Silence and Solitude
Written by: Nathaniel Wall
COVID has created separation and isolation for many of us, and it has not been easy. After all, we are created by God for relationship. Some of us require more relational time than others, but all of us need healthy friendship as an important component to our development. However, it is also important to recognize moments of isolation are not all bad. They too can present us opportunities of growth and development.
Silence and Solitude are important components of the Christian life because they are key practices for developing Christian maturity. The Lords uses times of silence and solitude to rejuvenate his people. King David wrote, “He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2b-3a). God’s people are repeatedly called to get away and quiet their souls before Him. For example, Psalm 37:7 says, “Be still before the Lord and wait.”
Reasons for Solitude
God commanded Israel to regularly get away from their routines to focus their attention on him. He created holidays for this purpose. Three holidays called Israel to pilgrimage into communal worship in Jerusalem for a time of solitude with God (Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles) 1. By pulling Israel away from daily routines, they could draw near to Him without distraction.
God’s people are called to be set apart. God says, “Be holy for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). Some people read the word “holiness” and assume it is a word that describes people who “do not sin,” or “do good”. However, the word “holiness” is more than an action or behavior. Holiness carries the idea of separating yourself for a purpose or setting yourself apart. Holiness must first become a state of being before it becomes a way of living. Through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, those who put their faith in Jesus are made holy. This means they are separated and belong to God. After which, Christians are called to continue to identify in this holiness (1 Peter 1:16). This means that out of all the ways a person can choose to identify, a Christian chooses to identity by their position in Jesus. They are set apart in him. Holiness is a position or state of being in Christ, and therefore it is continually lived through Christ. Silence and Solitude are the tools a Christian can leverage to orient their lives to their holy calling and find their soul reflecting on such an identity.
God created our souls to be refreshed in him. Taking time for physical solitude provides a place to also find spiritual solitude in the Lord. Those who yearn to truly know the Lord will pursue opportunities to remove themselves from idols (1 Thessalonians 4:3) and meditate on him (Joshua 1:8).
Solitude Historically Practiced
At the end of the fourth century, Christianity became the official religion in Rome. Unfortunately, with Christianity’s popularity, the standards of membership were relaxed and many professing Christians began to take on characteristics of the culture. Some believers felt that the cozy relationship between the church and the state resulted in a compromised, diluted, and mediocre faith. Therefore, to combat the weakening of the church, many left the church and joined the monastics in the desert so they could know God better and keep their faith pure.
They organized themselves into communities, established monasteries, and lived ascetic lifestyles while plying their trades and growing their own food. They began to develop a lifestyle of holy noticing reflected in practices such as silence, solitude, and contemplation. “By the end of the fourth century, more than thirty thousand monks and nuns lived in the deserts of Lower and Upper Egypt.” 2 Even further, “They viewed the desert as a place free of distractions and a laboratory to develop their faith, resist temptation, and love Jesus more purely. They learned many psychological insights about the mind, long before psychology existed. They saw precedent in John the Baptist and Jesus, both of whom went into the desert. Their writings reflect strong themes of holy noticing.”3
While I am not agreeing with their solution, it is important to know they viewed this lifestyle of solitude as a way they could know God better and keep their faith pure. “Attention—a key skill in this practice—became the foundation of desert spirituality.4 To them, following Jesus was less about external practices and more about self-knowledge and inner watchfulness. And these early monastics were deeply committed to Scripture. Their lifestyle ‘took place within the exercise of reading, meditating, preaching, and teaching the biblical text.’”5
It was out of this monastic lifestyle that a Christian leader named Jerome took it upon himself to learn Greek and Hebrew so he could better meditate on the Bible. He had determined that by learning Greek and Hebrew it would keep his mind from wandering to lustful thoughts. He became an expert in the biblical languages and was therefore appointed to translate the Bible into Latin. Dubbed the “Latin Vulgate”, Jerome’s translation went on to serve the church for over 1000 years.
What Solitude is Not
While many great things can be recognized about the monastic (solitude) lifestyle, it’s also worth stating that a solitude lifestyle also presents some challenges. For example, God calls his people to be in the world just not of the world (John 1:14-16). It is possible for a Christian to become so isolated that they do not engage the world around them with the gospel. Jesus desires to not only work in you but also through you. You are called to be all things to all people for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). At the same time, a monastic lifestyle has the tendency to promote forms of legalism that have nothing to do with the gospel. Finally, even those who practice monastic lifestyles have found it impossible to defeat sin. Those who practice such lifestyles have found that no matter how far they retreated from society, they are still tempted to sin. This was even true with Jerome, which led Jerome to abandon the formal practice of a monasticism.
While Solitude is a tool that can serve God’s people, it is important to see it as a tool and not as an end in and of itself. Make a practice of retreating in the Lord to allow your soul to be refreshed, but never to the neglect of reaching the world for the sake of the gospel.
While the Bible encourages times of solitude, the Bible also teaches us to exercise silence. Psalm 131:2-3 says, “I’ve kept my feet on the ground, I’ve cultivated a quiet heart. Like a baby content in its mother’s arms, my soul is a baby content. 3 Wait, Israel, for God. Wait with hope. Hope now; hope always (MSG)!”
Reasons for Silence
1. Proverbs teaches us that a wise disposition is one of silence. Provers 17:28 says, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise: when he closes his lips he is deemed intelligent.”
2. James encouraged us to consider the power of a quiet demeanor when he wrote, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). It is this passage that encourages us to make sure we seek to understand others more than we seek to be understood. We never have to apologize for things we do not say. However, we often find reason to apologize for things we do say. Likewise, Peter says “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit” (1 Peter 3:10). A tongue that refrains from speaking evil will more easily find peace.
3. In scripture, we even learn from God’s silence. The Bible records at least two occasions when God chose not to say anything. Yet, his silence spoke volumes. In Revelation 8, the heavens were silent for half and hour. In between the Old and New Testament, God was silent for 400 years. Without diving into too much interpretation over the silence of God, we can summarize it by saying that whatever God’s purpose, his silence was certainly intended to get our attention.
Therefore, silence is a practice the Lord can use to teach you and mature you. Those who exercise silence are wise. Silence keeps us from saying things we regret and can also bring peace. Silence can get our attention and communicate a powerful message.
Silence and Solitude are important components of the Christian life. They cause us to make time to stop the busyness of our lives, quiet our souls and seek the Lord. We need it. However, silence and solitude are not the only types of spiritual practice God’s people should observe.
Reasons to Speak
While it is good to quiet our souls before the Lord and wait for him, it is also the calling of the church to speak and proclaim the glory of the Lord. Ecclesiastes 3:7 says there is “a time to keep silent and a time to speak.” Therefore, how do God’s people know when to speak and when to be silent? Learning when to speak and how to speak are important “for death and life are in the power of the tongue” (proverbs 18:21).
1. One time to speak is when you stand for a purpose, such as “telling of the works of the Lord” (Psalm 118:17), and “proclaiming the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
2. Advocating for others is another justified time to speak. If I refuse to speak up for the defenseless, I am guilty before God. Psalm 31:8-9 says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. 9 Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
3. I should also be willing to speak to bless others and honor the Lord. Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
4. I should desire to open my mouth to proclaim the gospel. Ephesians 6:19:“…and pray in my behalf, that speech may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel…”
5. I should speak to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
6. Above all, when I speak I should always “speak truth in love so that we all grow up in him.” (Ephesians 4:15)
How do I know when to remain in silence/solitude and when to speak out?
We should always desire to mature in our understanding on how to use our tongues and when to use our tongues. The only way to truly do this is to learn the wisdom of the Lord by spending time with him (solitude). He can provide us the discernment on when to be silent and when to speak.
A good way to discern your spiritual maturity is to consider the words of your mouth. Matthew 15:18: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.”
Job’s friends were considered good friends when they remained silent and wept with Job (Job 2:11-13). They were considered poor friends when they opened their mouths and spoke to Job (Job 16:2).
As we mature, we learn the wisdom of when to speak and what to speak. It does not mean a Christian cannot say hard things, but we do need to make sure we say godly things. Is the purpose to be God-honoring or self-promoting? To be led by the flesh or filled with the Spirit?
Silence and solitude provide a place for God to pour into me so that I can live and speak with a healthy, spirit-filled life toward others. “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
2 Kim Nataraja, Journey to the Heart: Christian Contemplation through the Centuries—An Illustrated Guide (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012), 97.
3 Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, p.17–18.
4 Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2004), loc. 702, Kindle.
5 Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), 64.
6 Stone, Charles. Holy Noticing (pp. 59-60). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.