How to Live the Bible — The Challenges and Blessings of Solitude
This is the one-hundred-sixth lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
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Mel is the author of the upcoming A Chronicle of Grief: Finding Life After Traumatic Loss.
The global health crisis has been disruptive and disturbing. Most people have experienced a sense of loss of one thing or another. We miss handshakes and hugs, gatherings and congregational worship, spontaneity, and simplicity.
One would think that solitude would come easy, but for many of us in the modern world it’s as difficult as any other spiritual discipline. Quietness is threatening. To have something noisy happening all the time is to protect ourselves from what might happen if things suddenly got very quiet. Noise prevents us from thinking and it lets us off the hook in our responsibility to think and reflect. In a busy culture of sheer pragmatism solitude looks like a waste of time, or an unjustifiable indulgence.
But in life whenever we lose something, there’s something else to gain. When we get disconnected from each other, we might discover other important connections. Some people have been finding blessings in having more time with their families (though some would say they don’t need quite so much time with their immediate families). When we disconnect, we have more time for reflection and contemplation. And, when we’re more alone, we may go deeper in our understanding of and relationship with God.
This is the purpose of solitude. In Latin solus simply means alone, and that’s the essence of solitude. It’s a proper form of isolation or seclusion, a drawing away for a holy purpose.
We live in a noisy, cluttered, clamorous world. And we’re used to it. We spend much of our days with some kind of noise in the background—the television, the radio, memes and posts and two-minute videos. When we’re honest we realize that Jesus warned us about this when he talked about the seed planted in thorny soil, where “the worries of this life” choke out spiritual life (Matt. 13:22).
It’s unsettling to disconnect. The quietness can feel foreboding. Yet there’s much to gain in solitude.
Many figures in Scripture model solitude as a normal part of the rhythm of life.
The prophet Elijah was forced to flee to the wilderness, and there he heard God as a “still, small voice.” Elijah stood alone on a mountain and…
“…a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12).
God called Moses to solitary places. The Apostle Paul lived in the desert of Arabia for three years, apart from other followers of Jesus. There, in solitude, he learned things from God that formed the basis of his ministry.
Jesus is the prime example of the rhythm of solitude. As Luke put it: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Lk. 5:16). Sometimes the disciples were alarmed because they did not know where Jesus was, or why he would withdraw. They found it difficult to follow his example.
But Jesus insisted time and again that we find our core spiritual identity not in public displays of devotion, but in privacy. “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). We find out what kind of people we are by noticing how we behave when no one else can see us.
Now none of these examples tell us that the only way to have a vital relationship with God is solitude. No, fellowship and worship and connectedness with brothers and sisters in the faith is rich and formative. That’s why during this global health crisis we miss the normal way we connect with each other. And for good reason.
Of course we do have ways to connect. It may be through video worship, or teleconferencing, or reading. We find our ways. One day things will get back to normal.
But in the meantime it would be wise to take advantage of a time of life when we’re alone with God much of the time. To accept both the challenge and the blessing of solitude. And to value it.
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s teaching pastor. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.
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