Solitude: In God for the World

“Wherever there is something in our life that is not conformed to the image of Christ, there is a place where we are incapable of being all God wants us to be with others … a place where our life with others is hindered and limited and restricted in its effectiveness and in its fullness … a place where our life will tend to become disruptive and even destructive to others.  We can never be all God wants us to be with others as long as that point of unlikeness to the image of Christ exists within us.” 

M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.


Last week, we were privileged once again to have Dr. Robert Mulholland as our teacher for the eighth retreat in our Transforming Community experience—two and a half days focused entirely on being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others. On this retreat in every community we reflect on what the image of Christ really is through the lens of cruciform love.  Through this lens we see the image of One who gave himself totally, completely, absolutely, unconditionally for others; it is a cross-shaped love which leads us to be in God for the world.

I have heard this teaching at least five times and it never ceases to inspire and challenge me to the core of my spiritual being.   And each time, something new emerges.

This time I was struck by the fact that not only is the process of spiritual transformation in general for the sake of others, but each of the spiritual disciplines—rightly practiced—is in some profound way, for the sake of others. The spiritual practices are means of grace that open us to God’s transforming work in those places where we are not like Christ so we can be Christ in the world.

Beyond Navel-Gazing

There are still those among us who worry that spiritual practices—especially solitude and silence—are merely occasions for narcissistic navel-gazing.  I have worried about this myself. As we begin experiencing God’s presence in solitude, we may find our desire for God and the joy of being with him in this particular way to be a bit overwhelming. At times on my own journey, it has seemed like I just couldn’t get enough—which is a little frightening.  At such times, I have wondered if I would ever be able to fully re-engage with people again or would I always be wishing I could go off by myself?  Was I hopelessly selfish or endlessly needy? Would I ever be good for anything practical again?

While I was learning to maintain rhythms of solitude and silence, my performance anxieties stirred as I compared myself to others who were able to turn out more “real work” than I could.  I wondered if I would ever be capable of producing again. I wondered if I would ever even care about producing as much as I had cared about it before. I remembered Elijah’s experience in I Kings 19 and wondered if he ever had similar concerns.  Having journeyed so far from a place of prominence and productivity in his life to a place of deep quiet and hiddenness, did he, too, wonder if he would ever go back to life in the company of others?

For a while I tried to keep these fears and questions to myself. In the midst of the high-performance cultures in which I lived and worked and worshiped, it was embarrassing to acknowledge such a voracious desire for silence and solitude. I was afraid people would question my ability to succeed along the lines they were measuring. I was afraid of becoming irrelevant in a world that measures relevance by output and being out-front.

Starving for God

At the same time, I realized I was like a starving child who is given a bowl of rice or oatmeal, her first real food in a long time. The child is so hungry that once she realizes where the food is, she can’t help hanging around the place where food is dispensed. Once she receives her first portion, she grabs it and shovels it into her mouth without stopping to be polite, without being able to slow down enough to get it all in her mouth, without caring that she is slurping and spilling it down the front of her dress. It’s not a pretty sight.

The good news is that eventually it does the job; the emptiness gets filled so that sooner or later the child can look up from the bowl, wipe her mouth and speak to the people around her. Because she is satiated, she can engage with others on the basis of something besides her hunger or her fear that there won’t be enough.

I am not the only one who has gotten so hungry for true “soul food” that I couldn’t seem to get enough. Others, too, are ambushed by the intensity and insatiable quality of their own desire as well. Sometimes they return from their first several hours in real silence and with a bit of embarrassment (and sometimes a tear sliding down their cheek) they whisper,

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“When it was time to come back, I didn’t want to come back. I’ve never experienced God loving me like that before. I didn’t want to leave that place where God was so real to me. I don’t want to talk and I don’t want anyone to talk to me. Is that normal?”

Towards a New Normal

Many of us have no idea how hungry we are. Some of us are so far into the later stages of spiritual starvation that we don’t know what it is to be full and well. We have been feeding for so long on the emptiness of words and noise and activity that our souls are emaciated but, like an anorexic teen, we are past the point of desiring real food. The soul-nourishing substance of solitude holds no appeal. We look in the mirror and think that the 95 pound bag of bones we see there is attractive; even when the opportunity for solitude is there, we don’t choose it.

Others of us are aware of our hunger and have been starving for so long that when we find ourselves in the presence of real spiritual food, we are frantic with fear that we will never get enough after so much emptiness. Either way, this is a pretty scary stuff.

The only thing we can do is trust that the process of receiving nourishment will eventually lead us to a place of being able to give out of that fullness.

A Shimmer of Something New

There is something about the process of having our emptiness filled in solitude that eventually enables us to engage with those around us on the basis of fullness rather than need. If we relax and trust God’s initiative in the spiritual process, eventually something new begins to shimmer around the edges of our lives and relationships.

A different capacity for being present to others in love comes upon us, almost imperceptibly at first. Far beyond the familiar territory of “ought” and “should” we might notice a spontaneous and surprising desire to find a way to bring some of what we are experiencing in God’s presence to others. There is no fanfare to herald such profound inner changes, just the willingness to give ourselves to it.

For the Sake of the Teenagers in the House

There was one night in particular when I began to see a glimmer of something new and good for others emerging from my experiences in solitude. It was a beautiful summer evening. The windows and doors were all open and our home and yard was full of the kind of energy that only a group of lively junior high schoolers could bring. No matter that it was getting late, that I was trying to meet a writing deadline, and that tomorrow was a full day of work; on this night, our daughter and about twenty of her closest friends had gathered for a spontaneous “hang out” at our home. Some were in the backyard playing volleyball, others were on the street in front of the house shooting hoops, another contingency played pool in the basement, and always there was someone traipsing past my office for a drink or a snack.

My initial reaction was one of irritation. Couldn’t I just get a break here? Couldn’t I get a little peace and quiet so I could get something done? This was not a new feeling for me; it is who I am when left to myself. All too often, I have responded to my life in the company of others with this kind of frustration, bent on getting my own way and shaping my environment to my own wants and needs. In fact, the awareness of my own self-centeredness was one of the things that had sent me on the quest for deeper levels of transformation in the first place.

On this night I was finally ready to ask a different kind of question. Rather than asking how I could manipulate my environment to get what I wanted, the question came, “Is there anything from my experiences of fullness in God these days that I can bring to this moment, to these children?” This time I wasn’t asking from the “guilty-mom” place; this time I was asking because everything in me ached to give some good gift to these teenagers. But how?

Sacred Eyes

Fortunately I remembered Julian of Norwich’s wonderful statement about being present to God when in the company of others. She says, “I look at God, I look at you, and I keep looking at God.” Although I had often prayed this way during times of solitude, on that night I decided to try it in the midst of a very ordinary moment in a house full of kids, facing deadlines and long workdays wanting nothing more than to be alone with my work. It occurred to me, “If my experiences in solitude and silence don’t impact this kind of real-life moment, then I’m not sure any of this is worth much.”

So I looked at God. Sitting in front of my computer trying to bang out an article, tired, kids coming and going from every door…I turned inward to that place of quiet where I had grown accustomed to meeting God. I asked God to give me sacred eyes—set-apart eyes to see and feel and know spiritual reality in this moment. Then as I turned my eyes to these young people, I began to see and feel things that were a bit uncharacteristic for me.

Rather than being frustrated by a desire to be alone so I could write, I was filled with gratitude that—during a time when so much is going wrong with our youth—these young people had chosen to be in a home where parents are present, expending their youthful energy in life-affirming ways. Rather than wishing my home were quiet, I found myself experiencing the noise and activity as the energy of youthful spirit and I was drawn to it, filled by it. Rather than experiencing their comings and goings and curious questions as interruptions, I found myself noticing how beautiful and distinct each one was and I was enlivened by the privilege of interacting with them.

After looking with sacred eyes at these children, I looked back at God and I sensed God’s love for them filling my own heart. A deep, beyond-words kind of prayer welled up, a prayer that somehow they would be blessed by the bits and pieces of our togetherness. Rather than being worn out by one more evening of parental responsibility, I found that being present to God in this moment somehow graced my own heart with love and renewed energy and wonder. I touched into a spiritual dynamic that was beyond my own ability to produce. In the midst of external noise and chaos, I had a deep experience of being present to God in the company of others and I was changed by it.

Coming Full Circle

I had not moved beyond solitude; rather, by God’s grace, I brought the quietness of my solitude and silence right into the present moment. I was learning, through experience and experimentation, that solitude consists not only in creating perfect external conditions in a retreat center, a church, or a devotional corner; the quietness of solitude and silence was becoming an inner condition within which I was able to recognize and respond to the stirrings, the voice, the very Presence of God.

And so the practices of solitude and silence do, in time, bring us full circle—back into life in the human community. Whether we have been away for a half an hour of solitude, for an extended retreat time, or we have dropped completely out of sight for awhile, God, in his time, does eventually bring us back to the life he has given us.  Perhaps nothing in our outer circumstances has changed but we have changed and that’s what our world needs more than anything.

Without pressing or pushing or trying to make something altruistic happen, we discover that there is much that happens in solitude and silence that ends up being “for others”—as paradoxical as that may seem. We find that our speech patterns are refined by the discipline of silence because growing self-awareness enables us to be more choice-ful about the things we say. Rather than speech that issues from sub-conscious needs to impress, to put others in their place, to compete, to control and manipulate, to repay hurt with hurt, we now notice our own inner dynamics and choose to speak from a different place. A place of love, and trust, and true wisdom that God is cultivating within us.

Over time we become safer for other seeking souls because we are able to be with them and whatever is going on in their lives without being “hooked” by our own anxieties and fears! We are comfortable with our own humanity because we have experienced God’s love and compassion in that place. It becomes very natural for us to extend love and compassion to others in their humanity.

Transformed People Transform 

For all of our Christian piety and activity, we as Christian people are not always known for our kindness. Sometimes we are downright mean and judgmental. But most, if not all, of our meanness comes out of those places within us that have been unattended and untouched by God’s love. Every broken place that has not been healed and transformed in God’s presence is a hard edge of our own personality that slices and dices others when they bump up against it. It is no wonder that Bonhoeffer makes the startling and counter-intuitive statement “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

Without solitude, we are dangerous in the human community and in the Christian community because we are at the mercy of our own compulsions. We are driven by our inner emptiness to a self-seeking, anxious search for fullness in the next round of activities, accomplishments, or relationships. When we are not finding ourselves loved by God in solitude, we live life in the company of others always on the prowl for ways in which they can fill our emptiness. We enter into life in community trying to grab and grasp from others what only God can give.

On the other hand, when we are experiencing ourselves as the beloved of God, accepted and cherished by him in all of our beauty and brokenness, our hard, rough edges start to soften. We begin to see that others are beloved as well and that is what gets reflected back to them when they look into our eyes. For there is nothing that fills like the Love that is God. There is nothing that transforms like the Presence that is God. There is nothing that produces what the Silence of God produces within the human soul.

Not only does the love of God come to us in solitude, the love of God begins to pour through us to others. This is a very different kind of productivity and only God can bring it forth.


©Ruth Haley Barton. 2015. Not to be reproduced without permission.

This article is adapted from  Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence (InterVarsity Press, 2004.)

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Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

27 Comments

  1. Peter Dubbelman on September 26, 2015 at 8:50 am

    I just tossed this reflection into our pastoral staff and beyond. THANKS for taking the time to write this piece and many others, living out our faith … I too believe that truth that doesn’t become a reality is a waste of time.

  2. Art Guina on August 8, 2015 at 12:21 am

    So thankful I came across your writing today, Ruth. Like those who found this timely, I’m amazed how the Lord has orchestrated this. What a “productive” work just sharing your heart! You articulated exactly the “tension” I’ve felt as I continue on in this journey. So encouraged by your reminder to stay the course as you outlined the 3 reasons why it is not easy. I appreciate the time you took responding to the posted comments as I find them so helpful in processing these truths beyond mere theory. God bless!

  3. Valera on August 6, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    Dear Ruth:

    I really appreciate your writings and they have led me to experience Christ in my life in deeper ways. I want to be brief here as I can imagine how many of these kind of emails you get.

    I am asking here an honest question: is solitude that fundamental in life of a Christian as I read in your books? I mean it in a way that applies to all people not just the contemplative types. I have been also blessed by writings of Gary Thomas yet he also got me a bit confused so I am asking this question. As I am sure you know he lists 9 spiritual temperaments one of them being the ‘ascetic’ which I am and hence I need and desire solitude more than an average Christian I know. But according to Gary not all Christians are ‘ascetics’. So could it be that solitude is vital to some but not others? I also ask this questions in relation to leadership. I am part of a couple leadership groups and some of the leaders (e.g. type A personalities, driven etc) and others who don’t seem to resonate with or be drawn into solitude as I am. In my leadership role I want to avoid judging the spirituality of others but to put it bluntly: if solitude is a must for deep walk with God then those other Christians/leaders/etc should “get their act together” or “listen to me and get mature”.

    I hope I made myself clear here and I would really appreciate your feedback.

    By any means feel free to refer me to something you already wrote or other sources that address this issue.

    Sincerely,
    Valera

    • Ruth Barton on August 7, 2015 at 1:16 pm

      This is such a great question, Valera! The short answer is that there are classical spiritual disciplines that we all need in order to grow–regardless of temperament. These would include solitude and silence, prayer, worship, Scripture, self-examination and confession, Sabbath-keeping, community, etc. One’s personality preference or spiritual pathway does not let us off the hook with these basic disciplines; it only tells us why some will be more challenging than others! A holistic approach to spirituality is characterized by engagement in the spiritual disciplines that come naturally to us (an introvert, for instance, will need more solitude than an extrovert) and also those that stretch us toward that which is not preferred so we become more fully-orbed human beings. If we neglect the disciplines that don’t come as naturally, the undernourished shadow side of our personality will eventually cry out for attention and that is usually not pretty. Robert Mulholland’s book “Invitation to a Journey” is so important in describing the classic Christian disciplines and why they are necessary for us all. Re: solitude and leadership–all the great ones of our faith were shaped by substantive experiences in solitude–Jesus, Moses, David, Elijah, Mary, Paul, the apostle John. Moses, for instance, was an activistic, take- the- bull-by-the -horns-and- get-it-done kinda’ guy, but before his forty years in the wilderness, his leadership was completely unusable. For a more comprehensive look at the relationship between solitude and leadership God can use, see “Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.” Solitude, by definition, is time that is set apart for God and God alone and that is where true spiritual leadership comes from. If a leader does not have that in place, he or she may be leading but it probably isn’t spiritual leadership. Those two works taken together will open up all sort so avenues to explore this topic with the leadership groups you are a part of! And of course a winsome, “let’s explore this together” kind of approach might be better than telling people to get their act together. But I know you know that. 🙂

      • Valera on August 11, 2015 at 1:37 pm

        Thank you, Ruth! This is a very helpful comment. My question was formed as I was reading “Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership” actually. So your comment here does put things in a more clear perspective for me as I move on reading and learning to lead from a set-apart place with God. I also appreciate your encouraging me to invite people onto a journey rather than telling them what to do 🙂



  4. Cathey Brown on August 6, 2015 at 6:48 am

    Dear Ruth: In my work with children who have experienced various kinds of trauma we are always talking to them about identifying “safe” people they can turn to and ask for help. We teach them how to identify these people in their lives so they can carry this skill with them into the future and past their time with us. Your article is beautiful reminder that we are all called to be safe people for those we encounter in our daily lives. Like so many of us I too have struggled with productivity and being my own most demanding critic. I continue to be so blessed by the TC Community experience and embracing the truth you concluded your article with: “Not only does the love of God come to me (us) in solitude, the love of God begins to pour through me (us) to others. This is a very different kind of productivity and only God can bring it forth.” My prayer is to be a safe person for those I interact with each day and be a reflection of God’s love for them. Thank you for this timely reminder! Cathey

    • Ruth Barton on August 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

      I love this, Cathey. So concrete! it is no small thing for human beings to actually become safe for one another–children or otherwise. May we all seek to be persons that others can identify as “safe” in every way!

      • Maiya Lueptow on August 18, 2015 at 7:57 pm

        Cathey, I love your idea of our call as Christians to be “safe people” for those God brings into our lives. I never really thought about it that way, but that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? While I haven’t worked with people who have experienced trauma like you do, in some ways we often don’t know what kinds of trauma the people who come into our lives have experienced. I have been blessed to have lots of people confide in me & express how just having someone to listen, encourage, pray with & trouble-shoot with them has made a difference. This is a different kind of “safe” than I think you wrote about, but as Ruth alluded to, we all need safe people who we can turn to who can help us get through everyday struggles as well as horrific trauma. I’m so grateful for your teachings, Ruth, and how my TC experience is helping me go deeper in cultivating Christ-likeness not just for my own good, but also for the sake of others.



  5. Rick McCall on August 5, 2015 at 11:15 pm

    Deeply profoundly true. The article is brilliant – Spirit-led – on such a crucial, foundational point. You covered the ‘what,’ the ‘when,’ the ‘who,’ kind of the ‘where,’ although that’s not as important in the context of the article. And of course, you covered the ‘why’ – for the sake of others.

    I have another ‘why’ question: Why is it so very difficult, as in sometimes gates-of-hell-against-you, to do what you are absolutely positive is good for your soul and the souls of others?

    • Ruth Barton on August 6, 2015 at 8:43 am

      Thanks, Rick! I think there are several reasons why it is so hard for us to do what we know is good for our souls and others’. !–Our false selves are pretty grandiose–convinced that on some level we know what we need and have what others need so we try to “make stuff happen” rather than trusting God to work through us as we find ways to open to grace 2–This way of being in the world and ordering our lives Its fairly counter-cultural (both Western culture and even the contemporary church culture) and 3–(And perhaps most serious) the evil one knows that if we keep relying on ourselves and what we think we can bring through human effort and striving, the real gifts and power of God to the world will be thwarted. All the forces of evil come to bear to prevent us from knowing God the way God can be known in silence. When we experience God as God in our lives, all that is false will be unseated and God will take his rightful place on the throne our lives. We will experience God as our ultimate, orienting reality which is utterly life-changing. The evil one will go to great lengths to prevent this kind of inner transformation and reorientation. Lots more to unpack here but that is the shortest way I know how to answer your question!

  6. Melody Bollinger on August 5, 2015 at 8:46 am

    Timely, Ruth, TIMELY! May God hold you on His course and thank you for sharing part of that journey with us!!!

    Melody Bollinger

  7. Toni on August 5, 2015 at 8:39 am

    I am first and foremost, thankful to God for making sure that I received His message through your beautifully and truthfully composed article. So secondarily, I am thankful to you for having shared your insights,Ruth. And I am thankful to my sister for forwarding this- knowing me so well that she knows my hunger.
    I am wondering if you would allow me to read this in its entirety on Sunday for the pulpit? I will certainly credit you (not because I suspect that your are concerned with credit but because it is important to connect “the prophecy with the prophet”. 🙂 I would just be the delivery person. I want everyone to have a chance to absorb this.
    I have felt the hunger for so long that I have felt very isolated from God….not alone with God. This article has been rain on parched ground, bread for my soul.
    Thank you for being receptive. Pray that for us all.
    toni

    • Ruth Barton on August 5, 2015 at 9:07 pm

      So glad God provided rain for your parched soul. God is always out ahead of us, knowing just what we need and preparing it for us. Do feel free to share this with your congregation…. Then let us know how it goes!

      • Bryan on August 10, 2015 at 11:30 am

        It was wonderful. Your thoughts resonated in some meaningful ways! So glad that Toni, and now in turn, we have “found” you! After wanting to hear more, I listened to the short Youtube clip about the conversation on the road to Emmaus — your insight is so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes! God’s blessings on your work.



  8. Rebecca Eims-Hinebaugh on August 4, 2015 at 11:40 am

    What wonderful words shared…….I too have wondered if my longing for solitude is selfish but you have brought longing into Christ centered perspective…..without the solitude I have nothing overflowing in me to experience my own transformation and offer to those around me.

  9. Diana on August 4, 2015 at 9:22 am

    Yes, I too have danced around my extreme desire – not just for solitude with God – but for a constant need to be filled to overflowing. And, I too, have wondered at my need. Am I selfish? Narcissistic? In Him I feel alive, yet have been on a long journey of understanding how this infilling can be truly helpful to the community of those around me as I stumble and shout and say the wrong thing. As I catch myself, and think ” hello? Where is God in that?” Yet. Slowly, He is transforming my heart and slowly my eyes are adjusting to see Christ and His love in each person and circumstance. How beautiful is the love of God.
    Thank you for this timely message. May God bless you and keep you.

  10. Dustin Hibbard on August 4, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Wow Ruth, your words here are a beautiful offering. I love how you wove all this together to present the heart of the matter that percolates into every area of our lives. It seems to me you have summed up many facets of teaching we have been exposed to through the Transforming Center. Thanks for the encouragement today to seek filling of my emptiness in solitude with God. LORD guard me, nudge me, STOP ME if necessary today from seeking my filling from others.

    • Ruth Barton on August 4, 2015 at 10:30 am

      Thanks, Dustin! I am joining you in that prayer…

    • Sharon Krone on August 5, 2015 at 11:03 am

      Thanks, Dustin! I am challenged by your choice to take this reminder one step further into your day and pray for awareness as God walks through today with you.

  11. Rick Eschenburg on August 4, 2015 at 8:25 am

    Thank you for these words. As one who continues to be restored from a culture of performance and production, I am refreshed by the encouragement to allow my leadership to be steeped in solitude with God. “The spiritual practices are means of grace that open us to God’s transforming work in those places where we are not like Christ.” It is grace indeed.

    • Ruth Barton on August 4, 2015 at 11:01 am

      Yes, all is grace…thank God for such powerful means of opening to it! Love the words you use to describe the journey you are on…restored, refreshed, steeped…grateful to be a part of it.

  12. Susie Talbot on August 4, 2015 at 7:54 am

    Thank you so much for these thoughts. I’ve danced around the edges of my extreme desire to be alone with God, and the reality of community. Reading your words this morning has really pinned down exactly how I’ve struggled also…worrying about being selfish by spending time in solitude, or am I narcissistic? I’m so hungry for God! I’ll be printing this off, so I can catch the essence of what you’re saying and continue to allow God’s love to soften the “hard edges” of my personality, to heal my brokenness and wounds, so I will be more and more like Christ to others. God bless you for your transparency, and for cultivating the skill God’s given you to express yourself so clearly. Your words have touched me deeply. Praise God!

  13. Charly Morgan on August 4, 2015 at 7:27 am

    This piece is life saving for me this morning….. 3 months into life as a widow I am starved for time alone with God…. Thus far I have been totally surrounded by wonderful, well meaning, caring family and friends….. With only 2-3 weeks when I have not had family staying in my home…. Last week I had to say …no more! I need silence and solitude as I have experienced it before both in the 14 year interim between divorce and remarriage and to a lesser but meaningful way during our 20 years together ( until last 5 years which involved a lot of cRetaking which God infused with God’s presence)
    Part of what I have wondered is …will I ever want or be able to tolerate being with people again… Your article assures me that God will take care of all of that … Thank you SO much!

    • Ruth Barton on August 4, 2015 at 10:54 am

      You are MOST welcome! Sometimes it helps to just say this stuff out loud so we can act upon what we know deep inside.

  14. Christan Perona on August 4, 2015 at 6:14 am

    You are speaking my language, Ruth. Thank you. I especially loved your challenge of bringing your fullness of God from solitude into everyday situations like being interrupted, hosting a crowd of teens, deadlines, etc, etc. You wrote very powerful words, and I’m grateful I started my day with you!

    • Ruth Barton on August 4, 2015 at 10:33 am

      Me too!

  15. kristin on August 4, 2015 at 6:04 am

    So helpful, Ruth!

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