This is the first of a multi-part collection of posts exploring the spiritual disciplines entitled, “Old Ways for New Days.” These essays are here to help give us something to grip that will yield real, substantiated, integrated life in this ever-evolving, often troubling, immensely confusing, time in human history. These time tested habits have endured Roman persecution, crusades, wars, the dark ages, plagues, famines, earthquakes, volcanoes, and every sort of natural disaster. They’ve proven to be worthy handles to help people steer through the discovery of “the new world”, pandemics and epidemics, world wars, holocausts, civil rights revolutions, and terrorism. They now face the challenge of equipping people to overcome misinformation and fake news, rumours of war, economic downturns, idea wars, ideological fragmentation, and another pandemic, all in the microcosm of unprecedented globalization through a digital network that has connected every people and nation. Will they be up for the test of our times? You decide.
The Practice of Solitude: The Hidden Grace of the Secret Place
“Let’s play the quiet game.” I can’t describe to you how many times I heard my father calmly say those words as he drove us from point A to point B in the family Ford Aerostar. If you’re not familiar with the family classic, “the quiet game,” it’s a riveting competition where all the kids in the vehicle (who were previously having a competition as to who can be the loudest and most obnoxious) are competing to see who can stay quiet the longest without breaking the silence. If you make a noise, you lose. That’s how the game works.
As you can probably imagine, the riveting allure of this game wears off quickly, especially when the kids realize that, firstly, this game is in no way fun, and secondly, this was just a trick played by your dad who just wanted the kids to “shut it” for a few minutes. This trick did not work for long on my siblings and me, and funny enough, the game had about as much staying power with my kids when I, like my father before me, tried it on them.
Let’s face it, most of us just aren’t comfortable with silence. Isn't it ironic that silence, for most of us, although it is quiet on our ears, is often far too loud for our souls? There is something truly unsettling about silence. It can be uncomfortable, off-putting, make us uneasy, and even anxious.
It’s in the silence where we really start to feel alone.
It’s in the silence where we really start to feel exposed and vulnerable.
It’s in silence that the distractions we employ, the medications we use, and the white noises we fill our lives with dissipate, and we’re simply left alone with ourselves. Alone with our fears, our failures, our burdens, our dark intentions, our regrets, our anxiety… Silence is the raw, real space in life where pretension and distraction no longer cushion us from the stark weight of reality.
These silent and alone moments can be too much to bear for most of us. So, instead, we get in the car, and immediately flip on the radio. We come home after a long, busy day of work, and instead of being in a quiet house, we flip on the TV because it makes us feel safe, less alone, and less exposed. Or we put on “noise-canceling headphones” in an attempt to cancel some noise, so we can magnify other noises of our choosing. Most of us don't use headphones to cancel the noise, just curate and concentrate it. Silence and solitude are often rare, unwelcome strangers when we come across them, and we generally try to avoid and get away from them as quickly as possible. Some of us can't even sleep in silence, needing the white noise of a fan or television to drown out our anxious thoughts or distracting sounds our ears will gravitate to like ravenous birds diving upon roadside scraps.
What if our unease with the quiet, our perceived incompatibility with the silence is in actuality a very loud statement to us about a lingering emptiness inside of our souls that we simply don’t know what to do with or how to fulfill?
What if the one place that many of us are most uneasy with is the one place we can begin to find the things we need of the most?
What if, in avoiding the quiet, silent, alone places, we are simultaneously avoiding the one place that holds the things we need most?
Is it possible that in a world of the unending noise of information, entertainment, obligations, and distractions, we have lost the ability to be quiet, and in so doing, have lost the grace that is hidden there?
Our Christian forefathers throughout the centuries have viewed silence and solitude, “the secret place,” as an absolutely essential practice in the life of a believer. It has been a widely held, essential Christian discipline to make intentional moments, spaces, and times of quiet and aloneness. Furthermore, it's been widely understood that to not practice this discipline until it becomes habitual will mean certain and prolonged soul-level emptiness, longing and dissatisfaction, of which the noise of this life will not only not alleviate, but exacerbate. Is it possible that at the heart of all of the depression, fear, anxiety, despair, and dysfunction of our day is a failure to access the secrets that wait for us in Jesus-devoted solitude?
The very reason you and I struggle to be quiet alone is that aloneness has a way of exposing inner emptiness and lack. So, we run to the TV, the computer, Instagram, or the bottle to deal with it. Or for some of us, it's sports, movies, a fantasy novel, or our favourite message thread, whatever we can do to fill the empty void within us. It’s when we’re alone and it's quiet that the reality within us is truly revealed… and it’s in this moment, the moment of painful revelation that the temptation to fill it with the first thing we can find rushes in. To fill the void of silence is the worst thing we can do because it’s in this moment, in this place, that GOD does His deepest work. Not only have millennia worth of Christians discovered this to be true, but we find it front and center in the Scriptures.
The book of Genesis tells us that before the fall of creation, mankind and God had a habit of connecting in the Garden in the cool of the day. God was found in the secret place in the garden.
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” God is found in the secret place.
Isaiah 40:31 tells us that the key to renewed strength is waiting upon The Lord. Again, we find the strength, power, and presence of God is found not in the going, but the stopping. It's in the still, quiet, secret place that God is most accessible to us.
It was Elijah who discovered in his nervous breakdown, when alone in a cave, that the voice of God comes not in fire, or wind, or powerful earth-shaking quakes, but in a still, small voice. He was in a whisper in the alone, secret, quiet place.
Perhaps the best biblical pattern of solitude and silence is in Jesus, as we are told over and over that “He often withdrew to lonely places.” It becomes very clear in reading the Gospel accounts that the secret to Jesus's powerful public ministry was his private meetings with God.
The Bible is insistent that the true cure to stress, chaos, emptiness, and loneliness is exclusively and only found in God, and that HE is found in the secret place. When you dare be alone and quiet, just you, your thoughts, your issues, your fears, your burdens, your deficiencies, and dysfunctions, it is there and then you begin to discover a GOD who is willing, wanting and able to give you abundant grace for all of them.
As the COVID 2020 pandemic has been unfolding, I have been learning the gift of solitude. My wife, at long last, gave in to my wishes to get a dog and got me a beautiful golden retriever puppy for my birthday in March. I named him Lewis after my favourite author. I knew I wanted a dog, but what I did not realize was I'd be walking this dog 30 minutes to an hour per day, and that these walks would launch me into a season where I have learned the power of solitude and the hidden grace of the secret place.
I had been struggling to find a quiet place being isolated at home along with my wife and kids, so I decided that whenever I walked the dog, this was going to be my intentional alone time with the Lord. No noise, just me, my anxious thoughts, a panting dog, and the God of peace. It has been here that I have discovered new levels of life, power, and peace, and am more convinced than ever that some things can only be found in the secret place. Here’s what I’m learning about the discipline of solitude.
5 Benefits of Solitude
1. Solitude is an antidote for loneliness
Have you ever noticed that the solution to loneliness is not being around more people? Sure, relationships matter, and even the most introverted of us end up starving for a little human interaction after a few weeks of quarantine, however, relationships are not the primary cure for loneliness. The truth is, it’s possible to have 1000 Facebook friends and still be lonely. You can be in a room full of hundreds of people (well, you used to be able to, anyway), and still feel lonely.
Even the most intimate relationships, like in a marriage or a family dynamic, we can still feel incredibly lonely at times. This is because there is a place in all of us that is designed to be "known" and accepted by the presence of God, and literally, nothing and no one else will do. Loneliness is the byproduct of not finding true fulfillment in a relationship outside of ourselves. It’s the despair and discouragement that comes from not knowing or being known by someone who can satisfy the deepest parts of us, and no human is big enough to reach the eternal emptiness that is inside us all.
When we go to “the secret place,” when we get alone before God in solitude, we are not only acknowledging our fundamental need for him, but we are positioning ourselves to encounter the One who our loneliness is telling us we were made to know and be known by.
2. Solitude is an antidote for noisiness
In CS Lewis’s novel The Screwtape Letters, Wormwood is informed by his uncle Screwtape that “the Devil detests music and silence,” and that “Hell has been occupied by Noise—NOISE,” and that it (Hell) “aims to make the whole universe a noise in the end….that the melodies and silences of Heaven will need to be shouted down.” Noise fights against the flow of the Kingdom of Heaven. Noise is a destructive force that seeks to compromise, conflict, clutter, confuse, and corrupt every aspect of our lives. It is widely understood that the first step to hearing what you want to hear is mitigating the noise that is drowning it out.
If God’s voice is generally heard in the quiet, how crucial is it that we learn how to turn off our phones, the TV, the car, the radio, our mouths, and our thoughts if they are all noise that keeps us from hearing the voice of Jesus? Solitude and silence is the way we can press the mute button on an incessantly loud world, and in so doing begin to hear that life-giving whisper of God.
3. Solitude is an antidote for busyness
One of the primary forms of “noise” in our lives isn’t necessarily measurable on a decibel meter or heard through our ears, but it’s the noise that comes with having too much flying at you all the time. Deadlines, relationships, dreams, desires, interests, and obligations all simultaneously demanding our attention. The secret place is a space and a time that allows us, even just for a minute, to step out of the chaos into the presence of the One who said to the storm “peace, be still.”
Solitude, true solitude quickly reminds us God is still God, that the weight of the world is not on our shoulders, and He is providing us our breath, the sun and rain, and the provisions of life, the same as He does the sparrow. The secret place is a form of Sabbath that we can access anywhere, any time, any day.
4. Solitude is an antidote for blindness
The Bible gives us clues as to how we are designed to live. It tells us that we are meant to not only live by faith, but to see the world by faith. In other words, our seeing, our paradigm, our understanding, and perspective comes through faith. But there’s a catch. The faith by which we see has to be obtained. To obtain faith, we don’t use our imagination, we don’t feel, we don’t taste faith.
The sense we use to obtain faith is our HEARING. “Faith comes through hearing, hearing the Word of God.” When we practice solitude, it allows us to hear God’s word, not just read it, but HEAR it, as the whisper of the Spirit speaks the Word into the depths of us, revealing what words on a page simply can not. It’s the secret place where we hear the Word. This is why it’s possible to read the Bible but not hear God. It’s not until we “come away with Him” that we have the chance to really hear His voice, which is the key to having the faith and conviction deep inside of us that comes through revelation.
5. Solitude is an antidote for powerlessness
Above all, the secret place is a treasure trove, a buffet table, a library, and an armoury all rolled into one. When we practice Jesus-aimed solitude, we are, in His words, "abiding with Him," and when we abide with Him we will "bear much fruit." It’s in the secret place that we receive the supernatural power for this life, the provision for our day, and stir up passion for the fire of our heart.
Often we think that God’s provision in our lives is going to drop out of the sky, but in fact, all of the power and provision of God is hidden in a secret, quiet place that can only be accessed by our seeking to find Him above all else. The most powerful, well adjusted, victorious, compassionate, admirable, anointed Christians, the ones who were the most like Jesus, all, without exception, were people who had discovered the hidden grace of the secret place. A life of public power is developed through private passion… in the secret place.
There are things that God has for us that can only be found in the secret place. It's in the practice of solitude and silence where we draw away and quietly utter the words toward Heaven, “speak Lord, your servant is listening…” and then… wait… listen… and then... in some mysterious way… at some perfect time… in that secret place, you will hear a whisper that has the power to move mountains speak directly to you.
4 Practical Guides to Practicing Solitude and Developing a Secret Place
1. Find Time
The best way to start practicing solitude is actually in small bursts. Instead of setting out to achieve monk-level solitude from the get-go, why not start by intentionally turning off the TV five or 10 minutes before you would have otherwise, and simply breathe, listen and pray? Or try turning off the radio on your commute, or maybe before you roll out of bed in the morning, while you’re awake but not up, listen and be still, knowing that HE is God over this day.
The point is, find moments where you can interrupt the noise of your day and invite God in.
2. Set a consistent time
As with all good things in life - marriage, family, health, fitness - you have to fight for them to flourish. The same goes for practicing solitude. If you don’t schedule a daily time, it simply will fall to the wayside. Put it in your calendar, mark an appointment in iCal, or google, or, if you're old school, on your trusty day planner, and then honour it like you would any other crucial appointment you have that day.
3. Set a place
It is so helpful to have a designated area for you to go to. Having a designated space triggers something in your mind and spirit where you know it’s time to be present with the Lord because you're there. Don't underestimate the power of a designated meeting place. If you don’t have the luxury of having a room in your house or a chair in the corner of a quiet room, do what I do, go for a walk (and if you really want to make it awesome, get yourself a puppy to go with you).
4. Set a regular daily time
When? You decide. Just make sure you mark it down and stick to it. It takes about 66 days to form a habit, so hang in there. It’s a discipline. It’s not easy, but are the benefits ever good!
May you, even today, begin to discover the hidden grace of God by finding Him in the secret place.
"He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty." Psalm 91:1