“Active Pondering”

April 19, 2015
Jonathan Rumburg
Psalm 4


“When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.”

Within this short chapter, this line seems a little odd, don’t you think?

If ever you get disturbed, go to bed.

Good advice.  But I can’t help but wonder if such “pondering” was as disliked then as it is today.

A recent study from the University of Southern California suggests that people don’t like to ponder or think these days.

A summation of the results states, “In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending six to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think; that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more.”

This study is saying that we would rather do something mindless and mundane than to sit still and think.

I’d invite you to sit and think about that for a moment—but then I would be asking you to do something that we don’t like to do.

But here’s the part that is most fascinating and most shocking, and when I say shocking I mean literally shocking.

In one phase of the study, participants were given the option of administering a mild electric shock to themselves by pressing a button.  Now before starting their time alone, all participants received a sample of the shock.  All said it was more than mildly unpleasant, and most said they would pay to avoid being shocked again.

However, when placed in a room alone with their thoughts and no other distractions, 12 of the 18 males, which is 67 percent, and six of the 24 females, which is 25 percent, gave themselves at least one electric shock during the 15-minute period.

The researchers write, “What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”

Wow!  We really don’t want to be left alone with our thoughts.  But why?

We might think that such findings can be explained by the pace of modern society or easy access to electronic devices— smartphones, iPads and the like.

But Roger Wilson, lead researcher on this study, doesn’t think so.  Rather he suggests that the devices are a response to the common wish to never be without something to do.

Is this true for you?  What should we make of this?

Is it an indictment of our society, an indictment of our sinful nature, an indictment of a propensity to avoid hard work—which apparently “thinking” is?

Or does it simply mean that we’re hardwired to prefer an external reality rather than an internal reality?

Wilson thinks it’s the latter, saying: “The mind is designed to engage with the world.  Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world.  And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities.”

So again, I ask, what do we make of this?  Especially when it comes to our spiritual lives that call us to immerse ourselves in times of prayer, quiet, and solitude, so that we might hear the still small voice of God?

If we would rather send literal shock waves of electricity through our bodies than sit quietly, how will we ever hear God?

Move 1

We so often hear that we should have “quiet time” with God, and that personal devotions are a necessary discipline for spiritual growth.  And we are regularly reminded about Jesus’ practice of withdrawing to lonely places for solitary prayer—our Lenten season focus showed us such.

But for some of us, this advice just doesn’t work.

Heidi Mann, an editor for The Wired Word, a publication that some of you are familiar with,  says, “Often God seems to speak to me more through my interaction, conversation and activity with other people— or through my reading or writing— than when I sit in silence.  Often, quiet, thoughtful reading sparks new openness to the Spirit in me and I ‘hear’ something from or about God that I haven’t before.”

          This is a great argument because for Heidi Mann she is one who encounters God and hears God in certain activities.

So, when it comes to listening for God, is there something inherently better about sitting in silence than about engaging in activity?

The short answer is no.  But just because we find something difficult to do and don’t prefer it, doesn’t mean we should avoid it, especially if it’s beneficial, right?

Could it be that the sins of laziness, fear, and pride are interfering with deep our thinking?

To get at an answer, we return to Psalm 4, where, the psalmist tells us not to sin, but to ponder.


          For the sake of our time here, let’s say we agree that better than sinning is pondering and thinking when you are disturbed recommends the psalmist.  What should we spend this time thinking about?

In one sense, there are no limits on that answer, but as a starting place for people who follow Jesus, perhaps we could spend some time “pondering”…

The Sermon on the Mount.  The Lord’s Prayer.  The texts of a comprehensive Bible-reading program.  Or our baptism rituals.

Now I bet I know what you’re thinking… Boring!  Right?  I wasn’t being completely serious because I get it—While those topics are good things to ponder, how many of us will really sit still long enough to meditate on any of them?

So the question still remains—how do we do this?

Well, I have a couple of example that can help us.

Move 2

Stan Purdum, writer for the magazine Homiletics, is a long-distance cyclist and author of several books on cycling.  He describes his bicycle as “a marvelous thought machine.”

Purdum says that, often, the activity of riding his bike down a road seems to keep the “need to be active” part of him occupied so that his thinking process is less hampered.  There’s a kind of “silence” in that activity, he says.

He reports that he often returns home from such rides having solved a problem or decided a course of action or even having had a spiritual encounter.

These things are usually unplanned— that is, Purdum says, he doesn’t ride expressly to have time to think, but that such “pondering with results” is often a fringe benefit of his biking.

And actually, Purdum admits that his thinking on the bike sometimes works almost too well, saying, “Such as when I suddenly realize that I’ve been so lost in thought that I’m not quite sure which road I’m on!”

So maybe the Godly pondering and thinking the Psalmist calls for can be done on a bicycle, or maybe a hiking trail

But maybe you’re not a cyclist or a hiker.

Then consider the 17th-century lay monk, named Brother Lawrence, wrote the devotional classic “The Practice of the Presence of God”.
When he arrived at the monastery that became his life base, he was assigned to work in the kitchen, and while there he decided to try to pay attention to God’s presence even while going about his duties.

When asked, Lawrence reported that working in the kitchen like a common scullery maid was not much different than when he was alone in his room meditating.

He says, “That time of business in the kitchen does not differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I still enjoy God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees in prayer because it is where my life duty and my creator meet.”


Not everybody can do that, of course; some, and perhaps most, people would find the hustle of the kitchen or the negotiating of a road on a bicycle too distracting to promote good thinking.

The point is this: It’s good for us to find whatever means works best for us to ponder not only the issues of life but also the things of God, whether it be on our beds like the psalmist, in the kitchen like Brother Lawrence, on a bike like author Stan, or in a lonely place like Jesus.

This is important because we are reminded that our faith is supposed to not just make us aware of needs, but it is to move us to moral and Christ-like action.

So with that understanding, if such thinking is as vital to our spiritual life as it is to other parts of our life, and if, as the research suggests, most of use prefer activity to just thinking, perhaps it’s worth considering how the two—activity and pondering—might come together effectively, because good thinking is not enough by itself to do the work of God.  But neither is mindless activity, unguided by spiritual reflection enough either.

The truth is, we are called to deep pondering, so that it will lead us into Christ-like action.


          So may we, as the Psalmist implores, retreat to our beds or wherever, sit in the presence of the divine, and actively ponder what it is God is saying to us.

And then, for having done so, when we find ourselves looking for something to do, something—anything to fill silence and space—instead of grabbing our phones or tablets or giving ourselves electric shocks, let us actively pursue our faithful ponderings.  Amen.

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