Silence is golden! It reminds me of the Psalmists words from Psalm 46:10, where he wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God!” Silence makes us uncomfortable, though, and if you find yourself uncomfortable sitting in silence for 30 seconds, you might need to develop the habit of solitude.
Solitude and silence are two sides of the same coin, for they are both about quietness—inward quietness and outward quietness. We can remove people from our lives but still fill the void with noise, and we can be in a great crowd of people and remain empty and lonely. The habit of solitude is a means of grace that brings inner fulfillment.
What do I mean when I talk about the habit of solitude? If fasting is the abstaining from something (primarily food) for spiritual purposes, then solitude is withdrawing to privacy for spiritual purposes. It is a “going away,” or “getting away” for the purpose of listening for the voice of God. We should note, however, that solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a particular place. We don’t necessarily have to go away to get away. We can possess inward solitude that can set us free from loneliness and fear no matter where we are.
LONELINESS AND FEAR
Let’s talk about that for a moment because it is loneliness that keeps many of us from developing this habit of solitude. I have over the years had the opportunity to go on a few silent retreats—most of them at Catholic abbeys. I remember the first one I attended. I was a first year “resident in ministry.” That means I was fresh out of seminary, beginning the “provisional” process toward ordination and the Conference begins that process by the practice of silence and solitude. I will confess I was scared to death. I’d never been on one before, and this was going to be for three days. I had four children and a spouse. I had just completed three years in seminary with friends and colleagues. I was appointed to a new church with people I needed to get to know. I’m a people person! What in the world was I going to do on a silent retreat for three days? I was going to go crazy, that’s what! But, when it was over, I couldn’t wait for the next one!
Loneliness is inner emptiness—so says Richard Foster. For some of us, we don’t like to be alone because we don’t much like our own company, or because our personality is so shaped by the people around us, we don’t even know who we are when we are alone. It may have to do with whether we are an introvert or an extrovert – introverts gain their energy from within, and are drained by exterior stimulation. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain their energy from exterior stimulation and are drained by interior work. Whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert, whether we don’t like our own company, or whether we don’t know who we are when we’re alone, we need to cultivate this habit because as a means of grace it strengthens our soul.
Jesus knew the power of solitude and he practiced it often. Mark’s Gospel records a time when Jesus and his disciples had been busy doing miracles and ministry across Galilee. There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and the disciples didn’t even have time to eat. In this span of ministry, Jesus has been rejected in his hometown, commissioned his disciples for a ministry tour and received the tragic news that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded. He’s literally “had it up to here,” and so he says to his disciples, “Come on! Let’s get away to a quiet place and rest.” He knew that the clamor of busy-ness will sap even the greatest person’s strength.
Mark’s account wasn’t the only time scripture records Jesus getting away. Jesus began his earthly ministry by spending forty days alone in the wilderness (Matt. 4). With three disciples He sought out the silence of a lonely mountain as the stage for the transfiguration (Mt. 17:1—9). We could go on, but you get the picture that seeking out a solitary place was a habit for Jesus. So it should be for us, too.
What grace comes from solitude? What benefits? Let me mention only two. First, solitude provides an opportunity to get real with God. Charles Caleb Colton once said “Character is who you are when no one else is looking.” If we are going to be real with God, we need to get alone with God. In the quiet of solitude, all pretensions can be stripped away, all the things in life that are trying to mold us in their image are removed, all the requirements of the world disappear, and we can stand before God “just as I am” as the song says.
This is scary for some, but it is in solitude that we am reminded that above all else our identity is caught up in the fact that we are God’s chosen child. If we are not really sure of what God thinks about us, being alone with him might be pretty scary! If we’re not so sure that God loves us, get alone with him, listen to his voice – the first thing that the Holy Spirit teaches our spirit is how to say “Abba, Father” If we can get alone in silence with God, the first thing we will hear is the Spirit whispering in our ear “you are God’s adopted child – he chose you, he loves you.”
Dallas Willard, who wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines, said that the discipline of solitude is for strengthening. You may remember the story of Elijah from the Old Testament. Elijah was God’s prophet to the nation of Israel at a time of great apostasy under King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel. There was one instance when Elijah challenged 450 false prophets of the god Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah even did so mockingly, and he called fire down from heaven that destroyed all 450 prophets of Baal and the surrounding altar and their sacrifice. It was a victory of monumental proportions. Immediately after the victory, though, Elijah flees because he’s afraid for his life. Weary and worn out, it’s on a mountain in the Sinai desert that Elijah encounters God, not in a windstorm, not in an earthquake, not even in the fire, but in a still small voice. It was after Elijah encountered God on that mountain that he was able to complete his calling. He poured out his heart to God, he got real with God, and God strengthened him.
When you and I get alone with God, we’ll hear him say he loves us, and we’ll find strength to face life whatever challenge it might bring our way.
Second, solitude provides an opportunity to get centered. Jesus sought out solitude before he made big decisions in his life and ministry. Before he chose the twelve who would be his closest disciples, Luke tells us Jesus spent the entire night alone in the wilderness. Following the healing of a leper Jesus “withdrew to the wilderness and prayed” (Lk. 5:16). As he prepared for His highest and most holy work, Jesus sought the solitude of the garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36—46).
Billy Graham, in his autobiography Just as I Am, recounts the period in his life when he was being pressured by Charles Templeton to give up his belief in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. Graham took some time in solitude and he realized that intellect alone would not solve his problem – that it was an issue of faith. So he placed his Bible on a stump in the middle of the woods, and knelt down and said, “Oh God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Templeton is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.” And through that time of solitude Billy Graham was shaped into the man the world came to know as the greatest evangelist of the 20th century. We get perspective when we get centered, and we only get centered when we get alone with God.
Solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a place, but even so, we can’t forget that habits are actions, whether inward or outward. We can be pious and talk about the solitude we practice in our hearts, but if that doesn’t issue itself in how we act, we missed it altogether. We need to take it from theory and put it into real life. How do we do that?
Why not start simply? Start with those first few moments as we awaken each morning. Rather than thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to get up,” why not think, “God, you love me and I love you”? My daily solitude comes with that first cup of coffee in the morning. Nothing but my Lord, my coffee and myself. No computer. No television. No telephone. Just silence…well, and the ticking of the clock. Silence is often hard to achieve.
Could you try silence and solitude while you’re driving? Turn the radio off for a time. Sure, you’ll hear road noise and passing cars, but you also might just hear God’s voice. Could you, instead of saying a blessing as your family gathers at the table, simply bow and sit in silence for a minute? Parents, why don’t you challenge your children when you’re on that long vacation road trip to a game of silence? See who can be silent the longest. It may only last five minutes, but those will be blessed minutes. We might do something as simple as slip outside for five minutes before bed to taste the silence of the night. We can redeem the time in many, many ways. Grab little moments that help us reorient ourselves to who we are and whose we are.
There are other more intentional and intense things we can do. We might not want to immediately through ourselves into a three-day silent retreat, but we can be intentional about designating a place to be quiet. My place is my couch early in the morning. It’s comfortable. It’s quiet. It’s cozy. Perhaps some of you have heard of Joel Hemphill. He’s a Christian singer and songwriter. Vanessa and I visited with him and his wife when they were building their new home in Nashville a few years ago, and the pride he had to show us was the room he had specially built to be his “quiet place.” Why can’t we find a room, or designate a space in our home to be quiet? Maybe your space needs to be a park, or by a stream. Wherever it is…find it…and use it!
Here’s another idea: Try to live one entire day without words. Spouses, please tell your significant other if you chose to do this! Otherwise, they might just think you’re mad at them, and that won’t do anyone any good.
Others have suggested three or four times a year, take three or four hours to get away and reflect on your life’s goals. You can stay late at the office, or you can go sit by the river. Better yet, use it as an excuse to go to the beach. Take a journal and write it all down. God may just surprise us with some new alternatives we never considered.
Then again, you might just want to try that three days of silence in a retreat. Here’s a way to make that happen.
The fruit this habit will bear in our lives is a more acute awareness of the voice of God. That’s grace to us. But, it will also bear an increased sensitivity and compassion for others. Like Jesus, we must go away from people so that we can be truly present when we are with people. There is a new attentiveness to their needs and a new responsiveness to their needs, and that becomes grace to them. Solitude is the habit that can be grace for everyone, and that is just perfect!
Until next time, keep looking up…