During a question-and-answer period at a spiritual convocation on the West Coast of the United States, a man stood up and asked, “What do you think of contemplative spirituality, spiritual formation, and meditation?” In some circles these terms have become lightning rods: they engender heated discussions and sometimes more heat than light. There are those who believe that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has become cold, formal, legalistic, and spiritually lifeless, and that its members desperately need to experience a fresh breath of spiritual newness. They are convinced that the way to reach postmoderns is through experience, not doctrine. To them, the answer lies in contemplative spirituality. For others, contemplative spirituality is no more than Eastern mysticism clothed in Christian terms—the devil’s deception. This group believes that contemplative spirituality leads unsuspecting church members into a counterfeit religious experience based on subjective feelings and emotions rather than scriptural truth.
This entire issue leads us to some vitally important questions. What is Christian meditation? How does the Bible define it and how does it differ from Eastern mysticism? What are contemplative and centering prayers? Are there dangers in these approaches to prayer? Is the concept of spiritual formation biblical? Where can we find answers for the Laodicean complacency, spiritual barrenness, and cold formality common in too many of our lives?
Throughout Scripture, meditation stays always active, never passive, and always has an object. The goal of Christian meditation comprises filling the mind with the Word and works of God. Meditating upon His greatness and matchless love, we are changed into His image (2 Cor. 3:18). In Christian meditation, we look out of ourselves to Him. Jesus is the object of our thoughts, the supreme focus of our attention (Isa. 45:22; Heb. 12:1, 2). We recognize that the heart is deceitful above all things, desperately wicked, and that in us there is no good thing (Jer. 17:9; Isa. 53:6; Rom. 7:18). Our hope is in Him. Our mind is fixed upon Him. Our attention is focused upon Him, and when meditating upon Him, we are transformed into His likeness (Col. 3:1, 2). The psalmist speaks of meditating on God’s Word, His law, His testimonies, and His works (Ps. 119:97, 99, 104). He also meditates upon God’s precepts and contemplates His ways (verse 15). Christian meditation thus focuses our thoughts on the grandeur and greatness of God, lifting us from what is around us and within us to what is above us.
Ellen White uses the terms meditate and meditation more than 500 times. Speaking of Enoch, she declares, “The infinite, unfathomable love of God through Christ became the subject of his meditation day and night; and with all the fervor of his soul he sought to reveal that love to the people among whom he dwelt.”1 Describing the importance of filling our minds with the Word of God in active meditation, she states, “We must be constantly meditating upon the word, eating it, digesting it, and by practice, assimilating it, so that it is taken into the life current.”2 The significant factor in both the biblical and Ellen White’s counsel is that meditation is always rooted in God’s Word, His works, and His ways, and anchored in His character, majesty, love, and power. Meditation’s goal is not to enter into the “silence of the soul” and somehow mystically “dwell in His presence,” but to actively engage the mind in focusing upon the matchless charms of His love and the amazing wonders of His grace.
In the high-technological, frantic pace of our twenty-first-century living, genuine Christian meditation may become a lost art. The prophet Isaiah reminds us, “For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength’?” (Isa. 30:15).3 Thoughtfully opening God’s Word, reading a few verses, meditating upon His love, contemplating His character, and reflecting upon His greatness are life-changing. The Holy Spirit speaks to us in these quiet moments. “When every other voice is hushed, and in quietness we wait before Him, the silence of the soul makes more distinct the voice of God. He bids us, ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ Psalm 46:10. This is the effectual preparation for all labor for God. Amidst the hurrying throng, and the strain of life’s intense activities, he who is thus refreshed will be surrounded with an atmosphere of light and peace. He will receive a new endowment of both physical and mental strength. His life will breathe out a fragrance, and will reveal a divine power that will reach men’s hearts.”4
The word contemplative simply means attentive, pensive, reflective, or thoughtful. A person who is contemplating is musing or pondering, reflecting or thinking. Ellen White uses the word contemplation nearly 600 times. Her use of the word is very similar to the way she uses the word meditation. She speaks of contemplating God’s Word God’s works, and God’s providence. Here are just a few examples:
“The Bible is God’s voice speaking to us, just as surely as if we could hear it with our ears. If we realized this, with what awe we would open God’s Word, and with what earnestness we would search its precepts. The reading and contemplation of the Scriptures would be regarded as an audience with the Infinite One.”5
“In the Bible a boundless field is opened for the imagination. The student will come from a contemplation of its grand themes, from association with its lofty imagery, more pure and elevated in thought and feeling than if he had spent the time reading any work of mere human origin, to say nothing of those of a trifling character.”6
Probably the most well-known Ellen White statement on the value of genuine Christian contemplation is this: “It would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ. We should take it point by point, and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones. As we thus dwell upon His great sacrifice for us, our confidence in Him will be more constant, our love will be quickened, and we shall be more deeply imbued with His spirit. If we would be saved at last, we must learn the lesson of penitence and humiliation at the foot of the cross.”7
Contemplating the cross draws us into an intimate relationship with Jesus, providing a solid foundation for our faith. Neither Ellen White nor the Bible writers speak of an aimless or mindless contemplation in which the mind resides in some sort of neutral trancelike state of oneness with God.
In Scripture the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible speaks through the divinely inspired Word to transform our lives as we prayerfully meditate upon its passages. Jesus stated this plainly when He declared, “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). The apostle Peter adds, “By which have been given to us exceeding great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Peter 1:4). James declares, “Therefore lay aside all filthiness and the overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). Our characters are transformed as we actively meditate on God’s Word. The Bible writers also describe the life-changing power of contemplating God’s creative works (Ps. 19:1-6; 32:6-11). The point of these divinely inspired writers is the same: Christian meditation seeks not to empty the mind but to fill the mind. It does not seek oneness with a mystical god within, but seeks to understand more deeply the nature of God who created and redeemed us, and we then more fully reflect His character.
This is the first part of an article about spiritual formation. Part 2 of this article will appear August 23, 2012, and will outline what’s behind today’s literature about contemplative prayer. Both parts will be available on the Adventist Review Web site: www.AdventistReview.org.—Editors.
1 Ellen G. White, Conflict and Courage (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), p. 28.
2 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1938), p. 89.
3 All Bible references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
4 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 58.
5 Ellen G. White, “Our Great Treasure-House,” Signs of the Times, Apr. 4, 1906.
6 Ellen G. White, Child Guidance (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1954), p. 507.
7 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 83.
Mark A. Finley is an editor at large for the Adventist Review. This article was published August 16, 2012.