In my past few posts of this series we’ve explored, pretty robustly, the purpose and inspiration behind the spiritual disciplines. If you’re like me and 99% of people out there, you probably just wanted to hear about how to do certain practices and leave it at that. Thank you for tagging along. Ultimately though, it is for our deepest benefit to learn about the source of these practices and why we should carry them on in our own lives. Now, let me try to reward your patience.
Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, divides the disciplines into two categories: “Disciplines of Abstinence” and “Disciplines of Engagement.” This gives us a nice guideline between disciplines where we give something up and disciplines where we add something new. His list of disciplines is not exhaustive, and from that I want to focus only on a few that I think most benefit a new practitioner. One of these disciplines that I have found to be a surprising benefit has been solitude & silence, one of the “Disciplines of Abstinence,” and I truly think that it is a practice that many would also benefit from adopting.
Solitude & Silence
We see solitude & silence sometimes listed separately, like in Willard, or together as I propose here. These practices go hand-in-hand, and in my experience, you really can’t get one without the other. Solitude speaks to our aloneness, not so much that no one else is around us, but that we are cut off from interaction, engagement, and expectations with others. Silence speaks more broadly to the safeguard against interruption. Not only have we removed others for a time being in our solitude, but we also remove other distractions that would take our attention from God.
This may very well be one of the most powerful exercises to help grow intimacy with God, and it’s not at all surprising to see examples of this early in the ministries of Jesus and Paul. A memorable example in the Gospel of Mark recalls how Jesus slipped out before sunrise to be alone with God after a day of healings and preaching in Capernaum, (Mark 1:35-37). As for Paul, he preluded his ministry with a three-year stint alone in Arabia, (Gal 1:17-18). Solitude & Silence form a powerful way to come as close to God as humanly possible in this life, and this intimacy with our Creator and Saviour is an essential part of a fulfilling Christian life.
Insidiously, our lives are entirely surrounded by stimuli that deaden our senses to God. Think of all the noise that comes from social media, entertainment, work calls and emails. We constantly have something in front of our eyes and in our ears, and most often it is not God’s Word. Plus, most of these stimuli today are designed to hook and lock you in; bright, immediate, and intense. Quite quickly we become hooked psychologically, so that life without the digital experience becomes dull and even painful. Indeed, time spent in solitude and in silence can be painful. It is undoubtedly hard for most. Can you sit still in complete silence for over twenty minutes? It is not easy. Yet when we persevere in cutting out all the noise of life we can begin to perceive the real and intimate presence of the Holy Spirit. Just as Elijah came to understand in the cave; God often speaks in a whisper, (1 Kings 19:11-13).
One of the most difficult aspects of this discipline is the separation from others. It is not so much that other people aren’t close, but rather that you are separate mentally from them. Other relationships do not press their needs on you at this time, nor do they interrupt your focus on God. This can be a true challenge for those who struggle with people-pleasing and co-dependent relationships. But, therein also lies the great benefit of solitude and silence: We are able to remove those sinful roots that plant themselves deep between us and God, only later to bloom into painful idolatry. When we are truly alone with God we can see that He truly is all we need and we learn to be content with Him alone.
For most, a retreat into solitude & silence would ideally last between 24-48 hours, which gives time for true rest from the stimulus of life and time to earnestly seek God. A plan for this time should be made in advance, organizing the time between prayer, study, worship, and other spiritual activities, even meals and exercise. It is also useful to enter into this time with questions or issues to pray and meditate on, though we must also be open to the Spirit’s leading in the moment. Ultimately, this time is a blessing, and we need to use it purposefully.
While this is a wonderful experience, and a practice I wish every believer could do once a month, it is not practically feasible for most. Unfortunately, that is the nature of life in our nine-to-five, pay the mortgage society. Firstly, remember that not being able to go on a spiritual retreat regularly does not make you a lesser Christian, or even less spiritual. Who we are is framed by what God has done, not what we can accomplish. If you find that you cannot get away, then seek solitude and silence in smaller doses. Wake up sixty to thirty minutes earlier and spend that time with God, when everyone else in the house is asleep. What’s more, you can do this far more frequently than others can go on retreat.
It was in periods of solitude & silence that I most powerfully and intimately experienced God. Whether in prayer, or in mediating on Holy Scripture I was able to hear His word to me. In my regular day to day life I feel pulled in every direction and have an onslaught of thoughts and concerns racing in my mind, and I cannot just remove myself from this mental environment at the snap of my finger. In my moments of silence & solitude I can remove all these influences from my mind, as we must, and then be filled with the Holy Spirit and the things of God. In this state I am ready to be listen and be built up. It is a process we all, as children of God, desperately need and deeply long for. My hope is that you will seek times of solitude & silence in your life to hear the quiet voice of God and be built up in your faith.
I challenge you brothers and sisters to schedule some quiet time to get alone with God a few times this week. Remember you can do this at home, early in the morning for example. Most often we drag our feet in the face of change, and we need someone to give us a push. I understand, so let me be that push. The fruit that you will experience from this time with God is absolutely worth you not delaying a moment.