Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Seeking Solitude

Recently I’ve been pondering how we can seek solitude in the midst of fast-paced, noise-filled, stress-full lives. I’m challenged by good friends of ours who live in one of the world’s largest cities and ask: Does solitude always mean that we have to “get away” to a quiet place (preferably in nature) and be alone for an extended time? Is it possible to kindle a kind of solitude and stillness within our own hearts that can strengthen and renew us in a similar way that the “physically-getting-away” solitude can, and draw us ever closer to God? Can we experience intimacy with God while we remain surrounded by buildings and people and chaos?

In Intimacy with the Almighty, Charles Swindoll describes the four disciplines we need to develop intimacy with our Heavenly Father: simplicity, silence, solitude, and surrender. I love all of these concepts, and my heart resonates with the subtitle: Encountering Christ in the Secret Places of Your Life. But, my question after reading this inspiring little book, is how we can learn to find this internal rest and intimacy even during times that our external environment doesn’t promote stillness and solitude.

Swindoll refers to 1 Samuel 30:1-4 when David and his men returned to Ziklag and were disheartened to discover that the Amelikites had burned the city and taken their women and children captive. He writes:

“Just imagine! On top of the unending pressure from Saul, the exhaustion from battle, the loss of their homes, and the intense concern for the safety of their families, murmurings of mutiny spread like cancer throughout the camp.

No one came to David’s defense or rescue. Few have ever felt more alone, but no one ever rose to the occasion more responsibly or more maturely. We read his secret in a few words: ‘David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.’ (v. 6b)

Don’t miss the point—David faced the situation with realism; but he refused to panic, to fight back, to run, or to dissolve in self-pity. Realizing his dire need for time alone with God, he moved away from his embittered companions, away from that chaotic scene, and sought a place of quietness and stillness to strengthen his soul.” (p. 48-50)

But, I wonder, did David actually leave the scene? Did he need to physically remove himself from that very non-ideal place to be, in order to strengthen himself in the Lord? Could he have found a place of quietness and stillness within his own soul to strengthen his spirit (still surrounded by people who wanted to kill him)?

Swindoll also describes the passage when Jesus said to his weary disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest awhile.” (Mark 6:30-32) He writes:

“(Jesus) was well-acquainted with the draining influence of ‘many people coming and going’…so he encouraged them to slip away as He got them in a boat and sailed with them to ‘a lonely place” Why? So they could be in a place ‘by themselves.’ Clearly, Jesus saw the value of solitude…the need for escape from activity. It was there that serenity could be cultivated.” (p. 64)

But, in the scene that immediately followed Jesus’ invitation, the crowds ran ahead and met Jesus with his disciples as they got off the boat. And because Jesus had compassion on them, he began to teach them. The time got late, and Jesus multiplied the fish and the bread in order to feed the more than 5000 hungry people. So did the disciples ever get their rest? After finally dismissing the crowd that night, Jesus made his disciples get into their boat and go of him to Bethsaida. (v. 45) Jesus then went alone on a mountainside to pray. And he walked out to their boat on top of the lake about the fourth watch of the night, while they were straining at the oars because the wind was against them.

What did Jesus want to teach them?

I think he wanted them to seek solitude and a quiet place to rest, but to be able to find an inner rest for their souls even when the crowds were still there. He showed them how it was possible by his own example. Once, when Jesus was tired and took a rest by a well, he asked for a drink of water and then revealed his identity as living water to a Samaritan woman, completely changing the course of her life. When his disciples later returned and urged him to eat, he told them that he had food they knew nothing about, which was to do the will of his Father. (John 4:4-34).

When the disciples didn’t get a quiet place to rest, they wanted to send the crowds away (Mark ). But Jesus had compassion on the crowds and was “fed” by teaching them, because he was doing his Father’s will. The disciples could have been fed in a similar way, through listening to Jesus’ teaching and through Jesus allowing them to be part of the miracle of the multiplication of a boy’s lunch. But, Mark records that the disciples were amazed when Jesus climbed into their boat late that night and the wind died down, “for they had not understood about the loaves and their hearts were hardened.” (Mark ) We can easily identify with these disciples who were such ordinary men, and often didn’t really understand what Jesus wanted them to learn until later.

As Jesus walked toward his disciples on the water, they were terrified that he was a ghost (Mark ). I believe that in addition to Jesus wanting his disciples to learn to find rest for their souls, even in an environment that didn’t feel restful, he wanted to teach them to recognize who he was and what he had the power to do. If the disciples understood who was in their midst, they wouldn’t panic or worry about where they were going to get enough food to feed all the people, or how they could find the strength to row against the wind all night, or whether they might drown in a storm.

Mark’s account of Jesus sleeping in the boat during a fierce storm records the disciples waking Jesus with an accusation, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark ) I’ve often wondered when Jesus responded with “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (v. 40) if it was the wrong thing for the disciples to wake him. But, I think that he must have been disappointed in their attitudes (not upset that they woke him up). With the words they spoke to Jesus, we can imagine that they were fearful, angry, resentful, panicked. How could Jesus have been sleeping at a time like this? But, if they knew who Jesus was and how much he cared for them, would they have responded that way? They could have “strengthened themselves in the Lord” as David did. They could have remained calm, and not given into despair.

I believe this is what Jesus wants for us to learn as well, as we face life’s storms and physical exhaustion and situations beyond our control: to trust Him, to find our strength in Him, to seek time alone with Him, and to develop the solitude of our inner hearts so that when our external environments don’t allow for extended times away, surrounded by nature, we can still find peace, rest, and renewal for our soul.

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