Finding God in the Quiet: Silence and Solitude

Posted by Hunter Emmert, Woodbridge Campus Student Ministry Pastor, on Mar 22, 2024

Finding God in the Quiet: Silence and Solitude

The late Henri Nouwen once said that “without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life.”[1] Nouwen went on to explain that because our lives are so busy, so noisy, we often are unable to hear the gentle, quiet whisper of God in our lives. To allow this to be the case would be a shame, Nouwen says, because “solitude is the furnace of transformation.”[2] So how do we, as followers of Jesus, open ourselves up to hear the quiet voice of God? The answer comes from Jesus himself.


Jesus' Practice of Silence and Solitude

In Luke 5:16, the gospel writer tells us that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” In Greek, the original language of the New Testament, the word “lonely” is erēmos which can be translated a few different ways. “Wilderness" is one of the most common translations, but erēmos can also be translated as “lonely” (as in the verse above), “desolate,” “desert,” and “solitary.” So Luke 5:16, put another way, is saying that Jesus often retreated to silent and solitary places to meet with his Father.

If Jesus, the very person of God in the flesh, modeled a particular way of life, then it is in our own best interest to try and emulate him! But what exactly is silence and solitude?

In her book “Invitation to Silence and Solitude” Ruth Haley Barton compares our interior lives to river water. When the river is flowing quickly, all of the sediment and muck stay evenly distributed from the surface down to the bottom, making the water unclear and frankly not very enjoyable to look at. However, if you were to take a glass and scoop out some of that water and allow it to sit for a few minutes, eventually that sediment would begin to sink to the bottom, leaving a glass of clear water.

Our interior lives with God are similar. We are constantly busy, moving from one thing to the next—so much so that our spiritual lives can become cloudy and unenjoyable. Yet, when we allow ourselves to be still, to sit in the quiet with God, all of the muck in our lives begins to sink to the bottom and what is exposed is a beautiful, clear opportunity for communion with God.[3]

Put more simply, silence and solitude are the purposeful and repeated practice of putting aside noise and busyness to join God alone in the quiet. More than anything though, silence and solitude are an invitation to “enter more deeply into the intimacy of relationship with the One who waits just outside the noise and busyness of our lives. It is an invitation to communication and communion with the One who is always present even when our awareness has been dulled by distraction.”[4]

The beauty of silence and solitude is that we are both doing and achieving nothing. For many of us this is extremely difficult and completely antithetical to the way we currently structure our lives and our time. Too often our days off, the days that are supposed to be the most restful and rejuvenating, are still filled with checking email, never-ending shopping lists, and a growing mound of laundry. We easily assume that if we are not being productive, then surely our world will collapse in on itself.

Even ten minutes of silence and solitude feels like too much because there are things that need to get done. But how is that approach to life going for you? Do you have less anxiety, less stress, and less depression because of your busyness and your “go-go-go-spirituality”? Likely not. I know I certainly don't…which shows just how much more we desperately need to weave this practice into our lives.

Richard Foster writes, “Solitude makes the spiritual life possible because in it we are freed from the bondage to people and our inner compulsions, and we are freed to love God and know compassion for others.”[5] Or as Ruth Haley Barton puts in another way, “Solitude and silence are not, in the end, about success and failure. They are about showing up and letting God do the rest. They are not an end in themselves; they are merely a means through which we regularly make ourselves available to God for the intimacy of relationship.”[6] 


Measuring "Success" in Spiritual Disciplines

How do you know if your time in silence and solitude is successful? What are the barometers for success in such a thing as this? The measurements for success in this area are the same for measurements of success in any other area within the Christian life. Think about prayer for example. How do you measure if you possess a successful prayer life? It isn’t by counting the amount of answered prayers you’ve received; it’s gauged by whether or not you pray. Do you pray frequently? Then you have a successful prayer life.

It’s similar with silence and solitude. Are you getting alone and in the quiet with God frequently enough for your own personal spiritual health? Then that time would be considered a “success.”

For many of us this is easier said than done. We have children, with laundry to get done and lunches to make. Or we work busy jobs with inboxes filling up faster than we are able to clear them. This is where it really sinks in that silence and solitude is an invitation. Oftentimes when we are invited to places like parties or events, it requires us to plan. We have to plan what we will do with the kids, who will stay home, who will drop them off, etc.. 

Just because spiritual disciplines are “spiritual” it doesn’t mean they always come easy. Maybe it means you wake up twenty minutes earlier in order to have the space to meet with God before the kids wake up or the emails roll in. Maybe it means you work out a deal with your spouse where they watch the kids for twenty minutes in the morning while you practice silence and solitude in a different room, and then the two of you switch. 

The bottom line is that for many of us, simply creating the space to have silence and solitude can be so exhausting that we don’t even try. Don’t let that happen. Fight for it.

If you look at any deep, quality friendship or relationship the common factor is time. Time spent with the other person, both quality and quantity, leads to a deeper relationship. The same is true of our relationship with God, so fight for that time. Consider replacing an unhelpful current habit, like spending too much time on social media in the morning or reading the news even though you know it makes you anxious, with a helpful habit like connecting with God through silence and solitude. 


Practical Tips for Silence and Solitude

So where should you begin? As the famous line goes, start where you are, not where you’re not. If silence and solitude seems overwhelming to you, begin with 2-5 minutes of quiet each morning. Set a timer and give yourself over to God during those few minutes. If the discipline of silence and solitude seems exciting to you then start with anywhere from 5-15 minutes. 

  • Find a comfortable place to sit, whether it’s a chair, couch, or on the ground doesn't matter. Just find a place that allows you to be completely comfortable.
  • Set a timer on your phone for however long feels like a good starting point for you and close your eyes.
  • Empty your mind of thoughts and create space for God to meet you in the silence. Likely for the first few minutes your mind will be racing with to-do lists and appointments that you forgot to set. If you find it helpful have a pen and paper nearby so you can offload those thoughts as they come.
  • Eventually though, try and bring your mind to a quiet state where it is silent and ultimately you are only thinking of God’s presence with you. As your mind wanders, because it will, bring it back to God’s presence with you by praying a short, easily repeatable prayer like “with Jesus I lack nothing” or “God is my shepherd.” 
  • Stay in silence with God as long as you’d like, listening to him if he speaks to you or just simply enjoying the quiet warmth of you and God alone together, joined by love. Barton writes that “it is in silence that we habitually release our own agendas and our need to control and become more willing and able to give ourselves to God’s loving initiative. In silence we create space for God’s activity rather than filling every minute with our own.”
  • When your allotted time is over, thank God for his presence with you during your time of intentional silence.

Resist the urge to judge your time in silence as a “success” or not, and remember that the purpose is simply to be with God.

Jesus told us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light and that in this life we can experience “life and life to the full” (John 10:10). Maybe practicing silence and solitude is the next step for you in your relationship with Jesus. Maybe it’s the thing that will help move you the direction of an easy yoke and a full life. I mean, Jesus knows what he’s talking about, right?


For further study check out "Invitation to Silence and Solitude" by Ruth Haley Barton, "The Way of the Heart" by Henri Nouwen, and "God in My Everything" by Ken Shigematsu.
[1] Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
[2] Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
[3] Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Silence and Solitude
[4] Ibid, pg. 16.
[5] Richard Foster
[6] Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Silence and Solitude


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