Pious Thinking: God’s Battle Plan (Saxton Review)

gods_battle_plan_cover_courtesy_publisher_1200x1200cropSaxton, David W. God’s Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015. Paperback. 145+vii pages. ISBN 978-1-60178-371-4.

Contemporary rediscovery of the intellectually rich yet rigorously practical work of Puritan thinkers continues. Pastor David W. Saxton’s God’s Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation is a welcome addition to the growing body of works presenting aspects of Puritan thought and practice to today’s Bible-believing public.

It seems obvious—it is obvious—that merely reading the Bible and listening to sermons will have no lasting effect unless one follows-up one’s reading and listening with protracted, reflective, application-oriented thinking about what one has read and heard. Obvious as this is, such extended thinking, biblical meditation, is frequently neglected. (I initially included “biblically-sound Christian music” as among the things one could not benefit from without biblical meditation, but it occurred to me that meditation in fact must precede and direct one’s identification of music as biblically-sound. Of course, sadly, this can also apply to sermons.) In God’s Battle Plan for the Mind, Saxton’s “goal…is to convince God’s people of the absolute necessity of personal meditation” (2), and thus to overcome the neglect.

In Chapter 1, “The Importance of Recovering the Joyful Habit of Biblical Meditation” (1-14), Saxton suggests that the “shallow spirituality” and “weak, meaningless religion” that dominate today’s “anemic Christianity” owe largely to Christians’ failure to bring their thinking (and through it, their emotions or affections and their will) into conformity with God’s (Bible-revealed) thinking through consistent, disciplined practice of biblical meditation (1-2). To practice biblical meditation “means to think personally, practically, seriously, and earnestly on how the truth of God’s Word should look in [one’s] life” (2). Properly pursued, such meditation “imprints and fastens a truth in the mind” and “drives a truth to the heart” (6, quoting Thomas Watson). It’s effectiveness in bringing not only intellect or understanding, but also affections and will, into greater conformity with Scripture owes, in the Puritans’ thinking, to the reality that “Affections always follow the rate of our thoughts, if they are ponderous and serious [as opposed to light or superficial thoughts lacking sustained focus and care, which affections might not follow]” (7, quoting Thomas Manton).

Edmund Calamy, Saxton adds, “wrote that for meditation to be biblical, it must pass through three doors to be any good—the door of understanding, the doors of the heart, and the doors of conversation (lifestyle)” (9). Lifestyle or practice, of course, is a manifestation of will, an expression of decisions or resolutions that alone evidence the state of one’s will. “Heart” here, unfortunately, seems used as a synonym for emotions or affections, potentially misleading usage given the scriptural indication that one’s “heart” or center not only feels but thinks (Proverbs 23:7) and understands (Psalm 49:3; Proverbs 2:2). This raises an issue that causes me mild discomfort. In places, Saxton seems to embrace today’s sharp division between “mind” and “heart” (note headings on 31), treating “mind” as a synonym for intellect or understanding and “heart” as a synonym for our non-intellectual faculties, emotions and will, alone (51-2, for example). I’m not sure if this not-entirely-biblical dichotomizing accurately expresses the Puritans’ thinking or reads today’s sharp dichotomy into Puritan expressions not meant in quite that way. My hope, as one uncomfortable disagreeing with the Puritans (given their greater piety), is that what someone like Calamy had in mind when he distinguished “understanding” and “heart” was the difference between superficial or initial intellectual consideration and deep, in-the-heart intellectual consideration. The idea would be that in one’s heart, in the center of one’s being, intellect/understanding, emotions/affections, and will/volition all interlock and influence one another, with the meditative ideal being to progressively reform all three faculties through the meditative work that begins in the intellect. The undesirable alternative would be intellectual consideration that does not reach beyond the surface of the self (or soul or mind), where intellectual activity may not affect emotions or will (or even deeper intellect) in any lasting way.

No doubt this is a minor point. But, since I agree with Saxton on all major points, I can only offer criticism on such minor ones. I would prefer to avoid using “mind” to mean only intellect, since “mind” is really all that one is that is not physical (hence the use of “mind and body” to designate one’s entire person). I would also be happier if Saxton had selected his quotations and written his exposition in a way that more carefully and consistently avoided suggesting that the common heart-mind or heart-head dichotomy is acceptable or biblically sound. While intellect, emotions, and will clearly are faculties that can be discussed and analyzed separately, the scriptural picture seems to be that one’s “heart” is not a subset of these faculties but the deepest and truest part of all of them. This truth seems the whole justification for believing that focused and sustained intellectual activity, thoughtful meditation on the content of God’s written Word, can be relied upon to influence, not only how one thinks, but how one feels and what one wills and does.

Chapter 2, “Unbiblical Forms of Meditation” (15-23), contrasts biblical meditation with meditative practices growing out of Roman Catholicism (17-19) and Eastern religions (19-21), and with non-biblical thinking more generally (21-23). The fundamental problem with Roman Catholic meditative practices, says Saxton, is that “Whenever any notion or form of spirituality fails to be tied back to the written Word, the end result inevitably tends toward unbiblical mysticism and religious sentimentality” (17-18). In a footnote, he add this: “Mysticism promotes having spiritual experiences with God apart from one’s mind governed by the objective, written truth of Scripture. It is prevalent within Roman Catholicism as well as in the charismatic and Pentecostal movements” (18 n10). A note in a later chapters offers these additional thoughts: “Mysticism teaches that the Holy Spirit bypasses man’s intellect, dealing directly with his emotions without the means of God’s written Word” (43 n43). The latter note seems to make “mysticism” and “religious sentimentality” synonymous in away the former note does not. Does Saxton believe everything one can label “mysticism” is in fact purely a matter of emotions or sentiment? My own understanding is that mystics claim to have had experiences they cannot satisfactorily describe in words and which they believe exceed the intellect’s ability to comprehend (except, perhaps, in some imperfect and partial, perhaps misleading, way). While moderns who think emotions are the deepest and most central part of people, that they are the human “heart,” may consider mystical experience emotional, I don’t know if this characterization accurately captures what all persons claiming mystical experiences have meant to claim.

In any case, it might be asked whether human experience of God really is limited entirely to experience through “the means of God’s written Word,” as the phrasing of the second note suggests. Every Bible believer must join Saxton in insisting that all alleged spiritual experiences be tested, and interpreted, by “one’s mind governed by the objective, written truth of Scripture.” In fact, I would assert further that all human experiences, even the “purely physical” ones from which we (for example) construct scientific and historical theories, must be interpreted under Scripture’s guidance. Even so, none of this seems to rule out the possibility of mystical experiences that really are direct, entirely unmediated experiences of God. It might be that one can make a biblically-sound case that direct experiences of God cannot today occur except through “the means of God’s written Word.” Saxton, however, has not made this case, perhaps assuming that his Reformed readers will take it for granted. This is another minor point of dissatisfaction for me.

Saxton’s primary example of “Far Eastern religious practices” labeled “meditation,” what he considers “pseudomeditation practices” (20), is Transcendental Meditation (TM). (He also mentions yoga.) Whereas biblical meditation “seeks to fill one’s thoughts with Scripture,” TM “includes a practiced passivity of thinking and emptying the mind of itself” (20) that, advocates claim, “allows your mind to settle inward beyond thought to experience the source of thought—pure awareness, also known as transcendental consciousness” (19, quoting the Maharishi Foundation Web site). Such practices, Saxton believes, “open the mind to spiritual predators by creating a kind of mental vacuum” and involvement in them, he adds, “ends in people making their own reasoning [better: intuition?] an absolute truth and their personal god” (20). Many in contemporary America, of course, have accepted the idea that practices such as TM and yoga can be treated as “nonreligious” methodologies for achieving various ends, such as (my examples) better health, more positive emotions, or enhanced mental function. (The latter is most commonly claimed for “Mindfulness” meditation, a practice that involves focusing on present experience in a detached, non-analytical, non-judging, appreciative manner.) The thinking behind this, I suppose, is that these practices grow out of past trial-and-error learning that might, even if its religious motivations were in error, have alighted upon techniques with beneficial effects that can be reliably reproduced by practitioners who question or reject the religious or metaphysical beliefs historically motivating or associated with the practices. In Saxton’s judgment, the effects of these practices are anything but beneficial. More importantly, they are not biblical (true) meditation and Christians must take care not to confuse the latter with the former.

On the subject of non-biblical thinking more generally, Saxton notes how both sinful thoughts (21-2) and trivial or earthly thoughts (22-3) can take the place in our minds of proper biblical meditation. “We must realize,” he emphasizes, “that we are responsible for straying or sinful thoughts” and so strive to keep our minds “focused on those matters that honor the Lord” (22).

Chapter 3, “Defining Biblical Meditation” (25-32), further elaborates on the meaning of biblical meditation, discussing the relevant Hebrew (25-6) and Greek (27-9) terms, quoting a number of Puritan definitions of “meditation” (29-30), and providing some further description of the “ingredients” of biblical meditation as the Puritans understood and practiced it (31-2). This very useful chapter, which makes clear the biblical justification and Puritan understanding of meditation as (for example) “a steadfast bending of the mind to some spiritual matter, discovering of it with our selves, till we bring the same to some profitable issue [practical personal application]” (30, quoting Isaac Ambrose), does seem to dash my earlier-expressed hope that I could maintain my understanding of “heart” and “mind” without disagreeing with the Puritans. Oliver Heywood, for example, seems to treat “working…upon the heart” and “impressing…on the will and affections” as equivalent phrases (quoted on 31-2), which would in turn imply that he did not consider intellect or thought an operation of the heart. Additionally, Henry Scudder speaks of “the mind or reason” (quoted on 32), clearly indicating he restricts the meaning of “mind” to intellect or understanding alone. I’m not persuaded that this is the best usage, and I can’t be sure it obtained in the writings of all Puritans, but is does seem that the dichotomy so prevalent in our day is pretty close to what at least some Puritans had in mind. This has the unfortunate tendency (it seems to me ) to suggest that emotions and volition are more fundamental and central than intellect or thought, so I might wish that Saxton had chosen to modify or correct the Puritan usage somewhat. Whether this minor matter will concern any other reader, I am curious to see.

Chapter 4, “Occasional Meditation” (33-44), discusses a type of biblical meditation meant to allow us to “grow in grace during the many hours when we are unable to study an open Bible” (33). The basic idea is to train oneself to find illustrations of scriptural truths in the objects, occurrences, and activities of one’s daily life. “Occasional meditation…is a way of spiritually viewing normal, everyday experiences” (35), in other words. Of course, one must be sure to ground such spontaneous meditation in actual scriptural truths, not to let one’s imagination run away with one (43-4). Thus, such meditation does not replace, but depends upon and requires, more regular and planned meditation and ongoing study and memorization of Scripture (44).

Chapter 5, “Deliberate Meditation” (45-9), concerns the more regular and planned meditation one most naturally thinks of when reviewing earlier-discussed definitions of biblical meditation. “Deliberate meditation,” Saxton states, “is really the foundation of a godly person’s thinking and Christian practice” (46). Such meditation, he adds, is divided into the categories of direct meditation and reflexive meditation. Direct meditation involves “a mind that focuses complete attention on meditating on something outside of oneself, such as the Word of God or some great truth” which “would, in turn, direct the believer’s path in the right moral choices of life” (47); this sort of meditation is pointed to, Saxton relates, in Joshua 1:8. Reflexive meditation adds to this rigorous reflection on one’s own response, in terms of all one’s faculties and one’s outward actions (previously performed and planned for the future), to the biblical truths one has come to apprehend through direct meditation (47-8). Such reflection is only complete when it leads to tangible results: resolutions and the actions that follow. It is, thus, “a persuasive and commanding act, charging the soul in every faculty, understanding, will, affections, yea, the whole man, to reform and conform themselves to the rule, that is, the will of God” (49, quoting Scudder). “Thus,” Saxton summarizes, “in direct meditation, the believer digs out the treasure of God; but it is in reflexive meditation that he brings this treasure home to his own soul in a practical, personal way” (49).

Chapter 6, “The Practice of Meditation” (51-64); Chapter 7, “Important Occasions for Meditation” (65-73); and Chapter 8, “Choosing Subjects for Meditation” (75-93), discuss the practical aspects of biblical meditation identified by their respective titles. These chapters provide excellent nuts-and-bolts guidance for incorporating the discipline of biblical meditation into one’s life. Edifying reading, these chapters (like others) are replete with interesting and helpful quotations from various Puritan authors. Though in places it may seem like Saxton does little more than string many quotation together, he does so in a manner that communicates the most relevant Puritan insights effectively and efficiently. From seeing what source materials get quoted most frequently here, one can also decide which of those sources one might wish to read in their entirety. In the case of primary Puritan sources, one notes, copious follow-up reading is as close-to-hand as a Web search. (Of such sources, the few I’ve so far looked for can all be found online as freely downloadable PDFs or other e-books. The Internet Archive is an especially helpful starting point for searches.)

Chapter 9, “The Reasons for Meditation” (95-103), presents “some of the reasons why each believer should be regularly meditating upon God, His Word, and His works” (95) under the following headings: “The Christian’s Work and Duty Is to Think upon God with Praise” (95-6), “Meditation Follows the Example of Christ and Other Godly People” (96-7), “Meditation Is God’s Own Command Given for a Believer’s Good” (97), “Meditation Is Necessary for a Believer to Know God’s Word Well” (98), “Meditation Assists Believers in the Duty of Prayer and All Other Means of Grace” (98-100), “Meditation Applies the Scripture to Redeeming the Time with One’s Mind” (100-1), “Without Meditation, One Cannot Become a Godly, Stable Christian” (101-2), and “Christians Meditate Because God’s Word Is a Love Letter to His People” (103). One particularly noteworthy statement in the chapter, under the “…Is Necessary for a Believer to Know God’s Word Well” heading, is the following: “One of the modern believer’s plaguing sins is possessing only a superficial knowledge of the Bible….This brings widespread lack of discernment throughout the modern church. Deliberate meditation upon Scripture builds a habit of thinking through decisions in a biblically thoughtful manner. Christians easily fall for all kinds of errors because they lack this practice” (98). Also noteworthy (and quote worthy), under the “…Become a Godly, Stable Christian” heading, is this: “Meditation should be seen as a positive assault against sins in one’s life—it works with the goal of replacing them with truth and sincerity. Meditation is how lasting change, progressive sanctification, and victory over sin take place. It is the replacement of vain thoughts with the renewal of the spirit of one’s mind (Eph. 4:23)” (102). This chapter provides solid motivation to undertake and/or continue practicing biblical meditation.

Chapter 10, “The Benefits of Meditation” (105-14), further motivates the Bible-believing reader to begin or continue on the path of biblical meditation by describing some of its benefits. Among these are that it (to quote portions of the section headings) “Deepens Repentance” (105-7), “Increases Resolve to Fight Sin” (107-8), “Inflames Heart Affection for the Lord” (108-9), “Increases Growth in Grace” (109-10), “Provides Comfort and Assurance to the Soul” (110-2), “Creates a Life of Joy, Thankfulness, and Contentment” (112-3), “Deepens and Matures a Christian’s Experience” (113-4), and “Improves the Knowledge and Retention of God’s Word” (114). While the to-me-irksome assumption that the human “heart” is all about emotions or affections, while “mind” is just another word for the “merely rational” stuff of intellect (109), continues, Bible believers certainly should desire for their “Heart Affection[s]” to become “Inflame[d]” for our “consuming fire” Lord (Deuteronomy 4:24), just as they should long (and strive) to see their heart thoughts and heart choices conformed to the intellectual content and moral directives and principles of Scripture. One statement in the chapter that struck me as particularly worth marking down is this: “Henry Scudder taught that meditation practically changes and fashions a person ‘so that God’s will in his word and your will become one, choosing and delighting in the same things’” (107).

Chapter 11, “The Enemies of Meditation” (115-27), deals with various excuses (115-23) and hindrances (124-7) that can prevent one starting or interfere with one continuing the practice of biblical meditation. These vary from simple busyness, to a meditation-averse temperament, to unwillingness to endure the feelings of guilt resulting from the sins in one’s life, to the various distractions and entertainments so prevalent, and either demanding or beckoning, in our day. “We live in a day of pervasive mental distractions,” Saxton observes. This day has such “conveniences” as “Cell phones [that] provide instant communication…homes…[with] immediate access to hundreds of television channels[,] Rock music [that] pulsates in every building we walk in….Satellite radio….[and] the Internet. What,” asks Saxton, “is the result of all these so-called conveniences? We now have a society of distracted thinkers who are surrounded by a culture whose practices run counter to a thoughtful life of biblical meditation” (124). An accurate observation, no doubt; tragically, however, it exceeds 140 characters and so cannot hope to be attended to by contemporary readers. I appreciate it, however; hence the quotation.

One additional statement might merit comment. Saxton writes: “Why does a person find time to watch a two-hour movie and yet not find time to read God’s Word and meditate upon it? It is because he simply does not see the value in it and is unwilling to spare the time for it” (118).While non-meditating movie viewers should reflect carefully on their priorities, fairness might incline some to wonder if the “because” offered here is the only possible one. To read and meditate on God’s Word in a focused, attentive manner requires mental energy and alertness that is not necessary for passive viewing of a movie. It seems possible that some view movies because they lack the energy for anything but such a passive activity. Of course, given the content of today’s movies, Christians are ill-advised to view any of them when they are not alert and ready to critically assess the movies’ content in light of Scripture. The answer, perhaps, is for Christians in such a depleted state to replace the movie they planned to watch with a meditation-preparatory nap.

Chapter 12, “Getting Started: Beginning the Habit of Meditation” (129-32), is brief. It advises those getting started in biblical meditation to pray for God’s assistance getting started and continuing the practice of meditation (129-30), and to be prepared for and persevere through difficulties (130-2).

The final chapter, “Conclusion: Thoughts on Meditation and Personal Godliness” (133-8), offers closing thoughts under the following headings: “Meditation is Essential as God’s Means for Progressive Sanctification” (133-4), “Meditation Replaces the Love of Entertainment with Love of Christ” (134-5), “Learning to Enjoy Meditation” (135-6), and “Making Meditation a Priority in Life” (137-8). The chapter gives readers some additional motivation and practical guidelines for practicing biblical meditation. One quotable reads as follows: “The battle against sin starts in the mind—the thoughts or what one dwells upon. This is why meditation is so important. It is God’s ordained plan for biblical thinking, renewing the mind, overcoming sin, and thus growing in[to] greater Christlikeness” (133).

The book also includes a bibliography of primary Puritan sources (139-42) and secondary resources (142-5), which should prove helpful to those wanting to read further material on the subject once they have finished God’s Battle Plan for the Mind.

Overall, this is an excellent, edifying book that I’m happy to recommend.

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