By Jan Johnson
READ THE SIDEBAR: “What Am I Likely to Hear?”
Being spiritual was the last thing on my mind. I needed to vary my workout routine, so I began an arm-swinging aerobic walk in our housing tract. But my daughter was embarrassed to have Mom turning the corner in faded pink shorts, so I retreated to a lonely canyon road, cluttered with garbage and swathed in mud.
Dodging gravel trucks, vulnerable to the heat, and miles away from complex thoughts, I found myself alone with God. God showed up in everything around me. The tumbleweeds at the edge of the road stood for the stumbling blocks of my life—annoyances with those I loved, fear of doing difficult things, yearnings for a problem-free life. So I gathered up these bulky briars and hurled them off the cliff at the side of the road.
The mountains around me became symbols of God’s presence. I named the peaks for what I was hearing from God. The cradle-shaped ravine became “rest.” The sharply pointed peak became “Don’t forget to love” when we moved through a church split. As I panted, chugged water, and headed into the wind, those phrases became ways to live life.
About that time I’d begun attending a monthly retreat day at a retreat center. But no matter how engaging the speaker, I found myself skipping the sessions to scramble down a steep creek bank to sit on a huge rock in the middle of the water. There I remained for the day. At that time I had such lofty opinions of the spiritual discipline of solitude that I didn’t think these walks and rock-sitting moments were heroic enough to count as solitude. But they did.
GETAWAYS: HANGING OUT WITH GOD
Jesus often sought solitude on earth (Matthew 4:1-11; 14:13, 23; 17:1-9; 26:36-46; Mark 6:31; Luke 5:16; 6:12). Why did he take such time away from teaching and helping people? Perhaps Jesus loved being alone with God—“I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
Of course solitude is not found only in warm, fuzzy moments soaking your feet in a creek. It also occurs when you let go of all the work and people-related things that make you feel important—appointments, deadlines, telephone calls. Nobody asks for your opinion in solitude. Maybe no one even misses you! Where are you without those things that support your ego? When I first began taking off work for regular retreat days, I had to fight against thinking, But I could be working, achieving, doing! What good is this?
We find we’re hooked on productivity. We say “yes” to whatever is asked so we can feel good or look good. We have to make sure we do the best job that’s ever been done (to hear someone say, “That time Jan was in charge was the best event ever!”). We want to hike down a “career path” faster and further than anyone else. We attempt to do many things at once, without realizing we’re hurrying life away. We experience an adrenaline high when we can check off everything on our daily to-do list.
But solitude is not about being useful. At first I tried to turn my personal retreat days into a project, to manufacture revelations or tingly experiences. Then I learned the value of making no schedule for the day, of hanging out with God and not feeling guilty for doing “nothing.”
Now I have no rules about what I do, just that I observe silence and solitude. I try to listen to what God leads me to do that day. And even now I find myself waiting each minute for the solitude to feel rewarding, but it may not. Then afterward, I realize I loved it. I am much like Jacob after he awakened from his angel-climbing ladder dream: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (Genesis 28:16).
ENEMIES SHOW UP
My times of solitude are sometimes interrupted by the “committee members” who live in my head. These voices are the unregenerated parts of my soul—my habits of thinking that have yet to be healed. They include the following:
The Looking Good Kid works hard to be admired with fear of not being good enough. She plots to make sure I will never be rejected again. If I think I hear God saying, “Be perfect! Get it right! Don’t make any mistakes—then I’ll be proud of you!” this is not God but the Looking Good Kid.
The Rescuer thinks of ways to help others so they have to love me. As a result, busyness is next to godliness. If I think I hear God say, “Help people till it exhausts you. Make people happy,” that is not God but my Rescuer sabotaging my solitude.
The Attitude Police Officer wants everything done right. It evaluates, criticizes, and ruins my attempts to focus on God. It sabotages thoughts so that I hear God correcting me (or someone I wish to correct!).
The Grouch feels sorry for me and thinks others should pay attention to me. It blocks the voice of God by saying, Nothing is ever going to work for you.1
On my canyon road walks, these last two members often took over and rehearsed long, hostile speeches to those with whom I disagreed, plotting every point, entrenching myself in reasons I was right. Then would follow equally virulent diatribes against myself and deep despair over my anger. It took several years to replace these thoughts with prayer for those who irritated me. Yet that was what I needed to do, and it trained my soul to love when I wanted to criticize.
Dismissing the voices of the committee members is best done gently. To be upset about my failings does not help; it only affirms that my spirituality is about me, not about God. I gently usher the members to the door of my mind without giving the enemy of my soul more airplay.
HOW SOLITUDE HELPS
As we spend time alone, we discover our thought patterns are being retrained. And even our bodies behave differently because we’ve enjoyed solitude.
Hearing God. The first step in hearing God is knowing who God is not—the voices of the “committee,” or habitual poisonous thinking patterns. As we become acquainted with them and practiced in dismissing them, we make room for God.
Experiencing the companionship of God. Solitude is different from loneliness. Solitude is the glory of being alone, but loneliness is the pain of being alone. Solitude is rich and full while loneliness is empty and hollow.
How do you make the switch? Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “Turn your loneliness into solitude and your solitude into prayer.”2 In solitude you learn to “nourish in your heart the lively longing for God.”3 As we practice longer times of solitude, that daily “quiet time” becomes more delightful. We love soaking in what God says so we must have it every day.
Letting go of busyness. As we are freed from the burden of being important, we let go of hurry and busyness. Nothing makes a claim on us and forces us to run over people. We live more purposefully from a quiet center in life and are not distracted so easily. We enjoy leaving margins in life. It was a milestone in my life when I no longer found being called a “busy writer” a compliment.
Teaches us how to be with others. Contrary to what some might think, solitude is not a me-myself-and-I discipline, but one that changes the way we interact with people. God turns our face toward others because we see them differently. We come away from solitude more fit to be with people: quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19). We talk less, we talk more slowly, and we stop interrupting people because we take our silence with us. Because we slow down, we catch ourselves before we make slighting comments we regret later.
Solitude is a place of hearing God and letting go of all that is not God. Out of this transformed self, real ministry flows.
1Jan Johnson, When the Soul Listens (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1999), 127, 128.
2Elisabeth Elliot, “Turning Solitude Into Prayer” Cross Point, Summer 1997, 7.
3Anonymous, William Johnston, trans., The Cloud of Unknowing (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 47.
Jan Johnson is the author of When the Soul Listens, Enjoying the Presence of God, and the new Spiritual Disciplines Bible Studies (www.janjohnson.org). Also a speaker and spiritual director, Jan lives in Simi Valley, California, with her family.