It’s surprising how loud silence can be. Especially when you’re not used to it.
That’s my experience each winter, sitting there in the deer stand, the only manmade structure in sight. I am alone in the woods, it is silent — but for the whipping of the frigid Minnesota wind — and my soul is decompressing from months on end in the urban jungle. Body and soul find fresh air there that is hard to come by in the big city.
I want you to join me. Not in the stand (that would ruin it) but in some silent, occasional solitude of your own. You need a break from the chaos, from the noise and the crowds, more than you may think at first. You need the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude.
Silence and Solitude
We are humans, not machines. We were made for rhythms of silence and noise, community and solitude. It is unhealthy to always have people around, as well as to rarely want them. God made us for cycles and seasons, for routines and cadences.
From the dawn of time, we have needed our respites. Even the God-man himself was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1), “went out to a desolate place” (Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42), and “went up on the mountain by himself to pray . . . alone” (Matthew 14:23).
Getting away from time to time has always been a human necessity, but it’s all the more pressing in modern life. Especially urban life. By all accounts, things are more crowded, and noisier, than they’ve ever been.
“One of the costs of technological advancement,” says Don Whitney, “is a greater temptation to avoid quietness.” And so, many of us “need to realize the addiction we have to noise” (Spiritual Disciplines, 228). Sometimes I catch myself thoughtlessly flipping on the radio every time in the car. On occasion I’ll turn it off and try to consciously be mindful of God and pray. In the middle of a busy week, it’s remarkable how strange, and wonderful, the silence can be.
And so the excesses and drawbacks of modern life have only increased the value of silence and solitude as spiritual disciplines. We need to get alone and be quiet more than ever before.
“We need to get alone and be quiet more than ever before.”
Why Get Away?
But merely getting away isn’t enough. There is benefit to be had in just letting your soul decompress and getting out of the concrete jungle, enjoying nature, and letting your soul breathe fresh air. But there’s nothing distinctly Christian about that. For those of us who are in Christ, we want to come back better, not only rested, but more ready to love and sacrifice. We want to find new clarity, resolve, and initiative, or return primed to re-double our efforts, by faith, in our callings in the home, among friends, at work, and in the body of Christ.
One benefit of silence is simply searching the depths of our own souls, asking what our blind spots have become in the rush of everyday life. In the busyness, is there anything important I’m neglecting or repressing? How am I doing in my various roles? What needs refocusing?
Voices in the Silence
So we might get alone and be quiet to hear our own internal voice, the murmurs of our soul easily drowned out in noise and crowds.
But the most important voice to hear in the silence is God’s. The point of practicing silence as a spiritual discipline is not so we can hear God’s audible voice, but so we can be less distracted, and better hear him speak, with even greater clarity, in his word.
Getting away, quiet and alone, is no special grace on its own. But the goal is to create a context for enhancing our hearing from God in his word and responding back to him in prayer. Silence and solitude, then, are not direct means of grace in themselves, but they can grease the skids — like caffeine, sleep, exercise, and singing — for more direct encounters with God in his word and prayer.
Beware the Dangers
Both silence and solitude have their dangers. They are like fasting, in that we forgo a good gift from God, something for which we were designed, for some limited time, for the sake of some spiritual benefit. They are kinds of fasting, respites from normalcy, not meant to take over life.
Silence and solitude are not ideal states, but rhythms of life to steady us for a fruitful return to people and noise. These disciplines are advantageous due to our weaknesses in this present age. It’s doubtful we’ll need any solitude in the new creation, though there may be the silence of worship (Revelation 8:1). The Book of Revelation makes heaven seem loud and crowded, in all the best ways.
Solitude is a kind of companion to fellowship, a fasting from other people, to make our return to them all the better. And silence is a fasting from noise and talk, to improve our listening and speaking. But God doesn’t mean for us to fast long from food, fellowship, noise, and talk. And there’s nothing in Scripture that would lead us to think he would have us ever fast from his word and prayer. In fact, it is for increased engagement with God’s word and prayer that is at the heart of good silence and solitude.
Make Room for Daily Respites
Most talk about silence and solitude as spiritual disciplines seems to imply some kind of special retreat from normal life, but small, daily “retreats” can be vital as well. Such a brief season, alone and quiet, for hearing God’s voice in his word and responding to him in prayer, may be most fruitful in the morning when rested and alert, and the chaos of the day isn’t snowballing around us yet.
Some Christians have called it a “quiet time,” highlighting the silence; others, “time alone with God,” emphasizing the solitude. Call it what you may, these short daily stretches of engaging directly with God in the Scriptures and prayer are possible amid the chaos of modern life, and invaluable in guarding our heads and hearts in a noisy, crowded world.
Take a Special Retreat
And it can be fruitful to set aside special retreats as well. In my current season of life as a young parent, about all that’s realistic for me is a long weekend in the deer stand once a year. Ideally, such a get-away might be something you do twice a year, or even once a quarter. It can be inside or out, totally alone (miles from any other human) or at the same facility or center practicing “solitude together” at your own stations. Details will vary, but I commend the general habit for your soul — and doubt it will happen for you without some creativity and initiative to plan ahead.
When you do get such a thing on the calendar and find a place for it, here are some ideas for how to move through such a special season of silence and solitude.
- Pray for God’s blessing, that he will bring to light what in life needs your fresh attention, and that his Spirit will prompt your subconscious to “speak” honestly to your soul. Don’t assume the voices in your head are God’s; assume they are yours. To hear God, take up the Scriptures, and to the degree that your own thoughts for yourself align with what God has revealed in his word, then take them as a gift from God and take them to heart.
“Don’t assume the voices in your head are God’s; assume they are yours.”
Read and meditate on the Bible, whether it’s what’s assigned that day in some regular reading plan you’re working through in your daily respites or some special section you’ve selected for your time away. Trust God to meet you in his word and lead your time with his word — not just with internal promptings, but in what his providence has put before you objectively in the Bible.
Perhaps spend a few minutes just listening to the silence, and let your soul begin to “thaw,” especially if you keep a busy schedule in a crowded town.
Have a computer (consider turning the wifi off!) or good ole fashioned pen and paper. After thawing out, get the voices in your head down on paper (silence and solitude provide a context for the spiritual discipline of journaling).
Resist the urge to get detailed right away about specific to-dos back home; try to reflect on life and your callings in the big picture, at least to begin with. But as you wrap up your time away, get more specific, and bring back with you into normal life some take-aways that will help you sense, even immediately, the value of your retreat.
Include an extended season of prayer, guided by the Scriptures, perhaps the Lord’s Prayer, and continue recording thoughts as you direct your heart Godward in praise, confession, petition, and supplication.
Consider setting a calendar reminder for a few days or a week later to reflect back on your time away and read any notes you took or journaling you got on paper.
You may not know how bad you needed silence and solitude until you get to know them.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.