Saturday, March 7, 2015

Book Review: God's Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation

God's Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation by David W. Saxton
Reformation Heritage Books (2015); 160 pp.

What does the word "meditation" make you think of? Bible study might not be the first thing that pops to mind. But as David Saxton's book shows, meditation on Scripture is an integral part of Christians' spiritual heritage, and, in particular, it was the engine of the spiritual life for seventeenth-century Puritans. In fact, meditation could be simply described as "the doctrine of Christian thinking." Sadly, as J. I. Packer noted years ago in Knowing God, meditation has become a lost art in the church.

Far from calling for emptying one's mind, biblical meditation is the practice of filling it with the truths of Scripture -- "chewing on" and "digesting" the promises of God, rather than glancing over them in a superficial or merely intellectual fashion. This practice has countless benefits for the Christian, not the least being that, through it, "the Spirit slows down a worrying mind and restores order to the soul of His creatures." Of course, to receive this kind of food and restoration, we have to be willing to devote space in our schedules for more than a cursory reading of Scripture.

After defining meditation, Saxton quickly gets into the thick of its implementation. For this, the Puritans' counsel is often strikingly practical: e.g., the same time of day might not work for every person, but the important thing is to set a consistent time for regular meditation -- ideally when one is freshest. When beginning a period of meditation, choose a verse or theme small enough to dwell on fruitfully, instead of a lengthy chapter. And, of course, the entire exercise must be anchored in prayer, with an eye toward application in daily life. Sermons, too, call for follow-up in meditation, rather than being half-attentively taken in and then forgotten. Saxton has mined a vast body of Puritan literature on how to undertake the practice, and he includes a full bibliography for further study.

Saxton isn't under any illusion that Scriptural meditation comes easily to most modern Christians. But Puritan pastors didn't think any differently about their own congregations. They knew that people are busy, that distraction comes easily, and that the appetite for meditation is something which must be actively cultivated. They understood that meditation "is not a task to be...attempted in our own strength" and urged that Christians persevere in the face of setbacks; these are only to be expected in the process of sanctification.

To my surprise, this book follows up well on my previous book review, in that biblical meditation was viewed by Puritan pastors as a potent remedy for sufferers of depression or any kind of discouragement. As Oliver Heywood wrote, meditation "helps the Christian in sad pressures and soul-conflicts; good thoughts counterwork bad. David could out-argue his disquieting thoughts, so may a Christian."

If you feel intimidated by the thought of taking on a deeper practice of Scriptural meditation, I would say two things, based on my reading of this book (and I am assuredly saying them to myself as well!): it is right to recognize the gravity of the practice and the likelihood that it will be a struggle at times. And yet, be encouraged by the fact that dwelling on God's Word is a refuge for the weary soul. If you need some direction on the journey, Saxton, along with the dozens of Puritan voices he shares, offer hearty companionship.

The publisher provided me with an electronic review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.