The Challenge of Solitude

We are addicted to being busy.

In the western culture at least, we love to achieve, excel, and be persistently hurried to move on to the next thing. More than ever we need space to practice solitude, to be away from the noise, the frenzied lifestyle that renders us deaf to God’s gentle voice.

A couple weeks ago I went away for a a few days of silence and solitude. On my return I questioned whether I was supposed to feel more rested or not. I realized that in past experienced, I did feel rested, but not this time.

Indeed, the ancient christian practice of silence and solitude isn’t merely meant for us to find physical rest—it’s much bigger than that.

I’ve had times of solitude and silence in the past but this time around, it felt like I was riding a bicycle for the first time. It was a bit shaky, awkward, imbalanced and full of failure. It took some time for me to get into the right headspace. I kept doubting myself as to whether I was “doing it right.” Should I pray more? Read more? Eat less?

It was the first time in a long time—over a year—that I hadn’t had a time of silence and solitude, but I’m encouraged to know that like most spiritual disciplines, they get stronger and more fluid with practice. You start to know where the pedals are without looking, how to have the best possible posture for optimum balance, and you learn to get off and on as though the bike becomes an additional limb.  When the practice of solitude and silence becomes part of your rule and rhythm of life, you will get better at it.

Secondly,  I didn’t return from my day of solitude “rested” because of what solitude is actually for.  Henri Nouwen puts it best when he says that “solitude is the furnace of transformation.” When Jesus spent 40 days in the desert to be alone with the father, he encountered temptations and wild animals. Similarly, solitude is the place where we face our own devils—our pain, our guilt, our shame, our temptations—the things that God wants to set us free from. It’s a place of honest introspection, where everything comes out and we encounter the truth about who and where we really are.

This may be emotionally and physically burdensome.

Indeed, the place of solitude is a place where one might feel quite far from God, because they are coming to grips with their own godlessness.  In the classic book on contemplative prayer, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” the writer speaks of a “cloud” that seems to separate us from God when first seeking him in long  periods of contemplation, silence, and solitude. God may seem distant, far, even angry.

This is why Dallas Willard reminds us that  “we can only survive solitude if we cling to Christ there.” Having our emotional trauma and baggage show up (when we thought we were done with it all) can be distressing both physically and emotionally—this is the “furnace” part that all transformation requires.

Henri Nouwen beautifully describes what silence and solitude with God can cause us 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).

This is the challenge of solitude: to make room for us to see our own need for Jesus and to truly trust him to make us new. Even when everything in us wants to run way, go to our usual comforts, and take matters in our own hands.

There’s a greater goal to solitude than rest—it’s trust.

Trust that God is not a far off punishing and angry God, but a close, loving father, who loves us too much to let us stay the way we are.

The challenge of solitude is the challenge of the furnace—the fire—of transformation.

Why Church is a Like Dressing Room


12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Colossians 3:12-16

Childhood Sunday mornings started with the sound of metal hangers screeching down the pole in my closet. The noise informed me that my mother was arranging my Sunday outfit; the weekend was pretty much done and it was time to get up and ready for (what seemed to be) a long day of church. And it was now my responsibility the put on my clothes for church.

In the early days church was a time to see friends within the confines of  Sunday School and Sunday services. As long as I respectfully attended those events, it was fair game; I could hang out with friends before and after and sit with them during the service.

I didn’t have any theological understanding of what church was for; for me, church on Sunday was time to spend with friends.

Even though church, in my mind, was for spending time with friends, I have no doubt that each Sunday gathering was a place of formation: God was forming me in ways I never could have imagined.
While I was getting dressed for church, God was dressing me for a new life.

The life-long process of becoming Christian is God’s main concern. He wants us to be formed into a certain kind of people; that’s why the Bible often refers to salvation as a “new life.”

Paul lays out the characteristics of this new life in many of his letters, and one of his favourite metaphors to describe it is through the everyday practice of getting dressed.  The Christian life is one where we “put off” what is sinful and “put on” what is godly. When you become a Christian, you learn to put on the right clothes; a constant a putting off and a putting on.

Now, it’s easy to know the right answers to most questions about what’s right and wrong, and yet it’s quite hard to live them out. For example, it is easier to preach on 1 Corinthians 13, the famous love chapter, than it is to love my neighbour as myself.  It’s much easier to explain God’s grace to someone than it is to be gracious when mistreated. It’s much easier to sing about surrender than it is to truly surrender our bank account, our time, and our energy. Let’s be real: it’s much easier to receive and relish God’s forgiveness than it is to offer it to those who’ve offended us.

Putting off sin and putting on Christ is far from easy or automatic; at least not at first. Putting on Christ needs to be learned, and it needs to be practiced.

We need help.

Let’s look again at Paul’s clothing metaphor in context. A sermon I heard recently reminded me that getting dressed takes practice. That might sound bizarre at first because you might not remember not being able to get dressed, but I guarantee that you weren’t born into this world with the natural ability to dress yourself. Mom or Dad manipulated your limbs to undress and dress you into the outfit that they imagined for you before you woke up.

Eventually, (I hope), you learned to dress yourself. In fact, you’ve dressed yourself so many times, that now, you don’t even think about it. Getting dressed is second nature to you; you may ponder on the outfit, but the “putting on” takes no thought, it just happens.

Paul chose a brilliant picture: everyone needs to learn how to get dressed. And learning how to do it requires help. And once you learn, getting dressed takes practice, it takes time, but eventually, it becomes second nature, it becomes automatic.

But this is where it gets good: you don’t have to practice alone.

The way we put on holiness, compassion, kindness, meekness, and patience and love is through what Paul describes in verse 16:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another…singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness.”

Paul’s talking about what happens when the church gathers.

Sunday gatherings is our practice time: As we gather to sing, to worship, to hear the preached Word, to participate in Holy Communion and to celebrate Baptism, we are getting dressed; putting on Christ. God graciously provides the clothes, and now teaches us how to put it on, indeed, he puts it on for us. “Work out your own salvation,” Paul says, “for it is God who works in you.”

And as the Church gathers, it becomes the place where we practice “putting on” Christ. The place where we learn to work out our salvation.

As the gathered church we absorb the Gospel through our senses: we see each other and the elements of communion with our eyes, we sing and pray together with our voices, we hear God’s Word for us with our ears, we consume the bread and wine with our mouths. Every sight, sound and movement acts together as a means to practice the deep love for us in Christ. Hearing sermon after sermon does something to your heart, even though you don’t necessarily remember every single one.

Just as you learned to get dressed, church is the dressing room where you learn to put on Christ, and eventually Christ’s too becomes second nature.

Paul began the letter to the Colossians with the prayer that they would be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:9-10). 

That’s what church is for. It’s the dressing room, where we put on the clothes that God provided for us, the place where we can learn together what it means to put on Christ. Week by week we are putting on God’s love, God’s patience, God’s humility, meekness and compassion, so that we can get back into the world with right kind of clothes.