This article was written by Dr. Paul Gaultiere, a psychologist in California dedicated to the larger practice of Soul Care. He was highly influenced by Dr. Dallas Willard
Some Cautions about the practice of Silence and Solitude.
As important as solitude is you shouldn’t enter into it casually or carelessly – especially if you have an extroverted personality! There are reasons why many people are afraid to be alone, especially without activity or noise. Like Jesus in our solitude we may have to deal with Satan’s temptations and some wild animals (Mark 1:13).
“We can only survive solitude,” warns Dallas Willard, “if we cling to Christ there” (Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 161). Solitude and silence bring to the surface inner conflicts, distress, and longings. This can be upsetting or painful, but it is much needed purification! Whatever issues come up for us can then be brought to the Lord in prayer or shared with a friend later.
Henri Nouwen describes how our initial experience in complete quiet and aloneness with God is likely to feel:
Solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born…
In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.
But that is not all. As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long, hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential, and very attractive – or poor, ugly, and in need of immediate consolation. Thus I try again to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory…
The wisdom of the desert is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ (The Way of the Heart, p. 27-28).
Learn to Enter God’s Peace
Once you push through the initial discomfort and challenge of solitude you’ll find that it will bring the wonderful refreshment of God’s peace, “that transcends all understanding” and “will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
Even when we’re in stressful circumstances we can learn to maintain a silent center, a stillness of soul that flows in God’s peace. We come into this peace by training with Jesus in silence and solitude. As we go into the solitary place with the Lord he purges our souls of the distractions, anxieties, and sins that rise to the surface. Then his Holy Spirit like a dove settles on us and leaves us with the gift of peace, a deep and soul-full sense of well-being.
Learn to See and Hear
“The purpose of silence and solitude,” says Richard Foster, “is to be able to see and hear” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 86). The Spirit speaks to us when our heart is still and silent before the Lord – not when we’re rushing about and doing our own thing in our own way.
As Jesus said that it’s the purified heart that receives the blessing of seeing God (Matthew 5:8). And when God shows us himself or speaks his Word to us we want to pay attention! So it’s a good idea when you set aside time for a sacred silence to bring your journal and write down what you see and hear.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that solitude was so valuable in helping him to listen to God’s Word and center his mind on God that he practiced it at the start and end of every day:
“We are silent at the beginning of the day because God should have the first word, and we are silent before going to sleep because the last word also belongs to God… Silence is nothing else but waiting for God’s Word and coming from God’s Word with a blessing. But everybody knows that this is something that needs to be practiced and learned” (Life Together, p. 79).
When we’re deeply in love with someone we think about them when we get up in the morning and when we go to sleep at night — we think of them all the time! Spend extended time with Jesus in solitude and silence and you will grow more and more in love with him!
But if you try to serve the Lord without this Sabbath time then you’re likely to dry up spiritually. You may burn out. Not making regular use of solitude and silence is probably a main reason for Pastors Stress and why they burn out and on average only last five years serving as pastors.
Learning to Practice God’s Presence
Solitude and silence with God is about more than purifying peace and hearing God’s voice, it’s about being empowered to maintain our focus on God continually, to live conscious of and interactive with God’s presence moment-by-moment as we go about the activities of our day:
The “desert” or “closet” is the primary place of strength for the beginner, as it was for Christ and Paul… In stark aloneness it is possible to have silence, to be still, and to know that Jehovah indeed is God (Psalm 46:10), to set the Lord before our minds with sufficient intensity and duration that we stay centered upon him – our hearts fixed, established in trust (Psalm 112:7-8) – even when back in the office, shop, or home (Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 162).
Solitude, Silence, and Love for Others
The ultimate test of the value of solitude and silence is if they empower us to love others: if we’ve truly been with the God of love and his love is purifying us and putting us at peace then we’ll love others better. So we need to realize that silence isn’t something only for when we’re alone; it’s also about learning to control our tongue in our relationships.
As Jesus’ little brother James brings out in his epistle the tongue directs our lives like a rudder steers a boat and it is not an easy exercise to learn mastery over our tongues (James 3:4-5). How easily we criticize or slander others. How quickly we use our words to give others an ideal impression of ourselves. The discipline of silence teaches us loving restraint. We learn to see not only ourselves, but also others as under God’s grace.
“The fruit of solitude,” explains Richard Foster, “is increased sensitivity and compassion for others. There comes a new freedom to be with people. There is new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 95)
Practical Examples of Quiet Compassion
Each day we have many practical opportunities for us to practice silence out of love for others! For instance, we can rely on Christ and his grace to:
- Turn the other cheek when insulted
- Bless those that curse us
- Let someone cut in front of us in the checkout line or on the freeway and simply offer a smile or a quiet prayer from a glad heart
- Let others speak before us in a conversation or a meeting
- Do menial tasks without saying a word to draw attention to our service
- In a disagreement let our justification and image rest entirely on what Christ has done for us rather than what we say or do
- Keep quiet about an achievement because God’s attention is enough for you
Time to Talk!
Don’t misunderstand the exercise of silence. “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). As much as it’s good to be able to hold your tongue it’s also important to be able to speak the truth in love to people (Ephesians 4:15).
Practicing silence doesn’t mean having no boundaries! And it certainly doesn’t mean receiving abuse or any sinful violation in a way that would leave you endangered, depressed, afraid, or ashamed!
Richard Foster says, “A person who is under the Discipline of silence is a person who can say what needs to be said when it needs to be said… If we are silent when we should speak, we are not living in the Discipline of silence. If we speak when we should be silent, we again miss the mark” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 87).
Jesus modeled that wise appropriation: He knew when to be in quiet solitude and when to be in community, when to be silent before his accusers and when to speak up, when to let people go their way and when to confront them, when to endure persecution quietly and when to stand and fight in love.
In solitude and silence we go into training with Jesus so that we can bring him, and his wisdom and grace, into our relationships with others.
To learn more about how spiritual disciplines and soul training can encourage your growth in discipleship to Jesus and your experience of his peace and power in your daily life and work read my book, Your Best Life in Jesus’ Easy Yoke.