Solitude and Silence

Dallas Willard Part 16 of 34

In 1993 Dallas began teaching an intensive two-week residential course for Fuller Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program. His task was to teach about spiritual life in a systematic way so that its full connection to the work of the minister was clear. These sessions from 2012 are from Dallas’s last year of teaching the course before he died. Though a bulk of the course was usually centered on the nature and practice of disciplines, the beginning of the course dealt with more theological themes like the nature of spiritual reality and the end of the course dealt with topics in spirituality like vocational issues. [Editor’s Note: We know that the class was taped on other occasions and would be glad to find these recordings.]


Lets work on page 48 and following in the time that we have. We will quit at 10 to 12; there’s a little more house keeping that we need to do, and Keith will help us with that.


All right, on page 48, they are really separate issues that we need to deal with reference to each discipline. We need to be very careful to understand what it is, exactly what it is. So, I will start with solitude in a moment and that statement at the bottom of 49. Then the question of its biblical basis: does it show up in the bible? Is it something they did? Is there any explanations of how it works? How it relates to the physical body? Illustrations from the life of Jesus and others? Then, what are the specific spiritual benefits achieved through it? Its relation to ministry, and there are always practicalities with reference to a discipline and there are always dangers. We won’t do this systematically but those are the sorts of considerations that come up.


Now, there are two in my classification – people do this differently – there are two general types of disciplines. They are disciplines of abstinence, and this I open the discussion here on page 49. And then there are disciplines of engagement. If you have had opportunity to study the Spirit of the Disciplines, the book, you will recognize that and I have a discussion of the importance of understanding that difference. And, fundamentally, it’s like breathing in and breathing out – except you start with breathing out, and that’s the abstinence principle. You empty areas out that have been filled with things, not necessarily bad things. For example, if you fast from food, that’s not because there’s something wrong with food. If you fast from company, or talking, it isn’t that there’s something wrong – it’s that these things come to hold a place in our lives that eliminates other things that need to be there. [3:12]


So, today, we’ll just be able to talk about a couple, maybe three – I doubt it, a couple of the major disciplines of abstinence. They’re designed to free us from spiritually hurtful entanglements, especially from overdependence on human interactions, and our work. And, then next week we will get into disciplines of engagement and talk about how we have to engage with things that will help us and then I think you’ll see how that’s going to depend on an interaction between abstinence and engagement.


Peter has this phrase on abstinence: “Abstain from fleshly lust which war against the soul.” And, the first discipline that we look at is solitude. What is it? Well, the bottom of page 49: “electing to step free from human relationships for a lengthy period of time in isolation or anonymity. You can be in isolation even though there are other people around you, and anonymity is a way of having that. And, sometimes solitude can be practiced well in a place where there are lots of other people but no one knows you—the anonymity of downtown Los Angeles, for example. But, I wouldn’t start there. I would start with isolation and that can be a quiet room – what the old guys and gals call their cell – and you have a cell here, it’s just your room. And, one way of practicing isolation is to have a comfortable place where you go and you are alone, and you’re quiet, and you don’t do anything except just be there.


And so, I have the terminology right at the bottom of 49.  To do nothing, and the choice to do nothing in isolation is the clearest illustration of what solitude is. Enforced isolation is different. That can be torture and that’s why in prisons they use solitary confinement as a way of punishing people. So, this is chosen; it’s a choice to be alone. This is something that is illustrated by Jesus.  One of my favorite verses on that point is Mark 1:13. It’s a lovely description of Jesus in His days after his baptism. Because it kind of fills in the void a bit, because when you are alone, well – you will be and possibly, you won’t be. And in Mark 1:13, after the spirit compelled Him to go out into the wilderness: “And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts.” Okay, so, wild beasts are admitted into your solitude. And, actually, they help you. And, Angels, they’re admitted. And they were ministering to Him and it is a wonderful thing to artistically, creatively, also with other scripture, fill out what that was like.  [8:27]


Now, obviously, there was something going on. And what I have tried to help people come to terms with is here is that you don’t do any work. So, that means you leave your email, and you leave your undone writing and all of that sort of thing, you just don’t take it with you or you leave it alone. And, you focus just on being alone. Well, what about God? Well, God may come to be with you, along with Satan, and a few wild beasts. So, you accept that but you don’t try to make God show up. This is one of the most troubling things for people who are learning to enter into solitude is their expectations as to what is supposed to happen.


You want to start from the idea that what is supposed to happen is nothing. Nothing. You’re learning how to just be there. And, this is a part of the disentanglement that goes into the discipline of abstinence. And, so I encourage people not to take their boom box or their tapes. Well but you know, you don’t want to get picky about that.  If the, let’s say, the musical tapes, worship music, recorded scripture which you’re listening to – that can be a part of your disentanglement as long as you don’t make work out of it.


Solitude is tied to Sabbath. And, actually, it’s very difficult to practice Sabbath unless you are habituated to solitude.  The rule for solitude is no work – you don’t work. Now, that can be driven to extremes, as it often is in legalistic settings like, go to Israel, go into the high rise where you are staying and you find that it’s Saturday and the elevator does not respond to you. So you go in, you step into the elevator and you just have to wait for it to do whatever it’s going to do. And, it will go to the floor that you’re on – eventually – and you get off. But, you can’t push any buttons; that would be work. Well, see that’s – if you get legalistic about disciplines or the Sabbath, which isn’t just a discipline, of course, then you’re going to be faced with making a lot of decisions that are going to look silly. [11:49]


And, so that – I really encourage you not to get stuck on that. So, should you have some praise music with you in solitude—I really think you’re better not to have it, especially until you get really used to doing nothing. Because, the praise music is apt to be associated with the idea of making something happen. Like, for example, you’re going to worship now.


Solitude is designed to totally take us off of what we do. Now, you’re going to have to sit, or lie down, or walk, or stand – keep breathing, and so-  I mean, obviously, again you don’t want to be silly about this. If walking were labor, then probably you shouldn’t do that. We don’t make rules about this kind of thing. The basic idea is to choose a comfortable place to be and then just be there. And, if that’s walking around here, you want to take opportunities to – I love to look at the flowers and think “Solomon in all of his glory… wasn’t this good?”


So, you take time to take that in. You’re not trying to make something happen – you’re enjoying your experience. Solitude, things will happen – you can bet on that. But, you’re not the one who is making them happen. And, you simply are enjoying the freedom of being there, and enjoying your consciousness and your life, and coming to terms with the fact that that really is valuable; it’s good. And, that, I think is the hardest part for people who are driven, like most of us tend to be, to accomplish. So, you’re not going to accomplish anything. So, you say, “well, then why do it?” Well, something will be accomplished, but you won’t do it.  [14:10]


So, now you have the examples of Jesus here at the top of page 50. I give you lots of references to how He goes out and He’s alone in solitude, and obviously praying and perhaps doing some other things, but He’s alone, He’s in solitude. He’s not responding to the demands of the crowd and, of course you know the stories, so when He goes into solitude, they hunt Him down, like an animal, and say “Hey! Everybody’s hollering for you!”


Especially, I love Luke 4:42, where He just sort of says, “Well, we have to go to other towns.” So, He doesn’t respond to the crowd. And, that is a kind of outcome of solitude that we need to achieve, where we are now free not to respond to the requests that come to us. We’re free not to do that; we’re not in bondage to the demands of our work.


And, you know, we have the habit of responding, and we become worn out, exhausted with this. And, we have to go into solitude to begin to break the grip of our entanglements in that way. So, do associate solitude with Sabbath. Sabbath is a command; it’s not just a discipline, but it is a tremendous discipline as well, and it is primarily a discipline of turning loose. Sabbath, you turn loose. You don’t do any work. And, not only that, you’re donkey doesn’t do any work either. You got a donkey? Okay, then he gets to go out and look at the flowers also.


See, that’s an extension of you turning loose. You turn your donkey loose; you turn your undocumented labor loose. Just turn it loose, that’s the law of the Sabbath. Now, most people aren’t able to practice that unless they have learned to practice solitude. Solitude is the radical cure of entanglement, and it teaches; it breaks our habits; it enables us to be assured that if we don’t show up the world will go on and God will take care of it, and other people will be able to serve as well as we. [17:10]


So, the connection with the laws of Sabbath, I’ve given you references there. And, I don’t have time to go into those right now, but we may be able to come back to them later. I mentioned here, Elijah’s discipline, that’s the discipline of sleeping.  Elijah ran from Jezebel, and you know, you wonder why he didn’t just look at her and say “Okay baby, you’re fried, fire please.” What happened to Elijah between Mt. Carmel and Samaria? Now, that’s really crucial for us to think about.  Jezebel says, “I’m going to kill you” – well, what’s the deal?  Well, he had been in a pretty powerful meeting, hadn’t he? Lots of things had happened there  – lots of them very bloody, and he was a part of it, and then he also had – he was so high in his success that when Ahab offered him a ride, he said, “I don’t need a ride,” and just outran Ahab.


You know, some of you guys are in shape for that sort of thing, but probably, I doubt that Elijah was really ready for that in terms of his physical preparation – maybe so, I don’t know. See, now, what I’m saying here is – watch what he had been doing and then think about where he was when this lady said “I’m going to get you,” and he turns and he’s out the door, and he’s running, and he’s scared, and he’s desolate, and he thinks God has forsaken him, and goes down and winds up saying, “let me die.”


Well, if he’d just stayed in Samaria that could have been arranged. So, I mean, he’s confused, and that happens to people when they are intensely engaged even in successful ministry. That’s one of the manifestations of burn out, and we’ll talk more about that next week.  [19:50]


But, Sabbath, and solitude now are closely connected, and sometimes we just need to make sure we rest. Now, in his case, he had a nap, angel woke him up, fed him; he took another nap. Very often, two naps in a day are much more effective than one. So, try that.  I do that. When I am coming out of really heavy stuff – Jane knows, I need a nap, and then I need another one. And, it’s amazing how restorative that second one is – like the first was a warm up.


So, Elijah is very important to study. And, one of the things that touches me about his story is that it seems like he had come to the end of his ministry now, and that had to be wrapped up, but still he had reached his limit. And we reach our limit, and solitude is a place of restoration.


So now, what’s so important here about space and time? You know – using space and time well is really important; we have to learn this. It’s less important after we become practiced in disciplines such as solitude and silence, but just removing yourself in space and time, where you don’t have to deal with things – issues don’t even come up that you have to deal with – being at another place helps us break the entanglements that if we’re not in another place, if it’s nothing more than just putting peoples hands off of us, as it were, the responsibility of saying no – we don’t have to do that because we’re just some place else. [22:22]


That’s really an important part of understanding most of the disciplines – is the use of the body, but with solitude we simply pick the body up and put it in another place. And that aids our will – by freeing us up from having to deal with things, even so far as having to say “no” is a great relief. So, we have to remember that spiritual growth is not just a matter of growth in willpower. Willpower itself is exhausting and if you have to live by willpower, it will get the best of you eventually.


So, you move out of proximity, so the desert is a place where solitude comes into its own and burdens that we otherwise would have to keep carrying simply are not there.  Now, you probably – most of you, maybe all of you – have had some experience of that and you have an opportunity here to have a further experience of solitude, and I hope that you will use the time well in that regard.  We have a lot of disciplines going at the same time here, but do try to have some times where you are just alone and doing nothing. [24:09]


At the bottom of page 50, I have some benefits of solitude. I think, perhaps, the greatest is that we learn that we can live without constant interaction with others. Constant interaction with others becomes a way of being pre-occupied and not really dealing honestly with ourselves, and who we are, and what we are to do. So, when we get out from these interactions we learn that the world does not rest on our shoulders. We have time to focus on God, to clear the storm of life and mind for decisions and planning. Now, those are benefits, but they are not what we aim at; our aim in solitude is to simply be alone and to do nothing.  [25:27]


I have already said that, but I repeat it because it is so easy to miss it – to be alone and to do nothing. Now, that’s not because it’s especially holy. Remember this is wisdom, not righteousness. The repeated mistake with reference to disciplines is to turn them into something holy. I say right at the bottom of page 50, here, that’s why most people succeed little with prayer or study is because they are distracted. Solitude begins to make a dent on the distractions and frees us up so that we can return to our work or to other activities in a way that is much more beneficial.


This statement of the psalmist in Psalm 16:8 is one of my favorite passages. “I have set the Lord always before me. He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” Now, in solitude, you discover that you don’t try to make it happen, but you can be sure that something along that line will happen. And, when it happens, then you will find that you can take that with you back wherever you go. Solitude is something that, when you practice, you can have it wherever you are. That’s a benefit of solitude.


So, I underlined the statement here on page 51, “God will not, as a rule, compete for your attention.” Sometimes, He will get after you, but for the most part, it is up to us to seek Him and then He will find us. And one of the ways that we seek him is to step out of the entanglements of ordinary life. That’s our part. Now, as He shows up – or whether He shows up – I think I can say that you can be sure that something like that will happen, and it will change the way you live.  But that’s God’s business and He takes care of that.  [28:20]


So, each of us strategically, how do we seek the face of God? How do we come to the place to where He is before us? And, I think that solitude is one of the ways that we begin to move in that direction and we need to make a place for it. I really think that if you will establish it as a posture in life then you can carry it with you wherever you are, and when you do that, you aren’t going to be overwhelmed with responsibilities and other people and so on, even though you have to work very hard. See, it’s when you have to work very hard and also carry the weight of the world on your shoulders that it becomes destructive.


So, you can be undistracted if you establish that habit in your soul and in your body. I mention here, in the middle of page 51, “solitude breaks the power of hurry.” That’s a primary function of the discipline. And, if you think about it, you can see how that would work. Because, in solitude you learn to step free from the demands that will make you hurry. Now, hurry is different from acting quickly.  Hurry is a kind of attitude that combines, usually, guilt and fear, and an excessive sense of your responsibility. And those come together.


So, now you go into solitude and you discover that you live, and continue to breathe, and enjoy the grace of God and the beauty of creation and the love of your family, and you are able to concentrate on that even though they’re not present, and you become very thankful for your life. That breaks the grip of hurry. John Wesley, in a letter that he wrote – I believe, when he was 71, said “I am always in haste, but never in a hurry.” Someone who knew him had expressed their concern about how hard he worked, and he said “I am never in a hurry because I never accept more than I can do.” [31:05]


So, now, there’s no problem with working hard regularly, though in solitude you suspend that. There’s no problem with that – you can work hard. I have attached a page toward the end of the book that is quoting Peterson – one of his wonderful comments on pastoring. In that page, which I’m not locating right now, there’s a quotation that he makes of C.S. Lewis that “only lazy people are busy”. Now, what does he mean by that? “Only lazy people are busy.” Well, if you are unwilling to exercise the effort that is involved in taking control of your life, then you will be busy. You will be crushed, “only lazy people are busy”. That’s on page 140.


This is a report by a past student in this seminar, Jeff Gorman. He was reading Petersons’ book, The Contemplative Pastor. Well, what does that mean? Well, that means you’re going to have to take control of your calendar. If you have too much to do, it’s not God’s responsibility, it’s somebody else’s, and you might work on that – as to whose it is.


Now, solitude is a kind of training that allows you to not be victimized by the demands that may be placed on you. The control of your time is a major thing that comes out of the practice of solitude. Now, again, those are affects, they are benefits that come out of that; they are not a part of solitude. But, solitude will work wonders for you, it will free you from hurry, as it will free you from over subscription to things that you think you have to do.


It also cures you of loneliness and how many people today – and usually not pastors, but sometimes actually, that is a problem that has different dimensions than just busyness for a pastor. Many people are plagued with loneliness and you learn that you can be alone without being lonely. And you are able to deal with what drives loneliness, able to think about it. I wish I had time right now to just launch into a discussion of loneliness because it is something that troubles so many people, but I can’t do that right now. Maybe we’ll get back to it next week. [35:35]


I want to say a word about silence, so let me just say that solitude and silence are – one of the things that happens is that we become aware of, what today is often called, “the false self.” The false self is basically a way of presenting yourself to others, partly because of demands that you feel are being made upon you, but they don’t really represent who you are – and that’s why it’s called the false self.


Solitude and silence both are disciplines, or practices, in which we come to terms with our false self, and feelings of various kinds, that are submerged and cannot be dealt with when we are manipulating the entanglements of ordinary life.  That’s important in families; it’s important in churches, because the burden of manning the facades, which comes with living with the false self, are life-crushing. They make it impossible for us to live for God in a way that we can be truthful and open and honest and helpful to other people.


The false self always distorts the whole configuration of relationships. Other people, for example, are drawn into dealing with you in terms of this false self that you are presenting, and then they start falsifying. Solitude is really important and silence is really important in helping us come to terms with the false self and let it drop off – because, in solitude, you don’t need to fool anybody, maybe yourself for awhile, but that will go if you just stay with it.


Now, let me just say a word about silence and we’ll try to finish this up when we come back. There are two main forms of silence; this is on page 53-54 of your notes. The first form is something that apparently we are going to have a problem with around here this weekend, but apparently, you can find a place where you can enjoy that and that’s just quiet—silence as quiet. And, I think, we have been able to enjoy a bit of that while we’ve been here – perhaps in the evenings or in the night—just the experience of no sound. It’s very hard to achieve that in our world.


We’re kind of out of the main noise up here, but even the noise from the valley and the traffic and so on, does get in. And, what we have to understand is that noise reaches deeply into our body and into our souls, and disturbs us. It has a disturbing effect. [39:23]

One of – a part of that, I think, is to be understood just in terms of how we have had to live in a world where sounds are, essentially, signs that often keep us alive. The snake that is not a rattlesnake offers some problems that rattlesnakes don’t. But, you have to pay attention, but if you hear a certain kind of sound, well, then your body goes like that, and sirens and screams, and all kinds of sounds deeply disturb our bodies. So, we need to cultivate that and to understand that silence, as they say at the bottom of page 53 here, “silence is not an absence, it’s a presence.” [40:17]


We might think that it’s just the absence of noise, and that of course, is something real and important, but when you get beyond the noise and the sounds, you discover that silence is a kind of substance in which we are able to experience eternity. It is a substance that enters into our souls and if we don’t have it, our souls become impoverished. And, so, almost everyone comes to the point where they just want to turn everything off, and that is a reflection of the fact that noise drains the energy of our souls. I think it does that mainly by punching the body and making the body alert and active and so on.


So, silence is one part of this discipline, and a very important part of it, but the one that we’re going to be looking at more carefully in the next hours, by our experience, is to refrain from speaking.  Now, refraining from speaking is something that really does change everything about how we are inserted into life. And, so, very often people can’t do this unless they are also experiencing solitude. Their habits are such that they simply cannot refrain from speaking. But, refraining from speaking is a major part of what is learned in studying the Bible and reflecting on the experience that is there, being silent and waiting for the Lord. We read some statements from the Psalms about that the other day.


When you refrain from speaking, you lay down the burden of adjusting how you appear to other people. And that is one reason why it is so challenging. And, why James says “Anyone who can get by without offending by their speech is a perfect person.” Now, you might say, “wow, what could that possibly mean?” And, I quote that in the important passage here from James 3:1-12, at the bottom of page 154. What could that possibly mean? That if you don’t offend in speech, you are a perfect person. And, of course there have been groups that have turned that into an absolute command. So, you have orders in the past that have taken a vow of silence. There is nothing particularly righteous about silence. What James is saying is simply this: If you can control your speech in a way that you don’t hurt others or do something wrong with it, you have come to a point where you know what is going on and you are able to stop what is not right. You are able to stop that, because of your knowledge of your self. [44:20]


The tongue is so close to our will and is so apt to run on without our knowledge of what is good, that if you can control that thing in your mouth, that means that your character has developed to such an extent that you are aware of what’s coming down. And, now, mastery of wrongdoing is primarily a matter of being aware and prepared to stop it when it can be stopped. I think, I suggest that to you as way of understanding what James is saying when he says “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body.” I think that’s so important that we’re going to have to come back to that. But you know, I give you a bunch of verses here at the bottom of page 54. And, you know a lot more of them, I’m sure, because it’s amazing when you stop to look at it, how often the scripture returns to this point.

Listen to all parts in this Spirituality and Ministry 2012 series