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 all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. (Joshua 1:8)
Things began unravelling with frightening rapidity in Germany after Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor on January 30, 1933. By May the Nazis were harassing Jews and bullying people to boycott Jewish department stores. Johann Ludwig Muller, an avowed Nazi, was elected as the Bishop of the German Evangelical Church and he began quickly to tie the church to Nazi ideology, calling for the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible altogether, and the omission of hymns that gave any reference to Israel or Jerusalem. Young Dietrich Bonhoeffer1, only twenty-seven years old at the time, spoke out fearlessly against Nazi oppression and the church’s heresy. Eventually he led a movement away from the 'German Christians' of the Evangelical Church with the help of Swiss theologian Karl Barth who primarily wrote the Barmen Declaration that protested the Nazi movement within the church, affirming the Scriptures as the sole authority in the church of Christ. By the way, Barth says he finished the lengthy document with the help of strong coffee and a few good Brazilian cigars! This was the so-called Confessing Church movement. In 1935 Bonhoeffer gathered together some fifteen or twenty young men preparing tor the gospel ministry at an old estate called Finkenwalde. He took them to this secluded place near the Baltic Sea in Pomerania and put them through a veritable boot camp in preparation for gospel ministry.
Bonhoeffer was prescient, seeing clearly what was coming. The true church in Germany would suffer and her leaders must be prepared to lead the way in that suffering. So early every morning he required the men to arise, speak not a word to anyone, and go immediately to a time of corporate worship with prayer, confession of sin, lots of hymn singing, and preaching. After breakfast he gave them several hours of theological instruction. The afternoons provided time for sports and recreation, and their nights were spent in discussion and more prayer and worship. But a constant thread running through all Bonhoeffer taught these young men was the art of Christian meditation. He gave them one verse of Scripture and they were to memorize it and think deeply upon it for thirty minutes each day. They were not to consult the original languages of Hebrew or Greek, nor were they to consult commentaries. They were to ask God to show them the meaning of the text. They spent hours each week meditating on Scripture, seeking the face of God in his Word.
When Barth heard of Bonhoeffer’s tactics of instruction he wrote him, gently rebuking him, wondering why he was using Monastic or Roman Catholic means of instruction with Lutheran young men, wondering if this was a bit legalistic. Barth did not like making a distinction between theological and devotional work. To this Bonhoeffer gave a lengthy reply, part of which follows here.
The charge of legalism does not seem to me to fit at all. What is there legalistic in a Christian setting to work to learn what prayer is and in his spending a good deal of his time in this learning? A leading man in the Confessing Church recently said to me, ‘We have no time for meditation now. The ordinands should learn how to preach and to catechize.’ That seems to me either a complete misunderstanding of what young theologians are like today or a culpable ignorance of how preaching and catechism come to life.
As God gave the mantle of Moses’ leadership to Joshua, as he prepared to lead the people of God into the Promised Land, God told Joshua to meditate on his Word day and night, to not allow it to depart from his mouth. In other words he constantly was to saturate his mind and heart with God’s Word. And from this meditation came the product of principled obedience and holiness, and the reward or result of such holiness was prosperity and success. No doubt the context of that success was driving out the pagan hordes in the land of milk and honey.
The principle applies to us today, just as it did for Joshua, Bonhoeffer, and his young ordinands. I stress the need for Christian meditation to all now reading this, but I especially want to bear down on our leaders — leaders of households, churches, businesses, or ministries. There is absolutely no substitute for saturating your mind and heart with God’s Word. A few minutes of Bible reading before quickly leaving for work will not get it done. If you want power and authority in your life, if you want the unction of the Holy Spirit on your family, Christian walk, and ministry, then you must saturate your mind with God’s Holy Word. I don’t mean merely reading commentaries about Scripture. Nor do I mean simply studying the Bible or even memorizing it. All of these, of course, are good exercises. But meditation means you 'chew the Word of God' like a cow chews its cud. A cow eats grass, chews it, swallows it, and then regurgitates it later, again and again, until the fully digested grass passes through the cow's many stomachs. To meditate on God’s Word means to think deeply about a passage you have just read, studied, or memorized. Christian meditation is the exact opposite of Transcendental Meditation which is emptying the mind of everything. Chew on it. Digest it. Regurgitate it and chew on it some more. And how do you do this? Ask the Holy Spirit to give you his illumination, to make clear to you what the passage is teaching. Get the message of the text clearly in view. And then ask, 'So what? What difference does this make in my life? What am I supposed to do with this knowledge?' And ask God to burn into your heart biblical holiness, made manifest in obedience to God’s Word. You can do this while driving to work, while getting dressed in the morning, while getting ready for bed at night. It takes discipline but the effort will bring success and prosperity. What kind? You will grow in godly character, and you will have a depth to your life, coupled eventually with biblical wisdom, that will cause others to listen when you speak. You will have a growing influence for righteousness on those whom God brings your way.
Though Bonhoeffer grew up with a Christian mother, and though he was a moral and principled man who planned to devote his life to theological studies, seeking a life in academia, he apparently was not truly converted. His one year at Union Seminary in New York City — while generally a waste to Bonhoeffer because of its rampant liberalism — nonetheless became a turning point in his life. He began attending the large black Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, pastured by Adam Clayton Powell, Sr, a great revival and gospel preacher. Bonhoeffer grew weary of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s liberal preaching at the newly constructed Riverside Church, built by money from the John D. Rockefeller Foundation.
From that point on Bonhoeffer gave his life to Christian meditation and this strengthened him throughout his short life, which ended in a Nazi prison camp when he was executed, just prior to the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer had authority and power in his life. It did not come without effort. He disciplined himself by daily and lengthy Christian meditation. Can we do anything less?
1. For a remarkable and inspiring read, I highly recommend Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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