The Khasi people of northeast India live in an area where travel is difficult. Their land is cut by steep gorges and unpredictable rivers. It is also one of the wettest places in the world, which makes modern construction difficult. Their logistics solution is nothing less than a miracle of bio-engineering: they grow bridges from living trees.
They first plant rubber fig trees on opposite sides of a canyon. Using bamboo scaffolding, builders guide tree roots until they can be tied together. The roots then merge and become a single system. The root strengthens the root; the tree feeds the tree. The result is a bridge strong enough to cross.
Bible meditation is sometimes described as a bridge between Bible study and prayer. One of my seminary teachers used to say that the longest distance in the world is about a foot from the brain to the heart. Indeed, we can let these two “trees” of study and prayer grow independently, so that they are in our lives but not connected in a mutually fruitful way. Meditation, however, creates a bridge to “travel” between the scriptures and prayer – our study enriching our prayer life and our prayer life enlivening our study.
Connecting Purpose and People
Bible study is more objective: it seeks to discover the meaning intended by the author of a passage. These meanings are in the text, not invented according to “what it means to me”. The purpose of Bible study is to understand the empirical realities of a passage.
Prayer, on the other hand, is more personal: it brings the contents of my heart into the presence of God. It’s about my thoughts, my feelings, my reflections, all brought to God as a sign of gratitude, lament or a plea for help. In prayer we seek to experience God.
Meditation bridges the goal and the personal.
But if these “trees” are kept separate, we won’t know how to make them inform each other. We may have heads full of Bible truth, but hungry or hypocritical hearts. Or our prayer life may be emotionally vivid, but not shaped by objective biblical truth. We either end up like the Pharisees, who memorized the law but hated their neighbors, or like the eater-prayers, who think their inner voice is equal to the voice of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected on the role of meditation in life together:
In our meditation we reflect on the chosen text on the strength of the promise that it has something very personal to say to us for this day and for our Christian life, that it is not only the Word of God for the church, but also the Word of God for us individually. We expose ourselves to the specific word until it speaks to us personally. And when we do that, we do no more than the most simple and educated Christian does every day; we read the Word of God as the Word of God to us.
Meditation bridges the goal and the personal. We take the meanings we find in the scriptures and ask the Holy Spirit to make them “very personal” to us—to apply them to our specific lives. And it brings the “very personal” emotions and desires of our hearts into contact with the Word of God, not to validate them, but to let God speak to them.
Linking the rational and the relational
Bible study, strictly speaking, is rational. I want to understand the argument that Paul traces through Romans; I want to understand why Genesis repeats “these are the generations of” in the early chapters. Prayer, on the other hand, is relational. I pray to deepen my relationship with God. I want to hear from him and rejoice in his presence.
Meditation connects these trees by absorbing the rational fruit of my study into my relationship with God, and by nurturing my relationship with God with the intellectual truths of Scripture. Just as my relationship with my wife is strengthened by spending time getting to know her – rather than just imagining what she might be like – our relationship with God is deepened when we use our reason to see, from her Word, who he is and what he is. he wants for us.
George Müller (1805–1898), who spent most of his adult life caring for orphans in England, experienced a transformation in his relationship with God years to become a Christian. The core of this transformation was learning to meditate on the scriptures. In his autobiography, Müller reflects:
The first thing I did, after asking in a few words for the Lord’s blessing on His precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God; seeking, as it were, in each verse, to derive a blessing; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word; not to preach on what I had meditated; but to get food for my soul. The result which I have found is almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul was led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that although I did not, so to speak, give myself up to prayer, but to meditation, yet it almost immediately turned more or less into prayer.
Müller had been reading the scriptures and praying for years, but the two trees grew separately and were weaker. The living fusion of the two transformed his spiritual life. This is why we need meditation.