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Three Foundational Spiritual Disciplines

By Dr. Brian Allison


In considering the spiritual disciplines by which the worship of God and the fellowship with God may be facilitated and achieved, the focus centres on the private disciplines (e.g., meditation), rather than on the public ones (e.g. observing the Lord’s Table, congregational singing, corporate Bible study, etc.). The public disciplines certainly contribute to transforming the heart; but, for our purposes, I want to concentrate on the believer’s personal pursuit of the personal presence of God; that which the believer can undertake freely, and independent of corporate expectations and regulations, in keeping with the spirit of Psalm 63:1,2, “O God, Thou art my God; I shall seek Thee earnestly; my soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh yearns for Thee, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Thus I have beheld Thee in the sanctuary, to see Thy power and Thy glory [i.e., the revera coram deo].” The three main private spiritual disciplines are: prayer, meditation and contemplation, and obedience (or the works) of love. In this section, I consider briefly, and practically, each of these disciplines respectively.


D. M. M’Intyre (1859-1938), the colleague and successor of Andrew A. Bonar (1810-1892) at Finnieston Church, Glasgow, wrote a little book entitled, The Hidden Life of Prayer. The book begins with a brief biographical sketch and tribute to D. M. M’Intyre by Francis Davidson. Davidson writes, “Pre-eminently David Martin M’Intyre was a man of prayer. He lived in the presence of God. It is a major mistake, however, to imagine that he was ‘so heavenly as to be no earthly good.’ He was a practical mystic. Like Moses, he descended the mount of communion with God, his face shining, and in the divine power became a great leader of multitudes” (M’Intyre, 1978, vii). Perhaps M’Intyre was influenced by his predecessor Bonar, of whom it is said, “[he] was a man of deep and fervent prayer which became a fixed habit of his life. Much prayer seemed to make his other arduous duties lighter and easier. Jesus Christ was a very real Person to him” (Moyer, 1974, 49). These statements highlight the centrality of prayer in securing intimate fellowship with God. Because Bonar and M’Intyre were men of prayer, they knew the personal presence of God. In this section, I simply emphasize the need for persistent prayer.

A phrase in Ephesians 6:18 captures the essential aspect of the kind of prayer required in order to enjoy fellowship with God, and to provide the context for worship–“pray at all times.” A covenant believer must not only engage in prayer, but he must engage in persistent prayer. John Fletcher (1729-1785), a Methodist preacher and theologian, always greeted a particular friend with these words, “Do I meet you praying?” Many Christians pray; few Christians pray at all times. The Scripture repeatedly exhorts believers to pray always–Romans 12:12, “devoted to prayer;” Colossians 4:2, “devote yourself to prayer;” 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing.”

Again, Jesus serves as the practical prototype for the Christian. Jesus experienced a deep, intimate fellowship with God, not simply because He is the Son of God and His very divine nature is naturally and necessarily one with the Father; but because He was a man of prayer. Jesus, being human, was subject to the same spiritual and religious laws that impinge upon all human beings. Thus, He too had to pray to and seek the Father. We read, for instance, “And in the early morning, while it was still dark, He arose and went out and departed to a lonely place, and was praying there” (Mark 1:35); again, “And immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side to Bethsaida, while He Himself was sending the multitude away. And after bidding them farewell, He departed to the mountain to pray” (Mark 6:45, 46); again, “But the news about Him was spreading even farther, and great multitudes were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But He Himself would often slip away to the wilderness to pray” (Luke 5:15,16); and again, “And it was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). Even as Jesus persisted in prayer, so also must all covenant believers. The absence of prayer often accounts for the emotional and psychological ills, as well as the spiritual ills, of believers.

The original language underlying this phrase in Ephesians 6:18 is interesting. The term ‘pray’ in the original Greek is not a verb, but a participle (i.e., a verbal adjective) and the import of the language is this: prayer should be viewed not only as an act, but as an activity, a habit, or a practice. The language suggests the state or the process of prayer. Perhaps a better translation would be: “praying at all times.” Such a combination of terms thus sounds redundant, but the apostle used such a construction for the sake of emphasis. Christians, therefore, should live and function in the context and atmosphere of prayer.

‘To pray at all times’ does not mean that the Christian should be always on his knees, though the consistent practice of private prayer should be an essential part of persistent prayer. Specific set times of prayer are necessary. However, the text focuses on the manner in which believers should fulfil their responsibilities and commitments. Prayer should not simply be a doing, but also a being. Christians should be always in an attitude of prayer while they engage in the various activities of life. While Christians engage in performing life’s tasks, they should be in continual conversation and communion with God, asking for His leading and guidance, seeking to know His will only. Accordingly, Christians should cultivate immediate and spontaneous prayer-thinking. James Oliver Buswell, the well-known American preacher, in his book entitled, Problems in the Prayer Life, writes, “This conversation with God, need not always be in words, but it should never be broken off. It ought to be essentially continuous in its nature. The continuous nature of prayer may well be illustrated by the conversation of intimate friends. Words are not constantly exchanged, but fellowship is not interrupted. We must not only have regular and frequent times for prayer, but, whenever there is a break in the occupation of our minds, we ought to revert to the conscious communion with God just as involuntarily as we would continue in conversation with a friend near at hand” (Buswell, n.d., 10).

Andrew Murray (1828-1917), the Dutch Reformed South African minister, maintained that at the very heart of prayerlessness is unbelief. Belief and expectant faith provide the impetus of prayer. Often Christians do not pray because they do not believe that God is able or ready to answer them, or to reveal Himself to them. The Scripture teaches, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb 11:6).

Practically speaking, the securing and maintaining of persistent prayer requires two things. First, there must be a desire for a life of prayer. Self-evidently, unless a Christian has a desire for it, he will lack the motivation to strive for it. Accordingly, when he begins to spiritually see the beauty of Jesus Christ and gaze upon His loveliness, then he will desire it. Second, there must be discipline to attain such a life of prayer. This kind of life–persistent prayer, resulting in intimate fellowship with God–is possible if a Christian is determined to pursue it. He must not allow anything to deter him. At this point, feelings may govern him; however, truth must override. He must act on the basis of what he knows to be right regardless of how he feels.

Meditation and Contemplation

Meditation and contemplation help to provide the context for worship and the actual means for fellowship with God. Colossians 3:2 reads, “Set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on earth.” The original Greek is better translated, “Continue to set your mind on things above.” The truth implied is that this ‘setting of the mind’–a riveting or fixing of the attention–on things above ought to be, as with prayer, a habit. Accordingly, Christians ought to also persist in this practice. To be sure, this matter of meditation and contemplation (as with prayer) requires set and regular times. For example, Isaac, the husband of Rebekah, went out into the field at evening in order to meditate (cf. Gen 24:63). Yet, in addition to set and regular times, Christians should meditate and contemplate continually, regardless of the activity in which they engage themselves or the responsibility which they must perform. In this section, I explain the nature, the objects, and the specific focus of this particular discipline.

Understanding meditation and contemplation

Though the practices of meditation and contemplation sustain a close relationship with each other, a subtle distinction exists between them. Biblical meditation is the act or activity of pondering the revealed will and ways of God/Christ. It is the sustained reflection on disclosed truth. We read, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (Josh 1:8). Biblical contemplation is the act or activity of focusing on, of being mentally absorbed or preoccupied with, the revealed person of God/Christ. It is inwardly ‘beholding’ or ‘gazing upon’ God. Isaiah 6, though assuming the form of a vision, presents and captures the essence of Biblical contemplation. We read:

In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (vv. 1-6).

Isaiah experienced a contemplative vision of the Lord.

Meditation is more an intellectual and reflective mental activity, whereas contemplation is more an emotional and aesthetic one. For instance, Psalm 1 would be an example of meditation-“How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD. And in His law he meditates day and night” (vv. 1,2). The emphasis of meditation is often on words, on language, on the propositional. On the other hand, Psalm 8 would be an example of contemplation. The emphasis is often on the apparition, on the pictorial, on the visual. So, we read, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Thy name in all the earth, who has displayed Thy splendour above the heavens!… When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou has ordained; what is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him?” (vv. 1,3,4).

Peter Toon, in his book The Art of Meditating on Scripture, writes:

If we turn to the older English dictionaries, we find that in ordinary usage meditation and contemplation have had little difference in meaning. Both point to the activity of the mind as it considers, reflects upon, and muses over some fact or object. Where there is a difference, “contemplation” is used in more of that situation where the mind is still and fixed upon an object to behold it, whereas “meditation” is used as more of the activity of the mind looking at something from various angles or perspectives. Thus we could say that the verbs “to see” and “to behold” belong more naturally to contemplation while the verbs “to consider” and “to reflect upon” belong more naturally to meditation” (Toon, 1993, 78).

Contemplation presupposes meditation, and builds and depends upon it. Meditation leads to contemplation, and sustains it. As a Christian meditates upon the truth of God, stimulating his intellect and inflaming his affections, meditation may then give way to contemplation. Affective meditation is, in effect, contemplation. Again, Toon writes, “Meditation, as part of mental prayer, is the first step toward the deeper, personal knowledge of God that is contemplation” (Toon, 1993, 78). He concludes, “After careful thought and much discussion, I have adopted the distinction suggested above between meditation as the prayerful considering of and reflecting upon God’s truth, and contemplation as the gazing upon, beholding, experiencing, and seeing by faith God through Jesus Christ” (Toon, 1993, 79). Admittedly, meditation and contemplation require discipline. They demand hard work and resolve.

Meditating on and contemplating heavenly things

As suggested, meditation and contemplation should focus on heavenly things-“Set your mind on the things above, not on things that are on the earth” (Col 3:2). The direction of the mind should be constantly upward. The sphere in which Christians should think ought to be that of the spiritual world in which they are heavenly citizens. That is, they should be heavenly-minded. As Scripture teaches, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things” (Phil 4:8).

The Scripture describes such a direction of mind in different ways. For instance, after Peter confessed at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus disclosed that He was to suffer and die. Peter then rebuked the Lord for these remarks. To which our Lord responded, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests [lit. the things of God], but man’s” (Matt 16:23). Again, we read in Romans 8:5, “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” Thus, to set the mind on the ‘things above’ means that a believer dwells on that which glorifies God; that which is in keeping with His will, ways, and purposes; that which concerns His nature and character; as opposed to that which pertains to this fallen, sinful world and the life of self (i.e., the ‘things below’). The ‘things above,’ for example, are the virtues of holiness and righteousness, the glory of Christ’s death and resurrection, the leading of the Spirit, etc. The ‘things below,’ for example, are such things as the quest for power, the greed for money, the pleasure of illicit sex, etc.

Meditation and contemplation centre on Christ

Biblical meditation and contemplation should particularly centre on Jesus Christ-“If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 1:1). Not only should a Christian desire the heavenly things which relate to, and centre on, Christ, but he should concentrate on the same. Focusing on Jesus Christ is the key aspect concerning Biblical meditation and contemplation, especially with respect to entering into the fullness of fellowship with God. Bernard Clairvaux (1090-1153), the father of Western mysticism, writes:

I confess, then, to speak foolishly, that the Word has visited me-indeed, very often. But, though He has frequently come into my soul, I have never at any time been aware of the moment of His coming. I have felt His presence, I remember He has been with me, I have sometimes even had a premonition of His coming, but never have I felt His coming or His departure…You will ask then how, since His track is thus traceless, I could know that He is present? Because He is living and full of energy, and as soon as He has entered me, has quickened my sleeping soul, and aroused, softened and goaded my heart, which was torpid and hard as a stone…In the reformation and renewal of the spirit of my mind, that is my inward man, I have seen something of the loveliness of His Beauty, and meditating on these things have been filled with wonder at the multitude of His greatness (Cant., 74, condensed) (Underhill, 1988, 86f.).

Meditation on the Word of Christ and contemplation on the person of Christ lead to the experience of the spiritual vision of Christ, which is the spiritual vision of God. Jesus affirmed, “If you had known Me, you would have known my Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him…Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works” (John 14:7,9,10). Jesus, of course, meant this in a literal sense, having spiritual overtones; but the language also has spiritual import and significance-through meditation on the acts and words of Christ and through contemplation on the person of Christ, Christians spiritually see His beauty and desire Him. Richard Baxter (1615-1691) writes:

If you complain of your deadness and dullness-that you cannot love Christ, nor rejoice in His love; that you do not have life in prayer, nor in any other duty-and yet neglect this quickening employment [of meditation and contemplation], then you are the cause of your own complaints…Fetch one coal daily from this altar and see if your offering will not burn. Light your lamp at this flame and feed it daily with oil from there, and see if it will not shine gloriously. Keep close to this reviving fire and see if your affections will not be warm. In your lack of love to God, lift up your eye of faith to heaven, behold His beauty, contemplate His excellencies, and see whether His amiableness and perfect goodness will not ravish your heart (Baxter, n.d., 88).

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6). This statement is true not only in reference to salvation, but also in reference to divine communion. No one comes to the Father, enters into true fellowship with God, but through Christ. To really know and experience Christ is to know and experience the depth of intimacy with God. In seeing Christ in His beauty, the Christian will love Him–he will have no choice but to love Him–and in turn, Christ will love him. God the Father also will love him (cf. John 14:21, 23), resulting in the fullness of fellowship with God. The apostle Paul states the matter thus, “More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of [experientially] knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may [experientially] gain Christ” (Phil 3:8). Moreover, in meditating on Christ’s acts and words and contemplating His beauty, Christians need to particularly consider His glorious reign and sovereignty–“where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1b). He is the Lord of glory, the King of majesty, the God of splendour.

The Obedience of Love

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote an inspiring tract called “On Loving God.” In Chapter 1 of this tract, he states:

You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of love due to Him is immeasurable love…We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable…. And first, of His title to our love. Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer but Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).

Bernard of Clairvaux herein implies the essential means for enjoying the fullness of fellowship with God, namely, loving God.

Perhaps the key verses which teach both the actual meaning of, as well as the direct means of, truly fellowshiping with the thrice holy God is John 14:21,23, “Jesus said, ‘He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him…. If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him.'” In respect to the enjoyment of fellowship with God, these verses simply teach that to truly love Christ is to truly enter into fellowship with God. To be sure, a Christian must pray and meditate/contemplate in order to enter into this fellowship because these disciplines comprise the basic and necessary means for knowing God and Jesus Christ; and thus they are the basic and necessary means for learning and growing in love for the divine Persons. However, the act/activity of truly loving God and Jesus Christ is the direct means of actually entering into that fellowship. In other words, prayer and meditation/contemplation make fellowship possible; they promote this fellowship; but actually loving Christ and God make this fellowship real; it sustains this fellowship. Augustine (354-430), in his Confessions, writes:

Who will enable me to find rest in you [God]? Who will grant me that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself? What are you to me? Have mercy so that I may find words. What am I to you that you command me to love you, and that, if I fail to love you, you are angry with me and threaten me with vast miseries? If I do not love you, is that but a little misery? What a wretch I am! In Your mercies, Lord God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul, “I am your salvation” (Ps 34:3) (Augustine, 1992, 5).

Loving God and Jesus Christ is the spiritual gateway into the depth of the heart and presence of God, where the fires of holy passion need never subside. I address three questions that arise from these key verses in John’s Gospel, as we think about this particular aspect of love.

What does it mean to love Christ?

To love Christ is to obey Him-“He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me…If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word” (John 14:21a,23a). In personally embracing and possessing the teachings of Christ, and subsequently submitting to those teachings, Christians reveal their love for Christ. Obedience is the proof or the test of love for Him. Admittedly, if a person really loves another, then he will feel accompanying affections; the emotions will arise in his heart. Love involves the whole person. It touches the desires, the thinking, the willing, and the feelings. Yet the teaching of this text is that true love manifests itself through, and results in, a certain kind of behaviour, a doing. True love must be demonstrated. Further, love is essentially a gift. It is a gracious giving for the good of another. It is a self-donation for the benefit of another. Love involves the giving of one’s time, energy, and resources. Again, love is necessarily measured in terms of action, rather than in terms of emotions. We read, for instance, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:17,18). Thus, the ground for love is in the human will, rather than in the human emotions. The emotions, the feelings, can activate and motivate the will, and accompany the expression of the will, but unless the Christian exercises the will, there can be no love; for love is essentially a giving.

The Lord requires obedience–which is the proof of love–because obedience is not simply an exercise of the Christian’s will, but is an actual surrendering of the will. When Christians surrender their wills, they, in effect, sacrifice themselves to the Lord (cf. Rom 12:1); and He expects nothing less than that (I am not advocating passive Quietism or Quakerism, but rather active submission). Francois Fénelon, in his Spiritual Letters to Women, “On Conformity to the Will of God,” writes:

We have nothing to call our own except our will–nothing else is ours. Sickness takes away health and life; riches melt away; mental powers depend on a man’s bodily strength. The one only thing really ours is our will, and consequently it is of this that God is jealous, for He gave it, not that we should use it as our own, but that we should restore it to Him, wholly and undividedly. Whoever holds back any particle of reluctance or desire as his right defrauds his Maker, to Whom all is due (Fénelon, 1984, 265).

Christians express a true love for Christ by conforming completely to His will, and thereby they totally give themselves to Him. So, to love Christ entails giving up one’s will to Him and to obey His teachings; and in giving up the will to Him, Christians will realize that His commandments are not grievous (cf. 1 John 5:3). His commandments then become the joy of the Christian’s heart.

What is the result of loving Christ?

Jesus invites believers, and commands them, to love Him; and the result of loving Him is that He and the Father will love in return–“and he who loves Me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him” (John 14:21b). This particular response of divine love should be understood not so much as a conditional love, but rather as a reciprocating love. The absence or presence of the believer’s love does not primarily determine and control the absence or presence of God’s love. The believer’s love neither forces nor guarantees the presence or expression of His love. God’s love is foundational, and has the priority. It is unconditional. God loves first, and only because He has first loved us, can believers love Him in return. We read, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins…We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:10,19).

Yet, in responding to God’s love (which has the priority and initiates the loving process), God, in turn, will respond to the Christian’s love with greater love. God’s love is not only initiatory, but is also responsive and reciprocal. Giving invites giving. Obviously, there are degrees of love in the heart of God. For instance, He loves His elect more deeply than He loves the world. Jesus showed more love to John and allowed him to rest in His bosom, which he did not show toward the other disciples. God’s love is infinitely expansive in the experience of the believer.

What is the fruit of loving Christ?

The fruit of loving Christ consists of the deep intimacy of fellowship with Him–“and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him…My Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make Our abode with him” (John 14:21b,23b). First, in loving Christ, Christ reveals the reality of Himself to the believer. It is self-evident that the emphasis here is on a spiritual manifestation. Jesus promises here an experiential encounter-the believer will spiritually see (and hear) Christ. The blessed believer will spiritually gaze upon, and marvel at, the wonder of the revelation of Christ in his heart.

Second, in loving Christ, God graces the believer with His special presence. The Father and the Son will ‘set up house’ with him (not just ‘in’ him). God vouchsafes His companionship. Jesus here promises higher levels of life and communion with Himself. In conclusion, J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) writes:

Here follows another encouragement to the man [or woman] who strives to keep Christ’s commandments. Christ will specially love that [person], and will give him [or her] special manifestations of His grace and favour, invisibly and spiritually. [That person] will feel and know in his own heart comforts and joys, that wicked [people] and inconsistent professors know nothing of…It is one of those things which can only be known by experience, and is only known by holy and consistent Christians. We should carefully observe here, that Christ does more for the comfort of some of His people than He does for others. Those who follow Christ most closely and obediently will always follow Him most comfortably and feel most of His inward presence (Ryle, 1977, 83).

© Brian Allison, 2010