The Rest of Your Life – Solitude and Silence

At Gateway Church in Austin, we continued our series on the “The Rest of Your Life.”

Jesus is telling us there’s a better way to live than the anxious, stressed-out way of our culture. There’s a path that leads to peace and rest. 

There are Ancient practices that we see Jesus practicing and teaching—these Ancient Practices actually combat the ways that leave us burdened, burned out, and broken down.

This week we will look a solitude and silence. Solitude is the answer to problem of distraction. 

DIGGING DEEPER:

Work through the following questions and scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.

Discussion Questions

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Message Notes:

A new season gives us a chance to restart. This summer, I want you to experience rest. 

In this series, The Rest of Your Life, we’re learning about practices and rhythms that help us find pause, help us find peace, and, most importantly, help us to be formed into people that look more and more like Jesus. 

Today we are looking at Solitude and Silence. Now in the past I might have asked someone else from our team to speak or I would have chosen to stream in the message on this topic because in the past I have struggled with both solitude and silence. 

In 2019 one of our kids was being tested for ADHD, and in the process Deborah pointed out that she thought that I have it. Sure enough, I was diagnosed with it. I am still learning what that all means, but for sure one thing it meant in the past was sitting still and slowing down seemed impossible. Ever since I got to Gateway, as staff we were given one day a month to be with God to refresh our hearts and minds with Him. And for years those seemed to be the most productive days of my week! It was amazing how many things I would remember needed to be done while I am supposed to have this extended time with God for 8 hours. I have been good at going to God over the years but not all in one long chunk of time. Now when it comes to solitude and silence, I have not arrived in any sense, but I have made progress. So much so that I am excited to invite you into this rhythm.

So here is why it’s so hard for so many of us. We are so easily distracted.

A guy named John Mark Comer—former pastor and one of my favorite voices on the subject—proposes this:

“Distraction is one of the greatest threats to spiritual health in the modern world.”

– John Mark Comer

And we don’t have to look very far to admit he’s on to something, do we? 

Think about this past week at work. Or at home. Think about getting ready for church this morning. How many times did you find yourself doing or thinking about one thing, only to blink a few minutes later and think, “How in the world did I get here?” Ever been reading, or driving, and have that happen? Me too. All the time.  If you have a phone or social media, it’s even worse. The calls. The text messages. The alerts. Did you know that some of the smartest people in the world literally get paid to engineer social media and online shopping algorithms to be as distracting and addictive as possible? Anything to give you little shots of dopamine that tell your brain to keep scrolling, keep clicking. 

And once you’re distracted, how easy is it to re-focus on whatever it was you were doing in the first place? The scientific answer is not easy! Studies have shown that it takes about 23 minutes to regain focus after a distraction. The Barna Group—an organization that studies insights from the intersection of faith and culture—suggests that 44% of Christians report getting distracted while attempting to spend time with God. That’s nearly 1 out of every 2 people. Some of you are thinking that number is far too low! It has to be much higher!

All that to say, we have a major problem. The problem of distraction. It’s real, and these distractions—whatever they are—ultimately compromise our being formed into the kind of people that look and sound like Jesus. Or how about another quote that reminds us of how hard this might be: 

“If the Devil can’t make you sin, he’ll make you busy.”

– Corrie Ten Boom

Which begs the question: How would Jesus respond? If you have your Bible or your Bible app, we’re going to look at three stories we find in the gospels (the gospels, by the way, are the four biographies of Jesus—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—each telling Jesus’ story from a unique perspective). These three particular stories we’re going to look at together can be found in Mark chapter 1, Mark chapter 6, and Matthew chapter 4, and what we’ll see is that each of these stories capture Jesus doing or talking about the exact same thing, just in slightly different ways. That means we should pay attention. 

Because here’s the thing, and go with me on this. I believe Jesus knew that the number one thing that would compete against him for my attention in this life is not the devil. I don’t know about you, but I never wake up thinking about how I’m going to serve Satan today. 

No, the number one competitor for my attention is whatever distraction I give fuel to today. 

Whether you believe in Satan or not, wouldn’t you say that’s true for you, too?  (By the way, we circle back to this idea a bit later).

So, we’re back to the question: 

How would Jesus respond? 
How did he respond, in the midst of a world clamoring for his attention? 

Look at this in Luke, chapter 5. This isn’t one of the stories I said we’d look at, but it summarizes all three stories in two sentences. 

The news about [Jesus] spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. – Luke 5:15-16

And there’s our answer. That phrase, lonely places is the Greek word, eremōs, and it literally means a desert or the wilderness. Think desolate, solitary, uninhabited. Free of distractions and people. 

This was Jesus’ solution to the noise and the distractions; he would often withdraw to the eremōs. Jesus would intentionally create space for solitude & silence.   

And if you’re anything like me, your response to that might be, “Really?” Like, “Is that it?” Sounds like an introvert’s dream, or a day trip to the spa, or, at the very least, an outdated religious ritual that doesn’t quite fit into my twenty-first century life today. Maybe you have tried this and started to wonder if it was just a waste of time, or that somehow maybe you are wasting God’s time

But what starts to help me really lean into this is realizing this simple fact from Luke 5 – clearly Jesus thought this regular practice was important, even essential, for our discipleship. 

So, what if my understanding of solitude and silence is off

If Jesus saw solitude and silence as the what when it comes to combating his number one competitor for my attention—all the distractions I allow to pull my gaze away from him, and his forming me to look more like him—then we need to understand why

Story 1 – In solitude and silence, we encounter God. 

This brings us to the first of our three stories. 

This is Mark, chapter one, and for some context here we learn that Jesus has been teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, driving out demons, and doing his thing. Afterwards, we find out that Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and that the whole town then gathers at the door for Jesus to heal them, too. You have to imagine, this is a ton of people! And by this point in the story, the sun has already gone down. It’s after hours. But Jesus starts healing anyway. Probably well into the night—there’s so many people Jesus can’t get to them all. 

So what does he do?

Look at this, Mark chapter 1, beginning in verse 35: 

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. – Mark 1:35-39 (NIV, emphasis added)

Now, again we will come back to the demons part, but for now pay attention to what we find Jesus doing in both the Luke 5 passage and here in the Mark 1 passage, because even though it might seem obvious it’s really important that we don’t miss it. 

In both passages, we find Jesus praying. He’s slowing down to seek his Father. This is the first lesson from Jesus: In solitude and silence, we encounter God. 

This is our primary goal in solitude. It’s our primary why. And you might think, “Yeah, but Eric, can’t I encounter God everywhere? Why do I need solitude to encounter God?” 
The short answer is, you don’t.
But again, have you ever noticed how difficult it is to hear God in the midst of all the noise? 
And whether we like it or not, noise is our normal. It’s our baseline. 

On top of that, read cover to cover in the Bible and you’ll start to arrive at this conclusion: God is not loudThat’s been my experience. He is mighty, he is powerful, but those are different. God has done some pretty incredible things in my life and made Himself known in miraculous and dramatic ways. But most of the time, God will often speak in the whisper of a thought. That’s the best way I can describe it. 

That necessitates quiet. 

And when I slow down enough to get quiet, God will often use that opportunity to show me things I wasn’t even expecting. To put it into perspective, think about what’s happening in this story. Going to a different place—a nearby village—to preach to totally different people had to be God’s idea.
How do we know that? 
Because Jesus wasn’t done where he was—there were still more people to heal! 

And in the absence of encountering God in solitude, if Jesus instead chose to keep on doing the work right in front of him, he might have missed the bigger picture entirely. How often is that true for us? We had our heads down, grinding, and we missed what God wanted to show us. 

Jesus shows us that it is in solitude that we encounter, and re-encounter, God—his love for us, his plans for us, his wisdom for us. 

Why Does Jesus Want Us to Practice Solitude and Silence?

Story 2 – In solitude and silence, we encounter ourselves. 

That takes us to story number two; this one is found toward the end of Mark chapter 6. 

Again, for some context, at the beginning of this story we find Jesus once again teaching and healing, but this time he’s preparing to send his twelve disciples all over the map to do the same. He’s empowering them to bring the same message of the Kingdom to anyone and everyone who will listen. 

We pick up story number two as the disciples are returning from their journeys. This is Mark chapter 6, verse 30:

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” – Mark 6:30-31 (NIV, emphasis added)

The disciples, they’re ready to party. They’re telling Jesus story after story about driving out demons and healing the sick; they’re on a ministry high. And they’re getting a reputation. More and more people are coming to experience what they have to offer. The work doesn’t let up. They don’t even have two minutes to eat. And, seeing what’s happening, Jesus looks at them and says, “We’re leaving.” 

Lesson number two from Jesus, then, goes like this: In solitude and silence, we encounter ourselves. 

As in, we start to become very familiar with our own weakness, fragility, and fatigue. 

In other words, in solitude we encounter our humanity

Look back at the reason why Jesus invited them into solitude in the first place: to rest. They were tired!  

See, Jesus knows that at some point, no matter how talented or competent we are, or how capable we are at faking it for a while, we all come face-to-face with our limitations. Think about the times in your life when you felt closest to burnout or tapping out. Chances are that our pace had become breakneck, and we had zero margin for rest. 

At that point, it doesn’t matter how good or noble we think our motives are; the reality is we just can’t keep going anymore. 

Now, one question and then we’ll move on to the next story: 

When it comes to solitude, why would Jesus even care about our embracing our weakness and need for rest? 

Well, go back to lesson number one. In solitude we encounter ourselves – powerlessness and all – while at the very same time encountering God, and a strength ready to be unleashed in our direction. 

In other words, solitude is where God reminds us that he is God, and we are not. And God loves when we rest in that. 

Story 3 – In solitude and silence, we encounter our enemy. 

Let’s keep going. Last story—story number three—and, fair warning, this one is by far the longest. I’m going to read the entire thing, then we’ll see what we can learn from it together. Here we go, this is Matthew chapter 4, verse 1: 

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 

3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. – Matthew 4:1-11 (NIV, emphasis added)

Now, there is so much here that we could unpack—you could do a whole message just on this one passage. For our context, though, the lesson from Jesus is almost too obvious, even though we might not like it—it goes like this: In solitude and silence, we encounter our enemy. 

Again, if I’m honest, I’m not sure I like that that’s true. Why? Well, for starters, I don’t like the idea of seeking God in solitude only to find myself in a sparring match with Satan. Call me crazy. But what I think starts to help me is when I zoom out a bit on this idea of enemy

Now some of you may consider this idea of the devil a legend or myth. When I mention Satan, I am not talking about the cartoon character with the pointy tail, pitchfork, horns and goatee or a halloween costume from the halloween store.

Instead, I am talking about the real spiritual forces that are working to bring destruction, oppression, injustice, racism, abuse, and evil in the world today.

Historian Jeffrey Russell points out that although modern people have tended to believe less and less in a supernatural evil force, the practical experience of evil has not decreased, but maybe even increased in our society. Our educated modern views have done nothing whatsoever to conquer the reality of the spiritual forces of evil that seem to be at work in the world. Russell notes how most cultures have attested to demonic spiritual forces at work throughout history.

There is something bigger than us going on. There is a real war being waged in a realm we can’t see. That yes, there are dark forces at work in this realm, and we see the results of their evil work done by men and women all the time.

  • If you have ever had a dark thought that scared you, that was our enemy.
  • If you have ever found yourself resistant to saying you’re sorry or offering forgiveness, that could be our enemy tempting you to stay in the dark.
  • If you have ever found yourself looking down on others as if they don’t measure up to what you want them to be, that is our enemy wanting to drive a wedge between you and others.
  • If you have ever made a choice that was immoral, unethical, illegal, or destructive, that was the enemy.

Now we cannot just respond when we get in trouble with“The Devil Made Me Do It” like Flip Wilson used to do in the 1970s.
And we don’t need to be afraid of the demonic forces behind every bush or behind every situation.

Instead we need to be aware of the enemy’s tactics and fix our eyes on what is True and the One who is Truth – Jesus.

In the fourth century A.D., a group of disciples of Jesus that would come to be known as the desert fathers and mothers defined a theology around what they called “the three enemies of the soul”—the flesh, the world, and the devil. 

The flesh, as in the still-broken parts of me due to sin that Jesus is currently still healing, the world, as in all the voices out there that compete against Jesus for my attention, and the devil, as in the one Jesus said and believed came to steal, kill, and destroy. 

What’s fascinating to me is that we see all three of these influences—the flesh, the world, and the devil—in this story from Matthew chapter 4. Sure, Satan is at the center of all of it, but look at the three individual temptations we see in the story. 

Satan starts by appealing to Jesus’ hunger
“If you’re really the son of God, Jesus, take matters into your own hands by satisfying what your body is telling you. Who cares what God wants from you; don’t trust him, trust your flesh.” 
That obviously doesn’t work, so he moves on. 

Next he appeals to Jesus’ image in the world. His popularity. His status.  He takes him to the tallest point of literally the most important place in Jewish culture: the temple. And what does he say? 
“Just jump off! Pull a stunt; do something dramatic to get everyone’s attention—what faster way to convince people of who you say you are?” 
And, of course, that doesn’t work either. 

So what last-ditch effort does Satan employ? An all-out lie. 
“Jesus, just give me your allegiance—not God—and I’ll just give you everything, and everyone, you came to save. And (here’s the lie) it won’t cost you as much.” 
That’s how Satan lies; he tries to get us to believe that what he has to offer will be better than what God has to offer, and that it won’t cost us as much.    

Now, what does all of this have to do with solitude and silence? 

Well, I know this is true for me but see if you can relate.  Oftentimes I live my life so fast and so focused on things that may or may not matter as much as I think they do that I can miss how the three enemies of my soul—my flesh, the world, and the devil—are literally trying to take me out at the knees. 

See, I think part of the reason why God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted that day was to get him away from the noise of everyday life enough to see these schemes and these strategies for what they were—lies and meaningless shortcuts—and beat them

God wants the same for us. 

In solitude and silence we gain a new perspective on the lies and schemes so that we can fight back. Now, I know we’ve covered a lot of ground. Three stories with three lessons speaking to the why behind solitude and silence, and God’s desire to meet us in the quiet and the still. 

From here, I want to shift our conversation to the how. As in, how do we do this? How do we build the muscles of silence and solitude in our lives? 

What does it look like to get practical and intentional here? 
As always, let me point you towards gatewaychurch.com/diggingdeeper to really learn how to apply this to your life.
No matter where we’re at in our faith, here are three things we can do this week to take steps and practice this. 

How to Practice Solitude and Silence?

Number one: Choose a place.

Remember, the goal here is to find eremōs
This means you’re looking for a physical location that is as distraction-free as possible, where you can be as alone as possible.
If you’re into nature and being outside, maybe this is a park in your neighborhood, or on a trail in the greenbelt. 
I know it’s starting to get hot outside, so maybe this is a room in your house, or even in your closet. 
And you might think, “That’s kind of weird…,” and you might be right, but who cares! 
We’re building new muscles here, which means we have to be willing to do things we’ve never tried. 
Whatever physical place you land on, here is the number-one rule: absolutely no phones (or iPads, or TVs, or screens)Gasp! I know, I promise you’ll be fine. 
Listen, our devices make it possible to be digitally connected no matter where we are, so ditch them. 
Choose a place, eliminate distractions. Be relentless here. 

Number two: Choose a time and a rhythm. 

The goal here is to work toward as regular a schedule as you can. 
You’re choosing a time, as in time of day and amount of time, and you’re choosing a rhythm, as in how often, how frequently. 
Maybe this is every morning before anybody else is up, and you start with fifteen minutes. Or ten. Or five. Whatever it takes to start
So, start small. 
Make time, and don’t assume you’ll just have it. 
God has wired you in a very unique way to meet with him very uniquely. 
Find a rhythm that works for you and…

Number 3: Don’t quit. 

If you miss one day, don’t miss two. 
If an hour is too much, start with half. 
If a full day once a month is too much, start with a couple hours. 
This is not meant to be easy. Anything valuable in our lives takes discipline to maintain.
If it turns out you’re really not a morning person, create space for solitude in the middle of your day or before you go to bed. 
Try something new. Get creative. Ditch the excuses. Ask for help. 
And remember that to get distracted, even in the middle of your solitude, is normal because we’re human! 
You will struggle, you will want to throw in the towel.  God is not shocked by that, nor is he disappointed in you. He’s actually crazy about you and has so much to show you, so keep going. 
Keep looking for ways to grow in this. Don’t quit. Don’t settle. 

Dallas Willard, who was in my opinion one of the greatest writers and thinkers of all time when it comes to spiritual formation, said this about everything we’ve been talking about: 

“Silence and solitude are the most radical of the spiritual disciplines because they most directly attack the sources of human misery and wrongdoing. To be in solitude is to choose to do nothing. For extensive periods of time. All accomplishment is given up. Silence is required to complete solitude, for until we enter quietness, the world still lays hold of us.” -Dallas Willard

Can you imagine what could become true of our lives were we to intentionally slow down, get quiet, and position ourselves to encounter God? 

To regularly sit in his presence, to learn to hear his voice, to let his truth and wisdom become the lens through which we see everything—God, ourselves, the people we love, the sources of our stress and anxiety, the schemes aimed against us, all of it? 

To use Willard’s words, I bet the transformation in our lives would be radical

So, because we are in danger of running out of here today and having this invitation to be with God immediately swallowed up by the noise, busyness, and distractions of our lives, so instead of a closing song, we’re going to practice together right now and do our best to be alone and quiet together. This will give you a framework that you can begin to incorporate in your own time of solitude with God. 

In order to do this right, we’re all going to have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. So, as I guide you through this exercise, embrace the discomfort, otherwise, you are going to miss out. (If you are here and you’re exploring God, this invitation is for you as well, if you are ready. Ask Him to reveal Himself to you in a new way today.)

First, I invite you to close your eyes and take a deep breath, hold it and then exhale. 
Through this simple, physical act, we remember that God is not far away, in some inaccessible place outside of our world, but right here, closer than your breath. 
He is here and wants to meet with you. 
You can also use your breath as prayer to help draw your attention to God with your mind as well as your body. 
This is an ancient practice called, “breath prayer.” 
As you inhale and exhale, pray, “Come, Holy Spirit” or, “Lord, have mercy upon me”, or just “Jesus.” Let’s sit in that breath prayer together. 

Now, I want us to meditate on the simple thought that God loves you and just wants you in this moment. Don’t try to make anything happen. Imagine Him sitting with you. 
What does He do? What does He say? 
There is no agenda other than to be together, to rest together. 
Let’s just sit in the presence of God for a moment, and I’ll pray to close our time. 

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