This is the third entry of a multi-part collection of posts exploring the spiritual disciplines entitled, "Old Ways for New Days.” These essays are here to help give us something to grip that will yield real, substantiated, integrated life in this ever-evolving, often troubling, immensely confusing, time in human history. These time tested habits have endured Roman persecution, crusades, wars, the dark ages, plagues, famines, earthquakes, volcanoes, and every sort of natural disaster. They’ve proven to be worthy handles to help people steer through the discovery of “the new world,” pandemics and epidemics, world wars, holocausts, civil rights revolutions, and terrorism. They now face the challenge of equipping people to overcome misinformation and fake news, rumours of war, economic downturns, idea wars, ideological fragmentation, and another pandemic, all in the microcosm of unprecedented globalization through a digital network that has connected every people and nation. Will they be up for the test of our times? You decide.
The Practice of Meditation: The Art of Selective Hearing
Have you ever heard the term "selective hearing?" You might have said it in regards to someone you're close to, or maybe someone has claimed that you have this distinct power that allows you to "not hear" something or someone at any given moment. My mother seemed to think I had a real, natural ability to tune out of some things and tune in to some others. She was adamant about the fact that I had selective hearing throughout my childhood and teen years. Interestingly enough, my wife has verified that this ability of mine has carried with force into my adulthood. To top it off, the gift of selective hearing is so substantial in me that it has now passed from generation to generation and dwells in not one, but all three of my beloved children. In reality, in the Ingersoll household, selective hearing is, and has been an irritant. It isn't often celebrated and is generally discouraged. Selective hearing is frowned upon because the ability is rarely harnessed in a way that leaves parents or wives overly thrilled. Usually, frustration and annoyance are the results of this mysterious power.
I suspect if you have ever used the term, or had it used in your direction, it wasn't for the purpose of affirmation, but as a passive-aggressive correction. In most families and most households, selective hearing is discouraged because it's evidence of tuning out important transmissions of communication; however, selective hearing doesn't necessarily imply adverse effects. It can be an asset if used to tune into what's most important.
In the Kingdom of God, the ability to selectively hear is one of the most life-giving, necessary, and potent skills we can develop. Selective hearing is not only encouraged in the Family of God; it's essential. The ability to select what we hear is, without a doubt, an integral part of following Jesus, and is one of the most time tested practices of the believer since the earliest days of the Church. Christians through the centuries have had another term for selective hearing; they called it the discipline of “meditation” or “contemplation.”
Christian meditation is the practice of intentional listening. It is the art of the selective hearing of the Word of God.
The Bible tells us that faith is the master key to the life of the Kingdom, that, through faith, we access all the grace of God made available to us through King Jesus. Yet, there is another necessary key in the overall equation of life in Christ, and that key is hearing. The Bible is clear, faith is the essential currency in Kingdom life, but to obtain faith, or accumulate it, you are going to need the ability to listen to what God has said and is saying.
"Faith comes by hearing, hearing the Word of God." Romans 10:17
The type of "hearing" the Bible talks about isn't just registering something in your eardrums or your spirit, but biblical listening refers to the act of hearing (obtaining) and holding (obeying) God’s Word. We know in our own experiences that it's possible to hear, but not "hear." It’s possible to register a sound, but not truly listen. Or further still, to have heard loud and clear, and simply choose to let go of, or dismiss what we heard in outright indifference or defiance. The Bible stresses that the key to Christian selective-hearing is choosing to seek to hear God's Word and then to hold on to it, to obey it, to do it, no matter the cost. Hearing and holding are the two sides of the same Kingdom coin called hearing, according to the Bible.
"Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." James 1:22
When we learn the art of hearing the Word of God and obeying the Will of God, this simple discipline has the power to change everything in us, for us, through us, and around us. It is impossible to overstate the premium the Bible places on the importance of hearing and holding God's Word. Learning to meditate on God’s word is, of all the disciplines, perhaps the most crucial.
The book of Genesis reveals that sin, and the dysfunction, destruction, and death that comes with it, gained entry to the creation through human inability to listen to the right voice. Creation literally broke because the first man and first woman heard and held on to the wrong voices (the voice of the devil and the voice of their desires). They failed because they tuned out the voice of God. Think about how the devil targeted humanity; he challenged their ability to listen. "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The devil called in to question what God had actually said, and how well the man and the woman did at not only hearing (obtaining) God's Word, but holding to it (obeying). It would not be an overstatement to say that the ability to hear the Word of God is the difference between eternal life and catastrophe.
From the beginning, Scripture shows that an inability to obtain and obey God's Word brings curse and disaster upon the created order. However, the scriptures not only outline the problems of not listening, but it very quickly shows us the power of using selective hearing for zeroing in on God's voice. The success stories in Scripture are all case studies in the power of listening.
The life of Moses, the great hero of the Old Testament, deliverer of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and bringer of the Torah, demonstrates the power, possibility and blessing of being one who hears and obeys God's Word. It was Moses who heard the voice of God coming from a bush that was on fire but not being consumed. Many Jewish scholars claim the detail about the bush not being consumed is indicative of the fact that the bush had been burning for a long time, and that Moses had been contemplating the peculiarity of a bush that was on fire but not burning up. The point being, Moses was listening when others possibly weren’t. Some commentators feel that Moses might not have been the only person who passed by the bush; he may have just been the one who stopped long enough to hear the voice come from within it. It was this voice that Moses would learn to hear and obey, leading him to become the leader of a revolution, and at the forefront of some of the most incredible acts of God in recorded history. Plagues in Egypt, parting the sea, provision in the wilderness, water from a rock, healing a nation from venomous snakes, war victories, all because this man had learned the art of hearing the voice of God, and holding on to what He said, no matter the cost. The Bible reveals to us that Moses's life was so extraordinary because he was proficient in conversing with God. He had mastered the art of selective hearing, selecting to hear God above all else and any other.
The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. (Exodus 33:11)
In contrast to a lifetime of the blessing that comes from listening, Moses's story ends in tragic disappointment because he didn't get to enter the promised land for, you guessed it, failing to listen. The difference between blessings and curses, freedom and bondage, life and death, promotion or setbacks, overcoming or being overcome, according to the Bible, is our capacity to hear the Word of The Lord and hold on to it in obedient, expectant faith.
Psalm one begins the entire collection of poems and songs with a centring proclamation, a promise of blessing to live by;
"Blessed is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers." Psalm 1:2-3
What an incredible promise of enduring, everlasting, flourishing, fruitful life for the one who learns how to meditate on the law 24/7. This Psalm both paints a picture and makes a promise for the discipline of meditation. The promise is prosperity. The picture is intentional, continual focus on God's Word. In the Hebrew language, the word "meditate" translates to "murmur." To murmur repeatedly under one’s breath is the way the Hebrew word meditate literally translates in this passage. The picture the Psalmist paints is of one who is so locked in on God's Word, he just keeps regurgitating and mumbling, murmuring, proclaiming and singing what God has said. It's the promise and the picture of a person who is listening, hearing and holding and, in this case, chewing on God's Word.
Of course, the greatest Biblical case for the discipline of meditation comes in the person of Jesus. In even a cursory read through the Gospels, you will find the emergence of the theme of Jesus's constant focus on what God the Father was saying and doing. We are told he had the habit of withdrawing to quiet and lonely places. There is one reason you withdraw to quiet, lonely places, and that is to listen. Jesus's ability to consistently hear (obtain) the voice of the Father in His life is evidenced not only by the brilliant teaching, knowledge, power, and authority He consistently exercised, but His complete unwillingness to move off of the explicit direction from His Father. Jesus wouldn't do anything He didn't first hear from the Father.
"I have not spoken on My own, but the Father who sent Me has commanded Me what to say and how to say it." John 12:49
"Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does." John 5:19
Perhaps the starkest and most stunning example of Jesus's ability to meditate on the Word is in the garden of Gethsemane, when He cried out for a change of course, only to hear nothing in reply. Hearing nothing wasn't an invitation for Jesus to improvise or invent; it meant that He would have to hold on to what God has already said and be obedient to that, even in the face of something as daunting as the cross. The utter darkness, terror and anxiety of the night in Gethsemane couldn’t distract Jesus from his focus on the Voice of God. He chose to hear and to hold God’s word always and only.
Thankfully for all of us, Jesus listened and obeyed to the very end, launching a whole new world of possibility, life, liberty, prosperity, meaning and freedom for all who would come after. It wouldn't be an overstatement to say the Gospel of Jesus is the good news of how Jesus heard and held the Word in all the ways we as humans have been incapable of, purchasing us forgiveness and life in the process.
Ok, this sounds right, and sounds great, but how do we do it? Who doesn't want to be like a tree whose leaf doesn't whither, and prospers in everything they do? But what does the discipline of mediation look like when we walk it out? How do we do it? How do we practice selective hearing?
First, before we unpack what it is, let's make sure we clear up what it isn't.
Christian Meditation is very different than "Eastern Meditation."
This is no doubt an over-simplistic explanation, but for our purposes, it would be helpful to understand that the primary objective in most forms of Eastern meditation is about clearing out your self, your mind and your thoughts. It's an effort to empty, to let go, to cast away anxious thoughts, or the cluttered, chaotic mind. This practice isn't all bad, but it only accomplishes half of what Christian meditation sets out to do. As in eastern meditation, the Christian does seek to cast out anxious thoughts, clear the clutter and chaos from the mind; however, an empty self and a clear mind are only a part of the process. The objective is incomplete at this point. It’s only after you let go of the chaotic thoughts and words in the mind, that you are able to take hold of God's Word.
Christian meditation isn't just about detaching from earthly things, but it seeks to take hold of heavenly things. In fact, Jesus warns us that just because you are successful in emptying out space, it doesn't mean you stand to be healthy or empowered from that. In fact, He said that if you don't fill the now empty space intentionally with the Truth, Power and Presence of Almighty God, you are liable to be worse off than you were before with new, more intense, more chaotic realities entering in (See Matthew 12:43-45). The practice of Christian meditation seeks to detach from earthly concerns so that we can take hold of Heavenly peace. Christian meditation/contemplation looks to empty the mind, the soul, the spirit of the chaos of our lives, and then to be filled with the order of God's Word, and the power of His life.
Christian meditation is very different than the modern practice of mindfulness.
Another discipline that is gaining significant popularity in our day is mindfulness, which, like Eastern Meditation, could easily be mistaken for Christian Meditation. In the same way that Eastern Meditation is only half of the picture and power of Christian contemplation, modern mindfulness is only a partial truth as well. Mindfulness seeks to take back control over how scattered and chaotic our minds can become in our day to day lives. Mindfulness is essentially a tool for strengthening and ordering our thoughts through intense focus. This tool helps build presence, awareness, control over our thoughts, etc. However, much like Eastern Meditation, mindfulness only accomplishes a part of what Christian Meditation does. In the Christian discipline, it too is a tool of focus, but the tool isn't the end, it is the means. Mindfulness seeks focus for the benefit of focus. Christian meditation asks the question, "is what I am focusing on the right thing?"
When we practice mindfulness we are sharpening our focus on one thing, but what if that one thing only creates more anxiety, questions and chaos in the end? When we practice mindfulness, we are confronting reality, yes, but what if reality is horrible and hopeless? Through Christian meditation, we get to focus on what is better, what is lasting, what is true, what is praiseworthy and what is lovely. The benefits of focusing on God's Word and the reality of the Kingdom far outweigh that of a little mental gymnastics. When we "think on the things of heaven," we are filled and fuelled with the hope, joy, power and peace that actually comes from heaven. Our focus is only as powerful as that on which we are focused. Christian meditation locks in on the everlasting, all-powerful, unstoppable reality of God's Word.
There is nothing as beneficial in the life of the believer as learning to meditate, contemplate, and fixate on the Word of God. The art of selective hearing for a believer is a game-changer.
So, what next? How do we begin to practice this discipline? What do we do? How do we understand it and work it out?
1. Meditation is our work to hear the Word of God
Meditation is about focusing on God's Word through the act of listening. Half of the job of meditation is hearing, or obtaining The Word. You can't meditate on what you don't have. We have to learn to listen, to develop ears, spiritual ears that can hear the whisper of The Spirit. There are a number of things we can do to listen to the voice of God:
Solitude: Getting in a distraction-free zone where you can narrow your focus and tune out noise is essential in hearing God. (See my first Old Ways for New Days entry here).
Scripture: The most surefire way to hear the Word is through the prayerful, contemplative reading of the written Word of God, the Bible.
Relationships: God often speaks to us through others, especially mentoring, authoritative or accountability relationships. We all need more than two ears to hear what God is saying to us. Some of the most important words we will ever hear will be heard first by a friend or a mentor, who will then say to us for our hearing.
Environments: Sometimes, God speaks through his glory revealed in creation, art, worship gatherings, or music, where no words are exchanged, just the inexplicable unutterable language of the Spirit into you.
Whatever the case, it's crucial we realize that when it comes to meditation, the primary objective is hearing. There are a number of ways, places and times we can listen; the trick is learning what it takes for you to hear, how to zero in on that heavenly frequency, and to mitigate all the competing sounds, so that we can have consistent moments in our lives, like Elijah, where that still small voice of God brings us the healing, help and hope we need, every day in every season.
2. Meditation is our work to hold God's Word
The second part of meditation, after we have heard the Word, is holding on to it in faith that stands the test of obedience. This is where the rubber meets the road when the Word is tested. A seed that is planted in the ground only grows if it stays planted. The same is true of the Word of God when we hear it. The question is, can we hold on when life comes and tests us, pushing against that which we have heard? Meditation isn't just hearing; it's doing. It's about obeying and obsessively focusing on the promise or proclamation of God in spite of what you might see or feel. Practically speaking, there are a few ways we hold on to the Word:
The Word is held in our Heads (Mind). It's crucial that the Word doesn't go in one ear and out the other. Once it comes in, we hold it, circle it, repeat it, memorize it. Meditation isn't just about getting the Word to our ears; it's about absorbing the Word, getting it into us. This is why the guy in Psalm one is murmuring the Law day and night. He's holding it in his head, on his lips, he's keeping it front and center. This is what God commanded the Israelites to do:
"These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates." Deuteronomy 6:6-9
We hold the Word by keeping it in the forefront of our minds, it must be the point of our focus.
The Word is held in our Hearts (Emotions). The Gospel of Luke records that after Mary heard the great news that she would be the mother of the Messiah, that He shall be great, and He will change everything, it tells us that she didn't tuck that Word away, or forget about it, but she "pondered these things in her heart." She guarded them. She didn't allow the scrutiny she no doubt faced by having a teenage pregnancy, or the questions or doubts from her fiancé touch the promise, no matter how intense things got. Mary guarded what she had heard in an untouchable place in her heart. When we hear a Word, we have to let it hit our hearts, and then shut the door from competing words trying to enter. We hold on to God's Word, and we hold out doubt, fear, scarcity, insecurity, or anything else that would seek to confuse, corrupt or compromise it.
"Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." Proverbs 4:23
This brings us to the last way we take hold of the Word.
The Word is held in our Hands (Actions). We do according to the Word. Holding, meditating, and contemplating is actuated through simple obedience. It's not rocket science, but it is often a challenge. Meditation asks the question of us, “will we stay true to what God has said in our actions?” Meditation looks like doing the things he said to do and not doing the things he said not to do. We have lost our hold the moment we are disobedient; disobedience is letting go of the Word. Meditation is the act of hearing (obtaining) and holding (obeying) the Word of God, no more, no less.
This discipline will be a constant challenge, but as you work it out, you will begin to see some of these immediate benefits.
Helpful Insight: When we set aside significant time to listen, not only does God speak, but he often says the exact thing we needed to hear about ourselves, our world, a decision we need to make or a situation we are trying to navigate.
Healing Intimacy: God's Word is food for the soul, healing salve, and fresh wind in the sails of our lives. Listening builds intimacy in any relationship. The same is true with God, only when God gets close, anything is possible.
Holy Imagination: Through meditation, God often shows us secret and hidden things. He can reform our imagination and expectation to see the greater, the better, the unseen and the eternal.
Heaven's Increase: Every parent knows the key for a child to unlock more responsibility and freedom is listening and obeying. The same is true with God, The Father. The Kingdom kids who seem to have the most are generally the ones who have learned to listen the best. God doesn't have favourites, but he does have favour. Listening accesses it.
3 Practical Steps to Step Up Your Meditation Game
1. Clear out a time and a place, then focus on breathing for 5-10 minutes.
Simply focus on inhaling and exhaling. As competing thoughts come to mind, push back to focus on breathing. After you've done this, say out loud, "speak Lord, your servant is listening," or "good morning Holy Spirit, I'm here." It doesn't matter what you say, what matters is that you clear a space and a time, then clear your mind, and finally, invite The Lord to speak. Sometimes you'll hear something, sometimes you won't, the point is the practice. Let God worry about where and how He chooses to speak. It will happen, and when it does, it will be glorious, just stick with it.
2. Meditate through memorization.
Pick a verse to be memorizing at all times. This simple practice can keep the Word front and center, as well as get it into your heart and spirit. Every believer should have a growing amount of scripture memorized; it's a crucial practice. Why not start by seeing if you can memorize Psalm 1?
3. Fight to form a habit of simple obedience.
There is no trick or hack for this one; just simply do according to what God has said and watch the life and joy that comes from this habit.
May you learn the art of selective hearing. May you, like Moses, become friends with God through constant communion. May you, O sheep, learn the voice of The Shepherd, like never before, and may you find He leads you to greener pastures and the freshest, still waters you ever imagined.