The simple life allows us to detach ourselves from worldly things. If we seek first the Kingdom of God, and we have the attitudes of viewing all as a gift from God, that all is in God’s care, and that all we have is available to others for God to bless them with, we can release ourselves from the anxiety that comes with dependence on material possessions. This allows us to be free to seek God above all else, and to be obedient to His commands, as opposed to being obedient to the whims of fashion and culture, or a slave to our eyes’ desire. This takes setting the inward reality of seeking first the Kingdom of God so that we can live the outward discipline of simplicity. However, even when we have achieved this discipline and maintain it in our life-style, we are still in the world. This world comes with many distractions and deviations from our course that is set for God.
The next outward discipline teaches us how to separate from the world, even while we are dwelling within it. It allows us to release ourselves from the anxiety that our own mouth can bring to us! It is the discipline of solitude, and with it, comes the discipline of silence. Indeed, these two disciplines are so tied together, it is not quite possible to separate them from one another.
What is Solitude and Silence as a Discipline?
These two disciplines may seem rather self-explanatory, but there are some subtle intricacies to the Christian nature of these two disciplines. The objective of solitude is so that you can achieve silence and withdraw from the world for a time in order to listen for God. It is not about being alone for the sake of being away from other people, nor is it about detaching yourself from reality. The purpose is to achieve a state of inner fulfillment, not emptiness that comes from loneliness. It is about setting up your own personal inner sanctuary into which you can retreat to be alone with God, even when you are surrounded by people.
This allows you to experience silence, but this is not necessarily the discipline of silence. The discipline of silence is about you being silent far more than it is about being in silence. Solitude can bring you into a place of silence, where the world of noise around you is muted or avoided. The discipline of silence, however, requires you to be silent as well. The objective is to learn control over your mouth, and to learn when to be silent, and when to speak. The purpose of this is so that you are not driven to react with senseless speech, but to discipline yourself to make your speech of value. It teaches you how to listen better, and to consider what you hear before responding, and insuring that what you speak is of worth.
Solitude will aid you in finding ways to remove yourself from situations in your life where you may feel overwhelmed or stressed. Disciplined solitude allows you time to step away and re-center yourself on God. Combined with silence, this allows you to allow God to work in you, not speaking or seeking to talk to God, but instead, listening for Him for whatever He has to offer, and not reacting to it, but simply listening.
Where is Solitude in the Bible?
The discipline of solitude is found most prominently in the New Testament in the behavior of Jesus. There are numerous examples of Jesus seeking solitude during His ministry on earth, including His 40 days and nights spent in the desert alone (Matt. 4:1-11). The following is a list that Richard Foster provides in his book, Celebration of Discipline that brings to light how frequent solitude was practiced by Jesus:
- Luke 6:12, Jesus spends the entire night alone in the desert hills.
- Matt. 14:13, Jesus withdrew to a “lonely place apart” after John the Baptist’s death.
- Matt. 14:23, Jesus goes to be alone in the hills after feeding the five thousand.
- Mark 6:31, Jesus instructs his disciples after their mission to go to a lonely place.
- Luke 5:16, Jesus withdraws after healing the leper.
There are many more examples of his solitude as well as times of solitude for others including the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus’ practice of this discipline was clearly an example of human behavior that is of great value, especially to the Lord. Jesus was a very busy man while here on earth, and His many retreats to find solitude provided Him with time to be alone to listen to His father, to recover His strength, and to re-center Himself after the many experiences He went through while ministering to God’s people.
Understanding Solitude and Silence as a Discipline
We can come to understand that without silence, there is no solitude. Remember that loneliness is not solitude. In our hearts, loneliness comes from a longing to be with others. When someone is lonely, they are only in that state because they long for companionship but do not have it presently. Solitude, however, is about being alone because you desire it, and as a Christian discipline, it is so that you can hear God speaking to you. But not only this, it is also to enjoy the gift of silence that God has to offer us at times.
Even though we are seeking to be connected to God, to live in a healthy relationship with Him, we must also understand that this means accepting His many gifts to us. One such gift is the pleasure of silence. To achieve this, removing ourselves from others is of great importance (though it is not always necessary to achieve it). To get away not just from noise, but the distraction of other voices is what makes this a discipline. So much of our life is filled with radios, televisions, social media, reading, and other people. The discipline of solitude is about turning all of that off and tuning all of that out so that we can enjoy the rich and thunderous silence that God desires for each of us to have from time to time.
While the experience of this precious gift is life transforming, especially when we need it most, the other side of this coin is just as liberating. The disciplined person is the person who can do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. “Under the discipline of silence and solitude we learn when to speak and when to refrain from speaking.” (p. 99). If we do not speak when it is time to do so, or speak when it is not time to do so, then we are not effectively practicing the discipline of solitude and silence. I love how Foster puts this, “The tongue is a thermometer; it gives us our spiritual temperature. It is also a thermostat; it regulates our spiritual temperature. Control of the tongue can mean everything.” (p. 101). When we practice the discipline of silence, we are disciplining ourselves to allow God to be our justifier.
What often entraps us in our own dismal spiral of destruction is our reactive nature of self-justifying what we say and do. The discipline of solitude and silence allows us to both remove other people from their control over us, as well as remove our pour tongue from a position of authority over our life as well. When we seek to justify our words or deeds, we can find ourselves digging a deeper hole when we were already in it to begin with. This is something I have found myself in many a times, and I am sure you can think of some similar times as well. This all comes from our lack of self control (one of the fruits of the spirit). Practicing the discipline of solitude and silence allows us to trust in God as our justifier, saying only what needs to be said, and not doing as the preacher says in Ecclesiastes 5:1, “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools.”
So How do I ‘do’ the Discipline of Solitude and Silence?
‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ is the poetic words used by Foster to describe the true state of solitude and silence. We shut down all of the emotional, mental, psychological, and even the spiritual senses in order to achieve an absolute state of silence in our very being. The object is the “inner silence, peace, stillness.” (p. 103). This time can come when we feel ourselves pulling away from things in our life. Work seems dull, our music seems boring, our activities feel dreary. When we get to these points, we can view them as times where God is drawing us away from all of those things that distract us from Him. If we are doing the other disciplines, we can come to sense this reality. It is God trying to tug at our heart strings and telling us to come into his gift of silence so that He can do His work in our hearts.
We must remember that Spiritual Disciplines are things that we do. We are dealing with actions and not simply states of the mind. This is an internal reality, an action that we must do that has outward results as we discussed in the article on Simplicity.
The best way to get started on this is to begin to appreciate and utilize those daily moments in our life where we may already be experiencing solitude, but not being aware of it. When we are alone in the car in traffic, in the morning when having our breakfast or drinking our coffee, when we are at the end of the day and all the kids are asleep and we can step outside for a few moments. All of these times can become opportunities to bring ourselves to utter silence and stillness, solitude even in the midst of the storm of our daily lives.
The next best option is to setup a place in our homes dedicated for this specific purpose. Now I do not recommend using the same place that we utilize for meditation and study. Instead, having a designated spot in the home that is intended specifically for solitude and silence, and just simply listening for God. Not focusing or concentrating on a passage in the Bible, not spending time in prayer to our Lord, not figuring out how best to sell the stuff in the garage to simplify our life, instead, just simply to be in silence and alone in the presence of God.
In addition to setting up places inside of your home, look for places outside of your home to do this. Perhaps a favorite secluded fishing spot, or maybe even a cabin in the woods at one of your local state parks. Anywhere that you can have to yourself, and that removes the distractions of life from your mind. There may even be a place near you that is setup for meditation, or even a place at your local church that is open during off hours.
The next effort that we must do in this discipline turns now to the course of regular life. Silence is the idea here, but as mentioned previously, it is about knowing when to speak, and knowing what to speak. This will take some serious effort on the part of those who may be like myself and have the tendency to carry on in conversations! This is about those more important conversations of our day, those times where our words can potentially damage others or ourselves. The goal is to make our words full of meaning, but few in number. To make the time we speak impactful, but short. Foster quotes a saying of Bonhoeffer that I certainly enjoy, “Much that is unnecessary remains unsaid. But the essential and the helpful thing can be said in a few words.” We must practice times of not speaking, just as much as we practice how we speak. We need to train ourselves to simply not speak, but to remain in silence. This is most effectively applied in those moments that always get us in trouble, when we overhear a conversation and feel that sudden urge and desire to jump in and say something. This is a discipline that so many need, especially on social media!
The Disciplines of Solitude and Silence are done together. They are part in parcel, and together can make dramatic changes to our lives. The goal is not to be alone for the sake of being away from others, but for the sake of listening for God, or simply enjoying His blessed gift of silence. In addition, it is to make sure that we have control of our tongue, that thermostat of our soul. Learning to use it well, efficiently, and effectively is the key. While we seek to silence the environment we are in, we must understand this means silencing ourselves as well. Allow the Lord to work in us during those times of the Dark Night of the Soul. Allow the Word of God to be your word, trust in Him to justify your words and deeds, find time to be away, and learn to enjoy the silence.