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Sunday, April 21, 2019

What Does the Bible Say About Mindfulness and Compassion?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In this Q+A, Dr. Irene Kraegel of shares some of her favorite biblical passages related to mindfulness and compassion.

In an interview on How Christians Can Benefit from Mindful Practice, you mentioned that 
The Old Testament is filled with accounts of meditation and exhortations to be still before God. In New Testament accounts, Jesus frequently withdrew from people to spend long periods of time alone with God. 
Could you expand on this and cite some specific biblical passages? Let’s start with the shared Judeo-Christian tradition of the Hebrew Bible and biblical prophets.

God is just as interested in people being as he is in people doing. At the beginning of time, God took seven days to create the world – the last one was set aside for rest. So at the most basic level, God has structured our world to include times of stopping for rest, and he models this for us himself (Genesis 2:3). Because of this example, the Judeo-Christian tradition works in a day each week for Sabbath – time to quiet our souls and rest.

In I Kings 19, there is a breathtaking account of the prophet Elijah, despairing and alone in a wilderness cave. He is told that God will pass by, but he witnesses a wind, an earthquake, and a fire without any evidence of God’s presence. Then there is a “sound of sheer silence,” and Elijah walks out of the cave, his face wrapped in a mantle, to meet God. 

The Psalms are rich with meditation and silence, descriptions of quietness as a way of connecting with God.

Psalm 46:10

Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.

Psalm 62:1-2, 5

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
    from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
    my fortress; I shall never be shaken…
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
    for my hope is from him.

Psalm 63:5-6

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
    and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
    and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

Psalm 77:6, 12

I commune with my heart in the night;
    I meditate and search my spirit…
I will meditate on all your work,
    and muse on your mighty deeds.

Psalm 119:27

Make me understand the way of your precepts,
    and I will meditate on your wondrous works.

Psalm 131:2

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

Psalm 143:5-6

I remember the days of old,
    I think about all your deeds,
    I meditate on the works of your hands.
I stretch out my hands to you;
    my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.

Psalm 145:5

On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
    and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.

And in Ecclesiastes 3:1, we are reminded that “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” followed by a list of the many things for which there are times. One of these, beautifully, is “silence” (verse 7).

What are some biblical passages of Jesus withdrawing and spending time alone with God?

Jesus often steps away from the crowds to be alone with God. This fuels his ministry. Here are a few examples:

Matthew 14:23

After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.

Mark 1:35-37

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”

Luke 5:15-16

Now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.

One other Scriptural theme related to mindfulness is worth noting – that of training the mind.

Isaiah 26:3

Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace—
    in peace because they trust in you.

Romans 12:2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

II Corinthians 10:5

…we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

Philippians 4:8

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about
these things.

These Scriptures acknowledge the importance of how we manage our thought life – the role of awareness and intentionality when it comes to caring for the mind.

In addition to the Parable of the Sower, which you mentioned last time, could you tell us about some other parables or teachings of Jesus or the apostles that relate to mindfulness and compassion?

There are many! I will choose just a couple here, beginning with the story of Martha and Mary.

Luke 10:38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 

But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

In this ordinary household moment, Jesus teaches the value of being over doing. Both are important, but he highlights the “better part,” which is to sit and listen. This is mindfulness – to sit quietly and pay attention. And when we do that at Jesus’ feet, we hear his voice in the process.

Just prior to this story, Jesus shares the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Luke 10: 25-37

 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 

Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

In this parable, Jesus highlights for us the role of presence in compassionate living. It is all too easy to avoid the suffering of our fellow travelers in this life. Jesus calls us to a higher standard – to pay attention, to be present to suffering, and to offer compassion.

Are there any parables or other biblical passages that you think would be useful for secular mindfulness practitioners, or for people practicing in a non-Judeo-Christian faith tradition?

I don’t pretend to know what will be useful for others, but I am happy to share this Biblical passage that is deeply meaningful for me in my practice of mindfulness.

Matthew 6:25-34

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? 

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Jesus here is reminding us of a number of truths that dovetail quite nicely with mindfulness.

  • Worried thoughts are not useful, and they do not change reality. “The evidence is clear,” wrote Mark Williams in his Mindfulness book. “Brooding is the problem, not the solution.”
  • We have enough. God has provided everything that we need in this moment. Eckhart Tolle wrote “You can always cope with the NOW, but you can never cope with the future—nor do you have to. The answer, the strength, the right action, or the resource will be there when you need it, not before, and not after.” (The Power of Now)
  • There is helpful striving and unhelpful striving. Striving for a connection with God’s “kingdom” life is worthwhile; striving for surface things is not. This reminds me of the ocean metaphor – we learn to notice the thoughts, feelings, and circumstances of our life as weather on the surface of the ocean, while getting in touch with the deeper ocean of who we are beyond those worries and changing experiences.

When we pay attention to things in the moment, we begin to appreciate value and to even find humor in the daily happenings. In The Jesus Storybook Bible, Sally Lloyd-Jones paraphrases verse 26 like this for modern-day children: 
“See those birds over there?...Where do they get their food? Perhaps they have pantries all stocked up? Cabinets full of food?”
Everyone laughed – who’s ever seen a bird with a bag of groceries? 
“No,’ Jesus said. ‘They don’t need to worry about that. Because God knows what they need and he feeds them.” (page 230)

About the Author

Dr. Irene Kraegel is director of the student counseling center at Calvin University, a Christian university in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has 15 years of experience as a licensed clinical psychologist, and her current work includes mindfulness training for students at Calvin. Dr. Kraegel shares her experiences and thoughts related to the integration of Christian faith and mindfulness practice at her website, and in her book The Mindful Christian: Cultivating a Life of Intentionality, Openness, and Faith.


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