Transformation comes through the “renewal of the mind,” or at least that’s what the Apostle Paul believed. He teaches as much to the Romans. Our thinking habits have massive implications for our lives. Like the Apostle the Puritans saw the relationship of our thought life to our spiritual life. David Saxton wants to help believers today recover a sense of this relationship. If God’s Battle Plan for the Mind tends to oversell the value of meditation, it nonetheless encourages the real value of this neglected spiritual discipline.
“The goal of this book,” writes Saxton, “is to convince God’s people of the absolute necessity of personal meditation” (2). He does a good job at this goal. Not only does chapter one unpack the importance of recovering meditation today, but chapters 9 and 10 highlight the reasons and benefits of meditation. In fact the chapter divisions can be a bit meaningless because the whole book communicates over and over again the absolute value of meditation. Whether Saxton is looking at the Puritan distinction between occasional and deliberate meditation or examining other important occasions for meditation he is constantly demonstrating the unique value of the discipline.
While the book focuses particularly on the “Puritan practice,” it should not be perceived as a historical or even purely descriptive work. It is primarily interested in motivating readers to implement this discipline in their own lives. It just so happens, Saxton notes, that the Puritans did it better than most. “Like no other movement within church history,” he says, “the Puritans understood the weighty importance of Christian meditation” (29). So their guidance on the subject is much valued. The author does spend a great deal of time teaching us, via the Puritans. One deficiency of the work is that it can sometimes feel like a collection of Puritan quotes under different subheadings. Certainly the author has a progression and logic to his development, but the overwhelming amount of quotations can sometimes be a distraction from the book’s cogency.
The value of the book can be most clearly seen in its definition of Biblical meditation. If Christians might sometimes speak of meditation, or meditating, it’s not always clear what we mean by this terminology. Other faiths and philosophies certainly use the term and believe in the importance of meditation, but their understanding of the concept is often incompatible with the Christian faith. Saxton does a good job of distinguishing, then, between biblical and unbiblical forms of meditation. He explores, briefly, Roman Catholic mysticism, transcendental meditation, and what he calls worldly meditation. The defining feature of biblical meditation is its use of the Scriptures as the governing authority of our thoughts. He writes:
Because of the depravity of our hearts and tendency to self-deception, the divine testimony of Scripture must always govern our biblical spirituality and meditation. (18)
In chapter three he further clarifies biblical meditation by defining it according to its presentation in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and among the Puritans.
Saxton further walks readers through a number of practicalities. He considers what subjects we may meditate upon, how long to meditate, and when to meditate. In line with the Puritans he also reminds readers that meditation should lead to application. Without this component meditation does us no good. Without devolving into legalism and overly precise prescriptions he gives us many helpful practical considerations to start this discipline and keep at it.
My only real complaint with the book is found in the fact that the author oversells the importance of meditation. I appreciate his writing this volume, after all meditation is a far too often neglected discipline. He has done the Church a great favor by calling us to revisit this lost habit. Yet, it would be naïve to suggest that meditation alone can keep us from sin and disobedience. He speaks of the benefits of meditation in terms that sound almost idealistic and, in my opinion reductionist. So, for example he quotes the Puritans favorably saying:
“Divine meditation will beget in us a keeping of all the commandments of God.” It also provides the determination of the will in the “purpose of pleasing and glorifying God.” (107)
Meditation, no doubt, is a valuable practice for promoting godliness. But this sounds more absolute, more idealistic, than realistic. The reality of habituation is undersold. While Saxton certainly recognizes the value of orthodoxy for the development of disciples, he seems to leave no place for orthopraxy and orthopathy in his philosophy of discipleship. He recognizes that meditation should lead to application, but whether intention or not, he seems more often to imply that the relationship is one of causation. Meditation necessarily leads to obedience – orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy. Unfortunately, the Christian life just isn’t that simple. Lots of men and women know truth, and yet fail to live it. Discipleship that focuses purely on content will miss vital pieces in the formation of faithful followers of Christ.
Overall this is a good book. It gives us some real encouragement to develop this important discipline, and gives us some practical wisdom for implementation. My complaints are small. The importance of this discipline and its loss in most of modern Christianity means that we can forgive some of his tenacity with the subject. I recommend God’s Battle Plan for the Mind as a great tool for developing a long-lost spiritual discipline.