In this white paper, I would like to address the question: What is the biblical basis for a practice called Lectio Divina that we sometimes teach retreatants. I will address the following questions:
- Why even ask the question?
- What is Lectio Divina as we practice it here?
- What is the biblical basis for personal revelation?
- What is the biblical basis for Lectio Divina?
Why even ask the question?
One may ask: “Why do I even address this question?” It seems a bit like answering the question: “Why do you encourage people to read the Bible?” There are many who put down the Bible as an inconsistent and inaccurate book written by men whereas we believe that the Bible is the very word of God. And even more than that, we believe that all the books of the Bible:
- are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life.1
The reason we need to address this is that there are a lot of people on the internet saying that Lectio Divina is a bad practice. Now these aren’t just any people. They are my brothers and sisters. So I want to address this, not because I have seen Lectio Divina help people hear God speak to them (which I have), but because it is biblical.
Now it may very well be true that there are some that practice Lectio Divina who do not hold our high view of the Bible. But then there are those who preach who do not hold our view of the Bible – yet we don’t discourage people from preaching. The question is not: “Who else practices Lectio Divina?” but is it biblical?
There may even be some who practice Lectio Divina in a way that does not honor the Scriptures as the word of God. Perhaps they are using it to obtain their own private interpretation of the Bible. But again, there are those who study the Scriptures and who preach the gospel with their own personal interpretations. But we don’t stop encouraging people from studying the Scripture or preaching the gospel because of that.
Just recently a Christian man told me that his wife (who is also a Christian) was teaching their children to meditate. Red flags went off. Why? Because new age practitioners have hijacked the practice of meditation and redefined it. Yet we are called to:
- Meditate on His word day and night2
As it turned out, this mother was teaching the children to sit in the lotus position and to chant. Clearly the red flags were a warning. But, in spite of the hijacking of the practice, I will still continue to encourage people to practice biblical meditation.
What is Lectio Divina as we practice it?
Put very simply, we teach people to read a small portion of Scripture slowly and ask God to highlight or illuminate a word or phrase in the passage they are reading. Then we invite them to ask God to speak to them through that word or phrase. We encourage them to ask the following questions of God:
Why is that word or phrase standing out?
Are You speaking to me?
You might ask, “Won’t this practice encourage people to take the word or phrase out of context and create some false doctrine or wrong teaching?” I would answer that by saying, “It would be possible for someone to take the word or phrase out of the context.” But in doing this for over 20 years, I have never seen anyone do that. That doesn’t mean it could never happen. But we begin the time by asking God to speak to us. And we believe that if we ask God for the Bread of life He will not give us a stone.3 When we teach people to do this, they are hungry for God’s word. And He honors that. Let me add, as a practice, we do not introduce Lectio Divina to those who are biblically illiterate. That would, in my opinion, invite the kind of trouble the question raises.
What is the biblical basis for personal private revelation?
It is my personal opinion that the real problem that some of my brothers and sisters have with Lectio Divina, is that they are not convinced that God speaks private words of revelation to His children. Let me just provide four passages where the New Testament talks about private revelation (there are many more):
Phil 3 15Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you;
Very often in Lectio Divina God reveals to us a bad or imperfect attitude. From the Scriptures we know that it is wrong – but during the Lectio Divina God shows us that we have that imperfect attitude.
In Matthew 11 Jesus says:
25At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. 26“Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. 27“All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.
Here in two places Jesus talks about private revelation that is on going. No one can know the Father by wisdom or intelligence – but only by revelation. How can any of us become Christians and come to know the Son and know the Father without private revelation. If private revelation ended at the completion of the canon of Scripture, none of us could know the Father. Jesus said the same thing to Peter when he made his statement of faith in Matthew 16:
17And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”
We cannot confess that Jesus is Lord without it being revealed to us by the Father. Lectio Divina is just one of the many ways that God reveals who He is and who we are.
Jesus also speaks directly to the issue of personal revelation in Luke 12
11“When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say;”
Even though this may qualify as a promise limited to those being brought before a court, followers of Christ are at times accused in various venues. Jesus goes on to say:
12for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
Not, “the Holy Spirit will teach you what you ought to say – until the canon is closed – at which point you will need to have your Bible with you!” But the Holy Spirit will teach us at that very moment what to say. This is a wonderful promise of personal revelation even if it only applies to us when we are brought before a court of some sort (I think the promise has a broader scope but that is for another white paper).
What is the biblical basis for Lectio Divina?
But all of these good arguments are meaningless unless the practice itself is biblical. By being biblical, do we mean that people of the Old and New Testament practiced Lectio Divina? The people of the Old and New Testament did not celebrate Easter but that doesn’t make the practice unbiblical. No. By being biblical I mean: Is the practice of reading the Bible slowly and asking God to speak to you through a word or phrase something that is consistent with the Word of God.
Is reading the Bible slowly biblical?
Let’s start with reading slowly. First of all, prior to the 13th century very few people read silently. Bishop Ambrose read silently and amazed St. Augustine.4 Augustine, a scholar, had never seen anyone read silently. So historically the Bible has been read aloud for centuries. Reading aloud slows us down. Nehemiah and Jeremiah encouraged people to read the Bible aloud.5
How about the phrases “abiding in His word” or “meditating on His word.” Doesn’t that encourage us to read the Scriptures slowly? Or the phrase: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.”6 Dwell means to stay or to stop. In the vernacular, let the word of Christ hangout within you. All three of these phrases recommend that we read the Bible slowly.
Is asking God to highlight or illumine a word or phrase biblical?
This highlighting or illuminating of the Scriptures is acknowledged in the Westminster Confession when it describes this process whereby we are saved:
Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word:
This doesn’t happen through study or wisdom or intelligence, but by the Spirit of the Living God illuminating God’s truth. This is what happens during Lectio Divina.
Is asking God to speak through a word of phrase biblical?
So if reading the Scriptures slowly is biblical, what about asking God to speak through just a single word or phrase. Let’s look at this from several angles.
First we must understand the unique place of the written word of God. Peter tells us that unlike virtually everything else in creation, the word of the Lord endures forever.8 We are not spending time with just any set of words – we are dwelling on / reflecting upon something that will endure forever.
Second, we must understand that every word and in fact even the tiniest markings have this enduring quality. Jesus said in Matthew 5:
18“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
This means that even the tiniest part of the written word of God (the Hebrew equivalent to the dotted i and the cross on the t) is eternally important. How much more a whole word or phrase.
Third, we see that Jesus builds one of his most significant defenses of the resurrection of the dead on a verb tense.
Matthew 2231“But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: 32‘I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” 33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.
Not “I was the God of Abraham” but “I am the God of Abraham.” Verb tense matters.
Fourth, in Galatians 3:16, Paul makes a major theological point based on a single case when he argues that the promise of Abraham was to his seed (Jesus) not to his seeds (descendants of Abraham).
We can only conclude with Paul as he wrote to Timothy in his second letter “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” All Scripture. Every jot and tittle. Every word tense. Every case of every noun matters. So we conclude that God can speak to us through just a word or a phrase (and even the tense).
Is listening to God’s word appropriate?
Some would argue that we need to study deeply God’s word – not sit quietly and ask God to speak to us through just one word. I for one love to study God’s word. To break down the Greek and Hebrew. I almost daily include that in my practice. And yet I know the limitations of study. And I know that God tells us many times in His word to listen to Him. Listening to Him is very different from studying.
Just let the following Scriptures soak over you:
Deuteronomy 4:30 in the latter days you will return to the LORD your God and listen to His voice.
Deuteronomy 8:20 Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so you shall perish; because you would not listen to the voice of the LORD your God.
Deuteronomy 11:13 “It shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul,
Deuteronomy 12:28 “Be careful to listen to all these words which I command you, so that it may be well with you and your sons after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.
Deuteronomy 13:4 ” You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him.
Deuteronomy 27:9 “Be silent and listen, O Israel! This day you have become a people for the LORD your God.
Psalm 78:1 Listen, O my people, to my instruction; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
Ecclesiastes 5:1 Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil.
Isaiah 50:4 The Lord GOD has given Me the tongue of disciples, That I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple.
Hosea 4:1 Listen to the word of the LORD, O sons of Israel
Can there be any doubt that God wants us to listen to His word – not just study it?
In summary, I can only say that we need the study of, meditation on and listening to God’s word. We see from the Pharisees that study of the Scriptures alone do not bring life. And yet it is the Scriptures that are continually testifying about Jesus. This has been my personal experience and what I have seen with hundreds of retreatants over the years.
Reading the Scriptures slowly is biblical. Listening to God’s word with a specific minute phrase is biblical. Lectio Divina as we practice it is biblical.
1Westminster Confession 1.2
2Psalm 1:1 Blessed is the one … whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. Psalm 119:97 97O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. Joshua 1:8; 8“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.
3Matthew 7:9 “Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone?”
4“When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”
(The Confessions, c. 397-400)
5Nehemiah 13:1 and Jeremiah 51:61
71 Peter 24For,
“ALL FLESH IS LIKE GRASS,
AND ALL ITS GLORY LIKE THE FLOWER OF GRASS.
THE GRASS WITHERS,
AND THE FLOWER FALLS OFF,
25BUT THE WORD OF THE LORD ENDURES FOREVER ”
And this is the word which was preached to you.
8John 5 39“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me;