I don't see much written on the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude. More importantly, I don't see these disciplines practiced often in our busy culture. And I'm guilty as charged. Perhaps I'm a little more cognizant of this since we're in the season of "peace on earth," even though peace can be hard to find.
Years ago I read Richard Foster's classic book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. A few years after that, I came across Dallas Willard's book, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Both books are excellent studies on how we work out what God works in. God works, produces, and provides us His grace that transforms us by the power of His Spirit, and we are to work out, grow up, and develop His gift of grace through our determination of the will. The Apostle Paul teaches us to "work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). This is not "works salvation" as though we somehow earn favor with God by being good little boys and girls. No, the Apostle of Grace goes on to write that "it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).
Thus, we work out what God works in. Spiritual disciplines are mere tools or practices where we align our actions (the physical) with our spirits (the spiritual) in order to become more like Jesus. We utilize the physical through activity (worship, serving, giving) or inactivity (silence, solitude, fasting) in order to grow spiritually. God often uses elements of the natural world to help us connect with the spiritual world. We eat bread and drink wine as earthly reminders of our spiritual reality of salvation through the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We are immersed in water as a visible sign of being buried with Jesus in His death and being raised to "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4). We participate in a physical, local expression of the church as part of the spiritual, universal church.
Silence and solitude work the same way. We intentionally become silent in order to listen. We intentionally withdraw from others in order to enter deeper communion with the Triune God. Both disciplines, reflective of all spiritual disciplines, require effort. I can't tell you the number of times I get in my car to go someplace, and I immediately turn on the radio or a CD. Rarely am I somewhere without some level of decibels. Rarely do I find myself alone, and when I am alone, it's typically not for the purpose to commune with God. The spiritual discipline of silence is not just the absence of noise. It is purposeful stillness to quiet one's spirit in order to listen to "the sound of a low whisper" of the voice of God (1 Kings 19:12). The spiritual discipline of solitude is not just the absence of people. It is purposeful seclusion in order to commune with the living God.
Sometimes when I think about spiritual disciplines like silence and solitude, I get intimidated. I feel like only spiritual giants practice these disciplines, and I'm still a spiritual gnome. When I find myself silent, I miss noise. When I find myself alone, I miss people. So rather than continuing to swim upstream, I give in to the current, go with the flow, and find myself adrift in spiritual indolence. I want to grow spiritually, but when I realize that growth requires effort and change, I often tell myself that my faith is developed enough for now, thank you very much. Ever been there? The task seems too daunting, and the effort too exacting.
If you've "been there, done that," I'd like to make a few suggestions. I have found, through trial and error, that I need a strategy to develop purposeful silence and solitude as a means for spiritual growth. Maybe this strategy will help you as well.
*Schedule times of silence and solitude in your weekly calendar. If you don't schedule it, you won't do it. Eugene Peterson writes about a weekly Sabbath which is not a day to catch up on projects at home. Protect these times as you would a scheduled meeting with an important person, because, in fact, you are.
*Start small. Don't bite off more than you can chew. If you want to run a marathon, and you've never run anywhere except up a flight of stairs, you begin with a quarter mile, then a half mile, then a mile, etc. I suggest you start with fifteen minutes a week where you are alone with God in silence. After a few weeks, build up to thirty minutes, then an hour, and on to a half-day or more for a weekly Sabbath experience. The key is not how long you are still before the Lord (Psalm 46:10), but how consistent you are in keeping your weekly appointment with God.
*Keep it simple. This is not a study time. Scripture reading and meditation may be helpful, but this is not the time to work on your Beth Moore Bible study or, in my case, write sermons. This is a time to listen. I found this very awkward at first--sitting in a room by myself with no noise. My mind drifts, and there are times when I actually fall asleep. In Brother Lawrence's book, The Practice of the Presence of God, he writes a letter to a friend who apparently struggled with a lack of attentiveness to God in prayer. Very pastorally, Brother Lawrence responds, "You aren't the only one to be distracted from the presence of God; I understand completely. Our minds are so flighty…. If your mind wanders at times, don't be upset, because being upset will only distract you more. Allow your will to recall your attention gently to God. Such perseverance will please Him." In pre-marital counseling, I take couples through an exercise called, "Active Listening." Do we really listen to what our spouse, or soon-to-be spouse is saying, or do we think we know what he or she is saying, and so we stop listening and start formulating our response? Listening to God is a discipline where we train our minds "on the things of the Spirit" (Romans 8:5). For, as the Apostle Paul wrote, "to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace" (Romans 8:6).
*Don't give up. As the old adage goes, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Keep your appointments with God. If you sit in silence and solitude and don't always feel the presence of God, don't walk away thinking, I tried this, and nothing happened. My son Luke recently started doing push-ups every day. He wants to grow his muscles, but when he stood in front of the mirror the other day and flexed, he said, "Dad, it's not working." Sure it is. Slowly, gradually, imperceptibly at first, Luke's muscles are developing, and so will our spiritual muscles, if we don't give up.
My hope is that you will begin to practice the presence of God through silence and solitude as you concentrate your "soul's attention on God, remembering that He is always present" (Brother Lawrence).
"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1).