By David Timms
To contemplate God—to think deeply about his nature, his character, and his Word—may feel as familiar to most of us as nuclear physics. Of course, it’s not rocket science, but neither does it usually factor into our everyday experience. In the hustle and bustle of our lives, contemplation sounds like a luxury. But throughout the ages, God’s people have taken time to think deeply about him—and they have grown in their faith as a result.
Many Christians throughout history have distinguished between meditation and contemplation, though the two terms sound very similar. Meditation typically involves reflection on Scripture or writing. It involves study, investigation, and engagement of the mind. On the other hand, contemplation focuses on the simple enjoyment of the presence of God. Study and contemplation form two strands in the fabric of our spiritual life.
The Inner Life for Christ and the Apostles
The inner life has always mattered greatly in the Christian tradition. When we reduce Christianity to a mere set of teachings or instructions to follow, it runs shallow. Our externals may clean up somewhat, but the inner life remains in shambles.
The apostle Paul understood this danger as well as anyone and thus wrote that a goal of Christian faith is that we become “a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). Our character matters far more than our ability. The inner life surpasses any external achievements. Jesus modeled this first and foremost.
One of the surprises we encounter as we read the Gospels is that they record so few of Jesus’ prayers. On the one hand, we know that from time to time Jesus retreated to quiet places to pray (Matthew 14:23). We know that at least occasionally he spent a night in prayer (Luke 6:12). But what do we know of his daily habits? How often did he fast? What kind of prayers did he pray? How much did silence and solitude figure into his schedule? How much time did he devote to reading Scripture? The details are surprisingly scarce.
On the other hand, we know that the inner life mattered immensely to Jesus. He criticized the Pharisees for their preoccupation with reputation, image, and externals (Matthew 23:5, 6). He urged them to wash the inside of the cup and not simply wipe the dirt from the outside (vv. 25, 26). He taught that it’s not what goes into people that defiles them, but what emerges from the mouth—from within (15:11).
The apostles caught this, too. They grasped the importance of nurturing the inner life. The apostle Paul knew full well that the key to a meaningful Christian experience lies not in a new moral code but in a constant awareness of (and responsiveness to) the leading of God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:25). And such actions radically change us from the inside out.
Writing to his protégé, Paul urged Timothy to show himself as an example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity” (1 Timothy 4:12)—the stuff of the inner life. And again, lest Timothy miss it, Paul repeats himself later in the same epistle as he urges Timothy to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness” (6:11).
Everything of value and significance emerges from a well-ordered inner life, and the inner life becomes ordered not by sheer effort and hard labor but through time spent in God’s Word and in communion with him.
The Inner Life Throughout Christian History
Many prominent and respected Christians throughout history have practiced this contemplative life:
Augustine (4th century), Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century), Jonathan Edwards and Charles Wesley (18th century), Fanny Crosby (19th century), Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, and Dallas Willard (20th-21st century), to name just a few. Many have written on their experiences. All have been spiritually enriched by their contemplation and become vessels in the hands of God to enrich others around them.
Some writers focus our attention on God’s love; others direct us to his grace. Some emphasize his presence; others dwell on a life of increasing intimacy. All of them, in their own way, invite us to make God the supreme focus of our life.
By the 6th century, various Christian communities had developed a contemplative method for reading Scripture. In the 19th century, the old Christian Quaker traditions were deeply contemplative. Believers would gather in a room and sit quietly before the Lord, waiting for him to provide a word. Then, as a person received a word they’d speak it to those gathered, who would receive it and contemplate it. They’d then sit quietly and await the next word from another person. No preachers. No sermons. Plenty of Scripture and plenty of waiting.
Our Inner Lives
Contemplating God, however, proves particularly challenging to us today. We have grown unaccustomed to stillness, quietness, resting, listening, and waiting. We can barely fix our attention on anything for a sustained period of time. Multitasking, we call it. Attention deficit disorder, we label it. Distraction. Busyness. These are the terms that betray our inability to spend time with God for sustained periods.
How might we incorporate contemplation into our own lives? Perhaps these three suggestions will help.
First, contemplation requires space—space in our calendar and space in our home. It won’t happen by accident, and it can’t happen in chaos. Create a time and place—perhaps just twice in the week ahead (15-20 minutes each time)—and put it on the calendar as an appointment not to be broken.
Second, contemplation assumes stillness. Switch off the music, the podcasts, the iPad, and the iPhone. Perhaps begin to read through the psalms just 10 verses or so, then stop . . . and be still. Be attentive. Read it again if necessary, or read a little more. But always be still.
Third, consider writing down the thoughts that come to you during your times of contemplation. It helps us stay focused; it aids our recall later; and it helps keep the mind from running amok.
Before you know it, you will have joined a tradition of Christian faith that spans many centuries and has blessed countless believers in their faith journey.
But be warned. Contemplation could change you. Practitioners report that contemplation may increase your love and experience of God. You may develop a keener sense of God’s presence. However, it may also lead to a greater consciousness of your sin and rebellion, and increase your sensitivity to those who suffer. Contemplate at your own risk!
David Timms teaches at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.
Introverts and God
Quiet, contemplation, and meditation are areas where introverts have advantages. These resources will help introverts unlock their strengths and help extroverts find balance by reaching to the other side of the personality spectrum.
Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture
by Adam S. McHugh
(IVP Books, 2009)
The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child: Helping Your Child Thrive in an Extroverted World
by Marti Olsen Laney
(Workman Publishing, 2005)
Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community
by Enuma Okoro
(Fresh Air Books, 2010)
“Introverted at Church” by Laura Marcus