George Swinnock and Meditation
Thinking through the what and how of meditation
What comes to your mind when you think of the word meditation? For many of us, meditation is associated with the Eastern idea of emptying one’s mind. Perhaps you envision someone sitting cross-legged on a mat. It may surprise you that meditation historically is a Christian discipline.
The Puritans saw meditation as essential to a healthy, vibrant, Christian life. For them, meditation was a mechanism designed by God to move them away from merely intellectual exercises of faith. Meditation aided Puritans in pursuing warm affections for Christ that in turn produced godly character.
This view of meditation is reflected well in George Swinnock's (1627-1673) definition of the practice. He says, "[meditation is] a serious applying [of] the mind to some sacred subject till the affections be warmed and quicked and the resolution heightened and strengthened thereby, against what is evil, and for that which is good."
Let's break that definition down to get a clearer picture of how Swinnock practiced meditation.
Serious Applying [of] the Mind
This is the opposite of the Eastern religious view of emptying the mind. The mind is to be focused, intensely upon a subject. This means mental sweat is involved. This is no drive-by devotion. This is no birds-eye-view approach to the Christian faith. Rather, the serious applying of the mind requires one to carve out time for pondering, speculating— for thinking deeply. If your brain is a muscle, then this is a workout. The more you do it, the more skillful you become, and the more submissive your muscle will be. If you've never seriously applied your mind to spiritual matters, I suggest starting at ten minutes. Set aside ten minutes a day to stretch your thinking on sacred subjects.
Some Sacred Subject
What are you pondering or thinking deeply about? A sacred subject means some holy—worthy subject. I suggest this be the Scriptures. In fact, the Scriptures should be the chief subject of meditation. The Scriptures help us to contemplate God.
When you meditate on Scripture, narrow the scope of study. You aren't meditating on 5 chapters. You're meditating on just a phrase or verse or two. In my experience, the quality of my meditation decreases if I aim to think deeply about more than a few verses or so.
Till the Affections Be Warmed and Quickened
I suggest to start out by meditating a few minutes a day. However, Swinnock has a timeframe in mind implicit in his definition. He says to meditate until the Holy Spirit stirs your affections for Christ. This may manifest itself in different ways, but here are some questions I’ve found helpful to ask myself as I meditate on Scripture and seek to apply it to myself:
Am I being convicted of sin and encouraged in Christ?
Do I feel the weight of my sin?
Am I humbled by the forgiveness God provides in Christ?
Am I marveling in the glories of the gospel?
Do I feel compelled to lovingly discuss the things God is teaching me?
Do I feel like singing?
Do I feel like weeping?
Am I comforted?
Is my confidence in Christ being increased?
Is my love for others being stirred?
Is my love for the local church growing?
These are all things I feel or have felt at times as I seek to faithfully meditate. I do not feel these things all the time, but the Lord has used the spiritual discipline of meditation to deeply encourage my weary, wandering, soul. I need my affections warmed every day. So do you.
Resolution Heightened and Strengthened Against What is Evil
Your meditations should grow hands and feet. In other words, they should move you to action. Now that your affections are warmed for the glories of God and the gospel, your hatred for sin is increased. It is increased to the point that you desire to make resolutions against sin. This should be strategic warfare against remaining indwelling sin in your life. You cannot repent from sin passively. In the context of community— your local church, come up with a strategic plan to overcome sin and temptation.
Resolution Heightened and Strengthened For That Which Is Good
This is a continued movement. It is not enough to just cast off sin. You must develop disciplines that aid you in doing good. It isn’t enough to not do evil. There is such a thing as the sin of omission. We must act in areas that God’s Word instructs. We must not delay our obedience to God. We obey on his terms, not ours. In what areas should you be taking specific steps of obedience? Meditation on the Word—bringing it to bear on your soul can help you see this more clearly.