Silence and Solitude
Silence and Solitude
Several years ago I came back from vacation feeling, not refreshed and renewed, but distracted, disenfranchised, and alienated. I came home feeling that, during my time away, a distance had developed in my relationship with God, and I was somehow further away from him than I had been. I began to wonder, "What happened in my spiritual life? I just spent several days relaxing, why isn't my soul at rest?"
First, I want to make it clear that we don't live by feelings, we live by faith. The purpose of the spiritual life is not just to feel good. At the same time, it's a fact that when we are connected to God spiritually, as we should be, we experience a certain "peaceful, easy feeling" about life. When we're not flowing in our relationship with him, as we should be, that peaceful easy feeling is conspicuous by its absence.
This is what I experienced when I came home from vacation. I began to ask myself, "What has changed?" I wasn't in rebellion, I wasn't running from Nineveh, I wasn't trying to avoid doing what God wanted me to do—but I just knew that I wasn't where I needed to be spiritually. I began to realize that, over the course of that particular summer, due to travel, camps, vacations, and so on, I had gotten out of the habit of doing certain things—certain spiritual disciplines—that are necessary for success in the Christian life. These are things that I had typically done on a fairly consistent basis, and so when my habits changed, it didn't take long for me to notice the difference. In the same way, when I went back to square one, it didn't take long to get back to the way things used to be.
Today we're beginning a new series called, "Fuel for the Soul." For the next four weeks, we will look at some habits that you can implement into your daily life that, over a period of time, have the power to drastically change not only the outcome of your life, but the very definition of who you are as a person.
I've kept a journal off and on for the last 30 years. Occasionally I like to take a look at what I wrote five, ten, or twenty years ago—it's amazing to see how I have changed since then. Even though I still struggle with some of the same sins, some of the same character flaws that have nagged me all my life, I also see other areas where I just don't struggle like I used to. The growth that I have experienced in my Christian life over the years is a result of my doing the things that we will talk about during the next few weeks. The peace, the joy, the contentment, the sense of fulfillment that I experience today is a result of my doing these things. The sense of purpose and direction that I have in life today is a result of my doing these things. The plain truth is that the more consistently I have done these things, the better my life has become.
For the next four weeks we will look at some disciplines that we can practice, some habits that we can develop, that will energize us. These things are like fuel for the soul. When we do them consistently, our spiritual life goes into overdrive.
Silence and Solitude
Today, we'll talk about a couple of my favorites. They're also perhaps the most overlooked disciplines: Silence and Solitude. The two are almost synonymous. Henri Nouwen said, "Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life." Yet many people try. We've become addicted to noise. We want it all the time, we think we need it all the time, or at the very least, much of the time we don't even notice it blaring around us.
A while back my sons and I helped a guy move. When we arrived to load boxes in the truck, I noticed his TV was on. No one was watching it, of course, but it was on. It stayed on while we loaded the truck. In fact, it stayed on until we unplugged it and put it in the moving van. We went to the new apartment, since the TV was loaded last it came off the truck first. We put it in its new place and the owner immediately plugged it in and turned it on. The TV continued to blare while we brought in the rest of the boxes. (If there had been a ball game on, I would have understood this, but it was just your basic daytime TV shows.)
How many people have you known like that? Maybe you're one of them. Every minute of every day, you have to have the TV or the radio on. If you're out of the house, you've got your game boy or your IPOD plugged in to your head. It's like we're afraid of silence. It's also like we're afraid of solitude. Some people find it unimaginable to be alone. Jean Paul Sartre said, "If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company." I think Sartre may have been on to something; this is why many people are afraid of loneliness.
The fear of solitude and the addiction to noise go hand-in-hand. In A Taste of New Wine, Keith Miller tells a story about being a very young boy and discovering one afternoon that he was alone in his house. The throbbing silence terrified him, so he began singing at the top of his lungs and beating a tablespoon against a brass tray. He said he felt, "If I could only keep up the noise, nothing would creep up and get me." Eventually his mother came in the house from the back yard and found him. He said, "I can still remember the exhaustion and the tears of relief as I collapsed into her arms and was released from my self-made prison of noise and fear."
Many people today live in such a prison. They think that if they can just keep the noise blaring loud enough and long enough, they can drown out their doubts and fears and loneliness and pain. In reality, it is when we embrace silence, when we embrace solitude, that we experience the greatest peace. As F.B. Meyer said, "Loneliness is an opportunity for Jesus to make himself known."
Every great leader of the Bible was familiar with solitude. Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, John, and on and on—these individuals knew the power of solitude because they experienced the power of solitude. In fact, we see examples of how they structured it into their schedules. There are several references to Jesus doing this. One that comes to mind: "But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed" (Luke 5:16).
We see Paul do this in Acts 20. He and his companions were leaving Troas, preparing to sail to Jerusalem. Paul told them to sail to Assos and meet him there. He wanted to make the journey by foot—alone. Paul realized that in the midst of his hectic traveling schedule, he needed time for solitude, time to be alone with God.
In order to experience the power of God in life, we must experience the presence of God. In order to experience the presence of God, we need to make a habit of spending time in silence and solitude. Some of you may say, "That's impossible for me. I have a job, I have kids, I have a spouse, I live in a noisy neighborhood—peace and quiet is a luxury I can't afford." The truth is that we all have a hectic lifestyle. The more hectic our lives are, the more essential it is that we make space for silence and solitude. The benefits are worth the effort. King David wrote: "I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me" (Psalm 131:2).
A child at rest with its mother—it's the picture of peace, contentment, and security. This describes our relationship with God when we take the time to be still and quiet before him. Today I want to point out three areas in which we can learn to "still and quiet" our souls, and we'll suggest some ways to implement these habits into your lifestyle. First...
Find time to be alone
If you're married, you probably wake up each day with your spouse, you both scramble to get breakfast, get ready for work, get the kids off to school, and get to the office on time. Once there, you spend the day in the company of your co-workers and then come home at night to a family who needs your attention, or you socialize with friends or you come to church, and then at the end of the day you fall asleep in a heap so that you can repeat the process tomorrow. That's the way our lives are, and it probably won't change until you're ready to retire—but in the midst of this hectic lifestyle we can learn to make time alone, and to make the most of our time alone.
Victor Frankl, who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote about this in his book Man's Search for Meaning. He said that the enforced community life of this type of prison caused prisoners to crave solitude—the chance to be alone with one's thoughts and experience a few moments of privacy. He worked in the camp hospital in cramped conditions, but behind it was a small tent between some trees that was used as a shelter for each day's corpses. Frankl would slip in there when he could and sit for a moment, looking out at the green flowering slopes and the distant blue hills of the Bavarian landscape. He said, "Only the steps of the passing guards could rouse me from my dreams." These moments of silence and solitude kept Frankl centered and, in a very real way, kept him sane.
Even in your busy schedule, you can squeeze out moments of solitude here and there. Maybe you can get up a few minutes before everyone else, or stay up a few minutes later than everyone else. (By the way, if you have teenagers, getting up first is a lot easier than going to bed last.) Or maybe you have time alone on the way to and from work. Or maybe you can have lunch alone. Or maybe you can slip into an empty room in the evening when everyone else is watching TV. With some effort, you can make time alone, but you also need to make the most of your time alone.
In Run Baby Run, Nicky Cruz tells about meeting his wife in Bible college. The rules were extremely strict and didn't allow for dating and didn't give the students very much free time. In order to be together, Nicky and his wife, who were at the beginning stage of their courtship, volunteered to be on the kitchen clean-up team. Every night they had a special date, standing side by side at the kitchen sink, up to their elbows in dirty dishwater. This is how they nurtured their budding romance.
Do you remember how it was in high school? The bell would ring and it was time to switch classes, the halls would be packed with students and your girlfriend would meet you at your locker so that you could walk her to her next class. Those two or three minutes meant everything, didn't they? It made Geometry bearable, didn't it?
That's the habit we need to get into with God, seizing those opportunities throughout the day when we can have five minutes here, fifteen minutes there, alone with him. And just like we would try to make the most of that "date" between classes, we need to learn to make the most of our moments alone with God. We do that like David said: "I have stilled and quieted my soul." In Psalm 46 God says: "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10).
The first thing that we need to do when we get alone with God is STOP. Just stop. Be still for a moment. Wait. David wrote: "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope" (Psalm 130:5).
There have been times when I have had so many things on my to-do list in a given day that I hit my devotional time at 90 miles per hour. Like a mighty wind, I've blown through the process and then I marked it off my list and moved on to the next thing...and I wonder if the heavenly host says, "What was that? Was someone just here? Did somebody say something?"
When you get alone with God, stop. Wait. Be still. You may have only five minutes at a time, or 30 minutes at a time. Or maybe you have a few hours. Or maybe you find yourself in a situation where you have days of solitude. The process is the same. Get alone with God and be still. Forget about everything but him. Let him begin to bring peace to your soul. The second step of this process is...
Make it as quiet as possible
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that, when he writes, he listens to heavy metal music at full volume. That doesn't surprise me because, even though artistically he is a great writer, his books are, to say the least, a little brain rattling. They read like they were written to the sound of heavy metal music, don't they?
I like music, and I like it loud, and there are certain jobs that I do sometimes with the volume turned up to high. But when it comes to seeking God, the less distracting noise, the better. In fact, I used to listen to gentle worship music during my devotional, but I don't do that anymore. I prefer to listen to the quiet.
Don't miss my point here. There's nothing wrong with music. Many times throughout the day I listen to it, but it's not the background of my life anymore—especially during those times when I am seeking God. Sometimes my office is so quiet it feels like I am the only person in town. I love those moments. Other times I can hear horns honking, or people talking in the hallway, or the guys doing construction next door—but I've learned to block out that noise. There's noise in your environment that you need to learn to block out, and that comes with practice. The idea is to make it as quiet as possible. I think you'll learn that you don't always need the radio on for background noise. You don't need the TV to keep you company. In the quiet you can begin to hear the still, small voice of God.
Hans Margolis said, "Only in quiet waters do things mirror themselves undistorted. Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world." The reason why I recommend that you make your external environment as quiet as possible is so that you can experience quiet in your internal environment. Make it as quiet as possible; it will help you quiet your mind and still your soul before God. Thirdly...
Practice the art of silence
Quiet refers to what you hear, silence refers to what you say—or, rather, what you don't say. Bernard Baruch said, "Most of the successful people I've known are the ones who do more listening than talking." That's not only true in the workplace and in relationships; it's also true in our spiritual life. Most of us think that prayer consists only of talking to God, but there is so much more to it than that. Actually, the most powerful part of our prayer life is the part we spend in silence, listening. In our silence, God is able to break through to us and change us. In Psalm 62, David wrote: "My soul waits in silence for God only; From Him is my salvation" (Psalm 62:1 NASV).
The first thing we need to do when we get in God's presence is be still. The second thing we need to do is be still some more. Then we can begin to listen, and then we can begin to hear from him. And then we can begin to experience his power in our lives. Not only does it do us good to practice being silent before God, it also does us good to practice being silent the rest of the day as well. We can't become Trappist monks, of course, but I'm convinced that most of us would benefit by getting in the habit of using fewer words each day.
There are many things that I love, but few things that I love more than the sound of my own voice. Once I get started, I can go on almost forever, as many of you know. In recent years, however, I have learned this: the less I talk, the better I get along with people. I'm involved in ministry in Brazil, and one of the pastors I work with commented once that everyone in the church likes me. I thought about it and came to this conclusion: of course they like me! And I'm serious; I'm not being facetious. Why wouldn't they? I rarely talk.
Most of my work there is manual labor or administration. I don't speak the language all that well—certainly not well enough to be critical or contentious with anyone. For the most part, I just keep my mouth shut and try to smile all the time. It's hard not to like someone who does that. As Longfellow said, "Silence is a great peacemaker." My only regret is that I didn't learn this lesson 25 years ago and use it in the United States.
I've also learned that the more I listen to God, the easier is it for me to listen to others. That's because listening is a "you-first" attitude. Many times our prayers aren't really efforts to connect with God on an intimate level, they're more like a daily to-do list—"God, take care of this and this and this, and I'll be back tomorrow to check your progress." When that, I talk—you listen, attitude is prevalent in our prayers, it tends to be prevalent in our relationships, too. Practice being silent before God, and practice being silent—or at least talking less—in the presence of others.
Silence and solitude supply fuel for the soul. There's something about being alone, and something about being quiet, that has the ability to renew us, invigorate us, and energize us. But I want to make it clear that it's not just about being alone and being quiet. It's about being alone with God, and being quiet so that we can hear him speak. There is not a formula we can follow in order to learn how to do this. You learn to do it just by doing it.
I know people who take a week or so off every year and spend time alone in a retreat center in absolute silence and solitude. That's good—but much more important is the habit of doing it every day for 5, 10, 15 minutes at a time. And an hour or two when you can. As often as you can, get in God's presence. Be as still as you can be, make it as quiet as it can be, be as silent as you can be, and listen to the still, small voice of God. You'll find that it is fuel for your soul.
© Steve May, 2005
A resource of Christianity Today International
Steve May has been a pastor to pastors for more than 20 years, helping preachers and teachers to become more effective communicators of the gospel.