Tuesday, October 07, 2008

In Solitude God Morphs the Human Heart

Spend meaningful time in solitude, for the sake of encountering God, and your heart will be transformed.[1] I know this from – to this point – thirty years of taking much time alone in the presence of God. God can metamorph the human heart. If there has been any morphing of my heart into Christlikeness, a main reason for this is the many hours I have spent alone with God and focused on God.

Solitude is not “loneliness.” Solitude is one-on-one time with God and no one else. Go to a lonely place and be alone with God, just the two of you. Enter into solitude for the sake of drawing near to God. This kind of thing takes us into the “deep waters of the heart[2],” arguably in ways fellowship and corporate worship do not.

To verify the transforming power of the Spirit while in solitude with God, go alone to a quiet place away from your home, work, and place of ministry for a day. Leave your I-phone behind. Take only your Bible and journal. Tell God you are open to whatever he wants to say to you and do within you. Then watch what happens. As Merton said, there will be an encounter with the subconscious depths of your will, where ancient selfish motives move comfortably like forgotten sea monsters in waters where they are never seen.

This will be both threatening and purifying. Dallas Willard notes that the most challenging environment in a prison setting is solitary confinement.[3] For many people solitude is dangerous. It can feel punishing to be alone with themselves and God. Our world does not train us for this. Our busyness is often used to cover up the deep waters of the heart that are painful to us. Solitude threatens to reveal the pain lying deep below the surface of our outward activity.

Solitude is also purifying. It can be, as Henri Nouwen says, the “furnace of spiritual transformation.” God wants to open our hearts up and examine them like a Great Physician. When we’re alone with God in this way the results are always cleansing and healing and loving and directive and challenging. Any inner pain and hurting we have gets exposed and removed. We may fear the exposure. But the exposure is needed for the healing to take place.

The human heart, as Proverbs 20:5 says, is a deep thing. God has made it this way. Depth is good as well as dangerous. For God the good outweighs the danger, for the human heart is a majestic thing. Consider the deepest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior. Its turbulence, danger, majesty, and glory are a function of its great depth. Lake Superior is known for its dangerous waves that have sunk many a ship. If it were only ten feet deep it wouldn’t have such huge waves. It would be far less threatening, as well as far less dramatic and glorious. The great depth of Lake Superior makes possible the great dangers and possibilities that lie on its surface.
Analogically, the human heart has great depth. In it lie both great potential for evil as well as possibilities of moral and spiritual heroism. Solitude has the potential to move a person into the deep and potentially dangerous waters of the human heart. In solitude a shallow life can get examined and deepened.

In our 21st-century American culture of lots of meaningless doing we are not taught the value of much time alone with God. Solitude is viewed as “doing nothing.” Yet solitude is something God calls every real Jesus-follower to practice. Here are eight reasons why we need to take time alone, in solitude, with God.

1. Jesus Spent Time Praying in Solitude.

Why choose times of solitude? Isn’t it an option that might be good for some but not needed for others? The answer to this is that Jesus spent time in solitude. Jesus began his ministry by spending 40 days alone in solitude (Mt. 4:1-11). Before choosing the 12 he spent the entire night alone in the desert hills (Lk. 6:12). When he heard of John the Baptist's death he "withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart" (Mt. 14:13). After feeding the 5000 he dismissed the crowd and "went up into the hills by himself" (Mt. 14:23). After a long night of work, "in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place" (Mk. 1:35). After healing a leper, Jesus "withdrew to the wilderness and prayed" (Lk. 5:16). Before his time on the cross he went alone to the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36-46).

If our Lord took times of solitary prayer out of his own need to be in contact with the Father, should we do any less? For me this first reason is enough. But we can say more.

2. Our World Does Not Value Solitude.

In our world, "doing" is more important than "being," and speaking is more important than silence. I have met many people (mostly men) who work “7 – 12s”; that is, 7 days a week for 12 hours each day. People spend their lives working and doing and eating and sleeping and then starting the same cycle over again. This structural evil leaves no time for getting alone with God. We have many people who say they have no time to pray. Such hearts are formed into the mold of this world.[4]

In our world words win out over silence. Henri Nouwen has said that we live in an increasingly "wordy world." My experience is that the constant barrage of words that come at us day after day not only do not serve to enrich our souls, but actually produce a kind of spiritual deadness, an insensitivity to the things of the Spirit.

I believe that what the Bible calls "wisdom" is largely cultivated in solitude. We need lots of pondering and processing time. I like the way Eugene Peterson expresses this: "All speech that moves men was minted when some man's mind was poised and still.”[5] This can happen in time alone with God. You need it, as do I. Without much time in solitude with God we’re in danger of becoming thoughtless as we spit out data and information but no wisdom.

3. In Solitude There Is An "Unmasking of Ourselves."

When we go to pray alone with God we leave behind the "masks": viz., those things that are devices for covering up the self. We leave behind the people with whom we pose and posture, perform before, and trivialize with. In solitude no one is there to affirm us or challenge us or shame us. No one, of course, except for God. In solitude we leave behind all those activities we hide behind and which keep us from facing ourselves. What is left? Things such as: our temptations, our fears, our reactions and reactiveness, our own unfaithfulness and disbelief, our own lack of trust in God, and our own demons. What is left is who we truly are, what we truly have become.

This is a good thing. Authenticity is impossible without it. In solitude with God we cry out “Search me O God, and know my heart.” Know me, God. One can’t be running around and doing whatever keeps you busy and authentically pray this. In fact, a person can’t be authentic without solitude. Because you’ll never get unmasked by God and known by God and reshaped by God.

4. In Solitude We Encounter Our Own Powerlessness and Need.

Psalm 40:17 says, "Yet I am poor and needy, may the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; O my God, do not delay." Only the person who recognizes he is needy can seek the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Only the person who feels thirst will crave water.

In solitude we see how powerless and needy we are. We see more clearly our need for transformation. This brings humility. This is very good, because it’s at this point that we begin to turn to God.

Consider Jesus, alone in the desert, tempted by Satan. It’s time to find out just what Jesus is made of. The fact that God allowed Jesus to be tempted in a desert alone instead of in a city surrounded by his disciples is significant. Jesus steps, alone, into the ring with Satan, and there are no spectators watching and cheering. In the desert Jesus doesn’t have some home field advantage. But he does have the Father. It’s Jesus’ dependence on the Father that is the key to the victory of Jesus over temptation.

In his solitude in the desert Jesus was tempted to do three things:
- Be relevant! ("Turn stones into loaves.")
- Be spectacular! ("Throw yourself down.")
-Be powerful! ("I will give you all these kingdoms.")

In solitude we see the reality of temptations like these. We see how easily we are tempted by far less trivial things than these. We see the reality of spiritual battle. In solitude strength is increased for victory over the enemy.

5. In Solitude We See That Being Is Spiritually Prior To Doing.

Henri Nouwen writes that, "In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness."[6] In The Genesee Diary Nouwen says that solitude teaches us to develop a "presence" before people rather than having to give them a "performance."

In solitude we will hear God whisper our name and say the words “I love you.” I’ve heard this many times when alone with God. I’ve read hundreds of spiritual journals sent to me by pastors and Christian leaders, and have seen how God takes advantage of alone times with him to say “I love you.”

OK – that’s good. But so what? The importance of this is to hear the voice of God that says “I love you, and my love is not based on your doing or performance.” This is radically different from the conditional love of this world. Or at the time of Jesus, when there was a social hierarchy that Jesus came to overthrow in the name of God whose love is not performance-based.

For me this is crucial, since we live in a world that values what we can do more than who we are, and rewards us on that basis, and when the days of our doing are over discards us and marginalizes us. In solitude we can expect to have a daily God-revolution that frees us from measuring ourselves by what we do and tells us we are loved no matter what we do. This is freedom. It’s experience lies in solitude with our loving God.

7. In Solitude We Develop Compassionate Solidarity.

In solitary times of prayer God will show us the reality and depth of our own hatred, envy, jealousy, cruelty, lust, and so on. We will see within our selves these "seeds of destruction" and "the violence within."[7] In the great devotional literature there is the near-unanimous opinion that the spiritually mature person will have more compassion towards all kinds of people because God has identified the seeds of sinful behaviors within themselves. We see that we are "those kind of people" too. We realize we need the help, mercy, and grace from the Lord if we are not to give in to the violence within.[8]

Solitude is the foundation of all meaningful corporate spirituality. Why? Because in solitude one gets re-related to God. To return home after a solitary time with God means that many fearful, anxious burdens have been placed upon Him. What Kierkegaard called “the crowd” and Nietzsche denigrated as “the herd” becomes an unreal, phony place to be if people have not taken the time to be stripped away by God.

Richard Nixon used to appoint someone to enter a room filled with waiting people to “prepare the room for his entrance.” He wanted, apparently, all eyes to think of him and be on him. Conversely, the end result of people being around a follower of Jesus should be an experience of being, not in a great person’s presence, but in God’s presence. The compassion of Jesus towards the poor and needy and even towards enemies is felt in a human heart that’s been morphed into Christlikeness.

8. Our time in meaningful solitude affects others.

A friend of Henri Nouwen named Sarah was leaving for a three month retreat in solitude. Nouwen writes: “I asked God that Sarah’s time in solitude would bear fruit not only in her own heart but in the hearts of many people. Sarah looked gratefully at me and said, “Yes, my time away is a time for others.” Then she drove off.”[9] (Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, p. 20) What God does as you spend time alone with him is not only for you, but also for others. My wife Linda is grateful that I take time alone with God, because she knows during this time God can work out the struggles within me that I might bring home to her. Because of this my ministry to others can become more actual and relevant as my time away with God increases both temporally and spiritually.

Nouwen writes that "the great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there."[10] Do you want to be used by God to set captives free and deliver people out of oppression? Then get delivered yourself, by the hand of God. The deliverance and freedom God works in you as you spend solitary times with him will be used to set others free.

[1] Most of what I know about solitude comes from my own experience and the writings of Henri Nouwen.
[2] Proverbs 20:5 – “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.”
[3] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines
[4] Romans 12:1-2
[5] Citing R.E.C. Browne, in The Contemplative Pastor (1999: Christianity Today, Inc.), p. 30.
[6] See Nouwen, Out of Solitude
[7] See Thomas Merton, Seeds of Destruction; and Paul Tournier, The Violence Within
[8] One of Merton’s most powerful spiritually transforming experiences occurred in Louisville as he had an epiphany causing him to feel a divine love for all humanity.
[9] Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, p. 20
[10] Nouwen, The Wounded Healer,