“Above all, it is not necessary for us to have any unexpected, extraordinary experiences while meditating. That can happen, but if it does not, this is not a sign that the period of meditation has been unprofitable.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 62.
Sometimes we will sense the presence of God, sometimes perhaps we will not. Sometimes we will feel one way, sometimes another. Sometimes there may be great emotion, sometimes no emotion. Sometimes our intellects will be greatly stimulated, at other times they will be dull. There are times we may sing for joy, there are other times we may sing in sorrow, and there are times when we do not sing. We may shout, we may weep, we may be struck dumb. There are times when it is as if we are drinking sweet water flowing from a rock; then there are times when we are parched with no water in sight. If we are seeking the Giver of the Word, if we are receiving His Word by His grace, if we are presenting ourselves to Him as our reasonable way of life (Romans 12:1-2); then we do well, then we do all that we can do, then we can trust or God to do the rest in faith that His Word is accomplishing that which He desires.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with having “bad experiences” (page 62) and Bonhoeffer counsels that we should not “take [them] too seriously” (page 62). He writes, “It is here that our old vanity and the wrongful demands we make on God could sneak into our lives in a pious, roundabout way, as if it were our right to have nothing but edifying and blissful experiences, and as if the discovery of our inner poverty were beneath our dignity,” (page 62, italics mine).
Do we trust God in His Word? Do we place our lives in His care, knowing that He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7)? If we trust God then we need not think that we need to make something happen in our meditations, we need not think that the proof of our spirituality or relationship with God is the experience we feel when we meditate, we need not think and act as if we need to conjure thoughts and feelings and experiences. Yes, having a relationship with God is an experiential reality, but obviously not all experiences constitute a relationship with God. Bonhoeffer warns against the “net of introspection”. Only God knows us, only He knows our hearts – we want to measure ourselves – oh but when we do we fall into a trap, when we do we descend into a bottomless well – and then only God can draw us out, out of the well, out of ourselves, and back into Him (in a manner of speaking).
Bonhoeffer observes, “But there is no more time to observe ourselves in meditation than there is in the Christian life as a whole.” When we meditate, is our focus on God and His Word or is it on ourselves? Throughout the day, is our focus on God, His Word, and others; or is it on ourselves? Of course we cannot help to be, in some measure, self-conscious; the question is whether our self-consciousness drives our lives or whether God is our center of gravity, the center of our thoughts, our emotions, our words, our actions.
“We should pay attention to the Word alone and leave it to the Word to deal effectively with everything,” (page 62). Is the Word enough for us? Is God enough for us? Will we be satisfied with Him alone or do we insist on particular feelings, thoughts, and experiences? Will we trust God to conform us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29) or are we on a self-help project? Are we seeking God and His Kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33) or are we superimposing our agendas on the Word, on our meditations, on our lives?
Having said all of this…we have the promise that we will encounter God (Hebrews 11:6; John 16:12-15; Romans 8:12ff) and we ought to live in that continual expectation; in fact, encountering God should be our way of life in Christ Jesus.
Let us meditate expecting that we will meet God, but let us also remember that we may not meet Him in the way that we expect.