The idea of pondering, meditating, and contemplating runs counter-culturally to the five- and ten-minute devotionals making their way around social media and arriving in inboxes daily. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those types of readings or videos, especially in certain seasons of life. But if that’s our main diet for extended periods, we won’t grow spiritually.
I have trouble living a contemplative life because I rush from activity to activity with barely a pause to consult my calendar to see what’s next. But as I researched the topic I saw that to find true soul rest I need to incorporate an element of contemplation. I invite you to join me as we discover together what the contemplative life entails.
What is Contemplation?
First, I looked up the word contemplate. It means to:
- Consider with continued attention
- Examine something as probable
- Concentrate on spiritual things
- Be aware of God as a living, working being
- Have intention or expectation
For our purposes, let’s define Christian contemplation as purposeful thinking about a particular Scripture or characteristic of God. It’s reflecting on what God is saying to you through a Bible passage, sermon, devotion, or even a snippet from the radio. Contemplation involves being still, or perhaps walking leisurely through nature, turning off the music or the podcast, and spending time focusing on God and his Word and what it means. As the psalmist reminds us, we need to be still in order to know God: “Be still, and know that I am God” (46:10 ESV).
A Brief History
A life of contemplation is nothing new. The philosopher Aristotle thought that contemplation led to happiness because it is:
- A continuous activity (a focusing of the mind)
- A most pleasant activity (better than those looking for knowledge)
- A self-sufficient activity
- Loved for its own sake (does not need to lead to anything else)
St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic theologian and philosopher, made significant contributions to the idea of what constitutes a contemplative life. Perhaps this is one reason many people mistakenly associate contemplation only with Catholicism or mysticism. But this is what Aquinas says: “The first requirement, then, for the contemplation of wisdom, is that we should take complete possession of our minds…It is also necessary that we be fully present there, concentrating in such a way that our aim is not diverted to other matters.” (As quoted in “Aquinas on Contemplation: Part I” at dailymeditationswithmatthewfox.org.)
Here is the main difference: In mystic meditation, thoughts and feelings are often acknowledged and then released, while in contemplation, thoughts and feelings are often explored and examined, especially through the lens of Scripture.
Much has been researched, written, and discussed in recent years about controlling our thoughts to change our mind and actions. This is also not a new idea as Paul encouraged the Romans:
“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2 ESV).
Learning to control our thoughts (which is much harder than it sounds on the surface) would require what we’re calling contemplation here.
We can further eschew the idea of contemplation as being only Catholic (and therefore not endorsed by Protestants) by reviewing the thoughts of many of the great reformed Puritan writers. For example, check out the compilation The Valley of Vision, prayers and devotions for meditation (contemplation).
The great English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon espoused contemplation as well:
“And, while humbling and expanding, this subject is eminently consolatory. Oh, there is, in contemplating Christ, a balm for every wound; in musing on the Father, there is a quietus for every grief; and in the influence of the Holy Ghost, there is a balsam for every sore.”
A contemplative lifestyle is not just for those who lived more simply, hundreds of years ago. For example, C.S. Lewis writes, “In silence and in meditation on the eternal truths, I hear the voice of God which excites our hearts to greater love.” (As quoted in “Faith Disciplines: Lectio Divina” at HarborChurches.org.)
John Piper, reformed theologian, is also a proponent of contemplation, often quoting prayers from The Valley of Vision and Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, that they would:
“Hav[e] the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18 ESV).
By focusing on God and his Word, we can avoid the problems of mystical meditation and the emptying of our minds. When we empty our minds without something to fill them, that leaves room for the devil to sneak in and plant all sorts of subversive ideas that begin to control our thoughts if they’re not arrested.
Because I’m a practical woman, I like practical ideas. There’s nothing wrong with philosophies, but I often get stuck on what to do with them, so here are a few practices you might try if you’d like to explore the idea of Christian contemplation:
- Use contemplative Scriptures to decorate your home and work space—or even put a verse on your phone’s lock screen.
- Play worship music in your car and in your home.
- Make time to be in nature—no phone, no music, just by yourself—observe God’s creation, thank God for the beauty around you, reflect on verses about creation (write them out on a 3×5 card).
- Even in the midst of busy seasons, carve out time to think about a recent sermon, devotion, or Bible passage. Just sit at the feet of Jesus like Mary did (Luke 10:38–42).
- Get up early to spend extra time reading your Bible and praying.
- Dust off your journal and write out your prayers and thoughts on what God is saying to you. Perhaps that’s how Mary “pondered” the events surrounding Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:19).
Now that we’ve explored what a contemplative life could look like, examples from history and the Bible, and a few practical tips, let’s get busy contemplating! Or maybe let’s slow down long enough to contemplate the beauty of God that’s visible even in our broken world. I leave you with one final thought on our goal in living a contemplative life:
“Blessed is the one.
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers”
(Psalm 1:1–3 NIV).