I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact,” wrote philosopher Blaise Pascal, “in that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”1 Pascal wrote those words in 1670, but they are even more applicable today. We fill our lives with distractions — social media, television, games — and assume we are trying to avoid boredom. But often our diversions are rooted in a fear of solitude.
By avoiding solitude, though, we are missing out on opportunities for deeper communion with God. Solitude is the discipline that calls us to consciously pull away from everything else in our lives, including the company of other people, for the purpose of giving our full and undivided attention to God.²
Almost every significant figure in the Bible — from Jacob to Elijah, Moses to Paul — spent time practicing the discipline of solitude. The Gospels frequently mention how Jesus “went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). In Luke 6:12 he “went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.”
Throughout his life Moses would often set himself apart to be alone with God, often for extended periods of time. In Deuteronomy 9:18, Moses reminds the Israelites that he practiced solitude and fasting “before the LORD for forty days and forty nights” on their behalf. Such passages can make us uncomfortable and despairing of our own lack of discipline: Moses could spend 40 days in solitude while we struggle to spend 40 minutes alone with God! But with effort, we, too, can practice the discipline of solitude.
Three things to consider when practicing solitude:
1. Solitude doesn’t require silence
Silence and solitude are complementary disciplines that aid our communion with God. But while silence almost always requires solitude, solitude does not necessarily require silence. We can use our time of solitude for prayer, verbal meditation on Scripture, singing psalms or hymns of praise or any other form of “noisy” activity. Solitude doesn’t require either silence or a hushed solemnity.
2. Solitude requires planning
Our lives tend to be filled with people and events, making it unlikely we’ll accidentally stumble into solitude. Being alone with God requires planning. Choose a place where you can be intimate with God and free from distractions. This “special place” doesn’t need to be special — it just needs to be a place where you can remove yourself from the world for as much time as needed.
3. Solitude requires time
On most days the best we can do is to get away alone for a few minutes, or even an hour. We should cherish these times and guard them carefully. Yet while these solitary moments are necessary, they’re hardly sufficient to meet our need for closeness with our Creator. Commit to finding creative ways to be alone with God for extended periods of solitude, ranging from a few hours to a few days.
Three reasons solitude is necessary for spiritual formation
1. Solitude amplifies other disciplines
We can carry out almost every other discipline in the company of others. We can pray, meditate and worship almost anytime and in any place. But practicing those disciplines in the context of solitude helps us achieve a greater focus and augments our efforts.
2. Solitude is not about being alone
Normally when we use the term solitude, we’re referring to the state of being alone. But solitude also has the meaning of “absence of human activity.” This is what we mean when we refer to the discipline; the purpose is not to be alone but to experience the absence of human activity so that we can more fully experience the presence of God.
3. Solitude exposes our idols
We might tell ourselves we prefer God’s company to that of any other person or thing in the world. Solitude puts that claim to the test. By being alone with God we get a clearer view of the idols of our heart, and we are presented with an opportunity to repent.
Put it into practice
Consider setting aside a block of at least 2 hours to be alone with God this coming month.
¹Blaise Pascal, Thoughts (London: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
² Ruth Haley Barton, “Solitude,” in Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, ed. Glen G. Scorgie (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).
Drawn from study articles in the NIV Lifehacks Bible.