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Blaise Pascal observed, “All of man’s troubles stem from his inability to sit quietly alone in a room.”[1] Prayer demands solitude times, and perhaps seasons, in which we shut out the world and seek only God. At such times, God is our exclusive concern; we are closed to everything else. This may demand, from time to time, getting away, breaking from our world and its rhythm and demands. It certainly demands private space, uninterrupted time, the absence of distractions, and the developed capacity for stillness. Ravenhill charged that the antidote to burnout, the missing ingredient that insured against an inner collapse of spiritual vigor and vitality was “spending time alone with God consistently.”[2] He said, “…men won’t get alone because we are afraid of loneliness. We can’t take it. But if you don’t know how to get alone with God, you won’t know God deeper.”[3]

The partner to solitude is silence. These two – solitude and silence – are sadly foreign to Western culture. Monastic life seems bizarre to us. Even extended retreats for prayer are outside the range of our appetites. We pray on the run, in the car, with the radio blasting away, and the noises of rush hour in our ears. We pray jogging, as we listen to our favorite music. Praying and multi-tasking. We have no idea the cost, the toll, of such a low commitment to space and time for God on our lives. In addition, we fail to see that the noise and rat race pace are, in fact, characteristics of our worldly age. These are not godly values; they are worldly values.

Moreover, a part of our addiction to the world, our condition of worldliness, is manifest in our inability to be free of the world’s pace and noise. Our failure to pull away is the measure of the degree of our addiction. Just the exercise of struggling to pray, struggling to focus in prayer, is a kind of wrestling free of the cobwebs of worldly entanglement. That itself is a form of prayer, a plea to God, to make the world on top of this world as real, no, more real, than the world in which we live.

The monastics were champions of solitude, and despite the extremes of the movement, there are valuable take-aways. The monastics sought humility in the full acceptance of God’s hidden action in weakness and the ordinariness, even the unsatisfactory elements, of their everyday lives. This was not a passive acceptance of incompleteness, but a resignation from the world’s methods in order that in quiet, God might complete us in His own way. It was the joy of emptiness, simplicity, the rest of not striving in the strength of the flesh, the recognition that what was longed for could only be filled by God.[4] It is exactly the opposite of the flash and pizzazz of Western Christianity.

Solitude, it is observed, actually frees us. It is liberating – because it leaves us alone, with no one, dependent on no one but God. Human interactions take place along a continuum of anticipated action-reaction patterns that include the emotional, cognitive and volitional. We live in a social sea, connected to good and bad, positive and negative influences. Sadly, in our society, these interactive patterns are not typically informed by or reflective of Christian values. This is the reality of being in the world, and attempting not to be of the world. Solitude is our break with these patterns. It is an act of gracious defiance.

In solitude, alone with God, over an open Bible, in prayer, we perceive God’s design for behavior, for Christ-like thinking and feeling. Here we have a chance to receive the strength necessary to develop the character needed to make our break from the world, to bring our lives, by grace, under the liberating lordship of Jesus Christ.[5] Jonathan Edwards would say of Sarah, his wife, and her longing for solitude with God, “She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves, and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her.”[6]

You have not prayed well until you have prayed your way to silence; and you cannot pray well until you have silence in the center of your soul. Much of our praying is only making noise at the noises in our inner heart. It is in vain. You cannot scream your fears and anxieties away. Only the Presence of God, with a clear definitive sense of His love, brings the peace of God. Initially, words are critical to prayer. By them, we empty the cargo of our soul. They are the vessels upon which we load our emotions, our toxic waste, the residue of our temptations and trials, and lay them at the foot of the cross. But then, the best praying is on the other side of words when, if we had more words, they would not matter. This is the moment that something deep in us touches something deep in God, and we know that we know – there is a God, and we are His. He loves us, and all is well, even when nothing seems well.

  • This blog is part of The Praying Church Handbook – Volume III – Pastor and the Congregation which can be found at alivepublications.org>

[1]       Blaise Pascal, Pensees (New York: Penguin Classics, 1995).

[2]       Mack Tomlinson, In Light of Eternity: The Life of Leonard Ravenhill (Conway, AR; Free Grace Press, 2010), 344.

[3]       Ibid.

[4]       Thomas Merton, (2010-05-21). The Silent Life (6). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[5]       Willard, 160.

[6]       Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 92.

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