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John Owen on Prayer and Meditation as a means to Undermine Sin
Banner of Truth Trust has a great little publication by John Owen called Indwelling Sin in Believers. It is a small, accessible book taken out of Owen’s larger Works (Vol. 6). In the smaller publication, there is a short chapter in which Owen commends meditation and prayer as a means by which a Christian can undermine sin. I thought I’d share some of his commendations as well as the tactics he notes that the enemy uses to keep you from availing yourself of these powerful gospel remedies.
Owens defines meditation as “pondering on the Word and our own hearts, to bring them into greater harmony with each other.” (71)
He defines prayer (and he specifically focuses on private, not corporate prayer) as the “bringing of our souls into a complete conformity with the mind and will of God” (71-2).
Five things are implicit in these short definitions that are worth considering.
Five Things We See in Owen’s Definitions
First, Owen’s definition of meditation and prayer has nothing whatsoever to do with the cult practices of emptying the mind (their form of meditation) or chanting rituals (their form of prayer— think Baal worshippers before Elijah).
Second, they aren’t endless chants or achieving Nirvana because they are informed and shaped by Scripture. Christian prayer and mediation are impossible without the grounding of the Word of God.
Third, meditation and prayer must be done in the power of the Spirit and not the flesh. In fact, the flesh wars against these habits of grace.
Fourth, the objective is conformity to the revealed will of God which necessitates the fifth thing inherent in the definition—there should be a growing gospel hatred of one’s specific sins.
Owen on How to Meditate
Owen says, “meditate of God with God” (72). In other words, be mindful that God is present with you as slowly work through a passage of Scripture and seek the Spirit’s help in applying it to your soul. Meditation is worship unto the Lord. Meditation increases your intimacy with the Lord. Meditation helps you to experientially know the Triune God of the Bible better and thus yourself better. Meditate on God with God.
Owen goes on to say that we must “meditate on the Word in the Word” (72). We must read the Bible—perhaps we need to have an actual copy open in our laps, on our desks, touching every word as we prayerfully and warmly depend upon the Spirit.
We are to “meditate frequently” (72). That is to say, this should be a habit in our lives. We should set aside proper time for it. I once read a Puritan prayer (I can’t remember which puritan) that credited coldness/callousness in the life of a Christian with a lack of meditation. Owen encourages us to return frequently to the subject of our mediation.
Benefits of Meditation in Overcoming Sin
Owen says, that it is profitable in prayer and meditation to “consider all the secret workings of sin” (73). That is to say, explore sin’s tactics—the nature of sin as cosmic treason against God and the negative impact on others created in His image. Note the lies it tells you, the circumstances surrounding your temptations, the disposition of your physical body, the harm sin causes. Give yourself space to consider these, but do so through the lense of the Word of God and through the means of prayer knowing that the Lord provides escape from every temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). Prayer and meditation give a “deep sense of the vileness of sin and a renewed hatred for it.” (74) because in prayer and meditation you are submitting your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and even your physical body (think of your posture) before God according to His Word.
Prayer and meditation give a deep sense of the vileness of sin and a renewed hatred for it.
Prayer and meditation are a means God uses to give you “strength and power against sin.” (74). Owen quotes James, “If anyone lacks, he is to ask of God” (James 1:5). We cannot make war against the flesh by our flesh. Our flesh must be controlled by the Spirit of God. We must be strong in the strength of God’s might (Ephesians 6:10), not our own. Owen goes on and says that “faith in prayer counteracts all the deceit of sin because in it the soul steadfastly engages itself to oppose all sin (Ps. 119:106).” (75).
Three Enemies of Prayer and Meditation
With such powerful spiritual weapons, it is no wonder that our enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil (Ephesians 2:2-3) seek to distract us from cultivating these habits. Because, if they distract us from them they keep us from walking in the power of the Spirit. They keep us from intimacy with God. They keep us defeated and ineffective.
Enemy 1: Sin seeks to “take advantage of a wearisome nature” (76). Owen recalls the disciples sleeping when they should have been praying: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). Fatigue is a real struggle. And the way in which we care for our bodies can have an impact on the time and attention we give to our souls. We must bring our bodies into subjection for the sake of our souls.
Enemy 2: Sin seeks to tell you there is more “urgent business” (77) in life. This happens to me often—in those moments of solitude when I seek to give serious attention to prayer and meditation a million less important tasks flood my mind and seem to me to be extremely urgent. Owen says, “If our duties towards God were to encroach on the duties of our occupations in this world, that would be better than the opposite course” (78).
Enemy 3: Sin tells you that you will more diligently pursue prayer and meditation when circumstances allow. We may think we are too busy for these gospel habits and that one day we will cultivate them, but we are deceiving ourselves. We must resolve to establish habits with busy lives, otherwise, we will never get around to doing it and it will be to the detriment of our joy and our happiness in the Lord.
So, believer, use these weapons the Lord has given you to delight in him. Use the weapons to overcome sin and temptation. Begin today.