Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Meditation: emptying my mind?

But her delight is in the law of the Lord
        And in his law she meditates day and night
She is like a tree planted by streams of water
 which yields its fruit in season
 and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever she does prospers.
from Psalm 1
What meditation is the psalmist talking about? There are some kinds of meditation whose adherents try to empty their minds; this isn’t that. Someone told me that the word translated “meditate” has the sense of ruminating—chewing on something slowly; we meditate on something, as a cow chews and re-chews grass.

Joshua is instructed about the book of the Law: “Meditate on it day and night,” (Joshua 1) and do everything written in it. There’s a promise, viz., of prosperity and success, for those who meditate on and obey the teaching. In the New Testament, Paul says to let our minds dwell on whatever is good, honorable, right, pure, lovely and so on (Philippians 4). The Bible, in other words, tells us to meditate on God’s teaching, to give our hearts to what’s in heaven, to think about good things; it doesn’t commend the practice of emptying our minds.

But does the Bible forbid it? Is it actually harmful to try to think of nothing? Is it a sin? Or might it actually be beneficial?

Here’s what I make of it: Besides being told to think about certain things, we’re also told not to think about others: Don’t plot harm (Proverbs 3:29), don’t envy the violent (3:31), etc. It’s probably better to think of nothing, versus plotting evil against one’s neighbor.

In that sense, emptying one’s mind is neutral: it’s not actively bad (vs. scheming iniquity) nor actively good (cf. meditating on God’s goodness and love). Indeed, sometimes it may be positive: in Psalm 131 the writer talks about quieting himself like a weaned child. What’s a weaned child thinking about? Not much! And in Psalm 46, an oft-quoted verse instructs us to “Be still and know that I am God” (46:10).

Now there is a passage in the New Testament where Jesus talks about what happens when an evil spirit leaves a person and nothing takes its place. I read it and wondered if it might refer to emptying one’s mind. Here’s a possible interpretation: If I empty my mind of evil thoughts and don’t replace them by something else—meditating on Scriptures, say—then they may come back more powerfully than before. Here’s the parable:

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”
Matthew 12:41–45
After re-reading it in context, I don’t see how it could possibly mean that.

Here’s the situation: Jesus is talking with some hostile Pharisees and teachers of the law. They say Jesus is casting out demons “by Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (12:24). They demand a sign (12:38) from him. Jesus replies (12:39): “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Jesus then explains that foreigners will condemn the current generation of Israelites because they listened to God’s message when it came to them, and the leaders of the Israelites (who really should know better) refuse to listen to Jesus.

The parable about impure spirits comes immediately after this. It’s from that, and the last sentence above (“wicked generation”) that I conclude that the parable is directed against those hostile to him. I did a quick search on my shelf and on the web, and the commentators think the parable refers to unrepentant Israelites and (by extension) others who hear Jesus and yet reject him.

Luke’s account is similar: though the sequencing isn’t exactly the same, Jesus gives the parable during a confrontation with people who say he’s driving out demons “[b]y Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (Luke 12:15) or testing him by asking for a sign from heaven (12:16).

So I don’t think this parable is warning followers of Jesus against being still (Psalm 46:10) or quieting oneself (as in Psalm 131).

But the Scriptures encourage us to take positive action with our thoughts, too: meditate on instructions from God (Psalm 1:2–3; Joshua 1:8), think about things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely (Philippians 4:8); devote ourselves to prayer and thanksgiving (Colossians 4:2ff).

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