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  • Writer's pictureJay Lowder

May the Four Be With You!

Updated: Apr 22

What are the most important private ways of seeking God?


Because the spiritual disciplines are indispensable for Christian growth in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7), many have written about them across the centuries. Authors list different practices as "spiritual disciplines," but Donald Whitney's clear list has become dominant in recent years. He enumerates ten vital personal spiritual disciplines: "Bible intake, prayer, worship, evangelism, service, stewardship, fasting, silence and solitude, journaling, and learning.1 Would that all Christians would regularly practice all ten private means of seeking, hearing, and obeying God!    


Are There Core Disciplines?

  But for those who need their spiritual lives simplified or are just starting up, can we, or even should we, distinguish between this larger list and "core" spiritual disciplines? In this day of tight schedules, I suggest that we emphasize four “core” disciplines in descending order of importance: Bible intake, prayer, meditation, and memorization.


The Big Two!

  We must at least recognize the centrality of Bible intake and prayer: “The primary spiritual disciplines advocated by Scripture are prayer and the obedient study of God’s Word.”2 Like two wings of a bird, both the communication from God through his Word and our communication to God in prayer are required to lift the soul toward the heavens. Fasting is so closely related to prayer that it can be considered part of prayer.


And Two More?

There is value in simplicity, but two more disciplines should be added because they are essential for the practice of the ‘Big Two!” They are essential but easily and often overlooked. Imagine an elementary school assignment for a third grader to write down everything essential for life. Quickly, he jots down food and water. That is very good. Those are essential. But what is being “assumed” and, therefore, unintentionally omitted? What about oxygen and heat? You won’t live long enough to need that food and water if you asphyxiate or freeze to death.  Are there two other disciplines, often hidden behind assumptions, that are necessary for benefiting from Bible intake and prayer? Yes, they are meditation and memorization.

 

Bible Intake and Prayer Require Meditation

Nathanael Ranew claimed that “meditation stands between the two ordinances of reading and praying, as the grand improver of the former, and the high quickener of the latter, to furnish the mind with choice materials for prayer, and to fill the heart with holy fervency in it."3  Not only is meditation modeled and commended across the Old and New Testaments, but it is involved whenever someone reads the Bible intently or prays passionately, whether recognized or not.  To see that meditation, chewing on God's Word to digest it is essential, consider the many biblical and theological "code words" for meditation in this alphabetized list: abiding, beholding, considering, contemplating, delighting in, fearing, gazing, hearing, heeding, holding fast, musing, pondering, reflecting upon, regarding, remembering, seeing, and staring.


How many Christians do you know who find Bible reading, at best, difficult and, at worst, boring? That is Bible intake without meditation. It does not transform any more than the demons’ knowledge that God is one (James 2:19). Meditation is the middle, intermediate step that changes our desires and our deeds. Meditation charges up the soul with spiritual energy, and prayer discharges it toward God.


            And it is this grinding of the gathered wheat in the Word that inflames the heart to pray.4 Mere reading as information-gathering does not spark prayer, just as seeing the very miracles of Jesus without reflecting upon them did not ignite faith.  But when we read and consider what God is saying, willing to apply it to our lives, the Holy Spirit brings those words to life through illumination, filling our hearts with the passion to pray earnestly.

 

Bible Intake and Prayer Require Memorization

Admittedly, it is harder to argue for the inclusion of memorization. While it is nowhere commanded in Scripture, it is assumed almost everywhere. To begin with, consider that the word "memorization" has a wide range of meanings. Dictionary definitions can be as simple as "commitment of something to memory."5 So, give yourself some credit! You have “memorized” a lot of truths about God from his Word already.

This is not the gold standard of memorization to which we should aspire, word-for-word,t and heartfelt recitation of verses and passages. But it is simply knowing anything about God, his Word, and his world that you carry around with you. When James encourages us that we "have heard of the steadfastness of Job" (James 5:11), he is not assuming word-perfect recall of the entire book but a generalized summary of his life, suffering, and restoration that most Christians already possess. 


This “lower” sense of memorization is a core discipline.  If you read your Bible daily but do not remember anything for daily living, you are profiting little from it.[vi] How limited will the value of today’s reading be if you don’t remember anything from it? That is spiritual amnesia! Healthy Bible reading requires that we have spiritual eyes to see and spiritual ears to hear so that we might understand and bear fruit (Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 13:43). That means walking away from daily Bible reading with something you have read, meditated upon, and prayed about. Aim for word-for-word memorization, the high end of this core discipline, but know that the Holy Spirit can kindle anything you remember into the fires of spiritual growth.


Memorization and Prayer

            But what about prayer? Surely, you can pray without engaging your memory?! No, you can't. Who can sincerely even start the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name" (Matthew 6:9), without sneaking in the prior understanding of God as Father, God as transcendent, and God's zeal for his name to be glorified? Yes, billions say this prayer by rote repetition. Still, they commit the very folly that Jesus forbids of "meaningless repetition." (Matthew 6:7) either because they do not actually know what the words mean or do not care to reflect on them from memory. 

Memorization and Meditation

Memorization is even more closely related to meditation; perhaps the other hand of it. You need both, and both together bear more fruit. What you meditate on slowly and deliberately, praying back to God and seeking to apply to your life, will be easy to memorize. It is already there in your mind, and just a little extra effort will get you to that gold standard of word-for-word recall. Likewise, a major purpose of memorization is storing up Scripture in your heart for immediate and urgent meditation. Jesus modeled the benefit of meditative memorization when he faced temptations. Tim Keller observed that "he is the one who meditated so profoundly on Scripture that he virtually ‘bled’ Scripture, quoting it instinctively in the most extreme moments of his life. He combats each of the assaults of Satan with ‘It is written" (Matt 4:1–11)."6 Likewise, centuries of Christians testify to the power of meditative memorization. "Storing up" God's Word in the heart is a key to spiritual joy, growth, and power. 


A Practical and Powerful Sequence

           The four core disciplines, all of which qualify as forms of "the spirituality of the Word," are Bible intake, meditation, prayer, and memorization.7 A quick way to apply this categorization to your quiet time is to practice the sequence of them just given. Although you can practice them in different orders, generally, you will benefit the most from making a daily practice of reading God's Word, meditating on some verse that grabs your attention, and praying from it. Then, write, type, or copy that verse to carry along with you into your day for further reflection as you memorize it through ongoing meditation. To God be the glory for his goodness in giving us all four of these key means of grace!

 

 




Here is a helpful, related article:

 


1Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress,1991), 17. Other authors include different numbers of disciplines, such as eight listed by Mark Altrogge, "Spiritual Disciplines: The Ultimate Guide (2023)" The Blazing Center, 8 May 2018, https://theblazingcenter.com/2018/05/spiritual-disciplines.html

2Andreas J. Kostenberger, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Grand Rapids: Crossway, ), 27.

3Nathanel Ranew, Solitude Improved by Divine Meditation: A Treatise Proving the Duty and Demonstrating the Necessity, Excellency, Usefulness, Natures, Kinds, and Requisites of Divine Meditation (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2019), viii.

Just like love is necessary for the other virtues to flourish (1 Corinthians 13:1-4), mediation is required to improve and perfect the other means of grace. Kent, Homer A., Jr. “Philippians.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 108.

4C.H. Spurgeon, “Quiet Musing!” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 10, (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1864), 355.

6Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God ( New York: Dutton, 2014), 163. This is not discounting the power of the Holy Spirit through the Holy Scriptures to transform a hearer or reader immediately. That does not require memorization, but surely that newly converted person will always "remember" the moment of coming to one's senses (Luke 15:17 NASB) just as the saint pierced by the word (Hebrews 4:12) will not forget it. Our testimonies of how God saved us or sanctified us so that we can tell others on the spot until the end of our lives show this.

7D.A. Carson, "When is Spirituality Spiritual?" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37-3 1994, 387.

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