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MARCH 6 2016

Solitude

 

[I. Introduction] I used to like science fiction films quite a bit. I still enjoy them now and then. One stands out among the many I have seen. It has to do with a planet named Solaris, also the name of the movie, that has a space station orbiting it where the crew from Earth is supposed to be researching and analyzing the planet from space. The movie begins on Earth where a top-notch psychologist, Dr. Chris Kelvin (played by George Clooney in the American version, but the Russian film of 1972 is much better) is called in to go to the space station because the crew has refused to come home after there duty time is up. Not only do they refuse to return, but they either ignore all communication or only give the most vague and unhelpful responses. A security patrol was sent to retrieve the astronauts but they were never heard from.  Dr Gibarian, the head of the space station has requested for Dr. Kelvin to come and help them to understand what is happening. Sounds ominous, does it not?

 

Dr. Kelvin travels to the station and learns that Gibarian has committed suicide and most of the crew have either died or disappeared under bizarre circumstances. Both surviving crew members, Snow and Dr. Gordon, are reluctant to explain the situation at hand. Once alone in his quarters, Kelvin dreams about his dead wife Rheya — reliving when they first met and some of their most romantic and intimate moments. He awakens shocked and terrified to encounter Rheya, apparently alive again beside him in bed. He knows it cannot be his wife so he lures whatever it is into an escape pod and shoots her into space.

 

He learns that similar things have been happening to the crew members there. Then Rheya appears again. This time she reveals seemingly genuine feelings. When she learns that she is not human she commits suicide by drinking liquid oxygen. But then she resurrects. He knows that something on the planet is causing these manifestations of loved ones. And he also learns that it is impossible to stop it.

 

So, he takes a shuttle craft back to Earth and settles down at his home on a beautiful country estate with his faithful dog, relieved to be away from Solaris and its influence. As the camera pans away from him playing with his dog in the yard it goes up. The house and yard become smaller and then the surrounding forest abruptly ends and you see the shimmering surface of the planet Solaris. He has never left the planet but he doesn’t know it.

 

The Bible reveals that we have three enemies: the flesh within us, the world outside of us, and the Devil above us and below us. There is a problem in that many Christians act as if we have no enemies at all. They plod through life acting as if there is no resistance to the life that God has called us to live. They go to their job. They come home. They eat. They turn on the TV or play a video game. Maybe they read their Bible for ten minutes. They watch the evening news. They go to bed. The next day they do the same thing.

 

Do you know what that manifests? It shows that they have been taken captive by an enemy, the world, and many do not know that they have. They are like Dr. Chris Kelvin who doesn’t know that he is a captive of something on the planet.

 

We have been called to be followers of the Lord Jesus. But are we really following him? I think that many genuine Christians have neglected their calling and have allowed their spiritual life to wane. A spiritual life needs spiritual disciplines to grow and to be victorious over our enemies. This morning I wish to impress upon you the importance of just one of those disciplines.

 

Our Scripture reading this morning is I Timothy 4:7-8. READ. PRAY.

 

The New American Standard Bible  in verse 7 reads: But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness;

 

New King James: But reject profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness.

 

The context of Paul’s letter to Timothy is immensely practical. He is telling Timothy how to succeed in his own sanctification as well as how to succeed in leading God’s people. In writing of exercise or training or discipline he uses the term γυμναζε (gumnaze), from which we get our word “gymnasium.” Instead of spending time on godless myths and legends, Paul tells his son in the faith that he is to be at work in the spiritual gymnasium. He likens this training for godliness to bodily training in verse 8, but better because bodily training only helps you in this life while spiritual discipline helps you in this life and the life to come.

 

We are used to seeing coaches and their athletes in almost all sports. We see them in school environments, in the Olympics, as well as on TV during professional sporting events. We might think that this is a more modern phenomenon, but it is not. It has been going on for thousands of years. In Paul’s day, and throughout the Mediterranean world, it was a familiar sight to see physical trainers with their charges. Everyone knew what was involved in training for the enhancement of physical powers. Paul points out that there is a precise parallel phenomenon in the spiritual realm and draws upon that parallel in his statement. Just as with the physical, there is a specific round of activities that we must do to establish, maintain, and enhance our spiritual power. If we neglect these we will likely be a casualty in the war of the worlds – the war between Christ’s kingdom and Satan’s.

 

One must train as well as try. An athlete may have all the enthusiasm in the world and may even have a lot of knowledge about his sport, but knowledge and enthusiasm is not enough to win the prize. One must practice!

 

Similarly, the disciple of Christ must live up to his name. It is not enough to feel good about one’s faith. (We ought to, though.) Nor is it enough to simply know what are faith is about. We must train wisely and intensely. How do we do that? We use what is known as the spiritual disciplines, without which we will fail in our walk with the Lord.

 

This morning I wish to speak to you about only one. I hope to impress upon you the essentiality of solitude.

 

Not much need to be said with regarding as to what solitude is. The word is self-explanatory. We all know what solitude means.  As a spiritual discipline we may define it in this way: It is the purposeful abstaining from interaction with other human beings in order to draw closer to God.

 

[II.] Why should we practice solitude? We have already stated that the spiritual disciplines, of which solitude is one, train us unto godliness. However, more specifically, why should we discipline ourselves with solitude?

 

[A.] John the Baptist practiced it.    

 

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

            As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

            “Behold, I send my messenger before your face,

                        who will prepare your way,

            the voice of one crying in the wilderness:

                        ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

                        make his paths straight,’”

            John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.

(Mark 1:1-6 ESV)

 

This wilderness that John was in, was it like the wilderness across the street from a group of houses? Or, was it separated from others? If it was just what we would call “the woods” down the street, then wouldn’t it be an easy thing for him to eat whatever was in the market? Yes, it would have been. But he ate bugs and honey. He was really in the wilderness and he was by himself. He was alone. He engaged in solitude and it may be that this was one of the reasons for the power of his preaching.

 

[B.] Jesus practiced it.

 

            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 ESV)

            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 ESV)

 

            Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.           And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. (Matthew 4:1-2)

 

He was led into the wilderness and was there for forty days and nights fasting. Jesus exercised two spiritual disciplines together: solitude and fasting. The wilderness, the place of solitude and deprivation, was the place of strength and strengthening for our Lord and it was the Spirit who led him there to ensure that Christ was in the best possible condition for the trial. It goes without saying that he would be in the best possible condition spiritually, not physically.

 

I like the comments that the great teacher, Dallas Willard, made about this passage:

 

In that desert solitude, Jesus fasted for more than a month. Then, and not before, Satan was allowed to approach him with his glittering proposals of bread, notoriety, and power. Only then was Jesus at the height of his strength. The desert was his fortress, his place of power. Throughout his life he sought the solitary place as an indirect submission of his own physical body to righteousness.[1]

 

Just as the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, he will lead you.

 

[C.] Paul practiced it.

 

            But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

(Galatians 1:15-17 ESV)

 

Paul did not consult with anyone – not any other human being. Rather, he went into Arabia. Arabia is mostly wilderness. We learn from Acts that there is a three-year period missing in Paul’s life after his conversion. This must be the time that he dwelt in Arabia. This does not necessarily mean that he spent the entire three years in the desert. Yet, since he did not consult with anyone, he likely did live in Arabia in solitude, preparing himself for his mission. This is also the time that he had his experience of being transported to heaven which he describes in 2 Corinthians 12.

 

Now, there is no promise that you will be temporarily transported to heaven, as Paul was, if you practice solitude. Nevertheless, it is a place and time where the presence of God can be realized in a more intimate way.

 

We have seen how John, Jesus, and Paul practiced solitude and their examples should motivate us to do likewise, but what practical reasons can be given for its practice?

 

[D.] Solitude frees us from distractions. Human interactions are a good thing. Conversations can be pleasant and companionship is a favorable possession. At the same time, they so easily distract us from our pursuit of God. This is true even if all our friends and family members are believers because the mundane things of life take so much of our thought and time.

 

To compound matters, in the modern era of electronics we are barraged by the radio, the television, and the internet beckons for us to touch the keyboard. To remove ourselves from both human interaction and the constant noise of electronic voices and music frees us from distractions to the Living God.

 

[E.] It strengthens us. Solitude and prayer strengthened the Lord Jesus. It will do the same for us for we are his followers. It strengthens us in two ways. Jesus was strengthened to resist temptation through his fasting, prayer, and solitude. We, too, will discover strength to resist temptation as we are alone with the Lord. Jesus was strengthened to accomplish his calling through his time alone with the Father.

 

            In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles:

(Luke 6:12-13 ESV)

 

The Lord went to the mountain alone and spent the night in prayer. Then he knew who, among the many who were following him, would be his apostles. To disciple others was one of the callings of the Lord. Likewise, when we are alone with the Lord we are strengthened to accomplish our calling.

 

Solitude strengthens us both to resist temptation and to fulfill our calling.

 

[F.] It settles us. A Christian woman named Ruth Barton was faithful. By faithful I mean that she was a good mother to her children, a dutiful wife, and was at church whenever the doors were open. In fact, she was a leader to other women in the church. But she sensed that not everything was right. She experienced a lack of love for both her husband and her children. She felt a lack of peace and a hunger for God that was not satisfied by her routine prayers and bible studies. These experiences concerned her so she went to a friend for counsel who was a professional counselor.

 

Her friend told her, “Ruth, you are like a jar of river water all shaken up. What you need is to sit still long enough that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear.” Ruth, at first, didn’t like what she heard because she could not imagine her life without a flurry of activity. But she soon realized her friend was right. Our lives are not only crowded with voices and noise outside of us, but they are crowded with voices and noise within us. Sometimes these are a distraction as much as, if not more, than the outward things.

 

As Ruth began to practice solitude and silence her inner life did begin to settle. She began to experience peace, love, and an intimacy with God. She eventually wrote this: “…my journey into solitude and silence has been the single most meaningful aspect of my spiritual life to date – a pretty strong statement for one who has been a Christian since she was four years old!”[2] And, she wrote a whole book on the subject!

 

Solitude settles us if practiced in the right way.

 

We should practice solitude because our exemplars did in the New Testament. Practically we ought to practice it because it frees us, it strengthens us, and it settles us.

 

[III.] How do we practice solitude?

 

[A.] We need a sacred place. We have already seen that John, Jesus, and Paul went into the wilderness or the mountain to be alone with God. If we had time we could look at some of the OT prophets and see that they, too, went to a desolate place to commune with the Living God. The outdoors, the woods, a secluded meadow – these types of places are ideal for solitude because, obviously,

 

  • you seldom find other people there,
  • but also because the beauty of creation testifies to the goodness of God in the midst of our pursuit.
  • More, it is quiet except for the sounds of the wind gently blowing through trees and birds singing.

 

Another place can be in your own home if you set aside a place to create a quiet environment without distractions. Symbols such as a cross, a flame, or a dove can be placed in view to help facilitate a spiritual focus.

 

[B.] We need a sacred time. This simply means that you schedule a time when you will be alone with the Lord and you do not allow anything to break the appointment. It is not enough merely to have an intention. Write it down on your calendar. Start with a modest goal, especially if it is a new practice for you. Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, or a half hour might be good starting points. Once you become accustomed to being alone with the Lord the time with Him can be hours.

 

[C.] We need sacred practices. What do we do? I mentioned spiritual disciplines. Solitude  itself is one. Prayer, fasting, and silence are others. These should be exercised together. You may wish to reserve fasting for longer periods. Thus, when beginning you may wish divide your time between verbal prayer (prayer using your voice) and silence.

 

May I suggest that, at least at first, do not allow your prayers to consist of asking for things. Even if they are things that you think you need. Rather, let your prayer be one that involves your relationship with the Lord - one that expresses your desire or need for God. Ruth Barton recommends that you use a short phrase and use it repetitively. I concur with her recommendation. Jesus did not deny the use of repetition in prayer. He criticized the use of vain repetition in Matthew 6:7.

 

Why a short phrase as a prayer? Because it will help in reducing our own mental distractions. In conversational prayer it may be that our minds are racing just as they often do at other times of the day. This does not mean that you must restrict your prayer to just a few words. You may begin with a short phrase and move into conversational prayer once our minds are settled.

 

During the last portion of your time, simply be in silence. Rest your body, mind, and soul. This may be the hardest part of what we do. We are so used to activity that we may find it hard to simply be still and know that He is God.

 

End with a prayer of gratitude for God’s presence.

 

Finally, resist the urge to judge yourself or your experiences during your time. The purpose is simply to be alone with Him. Whatever your time was like, it will become better the more often you practice it.

 

[IV. Conclusion] Where are you now? What planet are you on? In other words, what kingdom are you in? If we belong to Christ then, positionally, we are in His kingdom. But, practically, what kingdom are we living in? Let us not be like that fictional character, Dr. Chris Kelvin, who thought he was on earth but was somewhere else.

 

We need more of the Lord and his presence will keep things real in our lives. You may not be transported to the heavenlies as was Paul. You may not audibly hear the voice of God as did Elijah. But, whatever experience you have, it will be better than what you used to do.

 

Let us exercise ourselves to godliness.

 

[1] Willard, Dallas; The Spirit of the Disciplines, Harper & Row, 102)

[2] Barton, Ruth Haley, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, IVP, 17)