By Pastor Brian Davis
In Minneapolis, MN, you can go see and experience what was once the quietest room in the world.(1) It’s called the Orfield Anechoic Room, and it registers at -9 decibels. To put that in perspective, a normal room that we would consider “quiet” registers at around 30 decibels. The room is so quiet that you can actually hear your own organs functioning!
For many of us who are now in week seven (or is it eight?) of homeschooling and working from home in a packed house, that kind of peace and quiet might sound like a dream. But it’s not. In fact, it pretty quickly turns into a nightmare. The longest that anyone has spent alone in the chamber is 45 minutes. The average person lasts about 30 minutes, and it’s around the 30-minute mark that people begin hallucinating. It’s so quiet that it will literally make you crazy.
Most of us long for moments of peace and quiet, but when we get them, they don’t last long. But here’s what’s troubling: neither do we. Think back to what you did the last time you were standing in line at the store or showed up a few minutes early to a lunch meeting. What did you do? Sit quietly and take the opportunity to reflect on God’s love for you? Maybe take some deep breaths and review your day with gratitude? No! You did what we all do, which is reach for your phone. Why? Because most of us can’t stand sustained periods of silence. Blaise Pascal famously wrote, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” And yet, the great writer and practitioner of spiritual formation Henri Nouwen says, “Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life.”(2) So consider this: What if one of our greatest obstacles to communion with Jesus is our inability to sit alone with him in the quiet for any amount of time? What if we don’t experience the depth of his love for us because we just can’t sit still long enough?
Richard Foster famously said (in 1978 no less!) that this is exactly the place where the Enemy attacks: “In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds. If he can keep us engaged in ‘muchness’ and ‘manyness’ he will rest satisfied.”(3) Things have only gotten noisier, more hurried, and more crowded since 1978, which is why we desperately need the practice of Silence & Solitude.
What is Silence and Solitude?
Silence & Solitude is as simple as it sounds: it’s “an intentional time in the quiet to be alone with God.”(4) It’s a time of prayer, but it’s not a time of petitionary prayer. In other words, it’s not first a time to pray through your list of requests. Silence and solitude is simply being with the Lord. It’s a time to, in the words of Ronald Rolheiser, “rest in God’s presence.” He likens it to what married couples, parents and children, or good friends can experience by merely being in one another’s presence. He writes, “It is enough to be relaxed and quiet in the presence of God, ready to receive and to return God’s loving glance.”(5)
We find examples of silence and solitude all over the Bible. David writes in Ps 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” and in Ps 62:1, “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” In describing what will happen when God reigns as king, Isaiah prays, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (Isa 26:3). Maybe the most famous Old Testament example is Elijah on Mount Horeb in 1Kgs 19 where the Lord comes to Elijah not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in a “low whisper,” a “thin silence,” or a “still small voice.”
In the New Testament, Jesus regularly withdraws from the crowds and the disciples in the early morning or late evening in order to be alone with his Father (e.g. Mt 14:22-23; Mk 1:35-39; Lk 5:12-16; 6:12-13). His longest recorded period in solitude was 40 days in the wilderness prior to being tempted by Satan (cf. Mt 4:1-11). One of the most interesting features of Jesus’ time alone with the Father is that those times became more frequent as his ministry grew. John Mark Comer writes, “In Luke’s gospel in particular, you can chart Jesus’ life along two axis points: the busier and more in demand and famous Jesus became, and the more he withdrew to his quiet place to pray.”(6) Jesus needed to be alone in the quiet with his Father, and so do we.
Why do we need Silence & Solitude?
- Silence & Solitude is essential to abiding in Jesus.
Simply put, we must make time to be with the people that we love. We know this to be true in our friendships, our marriages, and our families. It’s no different with Jesus. Nouwen writes, “If we really believe not only that God exists but also that he is actively present in our lives—healing, teaching, and guiding—we need to set aside a time and space to give him our undivided attention.”(7) Silence and solitude creates that space to give Jesus our attention.
Silence and solitude also helps integrate other spiritual practices into our lives. As you slow down to spend time alone with the Lord, Scripture reading, prayer, and Sabbath become possible in a way that they aren’t when you’re rushing from one thing to the next.
- Silence & Solitude is an act of embodied trust in the Lord.
For most of us, the moment you try to sit quietly with Jesus is also the moment your mind begins to run wild with all that you could be doing instead. You begin thinking through your to-do list and worrying about everything that you’ll forget if you don’t either write it down immediately or begin work on it right away.
This is one of the most challenging parts of silence and solitude, but it’s also one of the reasons it’s such an important practice for us. Silence and solitude forces us to entrust those cares and concerns to the Lord–to actually be still and know that the Lord is God (Ps 46:10) and to remember that I’m not. Everything within us fights against this, because we don’t want to give up control. This is also why it’s so much easier to read and talk about silence and solitude than it is to actually do it! But part of the grace of this practice is that we discover that we can stop. That God can be trusted. That He will take care of those concerns that so easily consume us.
- Silence & Solitude exposes our hearts.
Our addiction to hurry and noise comes, in part, from a desire to keep painful, overwhelming emotions at bay. We think, “If I remain busy enough, distracted enough, and scheduled enough, then I don’t have to feel the hurt, the anger, the anxiety, and the grief inside of me. I don’t have to acknowledge how sad or lonely or scared I really am.” In silence and solitude, all of our favorite ways to escape from or numb those feelings get taken away, and we begin to feel the emotions we’ve been working really hard not to feel.
Similarly, silence and solitude strips away the masks we wear around others. All of the ways I strive for affirmation and recognition from other people are gone when I step into the quiet. My attempts to justify myself through hard work and achievement get tossed aside, and I’m left with who I really am before God. “In solitude,” Nouwen writes, “I get rid of my scaffolding.”(8) And that’s incredibly frightening. For this reason, Louis Bouyer says, “Solitude is a terrible trial, for it serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our superficial securities.”(9)
But before you stop reading and vow never to even attempt this practice, consider this: silence and solitude allows all of those emotions, all of those fears, all of those attempts to make yourself lovable, to come to the surface in the presence of Jesus…
- Silence & Solitude is where Jesus meets us with his love and grace.
We meet the one who is endlessly compassionate and merciful, the one who died to bring healing and wholeness, the one who loves and cherishes the real you. Dane Ortlund writes, “He doesn’t simply meet us at our place of need; he lives in our place of need. He never tires of sweeping us into his tender embrace. It is his very heart.”(10) Silence and solitude enables us to experience the overwhelming grace and love of Jesus in all of the places that we need it most.
Finally, don’t miss this most basic truth: Jesus wants to be with you. He wants to spend time with you. That’s why he endured the cross–so that you, as a broken and beloved sinner, could enter into his presence. Listen to what Jesus asks from his Father the night before his crucifixion: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me” (Jn 17:24). That’s his desire, and it’s this Jesus that invites you into the quiet place to be with him.
PRACTICE OF THE WEEK: Engage in Silence & Solitude
- Choose a consistent time of day & place that is quiet, comfortable, and without distraction.
For most people, first thing in the morning works best. For those with young kids, naptime might be the most realistic time. For others, a lunch break, after work, or right before you go to bed works well. Feel free to experiment until you find what works for you.
- Start with 10 minutes 3-5 days a week. Set a timer so you’re not constantly looking at the clock. Start small and slowly increase time and frequency of days.
- Put your phone away (or turn it off completely!) and remove other potential distractions.
- Begin with a short prayer asking God to be with you, and take some deep breaths.
- Focus your heart with a particular verse (e.g. Ps 23:1; 37:4; 46:10; Jn 14:27; 15:4, 5.)
Remember the main goal here is simply to “be with Jesus.” Don’t feel like you have to “do” anything. Just relax and enjoy his presence.
- Gently return your attention to God as distractions arise.
And they will arise! Your mind will seize this opportunity to run wild with thoughts, feelings, memories, to-do’s, and distractions. And that’s okay. Don’t judge yourself, feel bad, give up, or worry. When you notice your mind beginning to wander, just re-center with a quick prayer based on the verse you’ve chosen above.
- Close your time by praying the Lord’s Prayer.
- Acknowledge & address fears, cares, concerns, and worries that arose in solitude and silence.
What do I need to entrust to God’s care? What was hard? What was good? Where did my mind drift? If you’re a journaler (not a real word), journal and pray about those things.
- Remember that the fruit of this practice is more often seen & experienced outside of the periods of silence themselves.
- Remember that “succeeding” at this practice is doing it. Period.
All you can do is show up. Know that Jesus is with you whether you’re aware of his presence or not. Be patient. It takes some people years to get comfortable with this practice, so resist the urge to say, “I’m bad at this” or “This isn’t for me.” Don’t be hard on yourself, especially if you’re an overachiever type.
FOR REFLECTION & DISCUSSION
- How do you avoid or resist silence? Where does your mind go in moments of silence?
- How and when do you resist or avoid being alone? What do you resort to doing when alone?
- How does the idea of silence and solitude make you feel? Excited? Scared? Too busy?
- What challenges do you face in carving out time for silence and solitude?
- Where do you already have silence with God in your life?
FOR FURTHER STUDY:
- LECTURE: “Silence & Solitude” and the accompanying handout.
- This lecture is the fourth week of a six-week seminar on Spiritual Formation called “Formed in Christ” that I did at Trinity in the spring of 2016.
- SERMON: “The Power of Quiet in a World of Noise,” John Mark Comer
- pp. 119-142 in The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer
- pp. 107-114 in Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Calhoun
- An Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Ruth Haley Barton
(1) It’s since been beaten by a room in Building 87 at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redfield, WA.
(2) Henri Nouwen, Making All Things New, p. 24 in The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles.
(3) Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 15.
(5) Ronald Rolheiser, Prayer: Our Deepest Longing.
(6) John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, 130.
(7) Nouwen, 24.
(8) Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 15.
(9) Louis Bouyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, 313.
(10) Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 23.