Editor’s Note: Each week, we’re publishing a new collection of devotional readings that will draw you deeper into the life-changing Word of God. This week, Jan Johnson invites us into the practice of lectio divina (Latin for “sacred reading”). Drawn from church history, this pattern of engagement with Scripture integrates prayer and contemplation with our encounter with God’s Word. Johnson is the author of Meeting God in Scripture: A Hands-On Guide to Lectio Divina. To receive these and future devotions emailed to you for free, click here.
“LORD, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I don’t concern myself with matters too great or too awesome for me to grasp. Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk. Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” (Psalm 131:1–2)
For many people, prayer consists of talking to God. Some people even have long lists that they pray through. But prayer is meant to be a conversation between God and you about matters that concern you both: people you love, causes you care about, work that you’re pouring yourself into, well-being in all of life, the Kingdom of God moving forward. Sometimes I picture prayer as Jesus and me sitting on a park bench side-by-side. There I process with Jesus (sometimes even complain) and receive guidance, maybe in the form of simple nudges. Other times ideas come to me that don’t sound like anything I would or could come up with!
In order for such conversation to happen, we need to be willing to listen to God as well as talk to God. Backing up even more, we need to be attentive to God’s presence with us just as we turn to listen to someone who speaks to us. If we are to give the other person our full attention, we need to surrender all the chatter in our heads. We have to decide that it’s not up to us to solve every problem; some matters are “too great or awesome” for us and we can trust God to address them.
In conversations with people, we hear what the other person is saying to us best if we are at peace within. In conversation with God, we are more likely to be glad to be in God’s presence and to interact with God when we have an inner stillness and quiet mind. Being still doesn’t come about by forcing ourselves into it; we ask God to help us and that stillness becomes God’s gift to us.
“I have rejoiced in your laws as much as in riches. I will study your commandments and reflect on your ways. I will delight in your decrees and not forget your word. Be good to your servant, that I may live and obey your word.” (Psalm 119:14–17)
Stillness and peace in God’s presence prepare us to read Scripture reflectively and meditatively. This kind of unhurried reading is done slowly, the way we slow down when we’re having deep, delightful conversations with a friend.
Such meditative reading usually causes us to want to pray—to respond to God who has spoken to us. This back and forth process of reading, meditating, and praying is so common among all kinds of Christians that centuries ago—nearly back to the early church—new Christians learned to do this in a process called lectio divina. (This is Latin because in those days Latin was a common language, perhaps more so than English is today.) Lectio divina means “sacred reading.” It wasn’t like reading a bill of sale which might be skimmed, but more like reading every word of the best letter that you’ve ever received.
The first phase of the lectio process is this slow, meditative reading, being attentive to what God might say. Such reading affirms that the Spirit has inspired the writing of the Scripture and today inspires us as readers to hear God.
Reading flows into reflection (the second phase, meditatio). A word or phrase in the Scripture passage stands out to us—almost seems to shimmer!—and we think, I’ve never seen that before! But we have. The Spirit knows these words are what we need to hear today. Then we carefully ponder: Why would the Spirit cause this to stand out to me today? What do I need to know? Resist the urge to make things up or try to be too spiritual and trust that God wants to speak to you—and will speak.
“The one thing I ask of the LORD—the thing I seek most—is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, delighting in the Lord’s perfections and meditating in his Temple. . . . Hear me as I pray, O LORD. Be merciful and answer me! My heart has heard you say, ‘Come and talk with me.’ And my heart responds, ‘LORD, I am coming.’” (Psalm 27:4, 7–8)
Have you ever spoken to someone and they didn’t speak back to you? Maybe they didn’t notice you. Or maybe they did, but they just kept going. It sounds odd to say this, but we do this with God when we read a Bible passage, think, What a great little nugget of truth, and go on to the next thing in life.
If we have been attentive, God has spoken to us through the Scripture passage and we would be wise to tell God about our response. Maybe we’re upset by what has been said, or maybe a deep hole in our soul has been addressed, or maybe we have a question.
This prayer response (called oratio) is the next natural phase in the conversational back-and-forth rhythm of lectio divina. This brings so many benefits. First of all, your relationship with God is strengthened just as your relationship with anyone is strengthened by ongoing conversation. Also, you receive so much more from the passage, both in terms of content as well as your relationship with God. The typical result for many of us is that even more comes to us and our relationship with God becomes more interactive than ever.
“I wait quietly before God, for my victory comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will never be shaken. . . . Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken. . . . God has spoken plainly, and I have heard it many times: Power, O God, belongs to you; unfailing love, O Lord, is yours.” (Psalm 62:1–2, 5–6, 11–12a)
Sometimes after leaving a friend’s house, we feel satisfied and fulfilled not only by our warm interaction but also because we have such a friend. In the same way, reading, reflecting, and responding in prayer often closes with contemplation (contemplatio, the last phase of lectio divina).
This may take a variety of forms. We may soak in what has gone on between God and ourselves. Or we rest in what God has said. Or we may simply “sit” with God the way you enjoy sitting beside someone you love. (I often return to the park bench picture of sitting next to Jesus where I began in silence.)
Contemplation often resembles the biblical idea of “waiting on God.” In Scripture waiting isn’t an impatient, irritating frame of mind. It most often appears with the word “hope” (v. 5). So waiting on God is expectant and alert, like lingering because you expect someone you love will be home soon.
At other times contemplation may be more energetic, sort of a delighting in God as the psalmist says. You may have absorbed such a generous, self-giving vision of God that you nod in delight and do a mental “high-five” interaction with God. Isn’t it great that God is like this? This gladness may even develop into worship, which is yet another form of contemplation. You can sing or, if no one’s watching, break out into a dance step or two!
“I honor and love your commands. I meditate on your decrees. . . . I meditate on your age-old regulations; O LORD, they comfort me. . . . Your decrees have been the theme of my songs wherever I have lived. I reflect at night on who you are, O LORD; therefore, I obey your instructions. This is how I spend my life: obeying your commandments. . . . I pondered the direction of my life, and I turned to follow your laws. I will hurry, without delay, to obey your commands.” (Psalm 119:48, 52, 54–56, 59–60)
Sometimes I do things that I know my husband would like for me to do. At first, I may not want to, but he wins me over. I see the wisdom of his idea and just do it.
Whole-hearted obedience to God is the same. It’s organic. We have spent time with God in stillness, reflection, conversation, and wonder (silencio, lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio) and without a whole lot of thought, our behavior reflects the ideas we meditated on and prayed about. The Spirit invites, nudges, and compels us to get up from our Scripture reading and make a certain appointment or phone call.
Other times we don’t even plan to follow through this way, but later that day we find ourselves enacting the passage: going out of our way for an overlooked person; taking a deep breath and doing the difficult task; facing our inadequacies and apologizing. Following Jesus (obedience) is not forced then. It’s part of our life with God. Because we have been in conversation with God, we want to do this very good thing that the conversation with God has inspired us to do.
When this happens, the truth of God becomes “incarnated” (embodied, “in-fleshed”) in us. (This is incarnatio, a natural result of lectio divina). This is not forced but flows quite naturally from who we are. An idea, feeling, or action in Scripture is contagious and we “catch” it. That relational encounter with God changes us, just as you have changed in the past by interacting with someone you admire.
Jan Johnson is a retreat speaker, spiritual director, the creator of many Bible studies, and the author of 22 books, including Meeting God in Scripture: A Hands-On Guide to Lectio Divina. Visit her at www.JanJohnson.org.
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