The benefits of practicing Silence and Solitude are greatly underestimated. I think because it's not understood. God has recently been showing me how important this discipline is because I’ve needed it so much lately.
And this got me asking questions about why I needed it so much. I thought I practiced this discipline naturally because I’m an introvert who needs regular periods away from others so I can rest and regain my sense of self. But being alone and practicing the discipline of Silence and Solitude are NOT the same thing.
For starters, I can be by myself and still engage in actives that aren't actually restorative. Binge watching a TV show, for example, may seem like a beneficial activity because I can be alone and let the stresses of life simply drift from thought. But what it really does is suppress those issues and fills my mind with worthless (or at least un-beneficial) information. It only serves to cover up the issues you’ve been dealing with and lies to you about the progress you’re making with letting them go.
I’ve learned that practicing Silence and Solitude is the spiritual equivalent to resting after a hard workout. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, you don’t actually get stronger from going to the gym. Lifting weights only serves to stress the muscles and break them down. And that stress is what causes growth to take place. Without it, your body wouldn’t have a reason to grow.
But the exercise itself doesn’t make your muscles grow stronger. The process of rest and recovery does that. So if you didn't give your muscles enough time to recover and you continued to work out every day, you’d end up breaking down your body more and more until you injured yourself and/or made yourself sick. This is your body's way of taking the rest it needs whether you’re willing to give it or not.
And it’s the same for our spiritual lives. The challenges we face in our every day work, the learning we seek by reading and other means, and the spiritual disciplines we practice all serve to stress our spiritual muscles. And so we need periods of rest for our souls in order to let them grow.
Silence and Solitude provides our inner worlds with the rest they need to recover and for our spiritual roots to take ever deeper hold in the presence of God. Without taking the necessary time to let your spiritual self recover, you risk the possibility of a spiritual injury such as burnout, depression, or a complete collapse of your inner world that leaves you feeling hopeless and alone.
Two Disciplines that Make One
While you can practice either Silence or Solitude on their own, they are best practiced together. Solitude is more easily practiced by itself, because we all find ourselves alone at home or work at some point. But you can also retreat to a back room of your house or a closet easily enough if that’s your only option. But rather than complete silence, you may choose to play some worship music or listen to a sermon or podcast. These moments are beneficial, and as an introvert I love them. But I’ve found Solitude on its own does not truly provide the inner rest necessary after a season of exceptional inner stress.
Silence, on the the hand, is much harder to practice by itself. Finding silence often necessitates finding a place of solitude. You need a place away from the noise of other people, phones, and other electronic devices. You also need a setting where you aren’t required to speak, a place where you can be quiet and still. Practicing silence isn’t just about not hearing others speak. It’s about not speaking yourself.
One of the questions Christians most often ask is how can I better know the voice of God in my life. The answer is to practice listening. Silence and Solitude is one of the best disciplines for teaching you how to listen for God’s voice by eliminating every other voice, including your own.
The Process that Makes the Struggle so Beneficial
I have found that when I sit down to practice silence and solitude, I experience several stages of thought or challenges. I like being aware of them because knowing about them helps me anticipate what about to come so I can deal with it appropriately. It’s good to be aware of them so you don’t quit prematurely thinking the frustration that this practice naturally produces indicates that you have failed in some way. I remember when I first started practicing Silence and Solitude. Without knowing about these routine stages, I felt like a failure when I encountered difficulty. But now that I know they are simply part of the process, I can embrace them and allow them to do their healing work, even if they make me uncomfortable at times.
Remember, like any new skill, this one must be learned. And to do so requires that you push up against the limit of your current ability, which causes discomfort. But it's necessary because that discomfort stimulates growth. Like working out at the gym, you must stimulate the muscle by putting it under stress. Not too much all at once however. Too much too quickly will cause the muscle to fail. Too much stress too quickly can cause an injury. In this case, injury is feeling like you failed because you didn’t see the results you expected. We must develop reasonable expectations so this doesn’t happen.
Knowing how the body responds to exercise allows us to design smarter training programs that makes the best use of our effort and gives us the greatest possible “gains.” The same is true for the spiritual disciplines. Knowing how they work and anticipating the difficult moments affords us the opportunity to put forth our effort at exactly the right moments so we get the most out of our time and efforts. When practicing silence and solitude, therefore, you should be ready to encounter the following stages.
5 Stages to Silence and Solitude
Stage 1: Anticipation
First, you will feel great. The initial moment of sitting down and coming to rest will fill you with a sense of anticipation because you know how beneficial this discipline is and how much you need it. After all, you aren’t practicing the spiritual disciplines for nothing. You expect to get something from this experience, and rightfully so.
But this anticipation is precisely what leads to stage 2. You see, for the first few moments, maybe 5-10 minutes, the anticipation and excitement are driving you forward. It feels good! But as those feeling slowly fade away, you are left alone with your own thoughts.
Stage 2: The Wandering Mind
Our minds are designed to always be processing information. It’s part of what allows us to survive. We are constantly taking in data from the world around us through our 5 senses to determine if there is potential danger. Even when we sleep our minds are wildly active as they process the data of the day, storing what is useful and discarding what it deems is not, to prepare itself for consciousness once again in the morning.
And so this where we begin to encounter stress that challenges our natural tendencies. When I try to quiet my mind and focus on God, I find my mind floods with thoughts as I begin to day dream, recount TV shows, or think of all the stuff I still have to do for the day. This is where most people get frustrated and quit. We tend to think that as long as our minds are racing this way, we will never be successful at being still and focused on the presence of God.
When you enter this stage, remember that this is perfectly natural. Don’t judge and condemn yourself for the thoughts that enter your mind. You may not want them there, and this practice along with mediation can help us gain greater control over our minds. But this does not mean you will begin to do the work of getting rid of it during this session. You should avoid the temptation to do a thing about it all.
Instead, realize that simply being with God is all you have to do. That is enough for the moment. For in that moment you realize that even with all the anger and hatred and pain you may be carrying, God is still with you and loves you, and is in control of the world around you. You haven’t done a thing in some time now, and yet, the world moves on. You realize that even with all of that ugliness you are holding on to so tightly, that it isn't serving you. It’s holding you back; and you weren’t even consciously aware of it in the first place.
The answer is to let those thoughts flow through your mind. Simply observe them. Don’t judge them. Even if you find disturbing or even sinful thoughts bubbling to the surface. Acknowledge them and give them to God. He knows they’re there anyway. He knows our hearts better than we do. So these thoughts don’t surprise Him. So all that’s happening is that you are becoming aware of them yourself and and now able to consciously give them over to Him.
I look at this phase like a detox period. It’s not usually fun and it’s not always pretty, but it’s necessary to let your mind get rid of the junk that’s been weighing you down, junk you don’t even know about, so you can rest in the presence of God.
Stage 3: The Urge to Do Something
When I get to Stage 3, I'm tempted to quit this exercise and go back to work. I feel somewhat refreshed after a few moments of stillness and so when I’m hit by the deluge of my own thoughts about all the things I have yet to do for the day, I feel the urge to jump up and begin feverishly working to accomplish them. That is, after all, one of the benefits of rest; so we can be more effective in our work. But this feeling can be explained using one word: control.
Silence and Solitude trains us to relinquish control over ourselves and over the world around us so we can simply be. So while we are being still, we give control to God. This discipline teach us that there is nothing we need to do in order to keep ourselves safe, to keep our work moving forward, to be effective, or to earn God’s love. We can stop everything and just BE with Him. We should even avoid the temptation to pray or read our Bibles. For even doing these wonderful activities during these moments of stillness are our attempts at doing something to regain control.
But as you sit in silence and solitude, you'll realize that your strength isn’t necessary. You thought it was. You thought if you didn’t do it, who would. You thought you had to be responsible. But there you are, sitting, doing nothing in the presence of God, and He is holding it all together.
Through this practice you will begin to notice that things you once felt were urgent cease to be. You will develop a greater trust in God’s ability to provide. When you do return to work, you'll find the fruit of your work multiplied. And you’ll discover a deeper appreciation for the opportunity to serve others with your life.
These sound like amazing benefits. But they can only happen if we’re willing to push through Stage 3 and resist the urge to take back control of our lives. Instead, learn to rely on God’s strength, His provision, His presence. If we are willing to give up control, we will discover what Jesus meant when He said that His burden was easy and His yoke was light.
Stage 4: Giving Into Rest
After resisting my impulse to abandon silence and solitude, I find myself giving into rest. It kind of reminds me of trying to rock an overly tired baby to sleep. They fight so hard not to accept sleep. But when they finally succumb, you can see their physical demeanor change. They often take a deep breath and let out a great sigh as their bodies slightly tremble as the nervous energy leaves their body. Finally! They can rest.
This is what it’s like to fight against your own mind to get it to rest in silence and solitude. It’s a spiritual discipline for a reason. It’s contrary to the tendency of our physical natures. But when we are disciplined and forgiving enough to persevere through Stages 2 and 3, we will find rest waiting on the other side.
And as a word of encouragement, getting to Stage 4 becomes easier with practice. To use the baby analogy again, when you finally get your a new born on a sleeping routine she learns to anticipate it. Once the routine begins, she will more easily give herself over to sleep. And as we incorporate regular intervals of silence and solitude into our lives, we will become accustomed to them and our minds will stop fighting against us so hard and will more easily relax into the presence of God for rest.
Stage 5: Love for God and Others
It’s a mystery how a practice like silence and solitude produces love for God and others. But when you take time away from others to detox and rest your mind, to enjoy the presence of God, you return with a profound sense of gratitude, a new sense of being, and a desire to serve others. I think it works because this is how God created us. And when we reconnect with Him, our created purpose is ignited with fresh fire.
But regardless of how it works, we should be more focused on that it works. This is why Jesus practiced this disincline so often. We see Him retreating to be alone with His Father, in the Gospel, more than any other discipline. He usually did this to seek rest after having ministered to a large group of people, or right before He was about to face a difficult struggle. It was both restorative and preparatory for following God’s will and ministering to the people He loved.
As followers of Christ, we are to be imitators of Him and His lifestyle. The practice of silence and solitude was one of the more important in Jesus life and ministry. We would be foolish to ignore it in our lives because we don’t see the benefits or because we make excuses about not having the time. We must make time. And we must relinquish control of the world to God and trust that by giving up time to continue to work or ministry that a renewed sense of God’s presence in our lives will make us more effective because we took time to discipline our spirits and connect with God.