“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Mark 1:35
“But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Luke 5:16
We hear a lot about the importance of Christian community, accountability and fellowship. These activities are important. However, there is a place for solitude in the Christian’s life and this is what I want to address through the following three questions.
1. What is solitude? 2. Why do we not experience solitude? 3. Why must we experience solitude?
There’s an old Jewish joke/parable that begins with an old rabbi who stands in front of his congregation and looking down mutters, “I am nothing. I am nothing.” A few minutes later a deacon stands up and starts muttering, “I am nothing. I am nothing.” Then a janitor stands up and begins muttering, “I am nothing. I am nothing.” When the old rabbi and deacon hear this, they turn towards the janitor and say with indignation, “Who do you think you are to say that you are nothing?!” The relevance of this parable will hopefully become more apparent by the end of this message.
1. What is solitude?
Let us begin with what solitude is not. It is not an escape from the daily stresses of life. It is not taking a break. It is not peace and quiet.
According to the two passages above, Jesus went to a solitary place, a lonely place. The connotation of a lonely place is negative. Even today solitary confinement is considered to be a form of punishment for prisoners. So solitude is not a peaceful experience.
Then what is it? Solitude is experiencing silence, aloneness, and inactivity. In other words, you know you’re in solitude when you’re feeling restless, bored, anxious, and lonely.
Solitude is often experienced on long flights when there’s nothing to watch or read. It’s experienced during times of insomnia when there’s no one to talk with. It’s felt when you’re stuck in traffic with nothing to listen to. Or when you move to a new or foreign place. In Luke 5:16, another translation for lonely place is wilderness. The wilderness or desert is another place where people often experience silence, aloneness, and inactivity.
So what is solitude? Solitude is experienced the moment you want to break out of solitude, the moment when you urgently want to listen to something, or talk with someone, or do anything.
2. Why do we not experience solitude?
For example, why do we automatically go for the tv remote in silence or reach for the stereo in the car? Why is it so hard for us to spend 30 minutes alone in prayer, but not so hard spending 30 minutes playing a video game?
The obvious answer is because nobody likes feeling the ache of loneliness, the anxiety of having nothing to do, or the terrible feeling of boredom. That’s an easy answer for why we don’t experience solitude.
But to answer our second question more deeply, let’s ask why do we even have these terrible feelings in solitude? Because at first glance, silence, aloneness, and inactivity seem to be very neutral. That is, they don’t seem by their nature to have to be painful experiences, but solitude is painful. Why?
To answer this question, please turn to Ecclesiastes 3:18-20. And that reads: “I also thought, ‘As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.'” Ecclesiastes 3:18-20
Now the best commentary of this passage, in fact, of the whole book of Ecclesiastes, is found in a book called The Denial of Death written by Ernest Becker. Dr. Becker was a cultural anthropology professor at UC Berkeley and as far as I know he was not a Christian. Certainly the book was not meant to be a “Christian” book. Nevertheless, it’s something every Christian should read. Becker wrote the following:
“The prison of one’s character is painstakingly built to deny one thing and one thing alone: one’s creatureliness. The creatureliness is the terror. Once admit that you are a defecating creature and you invite the primeval ocean of creature anxiety to flood over you. But it is more than creature anxiety, it is also man’s anxiety, the anxiety that results from the human paradox that man is an animal who is conscious of his animal limitation. Anxiety is the result of the perception of the truth of one’s condition. What does it mean to be a self conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression – and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax. . . . . Culture is in its most intimate intent a heroic denial of creatureliness.” Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, p.87.
Now in view of this passage, especially that last sentence, why is solitude so painful? It’s because there’s no culture in solitude. There’s no work, no shopping, no entertainment in solitude. And if what Becker says is true – and I think he’s right on about this – if culture is one big distraction we use to help us deny the reality of our creatureliness, then without culture we’re forced to come face to face with our animal limitations: as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, that we have no advantage over the animal because like the animal we come from dust and to dust we’ll return. It’s this reality of our mortality that causes anxiety in solitude.
That’s what happened in Genesis 3:7, when Adam and Eve fell and couldn’t stand facing the reality of their nakedness and vulnerability. So what did they do? They relied on fashion. They made fig leaves to cover their creatureliness.
Today in our culture, we can feel alive through this drug or sexual experience; or we can feel in control through shopping or science; or feel significant because we went to this college or own that kind of car. This is why we love the world, according to 1 John 2:15. Lust, materialism, and prestige, all help us to deny that we’re going to die, that our existence is precarious, and that nothing we do really matters.
To prove the point further, do you remember how your life was on September 11? How terrorism forced you to face your mortality? How nothing – not work, not studying, not your possessions – seemed to have much meaning anymore? That’s what happens when a person confronts the reality of his mortality: we say with Ecclesiastes, “Everything is meaningless.” That’s what happens when culture can no longer disguise our mortality as happened on September 11. Everything becomes meaningless.
And that’s why solitude – which by definition is the absence of culture – is so painful. Without culture – without our Superbowls, without prestigious schools, without pornography, without phone calls, without expensive toys, without our fig leaves – we’d feel like our life is meaningless, the equivalent of self-aware worm food. And that’s what we fear most of all: that life is not worth living.
Let me ask you a very personal question. Why don’t you commit suicide? A person of the world might answer, “because I make a contribution to society” or “because of my family,” or “because I can enjoy sports.”
But in solitude – in silence, in aloneness, in inactivity – none of these answers are available. And that’s why we dread solitude. Because solitude only confirms our deepest fears: loneliness confirms that nobody loves us or needs us; boredom confirms that our life makes no difference at all.
So in answer to our second question, why don’t we experience solitude? Because solitude seems to feed our deepest anxiety – that essentially we’re nothing more than self-aware fertilizer.
3. Why must we experience solitude?
Luke 5:16 says that Jesus often withdrew to lonely places. Why? If we read on, we see that it was in order to pray. Since it’s so crucial to understand how solitude and prayer work together, let’s dig deeper into this. Let’s first remember the context of Jesus’ solitude. It was done in the midst of great activity. In Luke 5, Jesus had just healed a man covered with leprosy. In Mark 1, Jesus had been healing the sick and the demon possessed of the whole town. Jesus’ fame was spreading. His followers were growing. He was becoming known as a great healer and also a great teacher with authority (as Mark 1:27 points out). It was in this context that Jesus withdrew to solitude to pray. As Jesus’ fame increased, Jesus withdrew often into solitude. Now let’s answer why.
If Jesus had bought into the prestige and values of society, it would have been much harder for him to do what would be unpopular in society. That is, if Jesus depended on getting his sense of worth from culture, which values pleasure, power, and prestige (1 John 2:15), then He would’ve never been able to die on the cross.
So why did Jesus withdraw into solitude often while His fame was rising?
Because the essential value of solitude is this: it allows you to know and appreciate and understand that your worth comes solely and ultimately from being a child of God; not from who you are or what you do in society, but from the fact that you can call on God as your Father each time you pray.
Because Jesus knew God as His Father, He could turn down a life of pleasure, power, and prestige, and instead take pride in poverty, mockery, and crucifixion.
Many people say, “I know that God is my heavenly Father, that He loves me, that Christ died for me,” but do they really know this experientially? This is why we must experience solitude. Because solitude is the test for whether God’s love is truly in you. Because only a person with the love of God in him or her could resist being caught up in the routines and fads of culture, and be alone without being overly anxious.
Solitude is where the cliches about God can become a felt reality in prayer. It’s where the fig leaves of culture come off and where we can experience being clothed by God as Genesis 3:21 foreshadows. What does being clothed by God mean?
In solitary prayer, God’s covering means that you realize that you are valuable not because of what you buy, but because God has bought you with His Son’s precious blood as 1 Peter 1:18 points out. “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”
Being clothed by God in solitary prayer means that you realize that you are loved not because of your looks or your social status, but because God loves you unconditionally. As Romans 5:8 states, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Being clothed by God in solitary prayer means that you realize that you have a meaningful life not because of your own achievements but because Christ has imputed His achievements on you. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 states, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Each morning Martin Luther started off his day by saying, “Lord You are my goodness; and I was Your punishment.” Luther was a person who spent about three hours each morning in prayer. He was not someone who was afraid to face his creatureliness apart from culture.
Why must we experience solitude? To be stripped of culture and enjoy being clothed with Christ. But there’s another profound reason for experiencing solitude.
I’ve always wondered how observant Jews have been able to continue to carry on their traditions and rituals for thousands of years no matter what country they were in, or what fad was sweeping their society. Then I realized their secret. It’s the Sabbath. To make the point, here’s a description of the Sabbath by Abraham Heschel, considered to be the greatest Jewish theologian of the 20th century and who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. He wrote:
“The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization. . . To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization [culture], a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature: is there any institution which holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?” Abraham Heschel, Between God and Man, p.221.
You see, the power of the Sabbath is the power of solitude to help one transcend culture. If you can experience silence, aloneness, and inactivity without being overpowered by the urge to find distracting music, or to go shopping, then you can be free from culture in order to change culture in a powerful way as Jesus did. And just to clarify, things in culture might not be bad in and of themselves.
But when you cannot do without them to pray in solitude, then you know that you are a slave to culture. You know you’re a slave when you spend time playing video games or watching tv instead of spending quiet times with God. That is, your fear of being existential worm food continues to drive you into the arms of culture. (Hebrews 2:15)
The significance of this realization cannot be overemphasized. Too many assume that Christianity alone makes one a slave (“You must do this”; “You cannot do that”) whereas the world allows one to be free. But the reality is that the world makes one a slave as well. Thus the choice is not between freedom and slavery. The choice is between slavery to the world and slavery to God.
Let me conclude with three brief questions and then a story. First, are you overly self-conscious about your looks, or your age, or your rep, or what school you go to, or what career you have? Then you need solitude to teach you that you are not what culture says, but what God says you are in Christ. In Christ, you are His beloved, in whom He is well pleased.
Second, are you afraid of identifying with social losers, or befriending the homeless, or showing mercy to the mentally challenged? Then you need solitude to teach you that your worth is not measured by what friends or colleagues you have, but by the fact that God is your friend. In Christ, you are the envy of the world.
Third, do you dislike trying new or challenging things because you’re afraid that failing may just be more proof of your being a nobody, which is everyone’s deepest existential fear? Then you need solitude to teach you that your worth is not based on what you do, but on who you are in Christ. Galatians 3:26 says that you are an adopted child of God.
Now the story. In Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, the main character Raskalnikov asks Sonya why she doesn’t commit suicide. You see, Sonya is a beautiful young girl with a good heart, but her family is so poor that the only way she can support them is by selling her body as a prostitute. Raskalnikov mercilessly points out to Sonya that her father is dead, her mother is old and dying, which will leave Sonya to take care of her three younger siblings. But Sonya herself is in bad health, so that means she won’t be able to support her family, which means she’ll probably have to have her little sister sell her own body instead. And so Raskalnikov asks Sonia, with such a degrading, depressing, meaningless life, why doesn’t she commit suicide? Do you know how Sonya responds? She simply says, “I pray.”
Even when you realize that you are nothing, solitary prayer can help you also realize that you are everything in Christ. In culture you can enjoy some distractions from existential angst. In solitary prayer, you can enjoy the peace that transcends all understanding. (Philippians 4:7)