Desperate for Distraction
Why We’re Bad at Being Alone
A slight breeze of discomfort blows a thought through my mind: What am I doing here? The room I’ve known for years suddenly takes an awkward shape. The silence, the stillness gives everything an unnatural quality, like a deer’s head mounted on a wall. Eyes are open, yet nothing moves.
As I finally settle into the stillness, distractions offer themselves from all sides. “My Father who art in heaven,” I begin to pray, “hallowed be thy name. In my city, exalt your name. In my life” — why are my feet so cold?
After I tiptoe back with socks, I kneel. Where was I?
Oh yes. “Exalt your name in my life, Lord. And please make your kingdom come and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” — wait, what was that sound? One of the kids? What time is it? It cannot be.
As I glance down the hall, I notice books disjointed on the shelves beside me. Hmm, I should really read Holiness again. . . . I still can’t believe Amazon shipped the book with that damaged corner — I should have returned it. Packages, packages . . . wasn’t something supposed to come yesterday? What was it again?
Running from Solitude
Of late, I’ve noticed I’ve been getting worse at being alone. That sanctuary of solitude with God, a place where hours could pass unnoticed, has fallen victim to a life filled with activity. “Quiet times” have become harder to bear. Money-changers now sit in my house of prayer, noisily selling pigeons and livestock. And what is worse, I invited them in. But why?
“That sanctuary of solitude with God, a place where hours could pass unnoticed, has fallen victim to a life filled with noise.”
Blaise Pascal explains well enough why the unredeemed world hates silence. “Diversion. Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things” (Christianity for Modern Pagans, 170).
Pascal sees men without God fleeing their Creator, and themselves, at every turn. This world swirls with hustle and bustle, men busily chase what they don’t want because fallen humanity will not — cannot — endure the frowning thoughts that meet them in stillness.
Thus, clamor keeps back the awful light of self-knowledge, the unwelcome truth that Adam’s race is a terminal patient, busy building vanities upon the seashore to keep him from considering that he is a creature, dying. Or as Jesus depicted, a branch withering, soon to be cast into the fire and burned (John 15:6). Pascal ventures, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room” (172).
Threats to Quiet
But of course, this is not the Christian’s case. God found us at midday, drawing water alone from the well. There, he told us of our sin and situation. But there too, he offered himself to us as living water. In the quiet moment, a bush burned before our souls; we removed our sandals to be broken and healed by his voice.
And this begins a pattern: Daily quiet times become opportunities to meet with God. Journals are filled. Words underlined. Prayers spoken. Tears shed. Songs sung.
“Slowly, if we fail to keep watch, the good portion, the one thing necessary, the quiet closet becomes forgotten.”
But slowly, if we fail to keep watch, the good portion, the one thing necessary, the quiet closet becomes forgotten. That rural religion — green, organic, discreet — moves closer to the city of metal, machines, and commotion.
Three dangers, I notice, threaten my desire for solitude with God.
First, a Friendly World
The world outside my room stands with hand outstretched, ready to invite me into its fellowship. John Bunyan described Christian’s path as leading through the stir of Vanity Fair. And so it is.
Some of what I have called “busyness” — building a career, seeking a spouse, pursuing happiness — Jesus calls indulging the “cares of this world,” the “deceitfulness of riches,” and “desires for other things.” When they threaten to choke out his voice in my life, gifts become thorns.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus says,
Others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. (Mark 4:18–19)
God’s truth gets strangled in hearts and minds, not just by the fierce grip of persecution, but by the gentler hold of the American dream.
I need to be reminded,
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
At times, I need to be confronted,
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? (James 4:4)
At other times, I need to be shown,
Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. (2 Timothy 4:10)
And always, I need to pray,
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. (Psalm 90:14)
Second, a Thinning Soul
When I desire the world, when I grow too busy to be alone with God, when the world in my pocket entices me more than the world of the Scriptures, my soul stretches and thins, “like butter scraped over too much bread.”
My weakened desires take me away from God into my phone. I follow Jonah into the Tarshish of technology. And when I set sail several times, it becomes easier and easier to go again, and harder and harder to sit with God as before. My soul fidgets, anxious for something, anything to distract and entertain me. As I stick my hand in again and again for more and more salty snacks, my appetite for the great feast diminishes.
Third, a Shrunken Faith
Cutting myself off from the means of grace injures my faith. When I do return, the silent room questions me: Is all this really real? Against this suggestion, I must take up the shield of faith to endure the initial discomforts.
With warming feet, I continue, “Lord, please give me this day my daily bread, and forgive me — for my many distracted, neglectful, worldly transgressions — as I forgive those who trespass against me.”
Are you sure God hears you? the thought comes. Hours and hours that add up to days upon days amassing to years and years of nothing — if it’s all untrue.
“Lord, lead me not into temptation — nor into distractions — but deliver me from them and the evil one. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Amen.”
Upon that floor I return from a cold world to my Father’s presence.
Drawing near to him in solitude tests my faith that he exists and rewards those who will meet him there (Hebrews 11:6). If God does not exist or meet us, we do waste precious moments on a dream and a shadow. But blocking out the world and turning our back on doubt, our seeking says, I trust you. I need you. I long to be with you.
Will You Return?
Will he “who is [our] life” (Colossians 3:4) woo us away from the busy and noisy world? It is today as it was with Elijah:
Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:11–12)
Literally, God revealed himself to Elijah in “a voice, a thin silence.” God often forgoes the thunder, the tearing winds, the earthquake, the roaring fire, preferring to whisper to us through his word and Spirit in the quiet room. Will we visit our prayer closets, get alone, shut out the world and its distractions to sit again with our God who delights to meet with us?