“God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer.”
There is nothing more memorable, more meaningful, more powerful than an encounter with God. Through meditative prayer, you can experience the ultimate expression of your relationship with God—union with the Lord. But please keep this in mind: this encounter is still an act of God, not of man. All we can do is position ourselves for it, make ourselves ready; the actual encounter is up to God.
It’s called meditative prayer or contemplative prayer. Some actually make a distinction between the two. Meditative prayer is thought of as meditation upon scripture, upon devotional writing, even upon a sunrise, sunset or other breathtaking view, etc. Contemplative prayer, on the other hand, often means just being aware in the loving presence of God. The Bible makes no such distinction. Neither will we. The best term we’ve found to describe it is borrowed from the Quaker tradition (Religious Society of Friends): waiting upon the Lord.
There are those who believe this type of prayer should only be attempted by mature Christians, those who have been working their way along the spiritual path for some time. They feel that only people who have experience in dealing with the world, the flesh, and the devil from a Christian perspective are in a position to fully grasp, appreciate, and experience the presence of God. Our take on that? With all due respect, we believe it’s hogwash.
Will the experience of someone who has recently accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior be different from someone who has diligently followed Jesus for many years? Yes, absolutely. But that’s no reason to put off the direct experience of God’s presence. He always meets us right where we are.
There is a precaution all of us should take. Spiritual warfare is likely with this type of prayer. Perhaps more so than any other because of the involvement of the mind and imagination. So we would do well to pray for protection first, to ask the Holy Spirit to sanctify our mind and imagination. And then with the authority of Jesus and in the power of His shed blood, command any and all evil spirits to depart and go to the place God has assigned for them. This is an area where a more experienced Christian, familiar with the enemy’s attacks, would be at an advantage. But that’s still no reason for the new Christian to shy away. He who is in me is greater than he who is in the world. Satan is a defeated foe.
What is this “waiting upon the Lord” and how is it different from other forms of meditation? First and foremost is our intent. We’re not trying for deep relaxation or to “lose ourselves” in the “void.” We’re not looking for health benefits. Our intention is an encounter with our living God. Rather than a loss of self-identity, it’s part of the process of attaining the fullness of ourselves as God created us to be.
The experience itself is what’s important in helping us move from knowing about God to knowing God. For instance, we may “know” for a fact that God loves us. But until we actually experience that love, it remains only something we know as a fact—it is not yet real for us. It’s the difference between knowing about snow, from words, pictures and even videos, to going outside and actually playing in the snow. Experience makes the truth real for us.
So how do we “wait upon the Lord?”
We begin by quieting the mind. A task often easier said than done. Find a place where you can sit comfortably and won’t be disturbed for 20 to 30 minutes. We recommend against lying down, at least when you’re starting out, to avoid the possibility of falling asleep. (Although that could well be just what we need and that is where God is leading us.) Then close your eyes. Eliminating visual stimulation goes a long way toward quieting the mind. Soft music helps some people as well. Complete quiet can be too loud for them.
Once settled and relaxed and distraction-free, take several deep breaths. It can be very effective to inhale slowly, hold the breath for a time, and then exhale slowly. Don’t get hung up on how long to inhale, how long to hold the breath, how long to exhale. Your body will find a rhythm that’s best for you.
Next, take a few moments to thank God for the opportunity to pray. Ask the Holy Spirit to sanctify your mind and imagination and pray for protection from spiritual attack.
At this point you may still be experiencing a “chattering” mind, being bombarded by thoughts. Don’t fight them, don’t try to suppress them. Gently acknowledge the thoughts, thank them, and then let them go. Understand that for many people, this is the toughest part of the process. Don’t wait for your mind to be completely “blank” before moving on; it may not happen and it’s not necessary.
Your next step is to do what’s called “centering.” This will help with the barrage of distracting thoughts.
If your intent is to meditate on scripture, devotional writing, etc., this is when you would read the passage or bring to mind the object of your meditation. We’ll use scripture as an example, but as we said before it could be any devotional writing, a song verse, any part of His creation. The formal term for using scripture this way is “lectio divina,” Latin for “divine reading.”
First of all, we select a short passage: only a single event or parable, only a few verses. Some examples would be “”Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” or “Be still and know that I am God” or “Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart.”
You want the words to reside in your heart, not your mind. Use your imagination to make whatever you read real for you. Go beyond what the words say and what they mean. What are they saying to you? Are you being struck by what you have read?
Don’t struggle with this. Relax and allow yourself to be receptive. You can’t will yourself to fall asleep. Nor can you will yourself to go really deep into any passage you read. And as we’ve said before, you can’t will God to grace you with the awareness of His presence.
We can’t tell you what that will be like for you. We can’t describe in words what is essentially a wordless experience. We’ll fall back on an old cliché: if it happens, you’ll know it. And if you need to ask, either it didn’t happen or you may tend to be overly analytical. The enemy may be planting those thoughts, doubts, and questions in your head. Just try to relax. The experience is often described as pure ecstasy. And that’s as good a word as we can come up to describe it. Just bask in His presence until you sense it’s time to stop. For now. Trust us: once you experience it, you’ll want it time and time again.
Other devotional writing that many people have found helpful is Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, Confessions by St. Augustine, The Little Flowers of St. Francis and The Imitation of Christ. Ask God to lead you to the right passage, etc. Again, short passages, small bites are the key. And avoid the temptation to jump from one to another. Choose one source, and one passage, and stay with it until it bears fruit.
The process is similar if your intent is to meditate upon God and God alone—no scripture, no devotional passage, no sunset. This is what some call contemplative prayer. Get comfortable, close your eyes, do your deep breathing and your prayer of thanksgiving, sanctification, and protection. Then “center” yourself.
In this case, the centering process consists of choosing a sacred word or phrase. It’s only sacred in the sense that you have chosen to give it special meaning for this prayer. It could be God, Abba, Jesus, Father, Amen, Love, Faith, Trust, I Surrender, Complete Peace. If you don’t have something chosen before you go to prayer, the Holy Spirit will give you a word or phrase to use. The word or phrase stays the same for the entire prayer. You may change it the next time you pray, or change it after several times of use, or that just may be your sacred word or phrase. Trust your feelings about it and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Some methods of meditation use a word or phrase repeated over and over to help focus and block out distracting thoughts. In meditative prayer, our approach is different. We allow all thoughts to appear and then we let them go. And we use the sacred word to bring us back—to re-center us—when we notice we’ve been thinking. About anything. Including God. If we’re thinking about God, we’re not experiencing His presence.
If you’re like us, when you first start doing this type of prayer, you’ll find yourself repeating your sacred word a lot. We’re not used to giving up control of our minds and not thinking. Just be gentle with yourself and persistent with your practice. Because the time will come when you find yourself coming back to thought and realizing that you’ve just spent who knows how long in the loving presence of God, oblivious to everything else, completely unaware until you look back in retrospect. It’s amazing.
Of course, what’s really amazing to us is the fact that He’s always there—only our awareness of His presence changes. But what a blessing it is to have that complete awareness.
A few words of advice in closing.
Whether meditating on scripture or contemplating God, you may have prayer sessions that appear to be “failures.” God didn’t appear to show up. Don’t consider these sessions a waste of time. At the very least, you got to relax for 20 minutes or half an hour. More likely, there’s some mental “garbage” that needs to be cleared away, some sins to deal with or wounds to face, and that’s what’s going on in these sessions. Sometimes it seems as if God steps back so we have to step forward to meet Him. We still have sessions like that even though we’ve also experienced God in prayer many times. Let what happens happen. Trust God and thank Him for whatever happens.
Also, do what you can to avoid mistrusting your feelings. Try not to say things like “It couldn’t have been God; it was only my imagination.” Jesus used the imagination of his listeners when he spoke in parables. The imagination is a powerful tool that stirs our emotions more than words alone can. The imagination gets the heart involved. A sanctified imagination is yet another gift from God. Don’t ignore or downplay what it can do for you.
Finally, the best preparation for meditative prayer is to love God. And one of the best ways to nurture that love is to spend time in His presence through meditative prayer. Jesus calls on us to give up everything in our lives, everything we may hold onto, everything we’re loyal to--except one thing: God. All else must fall away. Meditative prayer is a symbolic way to give up everything in exchange for the presence of God. And even though the “giving up everything” is symbolic in this type of prayer, God’s presence is oh so real. Ecstasy doesn’t begin to describe it.