Solitude is far superior to self-isolation and is an antidote to loneliness.
When invited to select a subject to teach in a series of Sunday messages on ‘Christian disciplines’, I chose from the list the topic of solitude. Then, within a few days, the national news headlines stressed the need for each of us to self-isolate in order to safeguard ourselves from coronavirus, and to prevent a tsunami of demand for treatment by an overworked National Health Service. Then, a little later, lockdown became a law for those of us over seventy years of age.
Dictionary definitions and biblical insights
 Solitude is the state of being solitary, as practised voluntarily by a hermit or a recluse; from Latin solus = alone.
 Loneliness occurs when one is deprived of the companionship of others.
 Isolation means that one is forced to be alone. In my childhood days patients with scarlet fever, tuberculosis and other contagious diseases were taken to an isolation hospital situated on some spacious site far removed from any human dwelling place until they recovered. The term isolation derives from Latin insulatus = ‘made into an island’; and the adjective insular implies remote, detached, aloof, and separated.
Loneliness is definitely not a sign of God’s blessings, because we are plainly told that at the start of the story of humanity the Creator agreed that it was ‘not good for the man to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18, The Living Bible, unless otherwise stated).
Solitude is presented in Scripture as a virtue and a blessing. Three of the clearest biblical examples of a person choosing to exercise the discipline of solitude are: (a) our Lord Jesus; (b) the apostle Paul; and (c) the prophet Elijah. So, what lessons do their experiences teach us?
- Jesus, our supreme model
Jesus taught that solitude enables us to pray in a focused manner. In his renowned sermon on the mount he gave these instructions:
‘When you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you’ (Matthew 6:6).
And of course he practised what he preached:
We are plainly told in three of the Gospels that Jesus did not launch his public ministry until after his forty days of solitude in the wilderness where he was tested by the devil (see Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).
Following an ‘evening after sunset [when] many sick and demon-possessed people were brought to Jesus [and a] whole town [had] gathered … to watch, [he] had healed many people who were sick and [had] cast out many demons, [he] got up … before daybreak the next morning … and went out to an isolated place to pray,’ Then, freshly equipped, ‘he travelled throughout … Galilee, preaching … and casting out demons’ (Mark 1:32-39).
But these blessings contrast utterly with Jesus’ experience at the end of his earthly life when the Saviour encountered extreme solitude. On the evening before his arrest our Saviour told his close disciples that they would very soon be ‘scattered’ and each of them would go ‘to his own home’. He foretold that ‘you will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me’ (John 16:31). Notice how he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: ‘My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine’ (Matthew 26:39). However, after the three dread hours of pitch darkness in daytime on the cross, our Lord cried out a heartfelt groan of desolation: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ (Mark 15:34). Significantly, this time he did not address God as Father, as he assuredly would do soon afterwards at his moment of death when he ‘shouted: “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands”’ (Luke 24:46). So it seems obvious that our blessed Saviour had in fact been overwhelmed with hellish loneliness in order to secure our deliverance; and not just ours but the release from bondage of all creation!
Taking an over-all perspective we can conclude that solitude was foundational to the effective ministry and atoning death of the Son of God while here on earth.
- Paul the apostle
Right at the time of his conversion to Christ, God arranged that Saul of Tarsus should begin his new life in a period of solitude. He needed time to transform his whole mind set, and that was best done in a state of quietude without any human intrusion (see Acts 9:1-19). In fact, he did not rush into public on ‘a testimony tour of welcoming pulpits’, as it were, but ‘Instead I went away into Arabia’ – for an unspecified time, avoiding public exposure. After returning to Damascus he stayed put for ‘three years’ before ‘I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter’ (Galatians 1:15b – 18a).
Even later in his Christian life, he chose to take a long walk by himself while his team sailed to the designated rendezvous. Luke recounts this in Acts 20:13-14, ‘Paul went by land [‘on foot’, New International Version] to Assos, where he had arranged for us to join him while we travelled by ship.’ But he was not merely being casual and laid back, because Luke says that from there he ‘was hurrying to get to Jerusalem, if possible, in time for the Festival of Pentecost.’ It would appear that during this solo walk he was preparing himself for what he perceived lay ahead for him in Jerusalem (hinted at in Acts 20:36-38; and openly prophesied to him by Agabus in Acts 21:10-14). He would soon be arrested and imprisoned for a long while.
- Elijah the prophet
Probably your initial assumption is, as was mine, that Elijah is well out of your league. After all, he confronted King Ahab who was married to Jezebel – a name that scares even non-readers of Scripture. And he publicly challenged – indeed mocked – her retinue of incompetent prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel before calling on Yahweh to send fire down from heaven onto his sacrifice, with rain clouds to follow after over three years of drought. However, James was emphatic; as he was about to recall that dramatic event he insisted that ‘Elijah was as human as we are’ (James 5:17a). So, how we readers are astonished when James goes on to say: ‘and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops’ (James 5:17-18).
Straight after that, despite the victory he had just achieved, Elijah felt desperately inadequate and headed south alone. That’s when the reasons for his depression became obvious.
- He was emotionally exhausted, so God gave him several long sessions of rest and sleep.
- He would become physically famished, on his six-week journey south – without daily raven deliveries! (1 Kings 17:3-6) – so God twice sent an angel to cook some bread for him, and to bring him water – after three years of intense drought.
- He was spiritually confused because Jezebel was still on Israel’s throne while he himself was ‘on the run’ from her death threats.
- He was tainted with self-pity and self-righteousness, falsely believing that he alone had been left in the ministry as the only one who was true to the Lord; but eventually God assured him that he had 7,000 who had never bowed the knee to Baal! (See 1 Kings 19:15-18).
God turned his servant’s reactionary self-isolation and resulting loneliness into holy solitude, thereby re-invigorating him for a fresh productive phase of ministry
At the end of his time of solitude Elijah was given a new commission to anoint three future leaders: (i) the next king of Judah, (ii) a new monarch of northern Israel, and (iii) his own successor in the prophetic ministry, Elisha, who currently is just a farmer’s boy bringing up the rear of a dozen farm labourers with the twelfth pair of oxen ploughing the newly softened fields, thanks to the recent season of rain, the first for three and a half years.
Let’s also bear in mind that this was not Elijah’s first experience of solitude, He had been all alone by a tributary of the River Jordan in the early months of the drought. East of Jordan was home territory for him since he came from Tishbe. The brook’s fresh water supplied him with daily drinks, and ravens twice daily delivered his food. When the stream dried up due to the prolonged drought, God redirected him to the North West, where a widowed mother in Jezebel’s home turf – Tyre (in modern Lebanon) – discovered that her pantry would never run out of oil and flour to support her, her son and the prophet who now lodged in a room on the flat roof, because of the Lord’s replenishing.
So we can see that those later experiences in the cave down south – as well as those on his way there when the angel cooked him a very earthy mean! – would enable him to recall former lessons learnt in the times of solitude. This would be the antidote to his self-pity and loneliness.
P.S. Here are two twenty-first century testimonies about these related subjects
- Shedding the shackles of loneliness
John O’Donohue tells of a friend – presumably from the delightfully sociable Republic of Ireland – who went to live in Germany and how he battled with homesickness.
‘He found the temperament of the people, the structure and externalities of Germany very difficult. During a bout of winter ‘flu, the loneliness he had repressed came out to haunt him. When he got desperately lonely, instead of avoiding it, he decided to let the loneliness have its way. He sat down in the armchair and gave himself permission to feel as lonely as he wanted. As soon as he gave that invitation to his soul, the loneliness just poured through him. He felt like the most abandoned orphan in the universe. He cried and cried. In a way, he was crying for all the loneliness in his life that he had kept hidden. Though this was painful, it was a wonderful experience for him. When he let the loneliness flow, allowing the dam to burst within, he was never again lonely in Germany. He became free, once he had engaged and befriended the depth of his own loneliness, now transformed into solitude and had become a natural part of his soul.
‘”Every fear is really the fear of death.” Death means having to let go. So, practise detachment. When you begin to let go, it is amazing how enriched your life becomes. Then what it real, what you love deeply, and what really belongs to you come deeper into you and now no one can ever take them away from you.’
- Enjoying the blessings of solitude
The following is an entry in one of my notebooks of many years ago, from an article in the magazine ‘Christianity’ of July 2005 entitled ‘Real Life, Real Faith in a Real World’ that I rediscovered recently. It illustrates what Jesus told us: ‘There are many rooms in my Father’s house’ (John 14:2 TLB margin)
Rebecca is an older member of an independent charismatic church who wrote:
Our leader opened his front room and put on a CD of quiet worship. He invited the Holy Spirit to come and I sat quietly in a comfortable chair. Once I was sitting very relaxed when I sensed God say, ‘Martha.’ I knew just what he meant. I hadn’t chosen the better part as Mary had. Then I saw I was tapping at an old farmhouse door. I walked in to the back scullery where the servants would work. The walls were stone, glistening and running with cold dampness. I said, “Why am I standing here?” “That’s you,” God said. “You let the cares and anxieties stay with you until they seep into your innermost being.”
I was led out the scullery into [the dining room]. This was a beautiful room with a large table spread with all kind of food. God said, “This is always there for you to come to, but you choose the back kitchen.”
We moved on to a sitting room where there was a tremendous sense of peace. I drew back. The voice said gently, “I’m always here, waiting for you.”
I thought that was the end. But there was another room, even larger, with a bright crystal chandelier reflecting in the polished wooden floor. As a girl I had never been allowed to go to dances; that was something Christians didn’t do. Now I was dancing in the ballroom with Jesus and it was amazing. I’m 78 and enjoying life more than ever.
*So, let’s embrace this precious, God-given privilege of solitude so that it transforms our enforced self-isolation and abolishes our loneliness!