Jesus’ life flowed in a wonderful rhythm between time alone with God and time with friends and people he ministered to. He found joy by going off by himself for hours, days, or even weeks at a time and also by walking and talking with his closest friends or attending parties he was invited to. He drew close to his Father by praying in lonely places before dawn and also by attending worship services with others in the neighborhood synagogue.
This is central to how the Son of God, our sinless Savior, in his incarnation grew in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and people (Luke 2:52) and how he learned obedience (Hebrews 5:8). What a mystery this is that Jesus grew and learned! And what a great and practical example Jesus gives us. He practiced solitude and community and so he can help us to learn; he knows how to disciple us because he lived as a disciple of the Father.
Out of Balance
Most Christians that I talk with are out of sync with Jesus’ Rhythm of Life and the need to be balanced in solitude and community.
For some this means that they have little time for solitude and quiet prayer (Solitude and Silencee go together). They make themselves too busy to slow down and listen. They’re uncomfortable with quiet. And the spiritual communities they participate in for services, classes, or groups do little or nothing to help them learn to make use of being still and silently attentive to God’s presence – even for just a minute or two!
Others have the opposite problem (or struggle with both). They isolate from other people and don’t have anyone that they share openly with and pray earnestly with. They avoid community because they feel left out, afraid of being hurt, or don’t know how to be themselves.
To grow in wholeness and holiness, to be spiritually formed in Christ and to live in love and power we need to keep solitude and community in balance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great Evangelical Christian leader of the 20th Century, spoke of this needed integration in his classic devotional book, Life Together:
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair…
Blessed is he who is alone in the strength of the fellowship and blessed is he who keeps the fellowship in the strength of aloneness. But the strength of aloneness and the strength of the fellowship is solely the strength of the Word of God, which is addressed to the individual in the fellowship (p. 78, 89).
We Can Grow
We need to grow into the practice of silence and solitude. It is here that we learn to rest in God and to hear his Word spoken to us personally. Practicing regular “quiet times” for Bible reading and prayer is a start. From there we can learn to set aside larger blocks of time, perhaps as part of a Sabbath day or a retreat. As we do this it enriches our times of spiritual friendship and develops our compassion to minister to others.
We also need to grow in our practice of community, to learn to be intentional in developing heart-to-heart conversations about how it’s going in our relationship with God. This kind of soul-full sharing encourages us spiritually and blesses our times of solitude with God.
Real Transformation in Christlikeness
To become like Jesus we need both solitude and community. These polar disciplines are foundational; all the spiritual disciplines are based on one or the other – or both. That’s why in the Soul Shepherding groups, seminars, and retreats that we lead we help people to make use of solitude and community.
In solitude we study and meditate on Scripture, pray in quiet, examine ourselves, and journal. In community we discuss what God is teaching us in his Word, share our struggles and our experiences with God, and pray for one another.
Integration is Essential
A distinctive of Soul Shepherding is that we help people to integrate solitude and community so that they experience them together as part of a shared apprenticeship to Jesus Christ.
We show people how to be quiet in God’s presence and abide in God’s Word while being together in community. This is our way of inviting to share in our personal intimacy with Christ. It’s a powerfully transforming experience for people when they learn how to work through the restlessness in their bodies and their wandering thoughts and their trust issues and to be quietly “held” in God’s presence by a group of people who are all praying with them.
Even just a few minutes of practicing solitude in community can make a big difference in helping to form people more into the image of Christ. It helps them to become more aware of their personal longings and struggles which they can then share with others in their community in order to receive prayer. And it shows them how they can be more effective in using quiet prayer and meditation on Scripture when they are alone with God.
Probably you know that soul friends are able to be meaningfully together and appreciative of God’s goodness without always talking. It’s the same with God. That’s solitude in community and it’s community in solitude.