The Gospel and the Discipline of Solitude

Withdrawing from the presence of all but God affords an excellent occasion for focused thinking about gospel truths and realities.

When my grandparents married in 1919 and began farming, solitude was a way of life. My grandfather spent most of his days alone in the fields, and my grandmother spent her time alone - until the children came along - in the farmhouse. No planes flew overhead. No cars or tractors rambled nearby. There was no radio, television, or telephone – not even the slightest electrical hum. The only sounds my grandparents heard all day were those of God's creation or the ones they made while working.

Just two generations later, solitude is now as difficult for many to experience as locating a telephone would have been for my rural grandparents in 1919. Times have changed, but our need for solitude and its benefits for our souls have not.

What kind of solitude?

The sort of solitude that refreshes the Christian soul is more than just separation from other people. Scriptural solitude is the biblical practice of temporarily withdrawing to privacy for spiritual purposes. The period of solitude may last only a few minutes or for days. Generally it is sought in order to engage in other spiritual disciplines without the distractions typical in the presence of people.

Jesus and solitude

While Jesus is much more than our example, nevertheless He is our example, including our model for spirituality. He pursued times of solitude. The gospel accounts tell us Jesus often got alone, not just for rest and a change of pace, but also that He might spend time in communion with His heavenly Father.

  • In Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and He was alone there for 40 days, except for when the devil came to tempt Him.
  • "And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone" (Matthew 14:23).
  • "And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed" (Mark 1:35).
  • "And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place" (Luke 4:42).

Jesus not only modeled prayer in solitude, He exhorted us to do the same: "But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret." (Matthew 6:6).

True grace delights in solitude

American Christians in particular are prone to understanding many of the New Testament teachings relating to the local church as passages addressed to individual believers. In doing so we "individualize" many texts intended for an entire local church.

But it is nonetheless true that the gospel first addresses us as individuals. While each Christian becomes part of the body of Christ - a body that collectively is the bride of Christ - God knows us by name and relates to us one by one.

So while believers are members of God's family and the New Testament prioritizes the congregational aspects of faith in Christ, biblical Christianity also normalizes meeting with God alone. As Jonathan Edwards put it, "True religion disposes persons to be much alone in solitary places for holy meditation and prayer . . . True grace delights in secret converse with God."

Spiritual benefits of solitude

A mark of those who have experienced the true grace that comes through faith in Jesus Christ is taking pleasure in being alone with God. Solitude provides the opportunity to meditate on Scripture, to pray, and to enjoy worshiping God in private. The Holy Spirit enlivens these experiences for those who have believed the gospel.

Withdrawing from the presence of all but God affords an excellent occasion for focused thinking about gospel truths and realities, freshly applying the gospel to our souls again, and reflecting on the blessings and hopes that are ours through the gospel. Solitude is an ideal setting for recording such reflections and insights in a spiritual journal and for reading edifying material.

In fact, some contend that solitude is not so much in itself a discipline, but a context for practicing the personal disciplines. In other words, solitude is simply putting yourself in a situation where you can be alone for the scriptural disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, and meditation.

Regardless of how you classify it, solitude allows us to enjoy some of the benefits of fellowship with God that He provided through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Seek at least a few minutes of time alone with God daily, and seek some extended times occasionally, but seek solitude for the sake of your soul.

If you are like most - and unlike my grandparents - solitude with God won't consistently occur without intentionality. But it's a pursuit worth the discipline. When will you begin?