I’m discovering that meditation is the most powerful way to hear God. Actually, “powerful” isn’t a strong enough word. Meditation may be the most profound, deep, life-changing, heart-enriching way to hear God I’ve ever experienced.

 But there is a problem. I picture meditation—maybe you do too— as something kind of weird. It’s someone dressed in leotards, sitting in an awkward position, humming nonsensical syllables, emptying the mind, and thinking of “one hand clapping.” It’s the mystic monk escaping the world. It seems totally disconnected from real life.

But everyone is a meditation expert. We meditate all the time. We don’t know it because we call it something else, and we slip into it accidentally.

Transforming our everyday meditations into prayerful imagination will change your life.

We’re all experts

Every day, every breathing human soul imagines, the business tycoon and the homeless person, the New York poet and the Himalayan shepherd. Everyone invents in the mind.

We paint mental pictures of what life would be like, “If…,” or what we’ll do, “When….” We think, “If only she would date me and we’d get married.” Or, “If I lost forty pounds, how much more fun would I have?” And,“What if I won the Lottery?

In our spare minutes, standing in an elevator or waiting for the cashier, scattered moments throughout the day, we imagine.

Our mental picture painting is a type of meditation. It is a concentrated thinking on a particular subject. It’s seeing our lives differently in our mind’s eye.

It creates Intimacy

The best imagining is shared, it’s brainstorming with a friend. Fiancés picture life after marriage; tired spouses dream of a vacation by the sea; software developers envision creating the next best selling iPad App. We love to share our mind’s eye with someone else; it connects our hearts through shared inner images.

Imagining together creates intimacy.

It’s also possible to share our imagination while talking with God. God shares an image (passage, story, truth) with us, and we share our hearts’ desires with God. We connect our hearts to God in this prayerful, conversational brainstorming.

It creates intimacy with God, sharing our heart, our deepest dreams.

It fuels longing

Learning to meditate isn’t difficult; our problem isn’t meditation per se; our problem is the subject we choose for concentrated thinking. Repeated imagining increases longing. That’s why pornography is so addictive. Paul wrote, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life” (Rom. 8:6).

Intentional imagining is the most powerful way we “set our mind” on something. Sustained visualization of earthly things—a new car, a new dress, a job promotion, sex without commitment—increases our desires for those things. But it never brings real life.

Even a momentary satisfaction of these earth-bound desires always fails satisfy the deepest longings of the heart.

Setting our minds on—and this includes intentional imagining of—spiritual things increases our longing for them, such as, picturing life as God’s chosen child, envisioning life with a parent who is the Master of the Universe, have a long conversation about your life with the Almighty, and personally hearing God’s voice.

These bring deep, soul satisfaction, as our imaginations touch the face of God.

So how can we set our minds on the Spirit?

It’s easy to slip into conjuring pictures of worldly solutions; we have so many external pressures. Those stresses spark our minds to visualize solutions. We just worked a long week, so we picture a movie in the theater; our rusted car breaks down (for the third time this month), and we dream of a new (or new-ish) trouble-free Jeep.

This-world’s external pressures choose meditation topics for us.

In Christian meditation, we let God choose the topic. Pick a passage (maybe the one that most recently stirred something in you) and simply talk—brainstorm if you will—with God. Intentionally think on (and make pictures of) his words through deliberate imagining. Here are some possible passages:

  • “Consider [imagine, meditate on] how wild flowers grow. They neither labor nor spin. Yet I tell you, even Solomon with all his splendor was not dressed like one of these” (Luke 12:27).
  • “The kingdom of heaven is like merchant [Jesus] seeking fine pearls. When he found that one pearl of incredible value [you], he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46).
  • “O God, my God; I eagerly seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry, weary land where there is no water. So I gaze upon you [imagine, meditate] … and my soul is satisfied as with a great feast (Psalm 63).

We focus our minds on the Spirit as we let these word pictures fill our imagination. Consider these passages—imagine yourself and God in them—picture them prayerfully in conversation with God, and God will speak exactly what you need to hear in your heart.

We let God pick the topic and we simply soak in his words. A conversational life of brainstorming with God—hearing him speak daily—seems unimaginably good. But the intimacy with us is God’s desire.

Imagine that.

Sam

A few weeks ago, I wearily dragged myself home from a retreat. Exhausted. The retreat was terrific, but I had slept abysmally and felt utterly spent. Empty. Pathetically useless.

I despise that feeling of uselessness: I want to accomplish something, to make a contribution, to feel I did my part. I didn’t feel completely worthless, but I somehow sensed the sorrow of barrenness.

This morning I read the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. More than ever, I sympathized with Peter. His reaction seemed honest. Think of your best friends. If you could choose between washing their feet and letting them wash your feet, which would you prefer?

I would choose washing the feet of my friends ten times out of ten. A thousand out of a thousand. It’s not that my feet are especially disgusting (I do bath occasionally); it’s just that I can’t stand the idea of my friend bending before me and doing something so menial for me.

Ask me to climb Mt. Everest or to steal the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. Some great deed. Even washing their feet would be tolerable; just don’t let them wash my feet. That would be unbearable. Far worse to let Jesus wash my feet. Let me wash his.

I would far rather be helpful to God than be helped by him.

Usefulness isn’t always useful

My desire to serve (rather than be served) doesn’t comes from a good place in me. At least not entirely. It’s a perverted pride. It’s a relationship built on my value. What happens when I’m utterly spent? If my friendship is built on my great value, it’s a pitiably fragile relationship.

I read somewhere that sociologists have noticed a relationship trend in the western world. They call it, The Commodification of Relationships. It describes a shift in how friendships are formed. Friendship used to be an end in themselves. They are now becoming a means to an end.

Commodity relationships have always existed. We keep a relationship with the supermarket down the road as long as their prices are reasonable and their product and services acceptable. But if a supermarket opens closer, with better products and cheaper prices, we switch grocers. It’s not bad, wrong, or unethical. Groceries are a commodity.

We now relate the same way in personal relationships. We abandon friends when we’re sick of their problems, or we swap spouses for a more useful (younger, richer, or more comfortable) partner. We appraise relationships on the worth of what they provide and at what cost.

It changes how we think of ourselves

Commodity relationships are not just cruel because of how we use people (that’s another blog), nor are they unkind simply because of how others use us (yet another blog). Relationships based on “usefulness” are deadly because of the destruction the perversion wreaks inside us.

We used to have friendships that lasted, now our marriages are like eternal dates (“Will I ever be good enough for them to stay forever?”), and our friendships are like a never ending auditions, we’re always trying to secure tenure.

We tirelessly check ourselves for value: Am I offering myself as a good product for a decent price? Has a grocery store set up shop a little closer, with better pricing, and fresher vegetables?

It changes how we think of God

We begin to think of our relationship with God like we’re the corner green-grocer. What happens when we are no longer convenient? Will he drop us like so many others have?

W. Tozer once wrote, “What comes into the mind when we think of God is the most important thing about us, for we tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.

When we imagine God looking for worthy subjects, we frantically climb Mt. Everest’s and chase after witches’ brooms, all to prove to God our value. So he’ll stick with us. We’re scared.

When C. S. Lewis read Tozer’s quote, he responded, “I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important.”

And how does God think of us?

I would much—MUCH!—rather wash the feet of Jesus than have him wash my feet. I would have done something valuable. I would know I’m of use. Instead he washed my feet.

We want God to consider us as useful; instead God thinks of us as beautiful. We want God to think of us as helpful; instead God says he delights to have us as friends. We are an end in itself.

Somehow—in some fashion that eludes—we just have to accept his gift of friendship, to let him wash our feet. We come, not only in non-usefulness, we come in neediness. Exhausted and empty.

This is the hardest part of Christianity, to be received without value, and thus become valuable.

Learning to lean

Paul said, “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:7). I wanted to do something great to prove that surpassing greatness is of me. But my greatness evaporated in my exhaustion.

God is inviting us to offer our meager two pennies and watch their multiplication throughhis greatness; to offer our smallness; to recognize that God can make the littlest of us great, but he can do nothing with the greatest among us until we become little.

If I ever manage to nick the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West by myself, I’ll be of no use.

Sam

If I had just 90 seconds to help you find your calling, this is what I’d say:

1. Understand your context

There is always a context, a setting, a story. We misunderstand situations, others, our own life when we simply look at a moment without understanding the context, the Greater Story that is going on. There is always more going on than meets the eye.

Part of the Greater Story is about our “becoming” who we were created to be. The other part is our “overcoming”; there are forces to prevail over and enemies to conquer. Our lives are a fiery, creative, spiritual struggle.

2. Understand your self

We need to be aware of the defining moments throughout our lives; the people that entered our story and their deposits or withdrawals; the moments when we were most alive and the times we felt wholly lost; the things we have dreamed about and the things we most feared; the stories and the toys we loved as children. All of these various aspects and themes are a part of our unfolding story and are meant to bring revelation to who we are.

3. Understand God’s ways

There are things that only God can reveal about our lives. God wants to be intimately involved in our journeys of becoming and overcoming. Because of His desire for our lives to become what they were destined to be, He must and will speak to us personally. He promised to “instruct you and teach you in the way you should go.” (Ps. 32:8).

Augustine said, ”Without God we cannot, without us, He will not.”

(Excerpted from chapter 3 of It’s Your Call)

Gary

Four weeks ago, I dropped my Smartphone. The screen cracked, and with it, my heart. For the first time in eighteen years, I walked this earth without my constant companion.

I’ve had a Personal Digital Assistant since my first Palm Pilot. I loved it. I called it my PDA, though I didn’t mean Public Display of Affection (but the way I waxed lyrical led friends to believe I was in love). It supplanted my long friendship with Day-Timer.

It organized contacts, to-do lists, and schedules. It played MP3s, electronic books, and Bible software. In 2003, when Palm integrated my PDA with a phone, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

I felt great affection for my lovely new assistant, Ms. Smartphone. We were inseparable.

Then, in a heart-stopping crash, she died. I felt alone and confused. Her absence was toounsettling, the death too tragic. I realized something was terribly wrong. So I decided to extend my mourning. For the past four weeks, I’ve lived back in the dark ages. Without a PDA or Smartphone. Not even a Day-Timer.

I publicly apologize for my three missed lunch appointments, all the commitments I neglected, and the texts and calls I failed to return. My personal assistant was cracked.

But that’s not all

I used my phone for everything: email, browsing, tasks, schedules, banking, sermons, word games, notes, photos, and exercise logs. It even connected to my Smartwatch.

I also slept with it.

Now, before you get any weird ideas, I fall asleep faster when I listen to a book on tape (my assistant tells such marvelous bed-time stories). When I wake in the middle of the night, and when my thoughts run wild, I ask my assistant to read another story. Soon I am fast asleep.

So for the last month, I’ve slept without my bed-time bard. And worse, without my middle-of-the-night lullabies. What in the world was I to do as I lay awake at 2:30 in the morning with thoughts tugging in seventeen different directions?

I thought of waking my wife and asking her to tell me a story. But I thought better of it.

I tried praying

I couldn’t rein in my mind. Stray thoughts beckoned to me, and I accompanied them down dark alleys of past memories. (All without my flashlight App to lighten the sinister shadows.)

I decided to meditate, so I pondered on this: “He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). I wondered what the heavenly places look like. I tried to imagine God’s throne room.

I pictured entering a room so huge, the ceiling was beyond my vision. In it was a throne so gigantic that the top of its footstool was higher than the farthest stars.

My senses were overwhelmed. The light was so bright, my eyes ached; the music was so loud, my ears throbbed; the smell of incense so intense, my nose stung. But I felt more.

Someone once said that if we have five sense on earth, we’ll probably have a thousand and five in heaven. Bats have radar to see in the dark, and some fish have lateral lines that feel electrical impulses such as hearts.

I sensed something like a radar that sounded out the immensity of this hall. I felt a throbbing of another heart that astonished with my own. I was aware of a pulsating moral presence that freeze-dried my puny scruples. What were my morals (tithing, keeping the speed limit, being nice) compared to this titanic force for righting wrongs, healing galaxies, and enforcing justice?

I was overcome, astounded, and shell-shocked. I felt a terror like never before.  (Mind you, this was all in my imagination, not a vision or dream, just contemplating on the vastness of God.)

Petitioning the King

The experience—though imaginative—was terrifying. I literally trembled on my bed; I felt the explosive eruption of an inner volcano. I was paralyzed by the menacing danger. (If this was just my imagination. I’m scared to think of the real thing.)

I like to think of God as the caring shepherd, the kindly friend, or as the approachable Abba. Those gentle images are fine, but they evaporated before this overpowering King. He was no tame lapdog. For the first time in my life, I felt awe-filled dread.

And then an old poem came to my mind,

Thou art coming to a King / Large petitions with thee bring / For his Grace and Power are such / None can ever ask too much  (John Newton)

Nothing I could ask for was beyond this Being. Nothing I could imagine would be too great. The weight of my responsibilities? Tiny. Financial woes? Dinky. The lives and safety of all my friends and family for generations to come? A trifle.

I had never seen God for who he is. And when I finally saw him—even in my imagination—nothing in the world looked the same.

At that moment, the only thing I could ever want was to forever believe in this vast limitlessness of God; a lifetime of confidence of the absolute certainty of the magnificence of unimaginable majesty; to never forget that “None can ever ask too much.”

I’m sure I’ll eventually buy another Smartphone, though it can never again hold the same power over my heart. Digital assistants aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Neither are my worries and woes.

Sam