Monday, March 2, 2009

The Discipline of Solitude and Prayer

“I don’t even have time to hear myself think.”

Have you been there? I have. I have been so busy that I find myself thinking, if not saying out loud “I don’t even have time to hear myself think.”

If this is true of me, then how would I ever have time to hear what God thinks?

I get so wrapped up in what I am doing and everyday living sometimes that time alone in solitude and prayer becomes almost nonexistent, if not extinct all together.

A disciplined and prayer filled Christian life is one of solitude with God where a disciple of Jesus can carve out time to listen to God’s still small voice breaking through the clamor and distractions of our chaos and noise filled driven lives.

In His work Making All Things New, Henri J.M. Nouwen equates discipleship with discipline when talking about listening to God’s still small voice. He says, “Discipline is the other side of discipleship.” Nouwen speaks of the spiritual life, which I will refer to as the Christian life, as being hard work. He says, “Setting our hearts on something involves not only serious aspiration but also strong determination.” He goes on to say, “A spiritual life requires human effort.” Nouwen says, “A spiritual life (or a Christian life) without discipline is impossible.” How true. The Christian life is hard work and does require an element of human effort. We must be determined to carve out time and space for God to speak and work in His life for us.

Nouwen points out Jesus’ words to us in Matthew 16:24, and rightly so, which says, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” I like how Eugene Petersen puts this verse, and the surrounding verses, in Matthew 16: 24-26 in The Message:

“Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for? ”

In these verses, especially in verse 24, there is a subtraction and an addition happening. Jesus says that a disciple, a disciplined follower and student of Christ, must deny him or herself, or as Petersen puts it, they must “sacrifice themselves.” This is the subtraction, the denial of self. Then Jesus says that the disciple must pick up his or her cross and follow Him. Here is the addition, pick up the cross, the hard thing, or as Petersen puts it, “embrace suffering.” The implication of these verses, as they pertain to what Nouwen is saying about solitude and prayer, seems to be that the Christian life of discipline, solitude, and prayer, requires subtracting self and adding discipline, or the cross, the adding of “the hard thing,” in an effort to set our hearts on hearing God and receiving God.

In a sense, this is addition by subtraction, and subtraction by addition. We are always making choices in our lives about what we are thinking about, how we spend our time, what we listen to, how we spend our money and resources, and so on. When we make a choice to fill ourselves with one thing, we are also making a choice not to leave room for another, and vice versa.

If it is not God that we are filling our lives with, then what is it that we are being filled with?

Solitude and prayer require discipline and the Christian life is impossible without this discipline.

When I find myself at my wits end with my self-centered busyness and distractions and make the comment, “I don’t even have time to hear myself think.” I would be wrong to not see this thought as an invitation to solitude and prayer. This statement is, after all, false. If I can think that I do not have the time, then I without a doubt do have the time to think. And if I am capable of thinking, why would it not merit thinking about something of value and worth, like time in solitude and communion with God as His disciplined beloved.

In reality, “We don’t have time enough not to think and spend time alone with God in solitude and prayer.”

May we be disciplined enough to take time in solitude and prayer.

Wrestling with time,



Nouwen, Henri J.M., Making All Things New, HarperOne, 1981.

Peterson, Eugene H.: The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, Colo. : NavPress, 2002, S. Mt 16:24-26

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