I was flying from Charlotte to San Francisco. Two rambunctious children were in my row. Their parents, up in first class, sipped wine while I babysat in the cheap seats. To make matters worse, across the aisle was a toddler who cried for the first two thousand miles. This trip had stress and frustration written all over it. To save the day I reached for my trusted travel companion: noise-canceling Bose headphones. As I pulled them out of the case I could almost hear the “Hallelujah Chorus.” They offered the hope of escape and sanity, no matter what surrounded me.
If I’m going to be spiritually healthy, I must find ways to cancel the noise around me and experience times of solitude. Solitude. The word itself sounds serene and peaceful. Most everyone I know longs for more solitude.
In the biblical stories we discover many that God moments came when people were alone in his presence (e.g., Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Paul). When Moses went up on the mountain to meet with God, it wasn’t until the seventh day that God spoke.
Intuitively we know it’s important to have extended time alone. But experientially it feels elusive, and this reality sets up a titanic clash of two worlds.
On one hand is the world of the inner man, needing soul connection with God. Words that characterize this world, when healthy, are words like time, reflection, quiet, depth, and slow.
On the other hand is the outer, or external, visible world. Words that characterize this world are words like fast, instant, convenient, fragmented, noisy, shallow, and exhausted.
Here is a portion of a journal entry regarding my own struggle with this issue.
Lord, I confess to you that it’s hard for me to be quiet and silent. I want to hear your voice, but my world is filled with so much noise that I usually miss your gentle nudges. The flurry of activity in my life drowns out your voice. I feel disconnected. I don’t fully understand why it is so difficult to be still and rest in you. I often feel like a rubber band that is stretched too tightly. I’m sure the diagnosis involves taking a hard look at my drivenness and performance mentality. I also know that I need to own this. I am not a victim of circumstance or situation. My lack of solitude is a reflection of choices that I make. I just want to tell you that I need you and desire to change this area of my life. Help it to be enough just to be with you.
We are conditioned to surround ourselves with noise. With our incessant activity, frenetic pace, and electronic leashes, it’s no wonder silence and solitude are rare commodities. We despise “dead time.”
Too much noise and too much activity can be toxic to the soul. When you go to the doctor and discover you have an infection, one of the first things you hear is “get some rest.” Just like your body needs time to recover from an infection, your soul needs time to recover from the push and pull of twenty-first-century ministry life.
Again, solitude feels counterintuitive to the way most of us do ministry. Solitude
- requires being present when we’re used to being productive.
- requires listening when we’re used to talking.
- requires quiet when we’re used to noise.
- requires stillness when we’re used to busyness.
- requires going internal when we’re used to going external.
- requires facing who we are when we’re used to projecting who we want people to think we are.
In stark contrast to our ministry rhythm today is the rhythm of Jesus’ life. Once, while doing ministry in Capernaum, “after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.” In fact, the “whole town gathered” at his door. Talk about a demanding day of ministry.
He only has three years of public ministry—not much time to start a movement that will turn the world upside down. You’d think his strategy would be to push hard for three years. Travel as much as possible, see as many people as possible, preach as many times as possible, develop an organizational plan, and raise up as many leaders as possible.
Yet when Jesus left the house that morning, he didn’t head out to do ministry. He went to a solitary place to be alone with his Father.
As you walk through the Gospels, you discover that the thread of solitude runs consistently through the life of Jesus. At the beginning of his ministry, he goes off for an extended time of fasting and prayer. After he hears of the death of John the Baptist, he gets in a boat and goes off to a solitary place. When he’s about to choose his disciples, he goes off to be alone with the Father.
Solitude is not so much about a place as it is about space—space to reflect, pray, think, listen, and be.
Thomas Moore has written, The vessel in which soul-making takes place is an inner container scooped out by reflection and wonder.
Imagine your life as a container. It’s filled with possessions, pressures, distractions, responsibility, and fast-paced living. Moore says that it’s reflection and wonder (solitude) that scoop these out of our soul. Through solitude there will be room in your soul for you to meet God and for him to do the work in you that he longs to do.
Your heart does not have an infinite capacity. Solitude creates capacity for God.
Learning solitude has been a struggle for me. I resonate with Gary Thomas’s words: “We who have been drugged by diversions cannot expect to enter the quiet without a struggle. Our souls will roar for diversion.”
In recent years, as I’ve been learning to practice solitude, the greatest impact has to do with the word “freedom.”
Henri Nouwen eloquently articulated the freedom that solitude can bring: [Solitude] is the place where Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us from the victimizing compulsions of the world. … In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness.
Extended times of solitude and reflection and prayer are beginning to loosen the grip of my distorted thinking. I’m starting to get free from the seduction of believing that productivity equals importance and that busyness equals significance.
Psalm 131 expresses the destination where solitude is taking me. My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
David describes a picture of total and absolute contentment. No frantic pushing. No compulsive striving. Just a stilled and quieted soul. That is what solitude offers.