Solitude

If you had asked me two months ago to name the spiritual disciplines, my list would have included prayer, Scripture memory, reading/studying the Bible, and accountability. Turns out there are a good number of additional practices. One of those additions is something called “solitude.” And turns out that it’s not just for monks.

Y’all. Over the past 6 weeks, the longest I’ve gone without hearing some mention of solitude has been three days. NOT KIDDING. Books for fun, books for a seminary class, friends, podcasts, more friends, sermons, more books…everywhere I turn, there has been some nugget about the importance of solitude.

I’ve also had the exact same “it’s showing up everywhere” experience with a new-to-me author, Henri Nouwen. (And also with Chick-fil-A…but I still have five months left of my CFA fast so we don’t talk about that one.) Would you believe me if I said that it took me two weeks of these “solitude” and “Nouwen” bombardments before I realized Henri Nouwen has a lot to say about solitude? And here I was thinking they were two separate occurrences. Ha.

By that point, there was no denying that God had my attention. If everyone (including this Nouwen dude) is claiming solitude is so essential, why was this the first I was hearing of it?

Solitude is counter-cultural. In a world that demands go and do, solitude demands that we stop and sit. 

This nugget was from a seminary book:

“The practice of contemplative prayer––learning to quietly sit in God’s presence, gazing upon him, and allowing him, not our worded response, to fill our consciousness––is a transforming discipline for Christians more accustomed to prayer of the head than prayer of the heart.” (David Benner, Care of Souls)

Not only that, but I would venture to say that we also live in a world that demands we have a response to everything. We are trained to have a thoughtful opinion, witty rebuttal, or insightful analysis. If we don’t, well…you just failed 10th grade English, or you’re the laughingstock of the dinner party. Solitude can be super uncomfortable because it forces us to stand, unmasked, before God.

“Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.” -Henri Nouwen

Nouwen is adamant that even though solitude is hard work (I’ll affirm that claim), when we set aside time and space we will undoubtably be inundated by a thousand distracting thoughts as we are face-to-face with our inner chaos, but the result of perseverance is hope in the presence of God. We are reminded that God is bigger than we are.

But here’s what really got me: Did you know Jesus practiced solitude? Matthew 14:23 gives us a picture of Jesus practicing solitude in the middle of His ministry, “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.” Did you catch that? Jesus left the crowd. Went by himself up the mountain. Where he prayed. By himself. For a long time. He also practiced solitude after hearing about John the Baptist’s death (Matthew 14:13), after healing many (Mark 1:35), before choosing the Twelve Disciples (Luke 6:12), and the night he was betrayed (Matthew 26:39). One last verse to drive home this point: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Luke 5:16 NIV)

Here are some questions that helped me begin to practice solitude:

  • Where am I trying to use outer distractions to shield the inner noises?
  • When was the last time I stopped to listen to the quiet whisper of God?
  • Am I persevering, pushing into solitude?
  • What is my attitude toward solitude?

“In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness.” -Henri Nouwen

Sometimes we choose solitude and other times God plops us down in the middle of it. Regardless of how we got there, God will always, always, always use those times to teach us about who He is.

Solitude is not just for monks.

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Full

Choosing a word for the year is not a new practice. Maybe it’s safer to say it’s a new fad. Regardless, I’m a believer. Here’s why: when chosen with care, as a result of submission and asking God to reveal what He wants to teach my heart, it can function as a spiritual barometer. It forces me to be really focused on one area. It gives me a centering point for prayer. I can ask myself, “how are you doing practicing or believing [word of the year]?” Am I resisting God or pushing in to Him?

2017 was my second year to claim a word. In 2016, my word was “worthy” because I wanted to see God as worthy of my affections, what He called worthy in the world/people around me, and how I am worthy as God’s beloved.

My word for 2017: full. Because I have Christ, my life lacks nothing. I chose it because so much of my 2016 prayer life had involved phrases like, “Help me be content with…” or “Why am I not…?” or “Why is everyone else….?” I would read verses about God’s gifts and while knowing the Word of God is True, I would have a hard time feeling it.

  • “No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.” (Psalm 84:11) 
  • “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)
  • “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17)

If I’m being quite honest, I felt like God was withholding things from me. I watched as friends received things I wanted. I watched as friends got their dream jobs. Got married. Traveled to cool places with their friends. Had (what looked like) effortless relationships with their families. And the list goes on.

I love what Chad Ashby shared in his article “Is God Keeping Something From You?” over on Desiring God. We make it three chapters into the Bible before we see people confused by God and convinced that God is withholding good from them. God gave Adam and Eve an entire garden and they wanted the one tree they couldn’t have. I would definitely recommend reading Ashby’s entire article, but here are two of my favorite excerpts:

“Look at your life. Is it possible that you’ve fallen for Satan’s oldest strategy against us? Are you fixated on the one thing God is withholding? Has the Serpent convinced you that God is actually wrong to keep something good from you? Is it possible that your life is really a garden full of fruitful trees, but you’re stuck on the one tree God won’t let you have now?”

“God withholds good things from us to teach us to treasure him above every good thing. When he refuses to give us the good thing we plead for, he is actually giving us something even greater: himself and his grace to us in Christ.”

When I got to the root of it, the only thing that can bring me complete, lasting satisfaction is God himself. What if I stopped trying to figure out why my life didn’t look like I thought it should, and instead started thanking God for what He had given me?

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19)

Now let me get in front of one thing: moving to Greece did not automatically make my life more full. In a lot of ways, my life became a lot simpler. A big life change, such as I don’t know maybe moving half way around the world, can make your life feel more chaotic but when the dust settles, is still only a distraction.

Here are some questions I had to face over the last year that helped me practice seeing my life as “full.”

  • Do I believe that God is works for my good? (Romans 8:28)
  • Do I trust God’s timing is better than my own? (Proverbs 16:9)
  • Can God use suffering for good? (Romans 5:3-5)
  • Can loneliness contribute to fullness? (Luke 5:16; Hint: yes, it’s called solitude)
  • Is God’s presence what truly fills me up? (Ephesians 3:14-19)

One other way I practiced thanking God for my life being full is by recording a short video every day. Some days produced clips of groups of people together celebrating. Others were of still small moments I experienced by myself. As I watch this video (posted below) from the last year, I cannot help but stop and thank God for all that He has done and is doing in my life.

He is teaching me and meeting me here. My life lacks nothing because I have Jesus.

How full is your life?

Oh, and my word for 2018? Gentle. TBH, not very excited about it. But I trust Him to be a gentle teacher.