Select Page

BLOG

The Soul in Paraphrase: Discursive Thoughts on Prayer

Note: The language of “the soul in paraphrase” comes from the Poet George Herbert (1593–1633). He used it as a way to shed light on all the complex feelings and emotions that overwhelm a person who pours out his heart to God.

______________________________________________________

Hesitance overwhelms the one who ventures to write on prayer. Let none think me an expert in a practice wherein I am a novice.

Prayer is sacred. It is that holy moment when beautifully complex imager bearers cast their burdens on to their triune Creator (Ps. 55:22). Life in an overwhelming and often dehumanizing world compels us to seek refuge in the One who is “merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod. 34:6). We bring our prayers to God, pouring out our hearts before him, “as children unburden their troubles to their parents” (Calvin, Institutes, 3. 20. 12).

In prayer we declare war on the enemy. Prayer propels one into the heart of spiritual warfare and places one in the crosshairs of the Enemy’s fiery darts. Prayer is hard because life is war. Nevertheless, we will not cower in fear. We will not give up: “The righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov. 28:1). We are victorious.

In prayer we speak to and spend time with the One we love. “God is the cause of loving God,” as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) memorably put it.[1] Because we love God, we pray to him. Prayer is the reflex of the Spirit-invaded heart. In the act of regeneration, God not only grants us faith (Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29) and repentance (2 Tim. 2:25), he also implants within his people a craving to commune with him whom our soul loves (Song 3:4). Consequently, with heartfelt devotion we cry, “Abba! Father! (Rom. 8:15). And when words fail us, his Spirit intercedes for us (Rom. 8:26). We pour out our hearts to him (Ps. 62:8), especially in dark hours (Ps. 34:7). We make our requests known to him (Phil. 4:6–7). As the Father’s adopted children, we humbly and happily make our requests in the Son’s name.

We must frequently call to mind the purpose of prayer. The purpose of prayer isn’t to commandeer things from God but to commune with God. Prayer is not a “domestic intercom” through which we seek to “call upstairs for more comforts in the den”; it is, rather, “a wartime walkie talkie for the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief.”[2]

Prayer requires discipline. Failing to prioritize prayer necessarily entails prioritizing something else in its place. Since our feelings and emotions fluctuate throughout our lives, we must resist the notion that we should wait until we feel like praying to begin praying. More often than not, we don’t feel like praying because we haven’t started praying. Prayerlessness is its own punishment, as someone wisely noted.

To stir yourself up to pray, meditate on the wonder of the Father’s grace and mercy, the perfections of Christ in his distinct offices of prophet, priest, and king, and the sublime work of the Holy Spirit in drawing us to himself.

Low before him with our praises we fall,
Of whom and in whom and through whom are all;
Of whom, the Father; and in whom, the Son;
And through whom, the Spirit, with them ever One

~ Peter Abelard, “O What Their Joy” (trans. John Mason Neale)

_____________________________________________________________________

[1] “On Loving God,” in Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, ed. Emilie Griffin, trans. G. R. Evans (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), 72.

[2] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 65.

Relational Conflict, Emotional Intelligence, and Spiritual Warfare

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the LORD heard it (Numbers 12:1–2).

Sometimes our anger and hurtful words serve as a smokescreen, masking the real problem in our lives. Take Numbers 12 as a case in point.

The opening verses bring us into a conflict between Aaron, Moses, and his sister Miriam. As best I can tell, Aaron and Miriam attack Moses because his wife is Ethiopian, and not Hebrew. If you read between the lines, however, you’ll notice that Aaron and Miriam cleverly sidestep the heart of the problem by attacking Moses’ wife. Verse 2 reveals what really irks them: “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”

Take note: While the real issue is their pride and jealousy, they create a diversion by attacking Moses’ wife instead. The heart of the problem is their deep-seated envy of Moses’ position—his influence over the people is increasing.

While their questions are fair, their conclusion is unwarranted. Moses never claimed he was better than other Israelites; and he never denied that they were all collectively chosen by God. However, God called him specifically to lead the people. Hence, their rebellion against Moses is tantamount to rebelling against God. As with many people in the church past and present, they camouflage their pride under a thin veneer of spiritual zeal and vitality.

Rather than doing some self-examination, they go into attack mode. Their problem, in contemporary parlance, is a lack of emotional intelligence. Simply put, emotional intelligence refers to the ability to manage your emotions and to respond properly to the emotions of others. Furthermore, this involves the ability to understand your emotions.

Because they lack emotional intelligence, they fail to properly identify the issue at hand—namely, their pride, jealousy, and envy.

Let’s bring this to street-level, where you and I live.

Do you ever see people argue over minor disagreements, all the while failing to address the real problem? Do you ever attack someone’s character simply because, deep down, you’re jealous of their gifts and skillset? Do you ever lash out at someone in your family, company, or church because they’re rising to a position of leadership?

Because we’re skilled self-swindlers we can even cloak our anger, resentment, pride, and jealousy under the guise of “constructive criticism,” claiming that we want to help someone when in reality bringing them down serves only to reinforce our own self-importance.

These reflections serve to remind us that we are not in peacetime. 

We are always at war with the enemy who seeks to trip us up anyway he can. We must remain clear-headed, sober-minded, and humble before God at all times.

David’s closing prayer at the end of Psalm 139 must remain in the forefront of minds: Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!  And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23–24).

Biblical Interpretation, the Human Heart, and Self-Deception

“But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life” ~ Athanasius (296–373AD)[1]

“In spite of a clouded memory, the mind seeks its own good, though like a drunkard it cannot find the path home” ~ Boethius (ca. 475–525AD)[2]

____________________________________________________________

A Bible College professor I know of begins his class on hermeneutics (that is, biblical interpretation) by reading the following quote from Augustine’s book On Christian Teaching: “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”[3] The professor wants to impress upon his students the fact that living out the implications of the Bible is connected closely to understanding the Bible.

Disordered Love, Hermeneutical Errors

Building upon these thoughts, I think Augustine’s words make another important point—namely, that a person’s moral character affects how he or she interprets the Bible. Simply put, proper biblical interpretation demands certain character qualities. In keeping with the thought of intellectual titans such as Augustine (354–430AD) and Pascal (1623–1662), the Christian intellectual tradition recognizes that sinful desires lead not only to sinful actions, but also to sinful beliefs. Inasmuch as ethics deals with what one ought to do, we can classify sinful beliefs as serious ethical errors since we ought to believe the truth. This relates to biblical interpretation for the following reason: Harboring an inordinate love for ideas or actions that the Bible regards as morally perverse will affect how one interprets the Bible. We might encapsulate my point here with a maxim: Disordered loves lead to hermeneutical errors.[4]

Not Breaking New Ground

The idea that moral flaws impede one’s recognition of the truth is not a new insight. For example, Aristotle (384–322BC) noted in his Nichomachean Ethics that a man who has been “ruined by pleasure” will neither consistently choose wisely nor select the right course of action with any regularity.[5] Likewise, in his important work On the Shortness of Life, Seneca (4BC–65AD) argued that vice prevents people from discerning the truth.[6] Such sentiments continue down to the present.[7]

Bringing It Home

Here’s how this relates to biblical interpretation and misinterpretation and why God must reorder our loves: What we love affects what we’re willing to receive from God’s Word. If our aim is to hold on to our autonomy (intellectual or otherwise), then our loves are disordered. If we hold on to our cherished sin, refusing to relinquish it rather than submit to Scripture, then our loves are disordered. If we prize a thought-life free from the rule of God, then our loves are disordered and we will distort God’s Word.

Inordinate self-love leads inexorably to bad hermeneutics, because if one has not fully surrendered to God—including renouncing one’s own intellectual self-sufficiency—one will be motivated to sidestep the moral demands of Scripture.

Of course, the person engaging in such behavior will deny that he or she is doing any such thing, which brings us to one of the central consequences of the fall: Self-deception. Psychologists Ann E. Tenbrunsel and David M. Messick define self-deception as “being unaware of the processes that lead us to form our opinions and judgments.”[8] While they concede that the evidence is inconclusive as to whether self-deception is conscious or unconscious, they state clearly that self-interest factors heavily into our misconstrued conclusions on ethical matters.[9]

The Bible discloses that fallen humanity is not inclined to God with the totality of its being, but opts for self-lordship, and approaches God on its own terms. Such a posture is an example of self-deception because it constructs reality in accordance with its own imagination, definitions, and standards. Thus, any attempt to construe reality apart from God and his Word leads to both ethical and hermeneutical errors.

So . . . Why?

All this raises a question: Why would someone intentionally engage in self-deceptive behavior? Philosopher Kevin Kinghorn found that uncomfortable moral obligations provide the strongest motivation for one to engage in self-deception. Unsurprisingly, freedom in one’s sexual life is the strongest motivating factor involved in self-deception.[10]

Fallen human beings are hell-bent on escaping the Lordship of Christ. For this reason, we typically settle on an ethic that we find attractive. We are willing to violate our consciences, part with traditional beliefs, and abjure the morals of our upbringing if we have a deep desire that a particular outlook, worldview, or course of action be true. However, since self-deception is linked to a lack of self-awareness, most people will not admit they are self-deceived. Rather, they will justify their unethical actions by renaming them, allowing them to simultaneously sidestep the moral demands of Scripture while rationalizing their behavior.[11] No wonder Pascal said that self-love stands behind self-deception and that self-deception is the central threat to the moral life.[12] 

And thus we return to the Bible College professor who begins his class with the quote from Augustine cited above. As young students beginning to swim in the world of the Bible, they need to know—as all Christians must—that reading the Bible faithfully entails cultivating certain habits of the heart and mind.

Aids in Doxological Reading[13]

Years ago J. I. Packer remarked, “God’s purpose in revelation is to make friends with us.”[14] Because God has made friends with us by means of his Word, Christians read. Through his work of regeneration, God creates within his people a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6), a desire to conform their lives to his precepts, and an insatiable craving to feast upon the riches of his Word. Since they have “tasted and seen that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8), they find his Word “sweeter than honey” to their mouths (Ps. 119:103; cf. Ps. 19:10). Because God has given them a new heart and they have immersed themselves in Scripture, they tremble at his Word (Isa. 66:2), approach him with confidence (Heb. 4:16), exhibit heartfelt devotion (Ps. 119:97), and study the Bible with diligence (2 Tim. 2:15)

In my estimation, the most important ingredient for faithful reading is humility. A posture of humility is needful because, as created beings, we are always in the position of receiving from God. The entailment of this truth calls for patient readers, not “commanding readers,” who dictate to God what they will or will not receive.[15]

Reading the Bible is an exercise in humility because in it we find a God who is sovereign, authoritative, and in control, a God who, when questioned by Job, responds by asking, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it. . . . Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” (Job 40:2, 8).

Since the Bible does not answer every conceivable question one may have, it is important for students of Scripture to display contentment with the revelation God has disclosed and renounce their own intellectual self-sufficiency when confronting issues that are beyond their ability to answer to their satisfaction. As fallen creatures, we own our inadequacies, admit our smallness, confess our limitations, and refuse to judge God by our own fallen notions of fairness or our own self-constructed categories of moral perfection.

I agree with Calvin: “So if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, ‘humility’” (Institutes 2. 2. 11).

_________________________________________

[1] On the Incarnation, 9.57.

[2] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, rev. ed., trans. Victor Watts (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 3. 3 (49).

[3] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1. 86.

[4] For a brief list of Christian intellectuals who insisted that a person’s moral state affects their ability to perceive truth, see Bradley G. Green, The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 93–97.

[5] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, IV, 1140b.

[6] Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, trans. C. D. N. Costa (New York: Penguin, 1997), 2–3.

[7] A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, trans. Mary Ryan (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 24–25; W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1998), 16; John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 63; R. R. Reno, Fighting the Noonday Devil—And Other Essays Personal and Theological (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 98.

[8] Ann E. Tenbrunsel and David M. Messick, “Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior,” Social Justice Research 17:2 (2004): 225.

[9] Ibid., 229.

[10] Kevin Kinghorn, “Spiritual Blindness, Self-Deception, and Morally Culpable Nonbelief,” Heythrop Journal 48 (2007): 527–545. See esp. 542.

[11] Tenbrunsel and Messick, “Ethical Fading,” 226. On how this is an abuse of power, denial of reality, as well as a denial of others’ humanity, see the work of philosopher Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992).

[12] William D. Wood, “Axiology, Self-Deception, and Moral Wrongdoing in Blaise Pascal’s Pensées,” Journal of Religious Ethics (2009): 357, 368.

[13] Language borrowed from Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 110.

[14] J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 50.

[15] John Webster, “Creation of out Nothing,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, eds. Scott R. Swain and Michael Allen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 134.

 

Top Ten Books of 2018

One of my favorite blogs to post each year is my “Top Ten.” Well, here are my top ten books, with a few extras thrown in for fun. Enjoy . . . and happy reading!

Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America. Hankins spends the bulk of the book surveying the life and ministry of Schaeffer and closes by making some practical points of application. While Hankins disagrees with Schaeffer at certain points (inerrancy specifically and politics more generally) his portrait is largely sympathetic. In my view, Christians can learn from Schaeffer’s evangelistic model. I would characterize Schaeffer’s method as missional, incarnational, and conversational. First, Schaeffer saw himself has a missionary and organized his life accordingly, using every opportunity to share the love of Christ in word and deed. Second, his method was incarnational by virtue of the fact that he engaged with people on a personal level. He and his wife Edith opened up their home to many visitors, showed hospitality, and shared their lives with people. Third, his approach was conversational in that he engaged the people in his home in conversation. If this model of ministry seems glaringly normal, that’s because it is. While readers may not share all of Schaeffer’s personal convictions, I think they can still appreciate how God used him and emulate his tenacity for ministry.

Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians. While addressed to theological novices, all Christians would profit from reading this work. In just over 100 pages, Kapic unveils the posture with which aspiring theologians must approach their task. Each chapter is significant, but I think the most salient are the entries on humility, prayerful study, and community. Humility is the proper reflex to the revelation of God, and Kapic accents this point by highlighting the difference between how a prideful person and a humble person study the Bible. The prideful person demands “that God must work within the parameters of their limited understanding” while the humble person is willing to “expand and readjust their views to fit God’s Word” (27). Kapic insists that students do not have to choose between prayer or study, but instead opt for “prayerful study.” Finally, Kapic calls for theologians to practice their craft in community. In short, they must be churchmen and women.

Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit. Here’s a word of advice: Read everything Sinclair Ferguson writes. Seriously. All of his publications are marked by restraint and evenhandedness. Whereas some authors are prone to exaggeration and overreaching, Ferguson consistently steers clear of these pitfalls. I am always confident that Ferguson does his homework, reads widely, weighs evidence carefully, engages the text, and provides readers with helpful theological reflection. His work on the Holy Spirit doesn’t disappoint. Pick up and read!

Michael Allen, Sanctification. While I’ve read a number of Allen’s academic journal articles and essays featured in other publications, this was the first book of his that I had read. As a younger theologian, Allen gives me confidence that the next generation of the church is in good hands. Briefly, Allen situates the doctrine of sanctification within the broader theological categories and wider scope of God’s attributes and redemptive mission—leading him to traverse quickly over the terrain of God’s triunity, covenant theology, and Christology. Jesus is the holy Son of God sent to rescue the people the Father gave him (John 17:6, 24), and those united to the holy Son of God by faith are holy in him: “The matrix for all spiritual blessing is in union with the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and sharing in those blessings and divine gifts with which he has been endowed, as the spotless and sacral human” (150). God’s grace is “matchless, pure, and free” (as one contemporary Christian hymn put it), but it’s also empowering. It leads to action (247). God’s grace manifests itself in our lives in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). As the apostle John put it, “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 Jn. 2:6). Jesus is the truly sanctified human who envelops us in his grace and moves us to live the truly human life.

Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. A gifted writer, Buchanan dazzles readers with his beautiful prose, engaging stories, and practical application. Our schedules are jam-packed, we’re constantly busy, perpetually on edge, entering and exiting our cars as we drop off and pick up our kids—to and from school, to and from practices, and a zillion other events. No wonder busyness erodes our joy and playfulness. Buchanan invites us to slow down, make space for God in our lives, and restore our sanity.

Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation. Theologian J. Todd Billings remarked recently that in many popular-level Christian books “novelty is a sign of veracity.” Well, new is not always better. In this work, Allen and Swain are seeking to bring theological and spiritual renewal to the church by pointing contemporary Christians back to the riches of the catholic tradition (note the small “c”). Their thesis is that “we can and should pursue catholicity on Protestant principles” (13), and they add: “Reformed catholicity is a theological sensibility, not a system” (12). After laying out some of the basic principles of theology, they devote a large chunk of their work to unpacking what the Protestant Reformers meant by, and how they understood, sola Scriptura. They demonstrate what a number of other authors have found: Sola Scriptura never meant that Christians only have the Bible and the Holy Spirit; rather, sola Scriptura meant that the Bible is the sole infallible authority for faith and life, not that it is the only authority for the Christian. In their final substantive chapter, Allen and Swain argue that Christians must interpret the Bible in keeping with the “rule of faith” as outlined by numerous patristic writers.

David Gibson, Living Life Backwards. As you may know, I’m a pastor. And one of my jobs is to teach people how to die well. In order to accomplish this, I have to get people thinking about their deaths. Such is Gibson’s task in this book. He urges readers to consider how they will have wished they lived when they reach the end of their lives—and then live backwardly from there (hence the title of the book). I facilitated a small-group discussion on this book at the church I serve. My aim was the same as Benedict of Nursia’s (480–547 AD): “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die” (RB 4. 47).

Todd Wilson, Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality. In this work, Wilson (the President of the Center for Pastor Theologians) unfolds for readers the biblical and Christian vision of human sexuality. He titled the book “Mere Sexuality,” in order to clarify his aim, which is to delineate the historical consensus of the Christian church regarding gender, sexuality, and marriage. Inasmuch as Christian theology is creation affirming, the Christian vision of gender, sexuality, and marriage is rooted in biology, not bigotry (88). As for his overarching points, Wilson shows that 1) one’s gender is a gift, not a choice, 2) marriage is a “one flesh union,” not a one heart union, and 3) celibacy is the calling that same-sex attracted people must embrace. The church, therefore, must open their doors and homes to non-married people, opening their collective arms and welcoming them into their lives. Finally, Wilson urges churches to communicate a compelling vision of human sexuality. We need to win the aesthetic, not just the argument (136).

For a more wide-ranging discussion and analysis, I recommend The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, & Morals, edited by Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain.

David P. Murray, Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout World. Similar to the work by Buchanan, Murray calls pastors—but all Christians really—to slow down, calm down, do less, and pace themselves. He is adamant that he is not calling pastors to laziness, but to adopt a healthy, sustainable pace. Murray provides readers with the latest research findings on the necessity of sleep, the importance of a healthy diet, and the salutary benefits of rigorous exercise. One insight I found particularly helpful was Murray’s insistence that pastors find a hobby. But not just any kind of hobby will do. Murray suggests that pastors need a hobby that produces visible results—something they can see and touch, like painting, woodworking, or planting a garden. His years counseling pastors has taught him that many suffer from depression and/or protracted seasons of sadness due to a lack of visible results.

 Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus. No, this is not a joke. You read this correctly. A book on Leviticus is one of the best books I read all year! In keeping with the other books of I’ve read in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, this book did not disappoint. Honestly, I cannot say enough good things about it. Morales takes readers on a journey from Genesis to Revelation, showcasing how the themes in Leviticus are central not only to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), but to the entire sweep of the biblical canon. The “dominating concern” of Leviticus is how sinful humanity can dwell in the house of God? (20, 23). Answer: God makes a way for humans to dwell in his presence through atonement. Fast forward to the gospels and what do we see? We see that Jesus is portrayed as a walking temple, providing cleansing and forgiveness (273). And when we get to Revelation we find God dwelling with humanity (Rev. 21:3–4).

Favorite Articles:

Kevin Vanhoozer – Letter to an Aspiring Theologian (First Things)

Favorite Poem: Jane Kenyon, “Man Eating”:

The man at the table across from mine
is eating yogurt. His eyes, following
the progress of the spoon, cross briefly
each time it nears his face. Time,

and the world with all its principalities,
might come to an end as prophesied
by the Apostle John, but what about
this man, so completely present

to the little carton with its cool,
sweet food, which has caused no animal
to suffer, and which he is eating
with a pearl-white plastic spoon

“You Are Alone”: An Invitation to Silence and Solitude

“Pain or trials are God-ordained ways to expose self-deception. They are an integral part of the Christian life and the means by which self-deception is thwarted and self-knowledge gained. Trials force us to face reality without avoiding it through diversion” ~ Joseph Pak[1]

“Therefore, children of God, seek the face of your Father in secret. Take some time occasionally and seek out lonely places in order that there you might wrestle, pray, weep, call for, and wait upon the comforts of the Lord . . . If you are singularly desirous, motivated by love, to follow Jesus in this, be assured that He will meet you in love and sweeten your efforts” ~ Wilhemus á Brakel (1635–1711)[2]

____________________________________________________________

True story: Feeling unrested and bedraggled by life, a man set out on a two week solitary journey through the Highlands of Wales. His goal was to get away from everything and experience silence for the first time ever—or at least the first time in a long time. In his mind’s eye he pictured himself sauntering through nature, basking in the sun, pirouetting around rocks, enlivened by his aloneness. But in a few short days the silence sounded a troubling chord. A chorus of voices began to shout at him: You are alone.

He felt that something—Someone—was chasing him. In reality, solitude and silence forced him to face himself. He saw like never before how he avoided close relationships for fear of other people. His eyes moistened as images flickered movie-like in his mind depicting him sabotaging relationships for selfish reasons, while placing blame on other people. He finally saw that his inner brokenness and damaged spirit were the cause of his fractured relationships, not the other people. In the palpable darkness of the night, he scrutinized his soul, detecting for the first time that his uneasiness around people who didn’t understand his importance was anchored in his pride. Most of all, solitude allowed him to spot how his life of manufactured distraction kept this out of sight.

“It was as if I met myself for the first time,” he wondered aloud. “I felt I returned from that two weeks with a soul mate. Or maybe I just returned with a soul.” He emerged from his expedition giving hearty assent to the Socratic dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

While not identified as a means of grace in either the Bible or church history, solitude enables believers to avail themselves to one of the means of grace—namely, prayer. Similar to the man in the story above, I, too, have found that solitude is necessary for spiritual growth.

Imagine going off by yourself totally alone to pray. Don’t bring your phone, don’t bring any other book except the Bible. For several minutes simply spend time reading the Psalms—that portion of Scripture filled with “expressions and breathings of devout and holy affections.”[3]

As someone who perpetually seeks to justify his existence through accomplishments, aloneness and stillness scare me. Frankly, I don’t know myself apart from my work. My sense of self is tied to my abilities.

Solitude and stillness force me to face myself.

Solitude and stillness force me to stare my dispensability in the face.

Solitude and stillness remind me that I have a soul.

In the sanctuary of silence all the props I use to justify my existence are thrown out.

Maybe that’s why I avoid it. Maybe that’s why you avoid it. Maybe that’s why we avoid it.

_________________________________________________

[1] Joseph Pak, “Self-Deception in Theology,” Themelios 43.3 (2018): 415.

[2] Wilhelmus á Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 4:22.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 108.