The Cure for a Crowded Life
Dr. Jim Denison
Have you heard of the new organization, “Sink Eaters Anonymous”? This is a support group for those who are too busy to sit down and eat a meal, so they stand at the kitchen sink and eat with their hands as quickly as possible. We are busy people. Too busy.
We are lonely people as well. Mother Teresa said that the great epidemic of our time is not AIDS or leprosy, but loneliness. Last Sunday our deacons spoke with ninety-three people who called in response to the television broadcast, and found loneliness to be the common theme in nearly every conversation. One woman said she would close her eyes and die if she could, she is so lonely.
And some of us are confused people as well. Some of us don’t know who we are, or why we’re here.
Alexander Curry is a thirty-something Wall Street trader for a large brokerage house. He lives in a luxurious Upper East Side apartment with the latest of everything. Yet he says, “I feel that there is a lack of purpose in my being. I don’t understand why I’m here. I don’t really try to understand why I’m here because I think it would probably be futile. It does provide a real hole in my existence.”
A psychologist spent four and a half years surveying over four thousand executives who would be considered very successful by the world’s standards. Six out of ten said their lives were empty and had no personal meaning. Six out of ten!
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a spiritual discipline you and I could practice which would help us with our busyness, our loneliness, and our confusion? Actually, there is. It is the ancient discipline of solitude.
The simple fact is that our souls need time alone with God. God made us this way. But it isn’t easy, is it? When were you last alone with God for a long time? Has it been a long time? You may wonder, Why practice the discipline of solitude? How? Is it even possible, or are our busy, lonely, confused, crowded lives the best they can be?
I have a word of hope and encouragement from Jesus for every crowded life here this morning.
The Scripture on solitude
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went to a solitary place, where he prayed” (v. 35). Jesus has just spent an exhausting day. He started the day by preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, the most important town on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee. He exorcised a demon in the worship service. He healed Peter’s mother-in-law. He spent the evening healing all the sick of this large town.
If I were to preach this morning, and cast a demon out of someone right here in church, then go to a member’s house for lunch and heal his mother-in-law; then spend the evening until late counseling with people from all over North Dallas who have come to me with their problems, I would feel tomorrow like Jesus feels here.
Now it’s the day after the Sabbath—Monday morning to us. I know a preacher who doesn’t take Mondays off because he refuses to feel that bad on his day off. Jesus, on the other hand, gets up before dawn, around three or four in the morning. He leaves Peter’s house in Capernaum and walks out of town. He goes to a “solitary place,” literally a “wilderness place” in the Greek. Some place where no one else would see him, off the road, out in the country. If I were to get up tomorrow morning around 3 or 4, get in my car and drive out of the city, pull off the road, and hike out into a field alone, I would do what Jesus did here.
And he “prayed.” The Greek “imperfect” tense indicates that he continued to pray, all morning long. Not for just a few minutes, but from 3 or 4 until daybreak, two or three hours of solitude with God. When’s the last time you spent this much time alone with God? Have you ever?
But this is bad church growth strategy. Imagine planting a church and preaching the first Sunday to standing-room-only crowds, then not coming back for the next service. Jesus’ movement is just taking off, and he’s left town.
So Peter and the others come to help Jesus out. They “hunt him down,” the Greek says. They look all over for him until they find him, so they can bring him back, so he won’t miss his big chance. But Peter and the others are disappointed, and all Capernaum with them. Jesus says, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (v. 38).
He goes to the people, where they are, as they are. To the “villages”—we would call them the “county-seat towns.” To their “synagogues” (v. 39), where he could reach the most people. Jesus was a master strategist, knowing where to invest the most to reach the most. And this entire tour, which occupied weeks and even months of Jesus’ precious time on earth and led to ministry and healing with untold thousands, was birthed early one morning when Jesus practiced the spiritual discipline of solitude with his Father.
Clearly, Jesus needed the discipline of solitude. Do we?
For this simple reason: you and I have exactly the same needs in our lives as Jesus experienced here. For one, he needs to know his life purpose. Here he faces something of an identity problem: who would he be? The local pastor of Capernaum? A faith-healer of great reputation and power? If he stays here, these are inevitable. The decision he makes here will determine the very future of his ministry.
And he faces this issue by time alone with God. Now he can say, “This is why I have come,” or “this is what God sent me to do.” He knows the “one thing,” because he has spent time alone with God.
This was not the only time Jesus answered an identity issue with solitude with God. After his baptism he spent forty days alone, determining the future of his ministry. Before his chose his disciples, the men who would carry on his work after his ascension, he spent the entire night alone with God in prayer (Luke 6:12). In the Garden of Gethsemane, facing the cross, he agonized alone with his Father (Mark 14:32-42). Each time, his time alone with God gave him the leadership and direction he needed.
Do you ever struggle with your life purpose? Of all the good things you could do, what should you do? How can you best spend your time, and your life? According to Jesus, the best way to know is to get alone with the Father, so he can tell you.
And Jesus faced a second problem you and I experience today: power to fulfill our purpose. The old professor once said to me, “Son, be kind to everyone, because everyone’s having a hard time.” We all need a touch from God today. A word of hope, encouragement, joy, grace. Power to fulfill the purpose God has given us.
So did Jesus. If he is to preach the gospel and defeat the demons, call the crowds and teach the disciples, die on the cross and rise from the grave, he will not do this alone. He must have the power of God. He must stay connected to his power source. This he does through solitude.
I have long subscribed to John Haggai’s life motto: “Attempt things which are doomed to fail unless God be in them.” But to do God-sized things, we need God’s power. We must be connected to our Father, as Jesus was, through solitude.
Here’s the results for our Lord:
He knew where to go—to the nearby villages.
He knew what to do—preach and heal.
He knew why to do it—this is what the Father sent him to do.
And he knew how to do it—by staying close to his Father.
We need no less, and no more, than this.
Albert Schweitzer said, “The great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up.” This great physician, musician, and theologian didn’t get “used up”—he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize at age 77, and worked until he was 89.
But here’s how it works. Oswald Chambers said, “There is only one relationship that matters, and that is your personal relationship with a personal redeemer and Lord. Keep that at all costs, and God will fulfill his purpose in your life.”
Steps to solitude
So, how do we step into this discipline of solitude? The first step is simply to begin, in prayer. This is something nearly everyone does some time. 90% of all Americans pray; 60% do so daily; even 20% of atheists and agnostics say they pray, though we’re not sure to whom. All of us pray on occasion—before meals, perhaps, or when we need something.
Let’s make this the first step into solitude.
Then I would guess that most of us try to make a time for prayer alone with God on a regular or daily basis. A “quiet time,” as we sometimes call it. A time set aside, usually in the morning, usually accompanied by personal Bible study. Jesus did this daily. I hope every one of us does as well.
Luther said, “If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day.” Mother Teresa said, “Spend an hour each morning adoring Jesus, and you’ll have all the power you’ll need for the day.”
We’ll make this the second step into solitude.
Now I want to challenge you to take a third step into the discipline of solitude: to make an extended time, on a regular basis, to be alone with God.
Dr. John Stott, one of the great expositors of our day, has a simple formula for his soul: he spends, alone with God, an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year. I’ve tried to follow that pattern myself, and find it a worthwhile goal.
But whether you do that or something else, make a plan for a regular, extended time to be alone with God. I can attest personally to the value of this. The two-day silent retreat our staff experienced in Atlanta has had an enduring, life-changing impact on me.
We’re going to schedule such retreats in the coming months for our church family. Start by making a morning, or an evening or a day a week for God. Next week I’ll make available some guidelines for such a time of solitude with the Father, and the other disciplines we’re studying during these weeks of preparation for Easter. For now, I want you to decide simply that you will do this.
Now we come to the last step: the daily, internal discipline of solitude. It is possible to be alone with someone, even when you’re not alone. To be alone with your spouse or date in a crowded restaurant or at a movie. To be so focused on them that the rest of the world is secondary in your attention. In the same way, you and I can go through the day conducting an inner conversation with God.
Frederick Buechner has long been one of my favorite writers and novelists; I consider him one of the most perceptive thinkers in Christianity today. In one of his autobiographies, Now and Then, he speaks of his father’s suicide: “‘He was a fine swimmer and dancer and was at home everywhere,’ I had one of my characters say of him. ‘But he had no private home inside of himself, if you understand me. . . . So when troubles forced him home, there was nowhere to go because he didn’t have any home. Or if he ever had had, he’d forgotten his way there'” (Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1983] 36).
Our souls need a “private home inside ourselves” where we can be with God, all through the day.
To do all this, we must make it happen. It won’t just “occur” for us, any more than it did for Jesus. The good is always the enemy of the best. We have to get away from technology and people, to be alone with our Father. If even Jesus needed time alone, away from the very humanity he loved enough to die for, so do I. And so do you.
So, your soul and mine needs the discipline of solitude. We need to take the next step, today. Now, here’s the most amazing fact I can share with you this morning: God wants time alone with us. The Creator of the universe wants time alone with us, even more than we do. We do this for what it will do for us, and for him. We do this because he loves us, and because we love him.
The “desert fathers” were a medieval group of men who forsook their homes to live alone in desert solitude. Someone asked one of them why he had made such a drastic change in his life. The father poured water and some sand into a jar. As he shook the jar, the water became clouded and murky. But as he allowed the jar to rest, the sand settled to the bottom and the water became clear again.
How clear is your soul today? How clear would you like it to be?