find written in God’s Word, and as a result God prospers their way and grants success to them. Why? For striving “to do according to all that is written in” God’s Word is just one of the biblical ways of describing what the New Testament would characterize as the pursuit of Christlikeness, and God loves to bless conformity to His Son. From eternity past, God predestined that all those who are in Christ will be made like Christ (see Romans 8:29). For all eternity future, all those in Christ will be glorified (see Romans 8:30), that is, “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2)—sinless, perfect people reflecting the glory of God forever. So during our earthly pilgrimage, the more we obey God’s Word—the more we become like Jesus—the more we are fulfilling God’s eternal plan to make us like His Son. That’s why God loves to bless obedience. And so as meditation leads to obedience, obedience results in God’s blessing. We are not told how much of that blessing is material or spiritual, or how much of that blessing is in this world or the next, but we know that God does bless obedience.

 

How does the Discipline of meditation change us and place us in the path of God’s blessing? David said in Psalm 39:3, “As I mused, the fire burned.” The Hebrew word translated “mused” here is closely related to the one rendered “meditate” in Joshua 1:8. Analogous to David’s musing that caused the fire of his anger to burn higher, whenever we hear, read, study, or memorize the fire of God’s Word (see Jeremiah 23:29), the addition of meditation becomes like a bellows upon the fire of what we’ve encountered, causing it to burn more intensely in our experience at that moment. And just as when a fire blazes with more intensity it radiates both more light and more heat, so when we apply the bellows of meditation to the fire of God’s Word, we see more light (insight and understanding) and feel more heat (passion for obedient action). And as a result of this growth in Christlike obedience, “then,” says the Lord, “you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”

 

Besides a bellows on a fire, meditation can also be compared to lingering by a fire. Imagine that you’ve been outside on an icy day and then come inside where there’s a hot, crackling fire in the fireplace. As you walk toward it, you are very cold. You stretch out your hands to the fire and rub them together briskly during the two seconds it takes to walk past the glow and the warmth. When you reach the other side of the room, you realize, I’m still cold. Is there something wrong with you? Are you just a second-class “warmer-upper”? No, the problem isn’t you; it’s your method. You didn’t stay by the fire. If you want to get warm, you have to linger by the fire until it warms your skin, then your muscles, then your bones until you are fully warm.

 

The failure to linger is the reason why many fail to remember or find their hearts warmed by the fire of God’s Word. It takes their eyes about two seconds to go past the fire of verse one in the chapter they are reading for the day. Then it takes their eyes two seconds or so to read over verse two. And then another two seconds as their eyes go past verse three, and so on until they’ve finished reading. It doesn’t matter how many of those two-second episodes you have; you will rarely remember or be moved by something you look at for two seconds. Thus the problem is probably not your memory or the coldness of your heart, but your method. So why don’t you remember what you read in the Bible? Could it be that you simply do not let your mind linger over something you’ve read? And why does the intake of God’s Word often leave us so cold and seem to produce so little success in our spiritual lives? Puritan pastor Thomas Watson has the answer: “The reason we come away so cold from reading the word is because we do not warm ourselves at the fire of meditation.”[2]

 

Psalm 1:1-3—the Promises

God’s promises in Psalm 1:1-3 regarding meditation are every bit as generous as those in Joshua 1:8:

 

Blessed is the man

 

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

 

nor stands in the way of sinners,

 

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

 

but his delight is in the law of the LORD,

 

and on his law he meditates day and night.

 

He is like a tree

 

planted by streams of water

 

that yields its fruit in its season,

 

and its leaf does not wither.

 

In all that he does, he prospers.

 

We think about what we delight in. A man and woman who have found romantic delight think about each other at all hours. When we delight in God’s Word (because it is the revelation of God) we think about it; that is, we meditate on it, at times all throughout the day and night. According to Psalm 1, the result of such meditation is stability, fruitfulness, perseverance, and prosperity. One writer said it crisply: “They usually thrive best who meditate most.”[3]

 

The tree of your spiritual life thrives best with meditation because it helps you absorb the water of God’s Word (see Ephesians 5:26). Merely hearing or reading the Bible, for example, can be like a short rainfall on hard ground. Regardless of the amount or intensity of the rain, most runs off and little sinks in. Conversely, meditation opens the soil of the soul and lets the water of God’s Word percolate deeply. The result is an extraordinary fruitfulness and spiritual prosperity.

 

Consider that again. Many who read this book are folk who hear much of the Bible at church and perhaps again in a midweek Bible study. You may often listen to recorded Bible teaching and Christian music as well. You may read the Scriptures almost every day, and possibly other Christian books like this one. As a result you encounter a torrential amount of God’s truth (not to mention the river of all the other information that rushes through your eyes and ears) each week. But without absorbing some of the water of the Word of God you encounter, you will be little better for the contact. Hearing and reading the Bible is the exposure to Scripture—that’s needful, but it’s only the starting place. After the exposure to Scripture we need to absorb it. Meditation is the absorption of Scripture. And it’s the absorption of Scripture that leads to the experience with God and the transformation of life we long for when we come to the Bible. Yes, we want to hear and read the Bible—often and much—but without the addition of meditation, warned the great man of prayer and faith George Müller, “the simple reading of the Word of God” can become information that “only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe.”[4]

 

The author of Psalm 119 was confident that he was wiser than all his enemies (see verse 98). Moreover, he said, “I have more understanding than all my teachers” (verse 99). Is it because he heard or read or studied or memorized God’s Word more than every one of his enemies and his teachers? Probably not. The psalmist was wiser, not necessarily because of more input, but because of more insight. But how did he acquire more wisdom and insight than anyone else? His explanation, expressed in a prayer, was,

 

Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,

 

for it is ever with me.

 

I have more understanding than all my teachers,

 

for your testimonies are my meditation. (PSALM 119:98-99)

 

I believe meditation is even more important for spiritual fruitfulness and prosperity in our day than it was in ancient Israel. Even if the total input of God’s Word were the same for us as for those in the psalmist’s day, combined with our intake of Scripture we also experience a flash flood of information that the writer of Psalm 119 could never have imagined. Join this with some of our additional modern responsibilities and the result is a mental distraction and dissipation that overwhelms our capacity to absorb Scripture. Due to today’s deluge of data, more new information becomes available to us every few minutes than Jonathan Edwards would have encountered in his entire eighteenth-century lifetime. Granted, he had many time-consuming responsibilities (such as care for his horse) no longer required of most people now. On the other hand, he never once had to answer a telephone in his entire life! Despite his inconveniences, his mind, like the psalmist’s, was not as distracted as ours by instant, ubiquitous information and entertainment. Because of these things, it’s more difficult for us today to concentrate our thoughts, especially on God and Scripture, than it ever has been.

 

So what do we do? We can’t return to the days of Edwards, unless we move to the jungles of Papua New Guinea. And even then we have already lived too long in the information age to escape its influence. We can, however, restore an order to our thinking and recapture some of the ability to concentrate—especially on spiritual truth—through biblical meditation. But it will require discipline.

 

In fact, this is exactly the way men like Edwards disciplined themselves. In her winsome biography of Edwards’ wife, Sarah, Elisabeth Dodds said this about Jonathan’s resolve regarding meditation:

 

When he was younger, Edwards had pondered how to make use of the time he had to spend on journeys. After the move to Northampton he worked out a plan for pinning a small piece of paper to a given spot on his coat, assigning the paper a number and charging his mind to associate a subject with that piece of paper. After a ride as long as the three-day return from Boston he would be bristling with papers. Back in his study, he would take off the papers methodically, and write down the train of thought each slip recalled to him.[5]

 

We don’t have to walk around bristling like a paper porcupine, but we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds (see Romans 12:2) through disciplined meditation upon Scripture. We may not be as fruitfully productive or as spiritually successful as a Jonathan Edwards, but we can be wiser than our enemies, have more insight than our teachers, experience all the promises of Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1, and be more godly if we meditate biblically.

 

James 1:25—New Testament Promises

The expansive promises God gives to those who meditate on His Word continue from the Old Testament into the New. For instance, there’s this assurance: “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25, NASB). Observe first that the promise is not just for someone who looks at “the perfect law” of God as a casual reader, but rather for the “one who looks intently” at it. That’s meditation.

 

Notice that the opposite of a meditator is called “a forgetful hearer.” There’s not a lot of difference between “having become a forgetful hearer” of God’s Word and being a forgetful reader of it, which is what many Bible readers must admit they have become. So, according to this verse, why do we forget what we read in the Bible? Is it just a poor memory? No, it’s a failure to meditate.

 

Next, James 1:25 teaches that meditatively looking at Scripture turns you into “an effectual doer” of Scripture. This, let’s remember, is the goal. Obedience to God, that is, Christlikeness, is the end; meditation is just one of the means. In other words, our primary purpose is not to become more proficient or disciplined with meditation; our purpose is godliness.

 

And then, the one who is an “effectual doer,” who is becoming more like Jesus—who was perfectly obedient to “the perfect law” of God—“will be blessed in what he does.” Sound familiar? It sounds a lot like the promise in Psalm 1:3 to those who meditate on God’s Word: “In all that he does, he prospers.” We have seen that as meditation leads to obedience, so obedience results in God’s blessing. Do you want God’s blessing on your life? Of course you do. According to the texts we’ve examined, the blessing of God is associated with our obedience to God. Our obedience doesn’t earn God’s blessing, for His blessings are always by grace. In fact, sometimes God blesses us even in and in spite of our disobedience. But we know that we cannot expect God’s blessing apart from obedience. So the question is, what makes us more obedient tomorrow than today? Is it just reading the Bible? Well, as we’ve seen, people can read the Bible every day and basically remain unchanged by it. It’s usually not the mere reading of the Bible that causes us to become “an effectual doer” of it, but meditation.

 

How then do we meditate Christianly?

 

Select an Appropriate Passage

The easiest way to decide what to meditate on is to choose the verse, phrase, or word that impresses you most from the passage of Scripture you’ve read. So, after your reading, return to that which attracted your attention and meditate on that. Obviously, this is a subjective approach, but any approach is going to be somewhat subjective. Besides, meditation is essentially a subjective activity, a fact that underscores the importance of basing it on Scripture, the perfectly objective resource.[6]

 

Verses that conspicuously relate to your concerns and personal needs are clearly targets for meditation. Although we don’t want to approach the Bible simply as a digest of wise advice, a collection of promises, or an “answer book,” it is God’s will that we give our attention to those things He has written that directly pertain to our circumstances. If you have been struggling with your thought life and you read Philippians, then you probably need to meditate on 4:8: “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.” Is the salvation of a friend or family member on your mind? Should you encounter John 4, you could profit from meditating on Jesus’ manner of communication there and drawing parallels to your own situation. Sensing distance from God or a dryness in your spiritual condition? Looking for clues to the character of God and focusing on them is a good choice.

 

One of the most consistently profitable ways to select a passage for meditation is to discern the main message of the section of your encounter with the Scripture and meditate on its meaning and application. For instance, recently I read Luke 11. There are ten paragraphs to that chapter in the version I was using. I chose one section, verses 5-13. The main theme of that paragraph is persistence in prayer. I reflected on that idea, especially as it is set forth in verses 9-10, which talk about asking, seeking, and knocking.[7]

 

Or you can narrow the focus to determine the key verse or verses of the passage you’ve read. Choosing one of these as your subject of meditation enables you to spotlight the main themes—the big ideas—of Scripture. For no matter how familiar a key verse may be, we never fully plumb the depths of the great truths of the Bible. We can never reflect too much, for example, on subjects such as the person and work of Jesus, any aspect of the gospel, or the attributes of God.

 

The general rule, then, in your personal, daily intake of Scripture is to both read and meditate. Read at length—such as a chapter or more—then go back over what you’ve read and select something specific from that as the focus of your meditation. Read big; meditate small.

 

Select a Method of Meditation

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.”[8]

 

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 seventeen methods of meditating on Scripture. I use all of them some of the time and none of them all the time. Why do I present so many?[9] Because you’ll likely resonate with some of these methods more than others, while the inclinations of someone else might be just the opposite of yours. And like me, you’ll probably want some variety.

 

Meditation Method #1: Emphasize Different Words in the Text

This method takes the verse or phrase of Scripture and turns it like a diamond to examine every facet.

 

A meditation on Jesus’ words at the beginning of John 11:25 would look like this:

 

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

Of course, the point is not simply to repeat vainly each word of the verse until they’ve all been emphasized. The purpose is to think deeply upon the light (truth) that flashes into your mind each time the diamond of Scripture is turned. It’s simple, but effective. I’ve found it especially helpful when I have trouble concentrating on a passage.

 

Meditation Method #2: Rewrite the Text in Your Own Words

From his earliest homeschool days, Jonathan Edwards’ father taught him to do his thinking with pen in hand, a habit he retained throughout his life. Meditating with pen in hand or fingers on the keyboard can help you to focus your attention on the matter at hand, while stimulating your flow of thinking. With this method, imagine that you are sending the verse you’ve chosen in a message to someone. How would you convey the content of the verse faithfully, yet without using the words of that verse?

 

Paraphrasing the verse you are considering is also a good way to make sure you understand the meaning. I have a friend who says that paraphrasing verses after the fashion of the Amplified Bible is the most productive method of opening a text for him. The very act of thinking of synonyms and other ways of restating the meaning of a part of God’s Word is in itself a way of meditation.

 

Meditation Method #3: Formulate a Principle from the Text—What Does It Teach?

While this method can work when you are meditating on a section as short as one verse or as long as a chapter, it works especially well when your focus is on more than just a sentence or two. Think of it as a type of summary of the main message of the passage. This method might be compared to developing a thesis statement for the section of Scripture you’ve read. Thus a principle derived from Matthew 6:9-13 might be stated as, “Jesus teaches His followers how to pray,” and a principle formulated from a long passage like Luke 8:19-56 might be, “Jesus has authority over creation, over demons, over illness, and over death.”

 

The more memorably you can state the principle, the better. That’s what Dr. R. G. Lee did in one of the best-known American sermons of the twentieth century. He condensed the Old Testament story of Naboth, Ahab, and Jezebel into the unforgettable line, “Pay-Day—Someday!” Once you’ve developed the principle, take the second step and think of a way to reformulate it into a phrase or line that will be easy to remember later when you ask yourself, “Now what was that verse I was meditating on this morning?”

 

Meditation Method #4: Think of an Illustration of the Text—What Picture Explains It?

An illustration is a word picture that explains, clarifies, or confirms the object of your meditation. It can be a personal anecdote, an event in the news or in history, a quotation, an analogy, a song—anything that throws light upon the text. An illustration is the completion of a sentence that begins with, “That’s like . . .”

 

Jesus often used illustrations in His teaching. In Luke 13:18-21,

 

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”

 

Evidently at some time before this episode, in His humanity He had meditated upon the nature of the kingdom of God and arrived at these two analogies, or else He did the reverse and once while observing a tree with nests and once while seeing leaven put into flour He asked Himself what biblical truth each might illustrate. The apostle Paul used illustrations in 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3, as did James in James 1:6.

 

The first thing to do when you want to picture a passage is to consider whether there is a story in the Bible that illustrates the point of the verse upon which you are meditating, or, if you are meditating on a story, whether there is a single verse somewhere in Scripture that summarizes the point of that story. If the verse you are considering is not in the Gospels, ponder whether it illustrates something Jesus said or did.

 

Another way to use this method is to reverse it and ask what this particular text might illustrate. Is it, for example, an illustration of another passage of Scripture, or of something in the words or deeds of Jesus?

 

Meditation Method #5: Look for Applications of the Text

The outcome of meditation should be application. Like chewing without swallowing, so meditation is incomplete without some type of application. This is so important that the entire next section of this chapter is devoted to applying God’s Word. So ask yourself, “How am I to respond to this text? What would God have me to do as a result of my encounter with this part of His Word? The Bible tells us to ‘be doers of the word’ (James 1:22); how then should I do this portion of it? Is there something to start, to stop, to confess, to pray about, to believe, to say to someone?”

 

If you’ll say to yourself, “I will not close my Bible until I know at least one thing the Lord wants me to do with this verse,” you’ll meditate.

 

Meditation Method #6: Ask How the Text Points to the Law or the Gospel

One way of thinking of the Bible is that it presents us with God’s Law and God’s gospel. The Law (basically the Old Testament) consists of what our holy and just God requires of people for them to have the righteousness necessary to live with Him in heaven. The gospel (basically the New Testament) is the good news of how our loving and merciful God has provided through Jesus the righteousness He requires in His Law. With this meditation method, you look for how the text you are considering points to some aspect of the Law, the gospel, or both.

 

With a verse like Psalm 23:1, for example—“The LORD is my shepherd”—we might say it points to the gospel in that Jesus said of Himself, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). But why do we need a shepherd, and why did the Good Shepherd have to lay down His life for the sheep? Because—and here Psalm 23:1 can indirectly point also to the Law—we’re all like sheep that have turned from God’s Law. As Isaiah 53:6 puts it, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

 

It may not often be as easy to trace lines to other texts or to make connections to both the Law and the gospel as it is from Psalm 23. But with a little practice you’ll find yourself becoming much more perceptive to these major themes of the Scripture even as you are considering a very small part of it.

 

Meditation Method #7: Ask How the Text Points to Something About Jesus

This is similar to the previous method, but it focuses entirely on the person and work of Jesus Christ. After His resurrection, as Jesus was walking on the road to Emmaus with two believers, we’re told that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Essentially this approach to meditation attempts to do the same thing; that is, it examines the text to see how it might point to something about who Jesus is or what He did.

 

So you might look for how Jesus fulfilled or epitomized the text (as we saw in Psalm 23:1) or, conversely, how He is the perfectly pure opposite of it (if it speaks of sin). Look to see if what you are considering is like some aspect of what Jesus accomplished by His life or death, or someday will do upon His return. As Jesus taught us, let’s train ourselves to think of the text before us Christocentrically.

 

Meditation Method #8: Ask What Question Is Answered or What Problem Is Solved by the Text

In this approach, you regard the text before you as the answer to a question or the solution to a problem. With that assumption, you ask, “What is the question?” or “What is the problem?” If you are meditating on “Jesus wept” (John 11:35), what question does that answer? How about, “Was Jesus fully human?” Well, “Jesus wept.” That doesn’t answer everything about the question, but it does tell you something important about His humanity. If you are meditating on John 3:16 and you consider that verse the solution to a problem, then what is the problem? One way the problem could be stated is, “What is God’s plan for providing eternal life?”

 

Meditation Method #9: Pray Through the Text

This method especially can help you express the spirit of the psalmist in Psalm 119:18: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” The Holy Spirit is the Great Guide into God’s truth (see John 14:26). Moreover, Christian meditation is more than just riveted human concentration or creative mental energy. Praying your way through a verse of Scripture submits the mind to the Holy Spirit’s illumination of the text and intensifies your spiritual perception. The Bible was written under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration; pray for His illumination in your meditation.

 

I recently meditated on Psalm 119:50: “This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your word has revived me” (NASB). I prayed through the text along these lines:

 

Lord, You know the affliction I’m going through right now. Your Word promises to comfort me in my affliction. Your Word can revive me in my affliction. I really believe that is true. Your Word has revived me in affliction during the past, and I confess my faith to You that it will revive me in this experience. I pray that You will revive me now through the comfort of Your Word.

 

As I prayed through this text, the Holy Spirit began to bring to my mind truths from Scripture about the sovereignty of God over His church, His providence over the circumstances in my life, His power, His constant presence and love, and so on. In this extended time of meditation and prayer, my soul was revived and I felt comforted by the Comforter.

 

Biblical meditation must always involve two parties—the Christian and the Holy Spirit. Praying over a text[10] is the Christian’s invitation for the Holy Spirit to hold His divine light over the words of Scripture to show what you cannot see without Him.

 

Meditation Method #10: Memorize the Text

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, “memorization stimulates meditation.” Simply put, when you are memorizing a verse, you think about it. The mental repetition of the text required by memorization simultaneously fosters reflection on it. And after you memorize a verse of Scripture, you can meditate on it during your commute, while on a walk, as you are preparing a meal, when you are falling asleep, or any other time you choose.

 

The most consistent and diligent memorizer of Scripture that I have personally known is Dr. Andrew Davis, who wrote, “There is no more useful discipline to this careful process of verse-by-verse meditation than memorization. Memorization is not the same as meditation, but it is almost impossible for someone to memorize a passage of Scripture without somewhat deepening his/her understanding of those verses. Plus, once the passage is memorized, a lifetime of reflection is now available.”[11]

 

Meditation Method #11: Create an Artistic Expression of the Text

This approach to the text consists of giving tangible expression to your meditations with a sketch or some other material manifestation of your thoughts. You could compose a song or poem based on the text. As Psalm 96:1 urges us, “Oh sing to the LORD a new song.” It doesn’t have to be laborious or lengthy, or even more than one note and thus chant-like. Most often it might be entirely spontaneous. Jonathan Edwards wrote that this was often his practice: “walking alone in the woods, and solitary places, for meditation, soliloquy, and prayer, and converse with God; . . . it was always my manner, at such times, to sing forth my contemplations.”[12] You can do that. On the spur of the moment, improvise a tune and sing the text and/or your thoughts about it as “a new song” to the Lord as you reflect on His Word.

 

Meditation Method #12: Ask the Philippians 4:8 Questions of the Text

Recently I was meditating on Philippians 4:8: “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.” It occurred to me that the directions given here about meditating on “these things” could provide guidance for meditating on any verse of Scripture, as well as for meditating on “life.” As a result (and after consulting several translations of Philippians 4:8), I developed a series of questions based upon “these things.”

 

What is true about this, or what truth does it exemplify?

What is honorable about this?

What is just or right about this?

What is pure about this, or how does it exemplify purity?

What is lovely about this?

What is commendable about this?

What is excellent about this (that is, excels others of this kind)?

What is praiseworthy about this?

So whether meditating on a verse or story in the Bible, or on something in your life—circumstances, an event, an experience, an encounter with someone, a part of creation—in fact, when thinking about anything, the Philippians 4:8 questions can be a helpful guide.

 

Meditation Method #13: Ask the Joseph Hall Questions of the Text

Joseph Hall (1574–1656) was a devoted Anglican bishop in Norwich, England. His 1606 book, The Art of Divine Meditation, was one of the best-selling and most influential books of its day. In this Puritan devotional classic he discussed and illustrated the use of ten questions helpful in meditating on Scripture. I find Hall’s questions extremely thought-provoking whenever I am preparing to preach or write or make any sort of presentation, but especially so during my devotional meditation on Scripture. I have modified and expanded them slightly to make them clearer to contemporary readers.

 

What is it (define and/or describe what it is) you are meditating upon?

What are its divisions or parts?

What causes it?

What does it cause; that is, what are its fruits and effects?

What is its place, location, or use?

What are its qualities and attachments?

What is contrary, contradictory, or different to it?

What compares to it?

What are its titles or names?

What are the testimonies or examples of Scripture about it?

The first question is the most difficult, but it is also the most important, for the answer becomes the “it” referred to in the following questions. So if the verse you were meditating upon were, say, Romans 8:28, your answer to the first question might be something like, “God’s control of all things for the good of His people.” Then “its divisions or parts” (from question two) would include “God’s control,” “all things,” “the good,” and “His people,” for these are the “divisions or parts” of “it” as defined in answer to question one.

 

You might find it useful to keep a copy of these questions in your Bible and digitally in locations where they’ll always be available to you.

 

Are ten questions too many for a single time of meditation? Then take one or two per day, perhaps using this method to meditate on a single verse for an entire week. Whether many or few, it’s often much easier in meditation to answer specific questions about the text than to think about it without any guidance at all. For this reason, besides those provided above you might develop other lists of questions to use in meditation. When you are sleepy or tired or distracted, looking for the answers to particular questions will help you minimize the mind-wandering that happens when there is no particular method to help you focus on the text.

 

Meditation Method #14: Set and Discover a Minimum Number of Insights from the Text

With this method you determine at the outset that you will not stop meditating on your text until you discover at least a certain number of insights from it. The first time I did this I was meditating on Hebrews 12:29: “For our God is a consuming fire.” I resolved to continue poring over the verse until I found a minimum of ten insights. In this case, I resolved to think of ten comparisons between God and fire. The first ones were rather easy: “God is light,” the Bible says in 1 John 1:5, and fire gives off light. Next, God is the ultimate Judge, and in the Bible fire is sometimes the means of God’s judgment. But after about four quick comparisons between God and fire, I had a more difficult time. But that’s when I began to go beyond what was rather simple or obvious to that which required more thought. Only then did I sense that I was growing past what was already familiar. If I had not set the bar at ten, I would have stopped at about four on that occasion, because that’s when the mental challenge came. But I often need that kind of mental challenge to go deeper in the Word of God.

 

I’ve had at least four friends confirm a legendary assignment each experienced in a seminary class on Bible study methods taught at Dallas Theological Seminary by professor Howard Hendricks. He would tell his students to come back to the next class with at least twenty-five observations on Acts 1:8. Having done so, they would be required in the next class to return with twenty-five more observations on that verse. Finally, they were given the assignment to make as many observations as they could beyond the original fifty. Most were thinking they had almost exhausted Acts 1:8 by that point, until Hendricks exhorted the class with, “Oh, by the way, the all-time record is over six hundred.”

 

Not every verse in the Bible is as fertile as Acts 1:8. Nevertheless, this method is founded upon the belief that an infinite mind has inspired every text in Scripture, and for that reason there’s always more to see there than you’ve yet seen, no matter how well you think you know a given verse. Perhaps it’s an observation, an insight, or an application—but there’s almost certainly something you’ve not previously noticed or articulated in that text.

 

Meditation Method #15: Find a Link or Common Thread Between All the Paragraphs or Chapters You Read

If you read one chapter and it has, say, three paragraphs, then search for a connection between all three. In Luke 15, for example, there is a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. All are found, and there is rejoicing. In Mark 5 we read of Jesus demonstrating His divinity by exercising authority over the spiritual realm, over illness, and over death.

 

If you read from more than one book of the Bible, look for a common thread in all that you read. Can you, for instance, see Jesus in the various chapters of your reading? Or how does each relate to the gospel? Or how would each speak to the “current crisis” in your life? You may eventually conclude from one or more of the chapters you’ve read that you can’t see any application whatsoever to your current crisis. But even when that’s so, there’s profit in mentally scouring the Scriptures, examining and reflecting on them in a way that’s far more thoughtful than mere reading.

 

Meditation Method #16: Ask How the Text Speaks to Your Current Issue or Question

Suppose the current issue in your life is financial. After you have completed your Bible reading, review what you’ve read and search for any texts that address or might apply to finances. Then consider what the text says, perhaps praying through the text or using one of the previous methods to meditate further. If the immediate concern in your life relates to your family, look for those verses that would have something to say about relationships. If you are wrestling with a persistent question, go back over all you’ve read in the past few minutes and scan it for something the Holy Spirit might illumine in relation to the answer. When you ask the Author of Scripture, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18), you may be surprised by the texts He uses to give you insight, understanding, or application regarding your issue or question.

 

Meditation Method #17: Use Meditation Mapping

Meditation mapping applies the principles of mind mapping to record one’s meditation on a text of Scripture. If you are unfamiliar with mind mapping or similar methods, you might want to briefly explore the topic on the Internet. It’s a quick study, especially if you find examples of basic mind maps.[13] Essentially a mind map is a diagram that outlines information in a more visually appealing and memorable way than words on lines. The idea you want to explore is placed in the center of a page. Then as ideas come, they are connected by lines to the central image, radiating out from it. Subcategories are similarly connected by thinner branches to the main ideas, and so forth. The use of simple images, symbols, and color is highly recommended.

 

Suppose you were to use this method to meditate on Romans 8:28. You’d begin by putting the words of that verse in the middle of the page, perhaps drawing a circle, box, or “cloud” around it. The first major branch radiating from it might be about “And we know,” and as you gave thought to how “we know,” as well as to the connection this verse has with the immediate context, you would connect your insights with lines or thinner branches to that first branch. The next large branch might be about “those who love God.” Minor branches on “who are they?” and “loving God” would grow out of this first-level branch. Next, you might have a major branch about “all things,” another on “work together,” and more. Each major branch would bear as much fruit as your meditations would produce.

 

Personally, this is one of my favorites. It’s not a different way to think, just a different way to write down what you think. But as fresh insights often follow fresh approaches, I’ve found this method of meditation on Scripture helps me to stay focused on the biblical text while stimulating my mental processes about what I’m seeing.

 

Don’t Rush—Take Time!

What value is there to reading one, three, or more chapters of Scripture only to find that after you’ve finished, you can’t recall a thing you’ve read? It’s better to read a small amount of Scripture and meditate on it than to read an extensive section without meditation.

 

Scotsman Maurice Roberts wrote,

 

Our age has been sadly deficient in what may be termed spiritual greatness. At the root of this is the modern disease of shallowness. We are all too impatient to meditate on the faith we profess. . . . It is not the busy skimming over religious books or the careless hastening through religious duties which makes for a strong Christian faith. Rather, it is unhurried meditation on gospel truths and the exposing of our minds to these truths that yields the fruit of sanctified character.[14]

 

Read less (if necessary) in order to meditate more. Although many Christians need to find the time to increase their Bible reading, there may be some who are spending all the time they can reading the Bible. If you could not possibly add more time to your devotional schedule for meditating on your Scripture reading, read less in order to have some unhurried time for meditation. Even though you may find moments throughout the day when you meditate on God’s Word (see Psalm 119:97), the best meditation generally occurs when it’s part of your main daily encounter with the Bible.

 

May our experience in scriptural meditation be as joyful and fruitful as that of Jonathan Edwards, who penned these lines in his journal soon after his conversion: “I seemed often to see so much light exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading; often dwelling long on one sentence to see the wonders contained in it, and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders.”[15]

 

APPLYING GOD’S WORD—BENEFITS AND METHODS

God made all the essentials of the Bible—that is, those things that are essential for knowing Him—abundantly clear. Still, parts of the Bible are hard to understand. Even the apostle Peter said of the letters of Paul, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Despite our occasional struggles to understand parts of Scripture, however, understanding the Bible isn’t our chief problem. Much more often our difficulty lies in knowing how to apply the clearly understood parts of God’s Word to everyday living. What does it say about raising my children? How should Scripture influence my decisions and relationships at work? What is the biblical perspective on the upcoming choice I must make? How can I know God better? These are the kinds of questions Bible readers ask frequently, thereby proving the urgency of learning the Discipline of applying God’s Word.

 

The Value of Applying God’s Word

The Bible promises the blessing of God on those who apply the Word of God to their lives. The classic New Covenant statement on the value of integrating the spiritual with the concrete is James 1:22-25:

 

Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

 

Pithy and powerful is Jesus’ similar statement, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).

 

These verses tell us there can be a dangerous delusion in hearing God’s Word. Without minimizing either the sufficiency of Scripture or the power of the Holy Spirit to work through even the most casual brush with the Bible, we can frequently be deluded about the Scripture’s impact on our lives. According to James 1:22-25, we can experience God’s truth so powerfully that what the Lord wants us to do becomes as plain to us as our face in the morning mirror. But if we do not apply the truth as we meet it, regardless of how wonderful the experience of discovering the truth has been, we deceive ourselves if we think we will be blessed for giving attention to the Bible on those occasions. The one who “will be blessed in his doing” is the one who does what Scripture says.

 

For someone to “be blessed in his doing” is the equivalent of the promises of blessing, success, and prosperity given in Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:1-3 to those who meditate on God’s Word. That’s because meditation should ultimately lead to application, to Christlike obedience. When God instructed Joshua to meditate on His Word day and night, He told him the purpose for meditating was “so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.” The promise “then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” would be fulfilled, not as the result of meditation only, but as God’s blessing upon meditation-forged application.

 

Expect to Discover an Application

Because God wills for you to be a doer of His Word, you may be confident that He wants you to find an application whenever you come to the Scriptures. For the same reason you may believe that the Holy Spirit is willing to help you discern how to flesh out your insights. Therefore, open the Book expectantly. Anticipate the discovery of a practical response to the truth of God. It makes a big difference to come to the Bible with the faith that you will find an application for it as opposed to believing that you won’t.

 

The Puritan minister and writer Thomas Watson, whose influence was so great he was called by Charles Spurgeon “the nursing mother of gigantic evangelical divines,”[16] encouraged anticipation about application when he said,

 

Take every word as spoken to yourselves. When the word thunders against sin, think thus: “God means my sins”; when it presseth any duty, “God intends me in this.” Many put off Scripture from themselves, as if it only concerned those who lived in the time when it was written; but if you intend to profit by the word, bring it home to yourselves: a medicine will do no good, unless it be applied.[17]

 

Because of God’s inspiration of Scripture, believe that what you are reading was meant for you—at least in some Christ-related way—as well as for the first recipients of the message. Without that attitude you’ll rarely perceive the application of a passage of Scripture to your personal situation.

 

Understand the Text

A misunderstanding about the meaning of a verse leads to misguided applications of it. For instance, some have applied the injunction of Colossians 2:21—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”—to prohibit just about everything imaginable. And while there may be good reasons to abstain from some of the things this verse has been used against, the text is misapplied when used that way because its meaning is misunderstood. When taken in context, it’s clear that these words were actually the slogans of an ascetic group the apostle Paul was denouncing as an enemy of the gospel. So if you were reading this verse and thought it could apply to your need to lose weight, you might be pleased to know that’s an invalid application from an incorrect interpretation. (However, a different diet might be the personal application the Holy Spirit would lead you to from 1 Corinthians 9:27.)

 

Watson was right when he said, “Take every word as spoken to yourselves.” But we cannot do that until we understand how it was intended for those who heard it first. If you take every word of God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-7 as spoken to yourself, you’ll soon be moving to Israel. But if you understand that particular call as unique to Abram, you can still discover the timeless truths within it and apply every word to yourself. Have you followed the call of God to come to Christ? Are you willing to obey the will of God wherever He might call you—to a new job, a new location, the mission field, and so on?

 

We must understand how a passage applied when it was first given before we can understand how it applies now. When Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), its immediate application was for the thief on the cross beside Him. Because these words are part of Scripture, however, and because “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16), the Lord intends for them to have application to all believers. Obviously, the contemporary application is not that each Christian will die today and be with Jesus in paradise. But one way we can apply this text is in terms of preparing for death. We realize that it is possible for death to come today and then examine ourselves about our readiness for it. We also can apply the text regarding the presence of Christ. As Christians, Christ is always present within us, thus He is with us today even though we are not yet in paradise. How does a fresh awareness of Christ’s presence affect your prayers or your outlook on the rest of the day?

 

Jesus’ promise to the thief is an example of how not every promise is meant to be applied today in exactly the same way as it was originally. Yet many other promises are general, universal, and perpetual in their application. One obvious example is John 3:16. Another is Romans 10:9. How can we know which passages should be applied somewhat differently than when first given? Here is where a growing knowledge of Scripture through hearing, reading, and, in particular, studying the Bible pays dividends. For the better we understand the Bible, the better equipped we will be to apply it.

 

Having said all that, I maintain that most of Scripture is plain and straightforward in its basic meaning. Our problem continues to be more of a lack of action than comprehension. The words of Scripture must be understood to be applied, but until we apply them, we don’t really understand them.

 

Meditate to Discern Application

We’ve already noted that meditation isn’t an end in itself. Nevertheless, deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities of Scripture is the often-neglected key to putting them into practice. It is by means of meditation that the facts of biblical information transform into practical application.

 

If we read, hear, or study God’s Word without meditating on it, we shouldn’t be surprised that applying Scripture to concrete situations is so difficult. Perhaps we could even train a parrot to learn every verse of Scripture that we ourselves have memorized, but if we don’t apply those verses to life they won’t be of much more lasting value to us than to the parrot. How does the Word memorized become the Word applied? It happens through meditation.

 

Most information, even biblical information, passes through our minds like water through a sieve. There’s usually so much information coming in each day that we retain very little. But when we meditate, the truth remains and percolates. We can smell its aroma more fully and taste it better. As it brews in our brain, the insights come. The heart is warmed by meditation, and cold truth is melted into passionate action.

 

Psalm 119:15 puts it this way: “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.” It was through meditation on God’s Word that the psalmist discerned how to regard God’s ways for living, that is, how to be a doer of them. It’s no different for us. The way to determine how any Scripture applies to the real situations of life is to meditate on that Scripture.

 

Ask Application-Oriented Questions of the Text

As we noticed earlier, asking questions of the text is one of the best ways to meditate. The more questions you ask and answer about a verse of Scripture, the more you will understand it and the more clearly you will see how to apply it.

 

Here are some examples of application-oriented questions that can help you become a doer of God’s Word:

 

Does this text reveal something I should believe about God?

Does this text reveal something I should praise or thank or trust God for?

Does this text reveal something I should pray about for myself or others?

Does this text reveal something I should have a new attitude about?

Does this text reveal something I should make a decision about?

Does this text reveal something I should do for the sake of Christ, others, or myself?

There are times when a verse of Scripture will have such evident application for your life that it will virtually jump off the page, take you by the shoulders, and urge you to do what it says. More often than not, however, you must interview the verse, patiently asking questions of it until a down-to-earth response becomes clear.

 

Respond Specifically

An encounter with God through His Word should result in at least one specific response. In other words, after you have concluded your time of Bible intake, you should be able to name at least one definite response you have made or will make to what you have encountered. That response may be an explicit act of faith, worship, praise, thanksgiving, or prayer. It may take the form of asking someone’s forgiveness or speaking a word of encouragement. The response may involve forsaking a sin or showing an act of love. Regardless of the nature of that response, consciously commit yourself to at least one action to take following the intake of God’s Word.

 

How important is this? How often have you closed your Bible and suddenly realized you can’t remember a thing you’ve read? How many Bible studies have you participated in and how many sermons have you heard where you left without any imprint of Scripture on your life at all? I’ve known people who were in as many as six Bible studies per week, and yet they grew only in knowledge and not in Christlikeness because they were not applying what they were learning. Despite all their Bible intake, their prayer life wasn’t strong, they weren’t influencing lost people with the gospel, and their family life was strained. If we will begin to discipline ourselves to determine at least one specific response to the text before walking away from it, we will much more rapidly grow in grace. Without this kind of application, we aren’t doers of God’s Word.

 

MORE APPLICATION

Will you begin a plan of memorizing God’s Word? If you’ve been a Christian for very long, you probably have already memorized much more Scripture than you realize. One of the verses you may know is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Do you believe this verse is true? Do you believe that the “all” mentioned there includes Scripture memory? Since you can do it, will you do it? When will you begin?

 

Will you cultivate the Discipline of meditating on God’s Word? Occasional Godward thoughts are not meditation. “A man may think on God every day,” said William Bridge, “and meditate on God no day.”[18] God calls us through the Scriptures to develop the practice of dwelling on Him in our thoughts.

 

By now I’m sure you realize that cultivating the Discipline of meditation involves a commitment of time. Bridge, one of the older but best-ever evangelical writers on meditation, anticipated this problem of making time for meditation:

 

Oh, saith one, I would think on God, and I would meditate on God with all my heart, but meditation work is a work of time, it will cost time, and I have no time; my hands are so full of business, and so full of employment, I have no time for this work. Meditation is not a transient thought, but it is a work of time, and will ask time, and I have no time. Mark therefore what David saith in Psalm [119], “Lord incline my heart unto thy testimonies,” how so? “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity.” The way to have one’s heart inclined to the testimonies of God, is to turn away one’s eyes from these outward vanities. Would you therefore meditate on God and the things of God, then take heed that your hearts, and your hands, be not too full of the world and the employments thereof. . . .

 

Friends, there is an art, and a divine skill of meditation, which none can teach but God alone. Would you have it, go then to God, and beg of God these things.[19]

 

Here’s the question we naturally tend to ask at this point: “Will the Discipline of meditation be worth this commitment of my time?” I cannot answer better than Bridge:

 

It is a help to knowledge, thereby your knowledge is raised. Thereby your memory is strengthened. Thereby your hearts are warmed. Thereby you will be freed from sinful thoughts. Thereby your hearts will be tuned to every duty. Thereby you will grow in grace. Thereby you will fill up all the chinks and crevices of your lives, and know how to spend your spare time, and improve that for God. Thereby you will draw good out of evil. And thereby you will converse with God, have communion with God, and enjoy God. And I pray, is not here profit enough to sweeten the voyage of your thoughts in meditation.[20]

 

When you consider what the Scriptures say about meditation, and when you weigh the testimonies of some of the godliest men and women of Christian history, the importance and value of Christian meditation for progress in Christian growth is undeniable.

 

Ponder one more quotation on the subject. It presents a challenge about meditation from Richard Baxter, the most practical of all Puritan writers. I join him in making this challenge to you regarding the cultivation of the Discipline of meditation:

 

If, by this means, thou dost not find an increase of all thy graces, and dost not grow beyond the stature of common Christians, and art not made more serviceable in thy place, and more precious in the eyes of all discerning persons; if thy soul enjoy not more communion with God, and thy life be not fuller of comfort, and hast it not readier by thee at a dying hour: then cast away these directions, and exclaim against me for ever as a deceiver.[21]

 

Will you prove yourself an “applier” of the Word? You have read many verses from the Word of God in this chapter. What will you do in response to these passages of Scripture?

 

Most of us would consider ourselves to be doers of the Word and not merely hearers. But “prove it,” as one widely respected translation of the Bible (NASB) renders the beginning of James 1:22—“Prove yourselves doers of the word.” How will you prove that you are a doer of the Word of God as it’s been presented to you here?

 

The Discipline of Bible intake—especially the Discipline of applying God’s Word—will often be difficult, and for many reasons, not the least of which is spiritual opposition. J. I. Packer makes that sobering point:

 

If I were the devil, one of my first aims would be to stop folk from digging into the Bible. Knowing that it is the Word of God, teaching men to know and love and serve the God of the Word, I should do all I could to surround it with the spiritual equivalent of pits, thorn hedges, and man traps, to frighten people off. . . . At all costs I should want to keep them from using their minds in a disciplined way to get the measure of its message.[22]

 

Despite the difficulty and spiritual opposition, are you willing, at all costs, to begin using your mind “in a disciplined way” to feed on the Word of God “for the purpose of godliness”? [Donald S. Whitney (2017). (p. 78). Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Retrieved from https://app.wordsearchbible.com]

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