Scripture makes it clear that we can grow in our walk with God, which encourages us to pursue the spiritual disciplines! Take, for example, the following passages that offer hope to those who want to grow spiritually:
- “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).
- “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Eph. 4:15).
- “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through” (1 Thess. 5:23).
- “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2).
- “Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you” (2 Cor. 10:15–16).
How exactly can we grow through spiritual disciplines?
The barrier to overcome is that most Christians today, in my experience, don’t have a clear plan for spiritual growth. Dallas Willard comments on this reality: “It is the rare leader or teacher today who can calmly say, ‘Here’s how you do it,’ and state specific tried and true steps actually accessible to the earnest inquirer” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, HarperCollins, 1988, page 13). In response to this impetus for spiritual formation planning—building on the rich foundation of spiritual formation books from writers like Dallas Willard, Richard J. Foster, and others—I created an actionable workbook called Your Spiritual Formation Plan. The rest of this post on silence and solitude is an excerpt from that book. As you step deeper into the disciplines of spiritual formation, I suggest starting with solitude. Why? In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard calls solitude the “most fundamental” discipline of abstinence (page 161). Solitude is more than just getting away from other people, though; it’s withdrawing from the world to be with God. God’s presence separates solitude from isolation because:
Solitude builds us up, but isolation breaks us down.
When we pursue solitude, we join the ranks of the heroes of the faith such as Joseph, David, Elijah, Paul, John, and most important of all, Jesus.
Jesus and SolitudeJesus sought solitude at important junctures in his ministry. Right after his baptism, for example, he spent forty days in the desert in extended solitude (Matt. 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). Then, just before he designated twelve of his disciples as apostles, he went to a mountainside alone to pray (Luke 6:12). He also made space for solitude in short intervals of everyday life: an hour here, an afternoon there. On one such occasion, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” He found solitude after a night of intense ministry, during which the whole town had come to him and he healed many sick people (Mark 1:35). Scripture makes it clear that Jesus regularly sought solitude (Luke 5:16). One particular retreat Jesus took piques our curiosity about him… In John 6, the large crowds Jesus had fed started to make arrangements for him to become king. But, it says, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:15). Why did he withdraw from the crowds? Why didn’t he teach them more truth, spend more time with them, or receive his rightful crown? We don’t know the exact reason for his withdrawal. Perhaps he wanted to focus on his true identity and on the Father’s timing on all matters of kingship. While the cause of his retreat remains a mystery, we know he got away to be alone.
Solitude was important to Jesus.
Like Jesus, we need to find solitude for both short and long periods of time.
How to Practice SolitudeWe need regular time each week, sometimes on a daily basis, for solitude. So, snag five minutes here, thirty minutes there, or perhaps even hours at a time (depending on our season of life). We also need periodic “retreats” to be alone for days at a time. To go on a retreat means to get away from your regular environment for an extended period of time to be alone with God. If you’ve never been on a retreat, go! This practice could lead to significant breakthroughs in your life. I know retreats have led to breakthroughs in my life. Let me issue a challenge to you…
Make a weekly habit of regular solitude and a yearly habit of going on an extended retreat.
For your extended retreat, take three to five days where you get away to be alone with God. Your ability to get away like this depends on your season of life, your means, and the availability of retreat centers. And if you can’t find a retreat center for this, a hotel, cabin, or house rental can work just fine. The most important thing is to make space for true solitude and to find a quiet place away from your home. How else will you connect with God at a heart level if you don’t seek solitude to be alone with him?
How Solitude Forms UsSolitude forms each of us differently, and the nature of solitude changes during different seasons of our journey. Early in my walk with God, regular and lengthy times of solitude provided adequate space for deep formation that needed done in my heart. At pivotal points in my vocational direction, relationships, and even schooling, I’ve encountered God on retreats. I’m convinced that we all need this time of retreat throughout our lives, but it is especially important for disciples early in their walk. A retreat is also important for those who have been walking with the Lord for a while, especially if they have not yet experienced this practice. When we make space for this, no matter our season of life or place along our journey, we allow God sufficient room to do some deep cleaning, healing, and renovating in our hearts.
Certain spiritual work can only be done in solitude.
Let’s remember that our need for solitude never goes away in our journey with God. Even the night before Jesus died, nearing the pinnacle of his earthly ministry, he made time to get away and pray to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. Even though his closest friends were just a stone’s throw away, Jesus—“going a little farther”—went to be alone with God the Father (Matt. 26:39). Jesus’ way of being alone emphasizes that the goal of solitude is not simply to be by ourselves, but to be alone with God. That’s why Jesus said to his disciples, anticipating their desertion of him, “You will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me” (John 16:32).
Jesus knew well the difference between solitude and isolation.
By practicing regular solitude, we allow God to train us to be alone with him, so that even when it’s not our choice to be alone, we can connect with God in the lonely moments and seasons of life. Since our need for solitude remains constant throughout our lives, learning early and often how to connect with God through this discipline is helpful. We need the regular, short periods of solitude, along with the lengthier periods.
Plan for SolitudeIf solitude was important to Jesus, we too should prioritize this discipline. The workbook I created, Your Spiritual Formation Plan: A Devotional Workbook to Guide Your Next Steps with God, helps you form a specific plan for solitude and silence, along with eight other core disciplines. It’s designed to meet you where you’re at and help you take your very next steps in the spiritual disciplines. When you use this workbook with it’s companion Spiritual Formation video course, you can go much deeper into the substance of this post. The class session in the video course called, “Solitude and Silence,” and the chapters by those titles in the workbook help you:
- Choose your time and place for regular solitude.
- Choose your time and place for your next retreat.
Seeking SilenceSilence is the necessary companion of solitude. When we experience both solitude and silence at the same time, we can most easily hear from God. Without silence, solitude loses its impact. Practicing silence means quieting human voices, physical distractions, and our own thoughts.
We seek silence because our hearts long for quiet in a noisy world.
Finding Silence from Inner DistractionsThinking about “noise” in both literal and metaphorical terms is important. Our inner dialogue, for example, isn’t audible sound, but it can actually be the loudest noise in our heads. So, learning to be silent includes gaining the skills, with God’s help, of quieting our thoughts. Inner noise can be unwanted thoughts. Most people have a message playing in their head that continually speaks to them about themselves. When this message is negative, it might speak a message about shame and guilt: “You’re not worthy,” or “You always do that.” Whatever it is, the message is distracting and needs to be diminished. Some messages can be less intense but still distracting. They might be about a to-do list, a deadline at work, or a project around the house. Noise can even come from unresolved tension in a relationship. Finding silence means placing those thoughts where they belong, not pushing them out by force. It often means submitting them to God by presenting “your requests to God” in prayer (Phil. 4:6). Ordering our thought-world through prayer helps us clear headspace to hear God’s heart.
God doesn’t silence our thoughts by ignoring them; he quiets our minds by addressing them.
Silence is the spiritual discipline in which we let God’s voice consume all invading voices. God doesn’t think our thoughts for us, but he affects our thoughts within us. This happens as we seek God by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Finding Silence from Literal NoisesThen, we still face physical distractions and literal noises. Hearing a baby cry or a spouse in the other room or a lawn mower running outside—all of these noises distract us from seeking God in solitude. This discipline can be more difficult during certain seasons of life, which might mean we need to get creative. We might need to ask for extra help when we have a baby, for example, who requires constant attention. With help, we can find quiet in almost any life circumstance. Seeking silence means getting away from all types of noise, and as we grow in this practice, we learn our unique needs for clearing out distractions. Solitude helps, but once we’re alone, silence requires additional effort. That’s why it’s good to silence digital devices, turn off screens, and even turn off music to find peace and quiet. Whatever fills space in our hearts and makes it difficult to connect with God—however small it might be—can function as “noise.” God tells us in Scripture, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). This passage tells us that silence helps us to know God. The word for “be still” in Hebrew has to do with leaving or retreating, and it brings together solitude and silence in one word: stillness. Stillness affords us the opportunity to know God better by personally encountering God. While finding solitude and silence in today’s world can be difficult, every ounce of effort we exert to find them is totally worth it!
Silence and Solitude in Samuel’s LifeConsider the role of silence and solitude in the prophet Samuel’s life… When he was young, he first learned to hear God’s voice in the quiet of the night when he was all alone (1 Sam. 3:1–11). Hearing clearly from God became increasingly important as Samuel grew up. When he was older, God asked him to choose the first two kings of Israel. Since he had learned to discern God’s voice at a young age, he knew how to hear it when God asked him to choose Saul as Israel’s first king: “This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people” (1 Sam. 9:17). Then, when David appeared as the incumbent king, Samuel heard God say, “Rise and anoint him; he is the one” (1 Sam. 16:12). We have no evidence that God’s voice in these cases was audible for Samuel. His voice was clearly discernible, though, whether it was audibly spoken or spoken only to his spirit. Whatever the case…
Samuel learned how to hear God, which he first learned in solitude and silence.
The disciplines are never an end in themselves; they train us toward a greater good. As we grow in the discipline of silence, we too can learn to hear God’s “still small voice,” not only in quiet moments but also amid noise (1 Kgs. 19:12, KJV).
Plan for SilenceThis post has been an excerpt from my workbook about the disciplines, Your Spiritual Formation Plan: A Devotional Workbook to Guide Your Next Steps with God. It helps you form a specific plan for solitude and silence, along with eight other core disciplines. It’s designed to meet you where you’re at and help you take your very next steps in the spiritual disciplines. When you use this workbook with it’s companion Spiritual Formation video course, you can go much deeper into the substance of the post you’ve just read. The workbook chapters and video course’s class session about solitude and silence help you:
- Make your plan for seeking silence.
- Ask for accountability to help you keep your plan for silence.