For the follower of Jesus, the spiritual well-being of the soul, where a person’s mind, will, and emotions are centered and at rest in Him, is the grounding and starting place for all other engagements in life.
habit of solitude
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Luke 5:16 NIV
I just returned from a three day solo retreat spent in a little log cabin located in a remote neck of the western Wisconsin woods. My purpose was to sequester myself away, free from modern amenities, media distractions and human interaction to seek the face of God. Years ago that was an annual practice of mine, looking forward to setting aside time apart from the hustle and bustle of the world, to still my soul and listen intently for the voice of God. Sad to say it had been a number of years since I made that a priority but thankfully my long overdue withdrawal to the wilderness more than met previous expectations.
Spending time in solitude, expressly to delight in God’s presence is a unique experience. It helps when a person can isolate themselves geographically in a nature scape removed from civilization. Cloistered in a simple one room cabin with a window to the wooded winter stillness of white and gray set against the wash of an azure sky, I could not help but sense that God must surely be in this place.
I was struck right from the outset how the utter simplicity and austerity of such a setting so readily strips the worldly traveler of every false dependence and diversion. “What, no internet or cell phone coverage?” No, only silence and the sounds of nature; and the sounds you create through the motion of everyday activity, all woven intricately with the golden threads of your prayer and worship.
For me, my most faithful companions in times alone with God are my pen, journal and Bible. I’ve found reading and pouring over the words of Scripture to be like the sun around which all my reflections and prayers and meditations and worship align their orbits. And then my journaling becomes a natural expression of their reflected light with which God illumines my soul.
It might be said that austerity brings clarity and I have found in such settings that God often poses clarifying questions for reflection and evaluation. Such questions bid the harried sojourner to slip his heavy knapsack to the ground and sit a spell, so as to take an inventory of its contents. Not everything we so dutifully carry has been placed there by God and He wants to once again remind us that “His yoke is easy and His burden is light.”
Here is a list of the clarifying questions I sensed Him bidding me to ask. They enabled me to leave my respite in the woods carrying a much lighter load than when I arrived.
“But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Luke5:16 (NIV)
This week when I read this verse it literally jumped off the page and filled me with joy. I have read this passage of scripture many, many times before, but for some reason it never registered with me the way it did this time. I came to the realization that Jesus’ consistent habit of seeking solitude actually triumphed over the things in His life militating against it. Developing a life punctuated by solitude and communion with God is a battle that can be won.
We know from the gospel accounts that crowds were constantly besieging Him and His life was at times so frenzied that He and His disciples did not even have time to eat. (Mark 3:20 & 6:31)
Our world today is no different. People, projects and media demands are constantly besieging all of us as parents, spouses, employees, students, home owners etc. The fast food business in our culture is booming because like Jesus and the disciples, we often do not have the luxury of time to sit down and eat a decent meal. Which brings up a point that often intrigues and irritates me at the same time – have you noticed that drive-through customers seem to get faster service than those standing at the counter? I am not going to go down that rabbit trail, not today.
The point I am really making is that carving out time in our busy schedules for intimate communion with God has its ups and downs but it is a winnable battle if, like Jesus, we persist. Of the seven specific accounts in scripture of Jesus seeking solitary time all but two of them were interrupted. Only His all night prayer to choose the twelve and His time with Peter, James and John on the mount of transfiguration were sacrosanct. (Luke 6:12-13, Mark 9:2)
During His 40 days in the wilderness Jesus was plagued by the Devil. At the outset of His ministry we learn His attempt to steal away in the early morning hours for prayer is spoiled by humans. Simon and the others go looking for Jesus, find Him and immediately put pressure on Him to respond to the multitudes who are also seeking Him. (Mark 1:35-38)
The one time we are told that He wanted to take His disciples apart with Him by boat to a solitary place, the crowds got wind of it and beat them there. (Mark 6:31-33) Later that night after a busy day of teaching, feeding more than 5000 people, and sending His disciples back by boat, He climbed the mountainside to seek some time alone with His Father. But again He is interrupted as He sees in the distance the disciples straining at the oars and decides to go to them. (Mark 6:45-48) Of course, the coup de gras of Jesus’ solitude disturbances was His arrest in theGardenofGethsemane.
It has always amazed me that Jesus did not seem to be discouraged or frustrated by these interruptions. To the contrary His compassion for the disciples, the crowds and even His enemies moved Him to see it as an opportunity to teach them and further His Father’s purposes.
Thinking about Jesus’ dismal batting average when it came to solitude has for years perplexed me. Why couldn’t we have more accounts of His successful, uninterrupted times of solitary prayer? If Jesus’ prayer life was so fraught with distractions, how could I ever hope for anything better?