Eastern religions often encourage their practitioners to “empty” themselves through meditation in order to achieve enlightenment or lasting peace and harmony. Such worldviews often emphasize that any attempt to focus on a particular mental object (someone or something) outside ourselves will likely interfere with the desired goal of meditation—an emptiness of mind or an altered state of consciousness. We are to turn within, they tell us, to achieve a sense of inner peace that the world around us constantly denies to us. We are to find enlightenment through the paradox of self-emptying.
On the contrary, a Christian approach to meditation cautions us about turning within ourselves precisely because we know what we will find when we do so—all sorts of sins and self-righteous judgments pronounced upon others (Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9). Our hearts are dark (Rom. 1:21); our minds are filled with all kinds of lusts, greed, and mental futility (Eph. 4:17–19). Try as we will, we will not be completely emptied of such things until we are glorified. Thankfully, we can confess these things to God and receive forgiveness (1 John 1:9). Yet a Christian must ultimately strive to think about and meditate upon a reality outside ourselves, namely a Creator-Redeemer who is both personal and distinct from the world He has made and who is revealed to us in the so-called “two books”—the natural order and the Word of God (cf. Ps. 19).
Christian forms of meditation are closely associated with prayer. Prayer is a conversation with another to whom we turn—someone outside ourselves. We pray to God the Father, through the mediation of Jesus Christ in His role as intercessor between God and His people (1 Tim. 2:5), in the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:12–17). There is no possibility of prayer if we turn within. Who will answer me? Am I praying to myself? What if I get an answer? That is a sign of much deeper trouble.
Simply turning within ourselves offers no enduring hope for the relief from those stresses, pains, and frustrations that decidedly Eastern-religion practitioners of meditation are seeking. We need a Savior greater than ourselves, who, crucified for our sins and raised from the dead, has ascended to the Father’s right hand where He lives to make intercession for His people (Heb. 7:25). Such a Savior can and does hear our pleas, and He answers when we cry out to Him.
Christian approaches to meditation focus on filling the mind with the content of God’s self-revelation. Christians meditate by reciting Scripture, confessing sin, and reflecting on the promise of the forgiveness of that sin available to us through the merits of Jesus Christ. We can reflect upon the deep truths of the Christian faith such as the Holy Trinity or the various attributes of God as revealed in His Word. We can even meditate on the simple joys arising from our union with Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit stirs us to cry out “Abba! Father!” when we think upon these things. Christian meditation is not the fruit of an empty mind, but the mind filled with God’s Word, thinking of the joy of God’s favor toward us in Christ, and the corresponding sense of wonder at God’s presence through the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The practice of meditation is a common theme in Scripture and is closely tied to private worship and devotion to the things of the Lord. The word “meditate” appears twenty-three times in the Bible, nineteen of which are in the Psalms. For example, the Psalter opens with a reference to delighting in the law of God, a revelation of His will and attributes (Ps. 1:2). The image given is of someone mumbling or speaking softly to themselves as they contemplate the beauty and perfection of God’s law. The one who meditates on the will and wonders of God is blessed, unlike the one whose inner voice scoffs at God’s Word. A biblical approach to meditation is directly tied to the things revealed to us by a Creator-Redeemer. We will never find Him by looking within ourselves apart from His Word. We can only find Him through what He has made and in what He has said and done for us in Jesus Christ.
Here, too, is the explanation of why a Christian approach to meditation is not associated with any particular physical posture (although one thinks of kneeling since it is often associated with prayer), nor is a Christian to be concerned with seeking altered states of consciousness through various self-denying rituals. Christian meditation focuses on the glories and mercies of God wherever we may be and in the midst of whatever we may be doing. We must look outside ourselves to find the glories of God, not within. To look for enlightenment within is to turn away from the Creator-Redeemer who has made all things, redeems us from the consequences of our sin, and who fills our hearts with an inexpressible joy and wonder.