The Khasi people of northeastern India live in a region where travel is tough. Their land is cut by steep gorges and unpredictable rivers. It’s also one of the wettest places in the world, making modern construction difficult. Their logistical solution is nothing less than a miracle of bioengineering: they grow bridges from living trees.
They first plant rubber fig trees on opposite sides of a canyon. Using bamboo scaffolding, builders guide the trees’ roots to meet until they can be tied together. The roots then fuse and become one system. Root reinforces root; tree nourishes tree. The result is a bridge sturdy enough to walk across.
Biblical meditation is sometimes described as a bridge between Bible study and prayer. One of my seminary professors used to say the longest distance in the world is the foot or so between the brain and the heart. Indeed, we can let these two “trees” of study and prayer grow independently, such that they’re in our life but not connected in a mutually fruitful way. Meditation, though, creates a bridge for “traveling” between Scripture and prayer—with our study enriching our prayer life and our prayer life enlivening our study.
Connecting the Objective and Personal
Bible study is more objective: it seeks to discover a passage’s author-intended meaning. These meanings are in the text, not invented according to “what it means to me.” The goal 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 carried to God in gratitude or lament or cries for help. In prayer, we seek to experience God.
Meditation bridges the objective and the personal.
But if these “trees” are kept separate, we won’t know how to make them inform one another. We might have a head full of truths about the Bible, but starving or hypocritical hearts. Or our prayer life might be emotionally vivid, but not shaped by objective biblical truth. We end up either like the Pharisees, who memorized the law but hated their neighbors, or like Eat-Pray-Lovers, 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 ponder the chosen text on the strength of the promise that it has something utterly personal to say to us for this day and for our Christian life, that it is not only God’s Word for the church, but also God’s Word for us individually. We expose ourselves to the specific word until it addresses us personally. And when we do this, we are doing no more than the simplest, untutored Christian does every day; we read God’s Word as God’s Word for us.
Meditation bridges the objective and the personal. We take the meanings we find in Scripture and ask the Holy Spirit to make them “utterly personal” to us—to apply them to our specific lives. And it brings the “utterly personal” emotions and desires of our hearts into contact with God’s Word—not to validate them, but to let God speak to them.
Connecting the Rational and Relational
Bible study, narrowly defined, is rational. I want to understand the argument Paul is tracing through Romans; I want to understand why Genesis repeats “these are the generations of” in the first 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 feeding 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 grows deeper when we use our reason to see, from his Word, who he is and what 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 into being a Christian. The core of that transformation was learning to meditate on Scripture. In his autobiography, Müller reflected:
The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord’s blessing upon his precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God; searching, as it were, into every verse, to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word; not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon; but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer.
Müller had been reading Scripture and praying for years, but the two trees were growing separately and were weaker for it. The living fusion of the two transformed his spiritual life. This is why we need meditation.