Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Meditating on Scripture

Ever get tired of old habits that won’t go away? You whine when you should be grateful. You ignore someone when you should care about their needs. What does it take to have the heart of Christ, to obey the commands that seem so difficult?

Trying to be good doesn’t work because such efforts are about us, not about Christ. What works better is connecting with God in deeper ways that allow God to “work in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).

One important -- but overlooked -- way to connect with God is meditating on Scripture. Joshua wrote that as you mediate, you become “careful to do everything written in [the book of the Law]” (Josh. 1:8). God moves beyond the door of our inner being through Scripture meditation and works important heart changes.

The psalmists valued meditation, mentioning it sixteen times, and urged us to reflect on aspects of God’s character (such as unfailing love, Ps. 48:9), God’s works (77:2; 143:5; 145:5), and God’s precepts and ways (119:15). Beyond that, we are given little instruction. That’s why I wasn’t sure what to do in my early attempts to meditate. I turned to classic writers for help. Just as there are many ways to pray and study Scripture, Christians throughout the ages have found many ways to meditate. Let’s look at two specific approaches to meditation.


One of the best-known ways to meditate is to enter enter into Scripture with all five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell (a format originated by Ignatius Loyola). Scripture itself urges us to use our senses: “O taste and see that the Lord is good” ; “My sheep hear my voice” (Psalm 34:8; John 10:27). Using the five senses allows you to experience the text in a fresh way. For example, as you enter into the text of Mark 10:17-22, you may take the role of the rich young ruler and see what he saw. In verse 21, Jesus “looked at him and loved him,” then immediately challenged him to give up what he apparently loved best: his wealth.

Shut your eyes now. Imagine Jesus’ look of love followed by this challenge. I began doing that years ago, and ever since, I have repeatedly had a sense of God looking at me with love and challenging me to give up ingrained habits: self-centered thinking, judgmental attitudes, the need to be right. When I just can’t give those things up, that picture of Jesus’ loving yet challenging gaze resurfaces and I gradually relinquish them.

As I meditate on a passage, I wonder what the biblical scene looked like. I pretend I am Cecille B. DeMille creating a scene for a biblical epic such as The Ten Commandments. So while meditating on the transfiguration of Christ, I’ve imagined Jesus’ radiant face. This passage required that I imitate Steven Spielberg too -- adding the special effects of lightning-bright clothes. Once as I imagined the scene, I wondered (as a skilled movie director would), What was Jesus doing when his appearance changed? I peeked at the original script and found that Jesus was praying (Lk. 9:29). I prostrated myself on the floor and said to God, As I pray, change me too. Make me the person You wish me to be.

Another meditation question I use is, How would I have behaved if I’d been a disciple sitting in the boat? As Jesus talked to Legion in that graveyard by the sea, how would I have responded to the screams of the demonized man and the smell of blood from his cut flesh (Mk. 5:5)? What would I have thought of my teacher, who was not intimidated by this naked, crazed man, but cared for him? Would I have wanted to run for the hills? Would I have gotten out of the boat to watch Jesus in action?

Meditation requires that you pay attention to the details of Scripture, but it’s different from Bible study. In Bible study, you dissect the text; in Scripture meditation, you savor it and enter into it. In Bible study, you ask questions about the text; in meditation, you let the text ask questions of you. Meditation helps us absorb scriptural truth, see in our minds how God behaved in Scripture, and become open to behaving the same way.


As I tried to meditate on the New Testament letters and Old Testament poets and prophets, I found that another classic method helped: lectio divina. This widely used method consists of four parts: reading a passage, meditating on that passage, praying and contemplating God. After the Scripture is read aloud, participants wait for a word, phrase or image from the passage to emerge and stay with them. From this phrase or image, the participate asks, What does this passage say to me right now? (Bible study is good preparatory work because it asks, What did the passage say to listeners then? This keeps us from coming up with absurd answers to this question.)

Once while meditating on Matthew 11:20-30 (10 verses or less work best for lectio divina), I was struck by the word “weary.” I pondered that word for a while and began picturing weary people who needed Jesus for their rest. I was grateful that Jesus was there for the weary. I read the passage aloud again and this time, I noticed “gentle,” and thought about how weary people need gentle people (of whom I am not usually one).

A few weeks later I found myself at a school reunion. I don’t know why, but everybody there irritated me. I listened to the women at the next table yak endlessly and thought, No wonder they didn’t stay married! I became so sick of myself that I got away and asked God to help me with this harshness. “Make me gentle,” I prayed. The words of Matthew 11:28 immediately kicked in: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened , and I will give you rest.” I pictured one of the women who had annoyed me and prayed, “Oh God, she is weary and heavy-laden. Give her rest. Help her come to You.” I did that with a few others until I felt more agreeable.

In the midst of reunion gatherings, I kept praying Matthew 11:28 for each person I met and my attitude changed completely. I felt merciful and genuine in my heart and started having fun! I would never have prayed this way if I hadn’t spent time with Jesus meditating on that passage.

UH . . . (GULP) . . . MEDITATION?

Some Christians are wary of meditation because it’s practiced in other world religions. But it’s important to remember that Christians do not meditate the same way that practitioners of Eastern religions do. The goals are different. In Eastern religions, participants empty their minds and fill them with nothing. In Christianity, we empty our minds of hurried to-do lists, worry about today’s appointments, and obsession with what others think of us to focus on the words and images of Scripture.

Other Christians object to using the imagination in meditation. But God urges us to let our minds be renewed (Rom. 12:2). Isn’t it wiser to give the imagination to God to be retrained than to ignore it? If we don’t, our imagination finds entertainment of its own and gets us into trouble. When activated by the images and truths of Scripture, the imagination supports the penetrating Word of God’s ability to become active in our lives.

But what if you meditate and “nothing” happens? Blank moments are times to abide in God and enjoy God’s presence (John 15:4, KJV). I do this by pondering Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God . . . will take great delight in you . . . [and] will rejoice over you with singing.” I see God delighting in me and singing over me. As I’ve imagined this scene, I’ve remembered how I used to rock my children and sing old hymns until they fell asleep. (A friend of mine sees God delighting and singing over him as a father standing on the sidelines of a soccer game and cheering whether or not he makes a goal.) These quiet “nothing” moments of meditation are valuable because we can enjoy the company of God without yammering about our 455 prayer requests. To simply enjoy God’s presence is a delightful thing.

Then, when you least expect it, you notice those old habits are fading. You meditate on Jesus’ gentleness with the weary, and you are gentle with those around you. This works better than trying hard to be good. This way, God comes into my soul and sits with me, teaching me to “abide” in Him.

Adapted from Savoring Gods Word.


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