Silence and Solitude


“Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” [Psalm 46:10]

Our subject this evening is silence and solitude. Now, there is a sense in which silence and solitude might be considered simply the proper context or environment for prayer and meditation. Many times in the Bible a man is alone or in silence for one or the other of those purposes.  “Be still and know that I am God,” sounds like meditation. The Lord Jesus, we know, often sought out a lonely place so that he might pray. But whether or not another discipline is added to it, silence and solitude are significant dimensions of the biblical practice of godliness.  Perhaps it is fair to say they usually gain their importance by adding another degree to prayer or to meditation or serve to deepen those other disciplines.

Some of you may remember reading Anton Chekhov’s famous short story, The Bet. The story originates at a party thrown by a wealthy banker. An argument develops among the guests about the death penalty and the result is a bet struck by the banker and a young twenty-five year old lawyer. Thinking that a life sentence was to be preferred to capital punishment, the lawyer agreed to prove his point that it was always better to be alive than dead by agreeing to remain in solitary confinement for fifteen years. If he managed to endure the isolation that long the banker agreed to pay him 2 million. The banker mocked him at dinner.

“Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two million is a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget either, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I’m sorry for you.”

And so the wild, senseless bet was carried out. The man was shut up in one room of a lodge in the banker’s garden. He would not be free to leave the room, to hear a human voice, to receive letters or newspapers. He was allowed to have books and a musical instrument; was allowed to write letters, drink wine, and smoke. The only contact with the outside world was through a little window introduced into the door of his room for that purpose. Things were brought to him by handing them through the window. The man was never allowed to see the servants who brought him things or speak to them or they to him. The slightest failure on his part to meet the conditions, even leaving two minutes before the fifteen years were up would free the banker from any obligation to pay him the two million.

As the years passed, the man’s interests changed. First he studied and played the piano. Then the classics. In the fifth year music was heard again. Then months were devoted to eating and drinking, writing and tearing up what he had written. Then he studied languages and philosophy and history, so much so that the banker was hard pressed to supply all the books he requested. Then a year was spent in reading the Gospels. The last two years were spent reading books of various kinds: natural science and Shakespeare, novels and treatises on philosophy and theology. Finally, it came to the last night. The man had done it. The next day the fifteen years would be complete and the banker would have to pay the two million.

The problem was that meantime the banker’s fortunes had declined dramatically and to pay off the bet would ruin him.

“"Cursed bet!" muttered the old man, clutching his head in despair "Why didn’t the man die? He is only forty now. He will take my last penny from me, he will marry, will enjoy life, will gamble on the Exchange; while I shall look at him with envy like a beggar, and hear from him every day the same sentence: ‘I am indebted to you for the happiness of my life, let me help you!’ No, it is too much! The one means of being saved from bankruptcy and disgrace is the death of that man!"

So late that night the banker took from his fireproof safe the key of the door of the room in the lodge that had not been opened for fifteen years, put on his overcoat, and went out into his garden. A storm was raging so the watchman had apparently sought shelter and was nowhere to be seen. That was fortunate, the banker thought, because later he could cast suspicion on the watchman. He snuck into the lodge and made his way in the darkness to the man’s room. He looked through the window and saw the man sitting motionless at his table. He tapped on the window, but the man did not stir. After waiting some time he opened the door with the key. The rusty lock gave a grating sound and the banker thought the man would surely awaken and cry out, but still he made no move. After three more minutes the banker went in. The man was emaciated. His skin was yellow; his beard shaggy and unkempt, his hair already streaked with gray. He looked far older than his forty years. He was asleep. On the table in front of him was a paper on which something was written in a fine handwriting.

“"Poor creature!" thought the banker, "he is asleep and most likely dreaming of the millions. And I have only to take this half-dead man, throw him on the bed, stifle him a little with the pillow, and the most conscientious expert would find no sign of a violent death. But let us first read what he has written here. . . ."

The banker took the page from the table and read as follows:

"To-morrow at twelve o’clock I regain my freedom and the right to associate with other men, but before I leave this room and see the sunshine, I think it necessary to say a few words to you. With a clear conscience I tell you, as before God, who beholds me, that I despise freedom and life and health, and all that in your books is called the good things of the world.

"For fifteen years I have been intently studying earthly life. It is true I have not seen the earth nor men, but in your books I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted stags and wild boars in the forests, have loved women. . . . Beauties as ethereal as clouds, created by the magic of your poets and geniuses, have visited me at night, and have whispered in my ears wonderful tales that have set my brain in a whirl. In your books I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc, and from there I have seen the sun rise and have watched it at evening flood the sky, the ocean, and the mountain-tops with gold and crimson. I have watched from there the lightning flashing over my head and cleaving the storm-clouds. I have seen green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, towns. I have heard the singing of the sirens, and the strains of the shepherds’ pipes; I have touched the wings of comely devils who flew down to converse with me of God. . . . In your books I have flung myself into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, preached new religions, conquered whole kingdoms. . . .

"Your books have given me wisdom. All that the unresting thought of man has created in the ages is compressed into a small compass in my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you. And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.

"To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two millions of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which now I despise. To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed, and so break the compact. . . ."

When the banker had read this he laid the page on the table, kissed the strange man on the head, and went out of the lodge, weeping. At no other time, even when he had lost heavily on the Stock Exchange, had he felt so great a contempt for himself. When he got home he lay on his bed, but his tears and emotion kept him for hours from sleeping.

Next morning the watchmen ran in with pale faces, and told him they had seen the man who lived in the lodge climb out of the window into the garden, go to the gate, and disappear. The banker went at once with the servants to the lodge and made sure of the flight of his prisoner. To avoid arousing unnecessary talk, he took from the table the writing in which the millions were renounced, and when he got home locked it up in the fireproof safe. [The use of this story as an illustration of the point suggested by D.S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 181-183]

Now Chekhov’s story has several points. But one of them is this. It is much harder to think hard about life in the midst of life’s busyness, than it is when one is alone. We speak of a man communing with his thoughts, but it is hard to commune with one’s thoughts when others are talking, when the room in which you find yourself is full of sound, when there is so much to see and hear, and when the senses flit from one thing to the next. There is much that can be learned best, if not only, in solitude and silence, when one can think a matter through with care, mull it over in the mind, and trace out the consequences of an idea. The man in Chekhov’s story saw the meaning of life in an utterly new way because he devoted time to thinking things through, and he did this only because he could; he was alone. He was a different man after the period of his solitude than he would have or could have been had he lived those fifteen years in the busy world.

It is not for nothing that silence and solitude play such an important role in the life history of the Son of God. After his baptism the very first thing we read is that the Holy Spirit sent him out into the desert. By desert, of course, or wilderness, is meant a place where he would not encounter other people. He was tempted by the Devil there, to be sure, but apparently most of the time the Lord was alone, thinking and praying about what lay before him.

And so it continued to be. Early on in the Gospel of Mark, as the tide of popularity broke over the Lord Jesus on account of his miracles, we read:

“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.” [Mark 1:35]

In fact, in Luke 5:16 we read “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” It is something that struck the Gospel writers. He was determined to find solitude. Why? Because one cannot concentrate when surrounded by other people. One cannot give oneself to conversation with God or to careful, serious thought when in a crowd and Jesus, otherwise, was always in a crowd. So he sought solitude for himself even though the time had to be taken from much-needed sleep. As Richard Baxter pointed out long ago:

“We seldom read of God’s appearing by himself or by his angels to any of his prophets or saints in a crowd; but frequently when they were alone.” [“Saints Rest,” Practical Works [p bed], 94]

Think of Jacob at Bethel and Peniel, Moses’ years in the wilderness, Joshua meeting the Lord outside Jericho, David praying in his bed at night, or Elijah at the Brook Cherith or meeting the Lord again at Mt. Horeb. Believers have often thought that Paul, after his conversion, spent years in the Arabian Desert. The New Testament does not actually say this, but the reference in Galatians 1:17 to some time spent in Arabia may indicate some time spent apart near the beginning of his Christian life. We can well imagine how much he would need some silence and solitude to read the Word of God and reconsider its teaching from top to bottom in light of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Again and again we have things happen when a man or woman is alone that would not and could not happen in a crowd. This point is often made in the Bible and often with emphasis. Take, for example, Zechariah 12:12-14, where we read of the repentant mourning of the people of God. The emphasis falls on the isolation of each in his mourning, each clan apart, the wives apart, and so on. The adjective “apart” occurs 11 times in three verses. The Lord, in his teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, tells his disciples to “go into your room and close the door…” The night of his betrayal the Savior sought that solitude for his prayer and communion with God.

F.W. Krummacher points out in his wonderful book on Elijah:

“Numberless Christians have been constrained to declare that it was in their imprisonment, or place of exile – in their lonely sick chamber, or in the days when they were forsaken by men and cast out by the world, that they entered really into their own hearts, and ascertained their true spiritual state.” [38]

But what God may do in the silence and solitude he imposes on our lives becomes for us all a lesson in the importance of seeking silence and solitude. People have not only noticed this in the Bible’s description of the godly life but have found an instinctive need for it themselves. Charles Simeon chose his particular rooms at Cambridge in some significant part because of the access they afforded to the roof where there was a path between the ridges that was virtually invisible to anyone else and gave him the opportunity to pray and think and pace alone. Alexander Whyte tells in a sermon of the ecstasy he found in communion with God one winter vacation when he took a long walk by himself. I could multiply examples.

For none so lone on earth as he
Whose way of thought is high and free
Beyond the mist, beyond the cloud
Beyond the clamour of the crowd,
   Moving, where Jesus trod,
   In the lone walk with God.

You have often heard me speak of the fact that corporate worship, the worship of the church on the Lord’s Day, is, according to the Bible, the great engine of Christian discipleship. And I believe that it is. But it is so typical of the Bible to remind us that, however important it is for us to be together and worship together, it is also important for us to be alone and to be alone precisely so as to pray and to consider the implications of our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. If Jesus needed to be alone who had no sin, who had the clearest conceivable understanding of God and of life, of his calling and his future, how much more do we need that measure of concentration and reflection and of undistracted communion with God that is possible only in silence and only when we are alone. The godly man or woman will make Lord’s Day worship and the fellowship of the saints a first priority. But the godly man or woman will also prove the adage:

“Down to Gehenna or up to the throne, he travels the fastest who travels alone.”

In Pilgrim’s Progress Bunyan has his hero, Christian, sometimes walking along with the company of others. There is a great deal of spiritual conversation in Bunyan’s narrative of the way a soul takes through this world. But there are also times when Christian is alone and must fight his battles alone, alone, that is, except for the Lord himself. Indeed, being alone is, in and of itself, of no value. Being alone is important so that one can be the more really with the Lord and before the Lord in his or her thoughts.

This was Jonathan Edwards’ point:

“A true Christian doubtless delights in religious fellowship and Christian conversation, and finds much to affect his heart in it, but he also delights at times to retire from all mankind to converse with God…. True religion disposes persons to be much alone in solitary places for holy meditation and prayer.” [Murray, Edwards, 136]

The difficulty, of course, is exponentially greater in our day because of the possibilities for distraction that modern technology creates. How often do you see people nowadays with earbuds listening to their I-pods or MP3 players. They are isolated from other people around them, but they are not in silence. Indeed, it is often difficult to find silence. You can’t in an airport any more. Everywhere you go the TV is on and blaring. It seems often as if there is a vast conspiracy afoot to keep us from ever being alone with our thoughts.

The wiser among us remind us that culture is not neutral; nor is technology. There is a bias and rarely is the bias toward that which deepens and purifies the soul. Whatever good things may come from a device that enables you to listen to music wherever you are, there is a temptation alongside. Television and computers have done much good but probably much more harm. It is not good for people to listen to things all the time. It is certainly not good for a Christian rarely to seek real solitude and silence, to commune with his or her thoughts, but it is increasingly easy for him or her not to do so. Indeed, now one must unplug on purpose to find such silent solitude. Even if one intends to spend some time apart for spiritual purposes, for mediation and for prayer, for thinking about his or her life, where it is going, how devoted to Jesus Christ he or she actually is, what he or she is going to want to be able to say about his or her life when it is done, about the judgment day, about heaven and hell – things so mightily important and so fraught with the greatest implications – I say, even if one intends to spend some time apart thinking about the greatest things, the largest and most commanding ideas – there comes a tinkling sound from one’s PDA, an email has arrived, a phone call, a text, and plans for silent thought are soon forgotten. More than one observer of our Western culture thinks he knows why we live in constant sound, whether music, TV, or conversation.

            The light must never go out,
            The music must always play,
            All the conventions conspire
            To make this fort assume
            The furniture of home;
            Lest we should see where we are,
            Lost in a haunted wood,
            Children afraid of the night
            Who have never been happy or good. (W.H. Auden)
                                  
The Devil is at work in all of this. He is elated when he can keep believers from communion with God and very happy as well when he can keep them from hard, concentrated thinking about their faith and their life in Christ.

Young people, I know very well that it can be difficult to listen to your parents tell you what you ought to do, how you ought to spend your time, with what company, doing what. Advice can be hard to take. You want to make your own decisions. You want to be responsible for your own life. All of that is perfectly easy to understand. But, let me put it to you plainly: do you think carefully and deeply about these things? Have you ever taken a walk by yourself or sat in a chair when no one else was around? Have you prayed to God to help you see things clearly? And then have you thought about where your life is going, what kind of person you are becoming, how intelligent your decisions have been and, more important still, how obviously have they been motivated by a desire to love God, to keep God’s commandments, to give him glory, and to live in that way best designed to bring his blessing down upon your head?

We have all seen – you have seen – young people live their lives in ways designed to make observers say, “What were they thinking?” And the answer is very likely that they weren’t thinking at all; not really, not carefully, not deeply. They were just living, like a ball in a pinball machine, being knocked here and there by whatever it was they bumped into. They were not thoughtful; they had not mapped out a plan for life; they had not stopped and considered what they ought to be and do and where they needed to go. They hadn’t found time to be alone with God and work all of this out under his eye and with his blessing.

Young people – and all of you brothers and sisters – listen carefully to this from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Think hard about yourself as you listen to these wise and very truthful words. They come from his great little work Life Together. It is a book about Christian community and the importance of that community. But in the midst, he says, nevertheless:

“Many people seek fellowship [and, we might say, music 24/7 through their earbuds] because they are afraid to be alone. Because they cannot stand loneliness, they are driven to seek the company of other people. There are Christians, too, who cannot endure being alone…

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you… [76-77]

There is a great truth there, is there not? It was Luther who wrote,

“The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone…. I will not be with you then, nor you with me.” [Life Together, 77]

That is, you must be alone with God and before God. You cannot avoid it. So don’t leave it late. Do it now. If you can be alone with God, really with God, in your thoughts and your prayers, then you will not fear to be alone with him when the time comes when he will summon you into his presence and you must come. As Spurgeon put it, “I commend solitude to any of you who are seeking salvation, first, that you may study well your case as in the sight of God.” [MTP 42, 266; cited in Whitney, 189]

It is one thing to know things – to know things about God, and his will, about yourself, about faith and the life of faith – it is another thing to think these things through. To study them out. To consider what they must mean for you and for your life. To do that silence and solitude is necessary and virtually every great Christian life is the demonstration of its importance. Do you long for heaven? Well, if you don’t as you should, how much have you thought about it and what life is going to be like there? How much have you tried to take the Bible’s descriptions and visualize them? Have you a proper fear of hell? Have you thought about it; sat and thought about it by yourself? Have you walked along by yourself thinking and praying, moving from one thing to another, as you go, but all the while conscious that you are alone with God? Have you considered him and his glory, Christ on the cross; the resurrection of the Lord; his ascension to heaven, his coming again? Have you considered your life in view of those great events? It takes determination to devote yourself to thought on such commanding ideas. It takes a mind free from distraction. It takes solitude and silence. And nowadays that takes some determination. Husbands and wives help one another find some solitude. Parents, find some for your children.

                        Alone with Thee, alone with Thee,
                           I want no more
                        To make my earthly bliss complete,
                        That oft my Lord unseen to meet:
                        For “sight” I wait, till tread my feet
                           Yon glistening shore.