If someone asked me what my favorite work of art is, I would not be able to answer. I would start listing favorites (plural) and say why selecting just one would create too many headaches for me. But if someone asked me which work of art I have looked at most in my life, the answer would undeniably be Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party”. We have a copy hanging in our living room and I see it ever before me. When we moved to the Washington, D.C. area over thirty years ago, I made it a priority to go see the original, prominently displayed in the Phillips Collection. Sometimes I stop into the Phillips just to get a refreshed look at that great work. It never fails to prompt great joy, longing for sun-soaked days, appetite for delicious food, and nostalgia of relaxing times with family and friends.
I do not think I exaggerate when I say I have visually meditated on “The Luncheon of the Boating Party”. Sometimes I choose a color to focus on, such as the orange in the awning above everyone’s head. I then scan the painting from left to right, visually connecting the dabs of orange. Or I choose a different color for the same selective scanning. Or I jump from one of the six bright yellow hats to the next, admiring how the artist punctuated his scene with such luster. Or I compare the facial expressions on the individuals in that delightful scene. Or I look at the whole painting all at once, resisting the temptation to allow my eyes to wander. I just take in the totality of the image.
On some occasions, my meditation takes a more cognitive turn. What were those people talking about to each other, especially those two men facing the woman who seems to be putting her hands over her ears? Or why were some people definitely not talking to anyone or even making eye contact? I wonder what or who brought this diverse group together or who I might invite to such a gathering.
What I have found is that visual meditation on art spills over to other kinds of meditation, especially meditation of scripture. There’s something about slowing down long enough to take in what appears on a canvas that conditions me to slow down and ponder words on a page. It works in the opposite direction as well, probably even better. Meditative reading of the Bible makes me more observant and appreciative of artistic beauty. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Meditation gets more mention and endorsement in the Bible than most of us give time to it in our schedules or calendars. Meditation on God himself (e.g. Psalm 63:6), God’s works (e.g. Psalm 77:12), and God’s word (Psalm 1:2) are strongly encouraged disciplines. Joshua tells us why we should meditate on God’s word and that we should do so “day and night” – “so that you may be careful to do everything written in it” (Joshua 1:8). As Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner concluded, “…whatever really shapes a man’s thinking shapes his life.”
But in our hurried, distracted contemporary life, such slowing down seems difficult if not impossible. Our resultant shallowness only makes the task even more difficult as we disdain silence, thoughtfulness, and solitude. This was not always so. And knowing how Christians in the past engaged in meditation can help us “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2).
In his theologically rich book Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction, theologian John Jefferson Davis points out that meditation used to be a highly valued and frequently practiced means of grace by Puritans and others in our history. “For them, meditation was the duty that gave rise to all other Christian duties and lubricated all the other means of grace.” In case the title of his book makes you suspect he’s urging all Christians to throw away their phones, he says that would be “an impossible and counterproductive stance.” Rather, he proposes “a more reflective and intentional use of them, and a slower, more contemplative reading of Scripture.”
Robert Saucy, in his excellent treatment of meditation in Minding the Heart: The Way of Spiritual Transformation, defines meditation as, “to think, to think to yourself, even to talk to yourself, or sing, about some concept until it gets into your inner being and your behavior.”
These and other contemporary writers and preachers say that Biblical meditation is the discipline most likely to transform us because it does more than just inform us. Taking nothing away from the practices of reading, studying, and memorizing the Bible, we’re told to take it to the next, more penetrating level of meditating on the Bible. It is in meditation that sins are exposed and defanged, godliness is forged and strengthened, and maturity is established and deepened.
Saucy arrives at his full understanding of meditation after exploring the numerous Biblical terms and passages that call for deeper contemplation on God, his works, and his word. “Words denoting the concept or activity of meditating or meditation are found at least nineteen times in the Old Testament” and lists them for our personal study and meditation: Joshua 1:8; Job 15:4; Pss. 1:2; 19:14; 49:3; 63:6; 77:6, 12; 104:34; 119:15, 27, 48, 78, 97, 99, 148; 143:5; 145:5.
The New Testament exhorts us to “set our minds” (see Col. 3:2) with no less intensity or frequency than the Old Testament. If we ever feel at a loss for material upon which to meditate, Philippians 4:8 gives us a magnificent menu to dig into: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Is this not an expanded application of “taking every thought captive?” (see 2 Cor. 10:5)
At a later point, I encourage you to go back to this list and give thanks for each item and explore how your life would be impoverished without them or how your life has been blessed with them or how you might point these blessings out to others you know. The process could go on for quite some time with quite some benefit.
Consider one key passage about meditation—Psalm 1. Here we are told that the antidote to walking in the counsel (note the intellectual component of that term) of the wicked is to delight (far more than just cognitive understanding) in the law of the LORD. We are promised blessedness (a remarkably full word, worthy of much study and reflection) if we meditate on the law day and night.
Intriguingly, Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 (often considered together as a twofold overture to all the Psalms that follow) are verbally linked with the common Hebrew word for meditate. Unfortunately, this is lost in English where the verb in Psalm 2:1 is translated “plot.” The same term is employed when we’re told to “meditate” on God’s law and not be like those who “meditate” (plot) against God and his anointed. Apparently, something is going to dominate our consciousness – either filling our minds with God’s truth or flooding our souls against God himself. One way or the other, we will meditate—leading to God’s blessing (Psalm 1:1) or God’s rebuke (Psalm 2:4-5).
Think about that for a moment. (Yes, I’m trying to help you start the meditating process right now as you read this article.) We will think. We will plot. And what we mull over will either make us more joyful or more miserable. We’ll become people who gravitate toward gratitude or grind down toward bitterness. Do you remember the woman who “became a grumble” in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce? After going on for one breathless uninterrupted complaint after another for over 200 words (I slowed down long enough to count), another character wondered if there was any hope for her. The book’s spiritual guide at that point says, “The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again.” We need to examine ourselves and ask if we’re becoming more like the fruitful tree in Psalm 1 or the raging plotters of Psalm 2.
Psalm 1 not only exhorts us to meditate, it models the discipline for us. After the Psalmist tells us to meditate on God’s law, he meditates on how that can make us like a tree. By the way, we must not miss the Psalmist’s choice of a natural, physical object (a tree) to spark our appreciation of a supernatural, spiritual reality (fruitfulness). Sometimes, staring at a tree or a flower or a bird or any work of God’s “fingers” (see Psalm 8:3) can prompt praise and deepen maturity.
The Psalmist considers a tree’s roots, fruit, and leaves and sees all leading toward prospering. Just stop long enough on the statement that this person is like a tree “planted by streams of water” (and remembering that this Psalm was probably composed by someone living in a dry desert-like land). If a tree is planted away from a stream, it is totally dependent on rainfall for survival. But if it’s planted by a stream, it is far less effected by the circumstances of precipitation. Its water supply is steady and dependable.
Meditate (mull over, consider, explore) what your life would be like if it were far less swayed by the ups and downs of circumstances and anchored to a steady stream of sustenance that kept flowing, even in the midst of droughts or heat waves.
Or chew on (another possible metaphor for meditation) what your life would look like if you were yielding fruit in season. Would that fruit show up in kind attitudes toward other people, gentle tones of voice with acquaintances with whom you disagree, calm responses to frustrating circumstances? Where else might fruit be displayed in your life?
All this goodness is contrasted to the fleeting, unusable, and worthless nature of chaff. Allow yourself to imagine (an important component of meditation) people tossing up stalks of wheat into the air so the wind could blow away the almost weightless part of the plant, leaving the kernel to settle to the ground to be gathered and used for making bread. Contrast the image of chaff disappearing into the wind vs. the smell of freshly baked bread. Consider the disparity between fleetingness and fruitfulness. Biblical meditation is God’s ordained discipline to give us deep roots, stability, and permanence like a tree in a world of ever-increasingly ephemeral chaff.
Some people resist Scripture’s exhortation to meditate for fear of engaging in a sub-Biblical practice more aligned with other religious systems such as New Age spirituality, Buddhism or so-called “Transcendental Meditation.” But a brief look at how the Bible’s practice differs from others should set us free to engage in and benefit from the Biblical variety. Most other forms of meditation urge you to empty your mind of thoughtful engagement by repeating a mantra or meaningless word or sound. They claim that the goal is less intellectual and, therefore, more “neutral.” The expected outcome is that you’ll arrive at a place beyond the intellect, one that “transcends” the cognitive dimension of life.
But Biblical meditation does just the opposite. Rather than emptying your mind, you fill it with God’s truth. Instead of opening yourself for input from a non-cognitive source of enlightenment, Biblical meditation transforms your mind by correcting false beliefs, replacing them with God’s truth. Instead of “transcending” the intellect, Biblical meditation transforms it. Instead of becoming less thoughtful, we become more thoughtful. Instead of bypassing our minds toward some source of something better, we engage our minds to be made into divinely-fashioned, holistically-worshipful, different people than we were before we meditated.
Perhaps if I model how I practice Biblical meditation, it can help incorporate this into your regular times of devotion. I recently read Hebrews 3:1 and realized I had quickly passed over the short phrase, “the apostle and high priest we confess” that describes Jesus. By flitting past these words, I had done the exact opposite of what the writer of Hebrews was urging me to do – “fix my thoughts.” I decided to slow down long enough to intellectually explore what those two titles could mean. Here’s something close to what went on in my mind (with apologies if these thoughts seem rambling. That’s the way meditation often goes):
“What is an apostle? It’s someone sent by God to bring God’s message to his people. What’s a high priest? It’s someone representing God’s people to God. Actually, a high priest does much more than just represent. He brings a sacrifice to reconnect sinful people to their holy God. It seems that an apostle is sent down – from God to people. A high priest goes up – from people to God. An apostle’s task seems mostly about a message. A high priest’s task seems mostly about atonement.
Jesus is said to be both an apostle and high priest. His “task” (if I may use such a pedestrian word) flows in both directions (downward and upward) and involves my thoughts and my sins. He declares truth to set me free from believing lies and pays for sin to set me free from judgement. I need a savior who does both. That way, falsehoods I think can be corrected with truth and sins I commit can get washed away through the cross.
How can these two truths transform me? Part of Jesus’ message, proclaimed to me in his role as apostle is that “it is finished.” I don’t need to add anything to the atonement he has already made. I am fully embraced by the God who made me because he’s also the Messiah who saved me. He delights over me because he has adopted me.”
I could go on. I often do. I allow my mind to flow to other parts of scripture that restate or enhance what this short phrase in Hebrews 3:1 says. And I find that I don’t need to meditate for very long in order to reap the benefits. Most often, I meditate on a verse or phrase for only 4 to 5 minutes. But the savoring continues for much of the rest of my day.
I imagine some Christians may criticize me for my love of Impressionist art and not just because of different tastes or style preferences. In some ways, the Impressionists rebelled against the religious art of their predecessors. Their stated religious beliefs (e.g. Monet was an atheist) and some of their lifestyle and subject matter choices point to their secular worldview. They deliberately chose to not paint Biblical scenes or portrayals of Jesus and Mary, which were the dominant subjects of artists before them. Impressionists (and post-impressionists and others who followed them) could be seen as promoters of a godless world. Few, if any, ever stated overtly that they wanted their art to glorify God by exalting the good, the true, and the beautiful. (Although, Van Gogh’s wrestling with religion is well worth exploring and appreciating.)
To be sure, some art exalts the evil, the false, and the ugly. Some artists definitely seek to promote a nihilistic worldview. Some art cannot be celebrated by people of faith. Some of it must, by its very essence, offend and cause people to stumble. We must choose carefully our artistic diet just as we do our other diets.
But I can’t join the critics who say the Impressionists rejected any belief in absolute truth or a moral center because they didn’t put the main subject of their painting in the center of their canvas. I can’t applaud art critic Georges Riviere who put it this way in 1877, “To treat a subject for the colours and not for the subject itself, that is what distinguishes the Impressionist from other painters.” Why such a dichotomy – only colours and not the subject? As I look at works by Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, and all the others who draw me again and again to the crowded Impressionist section of The National Gallery of Art, I see wonderful attention to both the color and the subject. Whether they meant to or not, the beautiful works they produced point to a world created by an artistic God who loves color, variety, beauty, and pleasure. They may have intended to convey a message that God doesn’t matter or exist. But they produced evidences of just the opposite. By staying away from so-called “sacred” topics and exalting so-called “secular” ones, they help people see a world with no sacred-secular dichotomy, where “the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:3).
What I have said so far is that my times of meditating on art and my times of meditating on scripture enhance and stimulate each other. What I now want to add is that, together, these two meditations deepen my worship of God as I see his fingerprints everywhere. My life has become more doxological as I have lingered longer in front of paintings and savored slowly the words of Scripture. My gratitude has deepened. My wonder has widened. My joy has expanded. Worship fills all seven days of my weeks, not just Sunday mornings. I don’t just affirm, understand, and profess that “The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it.” I celebrate, delight in, and bask in it. May our Creator God be glorified both in our houses of worship and our galleries of art.
 Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary by Derek Kidner, (Inter-Varsity Press, 1973, 48).
 Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction by John Jefferson Davis, (Inter-Varsity Press, 2012, 18).
 Davis, 24.
 Minding the Heart: The Way of Spiritual Transformation by Robert L. Saucy, (Kregel, 2013, 154).
 Saucy, 150.
 The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis, (Macmillan, 1946, 74)
 Impressionist Art edited by Ingo F. Walther, (Taschen, 2006, 4).