INSTRUCTIONS IN DAILY SCRIPTURE MEDITATION - BY DIETRICH BONHOEFFER
1. Why do I meditate?
Because I am a Christian. Therefore, every day in which I do not penetrate more deeply into the knowledge of God’s Word in Holy Scripture is a lost day for me. I can only move forward with certainty upon the firm ground of the Word of God. And, as a Christian, I learn to know the Holy Scripture in no other way than by hearing the Word preached and by prayerful meditation.
Because I am a preacher of the Word. I cannot expound the Scripture for others if I do not let it speak daily to me. I will misuse the Word in my office as preacher if I do not continue to meditate upon it in prayer. If the Word has become empty for me in my daily administrations, if I no longer experience it, that proves I have not let the Word speak personally to me for a long time. I will offend against my calling if I do not seek each day in prayer the word that my Lord wants to say to me for that day. Ministers of the Word are especially called upon to perform the office of prayer: “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). The pastor must pray more than others, and has more to pray about.
Because I need a firm discipline of prayer. We like to pray according to our moods—briefly, at length, or not at all. But that is to be arbitrary. Prayer is not a free-will offering to God; it is an obligatory service, something that he requires. We are not free to engage in it according to our own wishes. Prayer is the first divine service in the day. God requires that we take time for this service. “Early in the morning I cry out to you, for in your word is my trust. My eyes are open in the night watches, that I may meditate upon your promise” (Ps. 119:147-148). “Seven times a day do I praise you, because of your righteous judgments” (Ps. 119:164). God needed time before he came to us in Christ for our salvation. He needs time before he comes into my heart for my salvation.
Because I need help against the ungodly haste and unrest that threaten my work as a pastor. Only from the peace of God’s Word can there flow the proper, devoted service of each day.
2. What do I want from my meditation?
We want in any case to rise up from our meditation in a different state from when we sat down. We want to meet Christ in his Word. We turn to the text in our desire to hear what it is that he wants to give us and teach us today through his Word. Meet him first in the day, before you meet other people. Every morning lay upon him everything that preoccupies you and weighs you down, before new burdens are laid upon you. Ask yourself what still hinders you from following him completely and let him take charge of that, before new hindrances are placed in your way.
His fellowship, his help, his guidance for the day through his Word—that is the goal. Thus you will begin the day freshly strengthened in your faith.
3. How shall I meditate?
There is free meditation and meditation that is bound to Scripture. We advise the latter for the sake of the certainty of our prayers and the discipline of our thoughts. Furthermore, the knowledge of our fellowship with others who are meditating on the same text will make us love such meditation more.
In the same way that the word of a person who is dear to me follows me throughout the day, so the Word of Scripture should resonate and work within me ceaselessly. Just as you would not dissect and analyze the word spoken by someone dear to you, but would accept it just as it was said, so you should accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation. Do not look for new thoughts and interconnections in the text as you would in a sermon! Do not ask how you should tell it to others, but ask what it tells you! Then ponder this word in your heart at length, until it is entirely within you and has taken possession of you.
Hold on to one word for the entire day
It is not necessary every day to go through the entire text we have chosen for meditation. Often we will hold on to one word of it for the entire day. Passages that we do not understand we can simply pass over. There is no need to take flight into philology. This is not the place for the Greek New Testament, but for the familiar Luther text.
If during meditation our thoughts move to persons who are near to us or to those we are concerned about, then let them linger there. That is a good time to pray for them. Do not pray in general, then, but in particular for the people who are on your mind. Let the Word of Scripture tell you what you ought to pray for them. As a help, we may write down the names of the people we want to remember every day. Our intercessions require their appointed time, too, if we are to be serious about them. Pay attention, though, that our intercessions do not become another means of taking flight from the most important thing: prayer for our own soul’s salvation.
Begin with prayer for the Holy Spirit
We begin our meditations with the prayer for the Holy Spirit, asking for proper concentration for ourselves and for all who we know are also meditating. Then we turn to the text. At the close of the meditation we want to be truly able to say a prayer of thanksgiving from a heart that is full.
What text, and how long should the text be? It has proven helpful to meditate on a text of approximately ten to fifteen verses for a period of a week. It is not good to meditate on a different text each day, since we are not always equally receptive, and the texts for the most part are much too long for that. Whatever you do, do not take the sermon text for the next Sunday. That belongs in your sermon meditation time. It is a great help if a community knows that it is concentrating all week on the same text.
The time of meditation is in the morning before the beginning of our work. A half-hour is the minimum amount of time that a proper meditation requires. It is, of course, necessary that there be complete quiet, and that we intend to allow nothing to divert us, no matter how important it may seem.
Occasional meditation with two or more people is quite possible in a Christian community, although, sadly, it is seldom practiced. In such meditation there is a narrow way that leads between false, pious talk and idle theological discussion.
4. How do we overcome the problems of meditation?
Whoever seriously undertakes the daily practice of meditation will soon discover great difficulties. Meditation and prayer must be practiced earnestly and for a long time. So the first rule is not to become impatient with yourself. Do not become confused and upset because of your distractedness. Just sit down again every day and wait very patiently. If your thoughts keep wandering, there is no need for you to hold on to them compulsively. There is nothing wrong with letting them roam where they will; but then incorporate in your prayers the place or person to which they have gone. So you will find your way back to your text, and the minutes spent in such diversions will not be lost and will no longer be any cause for worry.
There are many helps for special difficulties that each one may use. Read the same passage again and again, write down your thoughts, learn the verse by heart (indeed, you will memorize any text that has been thoroughly meditated upon). But in all this we soon learn to recognize the danger of fleeing once again from meditation to Bible scholarship or the like. Behind all our uncertainties and needs stands our great need to pray; for all too long many of us have known this need without finding any help or direction. The only help is to faithfully and patiently begin again our earliest exercises of prayer and meditation. We will be further helped by the knowledge that other brothers are also meditating, that at all times the entire holy church in heaven and on earth prays with us. That is a comfort to us in the weakness of our own prayers. And if we really do not know what we ought to pray and completely lose heart about it, we still know that the Holy Spirit prays for us with “groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26).
We dare not allow ourselves to cease from this daily engagement with the Scripture, and we must begin it right away if it is not now our practice. For in doing so we have eternal life.
[Instructions in Daily Scripture Meditation were first given by Bonhoeffer to a group of seminarians he was training at Finkenwalde, Germany in 1935-36. They were written down by Eberhard Bethge, a seminarian who later became Bonhoeffer’s biographer and editor of his collected works. Reprinted in Meditating on the Word, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited and translated by David McI. Gracie,© 1986, Rowman and Littlefield Edition, UK and Cowley Publications, US.]