My time in the wilderness and solitude
July 25, 2012
Far a part of the time that Kristine, Rachel and Emma were in Costa Rica, Ava stayed at her cousin’s, and David stayed at his grandma’s, and I journeyed into the wilderness and solitude.
This journey began fourteen years ago, when I was given Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. The opening lines gripped me, and launched me on this journey: The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people…the classical disciplines (what I have been calling training) of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths…We must not be led to believe that the disciplines are for spiritual giants…Far from it. God intends …the spiritual life for ordinary human beings: people who have jobs, who care for children, who must wash dishes and mow lawns. In fact the disciplines (again what I would call training)are best exercised in the midst of our normal daily activities. If they are to have any transforming effect, the effect must be found in the junctures of human life: in our relationships with our husband or wife, our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors.
These words captured me and I devoured the book – perhaps not the best way to read a book that at least is partly saying s l o w down and be present to God in the moment.
And just to be clear, at the risk of repeating myself and things I have said before, any discipline/training (such as Bible study or fasting or corporate celebration or giving etc.), will in no way make God love you more. (This would give you control over the primary attribute of God which is love, and if you can weaken or increase God’s love for you well then I guess that would make you or I God – and to put it plainly we are not). Training is not “works righteousness.” You are already completely loved, and you will not be loved less if you do not engage in training. You are loved. Training opens us to the loving movement of the Holy Spirit in our life. The Spirit who cries out Abba Father. Training helps us be aware of the amazing love of God that surpassed knowledge.
One chapter of the book, which I found particularly alluring was the chapter on solitude, but this was the one that felt the most out of reach for me, who as Foster described had a job, needed to wash dishes, at that time change diapers (I know, I know Kristine did the majority, but I did change quite a few), mow a lawn etc.
But as I have read through the gospels quite a few times since in the past fourteen years, and after our study on Luke is complete will have taught through each of the gospels, I have over and over again noticed Jesus’ practice of withdrawal to solitude (lonely places) to be alone with the Father. In fact before he begins his public ministry he was alone with the Father for forty days.
I heard Dallas Willard say that it was a turning point in his journey, when he realized that if Jesus needed forty days, he could probably use a day here or there, and I thought that has to be true. So for fourteen years I had a longing for an extended period of solitude (and incidentally it is not because I am an introvert – if I am given a personality test I will invariably score high in extroversion – and sometimes it is us extraverts who will most benefit from solitude).
Over the years, I have been able here and there to get away to ‘a lonely place’ for 6-8 hours at a time, but never more than that. So with my family in many different places, and with vacation time to use, it seemed like the ideal time to get away to the wilderness to be with God.
I went just south of here somewhere outside of Three Rivers, Michigan to a place called the Hermitage, that was founded over twenty-five years ago by a group of Mennonites. Here I had four days of solitude interrupted only by a half hour corporate liturgy and one hour sessions with the retreat keeper to discuss what was going on in my soul as I was alone with God.
In solitude it was just the Father and me. One of the fears that I had entering solitude (and it is not an uncommon fear when entering a period of solitude) was: “Will just being with God be enough?” Here is how the question was formed for me for my periods for prayer and meditation: Is Jesus enough? Is how the Father sees me enough? Is the Holy Spirit with me enough?
I entered the solitude right after giving what felt like a challenging invitation (at least to me) for people I really love to leave their shoes at the communion table. I left after the talk and went towards solitude wondering what people thought, wondering who I offended …etc., and against this internal turmoil in the midst of solitude this was the question: Is Jesus enough?
The other fear to be faced (and again this is not uncommon) is: What will I do?” And the best answer is probably n o t h i n g. I guess practically speaking there is “doing.” I did read the Bible, I did spend large chunks of time praying, but in terms of what I would normally think of as “doing,” - cooking, talking, cleaning, working, surfing the web, watching sports, playing… I did nothing. There was no “product” at the end of the day. Nothing to show that I had been productive. Nothing to show I was here. This made me squarely face the question before the Father, “am I loved because of what I do? Or am I actually loved simply because I am your son?”
We undoubtedly live in a world where we are mainly “loved” or admired or liked for what we “do.” But, the astounding testimony of the Bible is that we are loved simply because we are God’s child.
Now, we will have had this experience once from humans, if we were born into a family of relative health. As infants we did nothing, except things that are actually somewhat annoying: we cried and we dirtied our diapers, but in this time when we did nothing but these things, we were loved. (Of course one of the immense tragedies of our world is that far too much of humanity will not even have had this experience).
But, as we grow, even in the healthiest of families, the world will slowly but surely communicate that we are “loved” or valued because of what we “do.” This is the question that is put to the test in the wilderness. “Am I actually loved by the Father right now as I am when I do nothing?”
These days in the wilderness, (and a part of the time was literally spent in the wildest place I have ever been), were some the most intense days of my life. I went in expecting them to be basically four days of uninterrupted peace. And I am convinced that peace (as I talked about a while back as in Shalom) will be one of the lasting fruits of this time. However, I would not describe the actual days as times of peace (and here maybe more just in the sense we sometimes think as quietness or rest). There were many moments of real contentment and rest, but overall there was more wrestling with the fears and questions I brought with me. And in the wilderness I truly discovered the truth of this saying: Wherever you go there you are. And again I defy someone to refute the truth of this statement.
Here is what I experienced in the wilderness.
One, God is extremely good company. Time with God is fantastic. But I also brought me, and I discovered that I am not always good company. I am not always kind to myself. But I brought away a determination to stop participating with the accuser or the brethren by acusing myself. I desire true humility. Not that I want to think less of myself, I don’t want to beat myself up, I just want to think of myself less. I desire my thoughts to be towards the One who loves me and gave himself for me. And I want my thoughts to be for the people whom God loves that I share life with.
Two, Jesus is absolutely enough. Whether I will always remember this, I had an intense experience of Jesus being absolutely and completely more than enough. There is no one like Jesus. This is something perhaps, we “know.” This is something that I have “known,” but it is another to experience.
Three, I am completely loved by the Father apart from my doing. I am loved because I am His child, and he is particularly found of me.
I pray that I will ever remember and carry these experiences with me. I pray that I may be a small part of helping others discover in community the God perfectly revealed in the Face of Jesus who is absolutely more than enough, and the love of the Father for his children - simply because they are his children.
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Very interesting thoughts Johnny
I would be interested to hear what you and your readers think of a similarly themed article I just had published at Elephant Journal.
“The Lost Art of Being Alone with God”