The Spiritual Disciplines: Solitude and Silence

April 29, 2014

by Peter Amsterdam

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As Christians, our desire is to walk closer to the Lord, to live our lives in harmony with His attributes and will, and to be a blessing to others. The Spiritual Disciplines aid us in this overall endeavor. The disciplines of solitude and silence can be especially helpful, as they allow us to put focused attention on the Lord without many of the distractions which encumber our daily lives.

The discipline of solitude refers to the practice of voluntarily and temporarily withdrawing to privacy and separating ourselves from life’s activities and distractions in order to have time alone with God. To practice the discipline of silence is to refrain from speaking for a period of time, and may also include separating oneself from external noise and voices, such as by going to a retreat or a place that is apart from your daily activities.

In a sense, these two disciplines can be seen as fasting from interaction and communication with other people in order to interact and communicate with God. It’s stepping away for a time, however long or short, from the influence of our normal circumstances—making ourselves free from distractions to focus more easily and more fully on the Lord and what He may have to say to us, and be renewed and strengthened spiritually.

Jesus Took Time in Silence and Solitude

Throughout the Gospels we read of Jesus separating Himself from those He was ministering to, and even from His closest friends and followers, to spend time alone in prayer and communion with His Father. Before beginning His ministry, we see Him being led by the Holy Spirit to spend forty days alone in fasting and prayer.[1] Before deciding which of His followers to designate as the twelve apostles, we’re told that He went out to the mountain to pray, and all night He continued in prayer to God. And when day came, He called His disciples and chose from them twelve, whom He named apostles.[2] After hearing of the death of John the Baptist, Jesus withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by Himself.[3]When the crowds gathered to hear Him and to be healed, He sometimes would withdraw to desolate places and pray.[4] After miraculously feeding the five thousand, He sent His disciples off in a boat, then, After He had dismissed the crowds, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone.[5]

It was common for Jesus to separate Himself from others to be alone with God. Even when He was extremely busy, very needed, and doing great things, He still made a point of getting away from everyone to have time alone with His Father.

That evening at sundown they brought to Him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He departed and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed.[6]

Carving out time to be alone to commune with the Lord gives us the opportunity to pray and hear His voice without distraction. Solitude allows us to focus on connecting deeply with God, knowing we won’t be interrupted by others, especially when we add silence to the mix by disconnecting from all communication devices, phones, computers, etc. Of course, it isn’t always necessary to get away from noise and conversation to hear the voice of the Lord, as He can speak to us in any situation, but there are times when it’s beneficial to be alone and in quietness as we seek Him and listen to Him.

Input Overload

About a year and a half ago, someone broke into my car and stole my car stereo, which I wasn’t too happy about. While I don’t drive very often, I enjoyed listening to music when I did. Not having music readily available, I began to appreciate this time being somewhat disconnected, and I found myself using my time alone behind the wheel to pray and praise. I would look at nature, the trees, the flowers, the views, and thank God for their beauty. I would find myself conversing with the Lord about the errands I was running, or my plans for the day. I still haven’t replaced the stereo, because I’ve found that being alone without the distraction of the radio or music has given me an opportunity to have a little extra time in His presence.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with listening to the radio or music or watching TV, it’s wise to look at how much and in what circumstances we do these things. Do we put them on just to have background noise? Are we addicted to noise, or perhaps uncomfortable with or afraid of silence? What about constant input? Are we addicted to that? Do we find ourselves constantly checking our email, Twitter, or Facebook accounts; or texting, or reading, or listening to the news repeatedly throughout the day? While each of these means of communicating and getting information can be beneficial, it helps to realize that so much “connection” may be distracting us from spending time connecting with our own thoughts and with the voice of our Creator.

Allotting/Planning Time

As is the case with so many other things in life, taking time for solitude and silence likely won’t happen often if it isn’t planned. It starts with scheduling time for daily reading of God’s Word, for prayer and communion with Him. In addition to that time, it can be helpful to find moments when you step away from the hustle and bustle of daily life to focus your attention on the Lord. You could look at these short moments of silence as “one-minute retreats.”

When possible, it helps to take a longer time of solitude and silence. Perhaps setting aside a few hours on a weekend when you take some time alone with the Lord for reading the Bible or a devotional book that will help you learn about or focus on the Lord. You may want to use the time for Bible study, or perhaps prayer and meditation. You may have decisions or matters in your personal life which you need to think and pray about, or you may just want to take the time to open yourself to the Lord, to hear whatever He may want to speak to you about.

You might consider taking part of a day, a full day, or even a weekend or longer in solitude, if you’re able. This can be difficult to do when you have responsibilities such as taking care of children. Perhaps with planning and preparation you might be able to do it from time to time. Some people do it by trading responsibilities with others. Perhaps your spouse can fill in for you for a few hours while you take that time with the Lord. Maybe you can work out an arrangement with a friend to care for your children for an afternoon in exchange for you returning the favor at another time.

When you choose to practice silence and solitude, it often affects others—your loved ones most specifically. When you take time alone, it automatically involves them, since when you’re gone, your presence is missed. It’s important to understand and respect that this may be difficult for them. You should make whatever arrangements you can to make the experience easier for your loved ones, and do your best to help them understand what you are doing and why, and reassure them of your love for them and your desire for their company.[7]

When you have the opportunity to take an extended time in solitude, it’s a good idea to prepare for what you will do with the time. Perhaps you’ll want to schedule a certain amount of time for reading, for taking a walk in nature, and for prayer and listening to the Lord. If you are going to have an extended time in solitude, you may want to set aside some time for some extra rest and sleep.

Even if you’re not able to take extended time away, you may be able to find a place that you can retreat to on occasion for a short period of time. Perhaps there’s a park nearby that you can walk or drive to for a short time away, or maybe you have a spare bedroom in your house, or there’s a quiet area in your garage or attic, or maybe there’s a spot in your backyard where you can be alone. It’s not so much where you go to be alone or for how long; what’s important is that you take the time and make the effort to do it. Do you have a place for this? If not, you can most likely find one, though it may take a little effort.

More on Silence

Solitude and silence naturally go together. One author wrote: Silence is the way to make solitude a reality.[8] If you are separated physically from people, then you most likely aren’t speaking to them. Keeping silent for extended periods when practicing solitude can also help us learn to control our tongue. Learning to control one’s tongue has a role in being Christlike.

Dallas Willard wrote:

James, in his Epistle, tells us that those who seem religious but are unable to bridle their tongues are self-deceived and have a religion that amounts to little (James 1:26). He states that those who do no harm by what they say are perfect and able to direct their whole bodies to do what is right (James 3:2). Practice in not speaking can at least give us enough control over what we say that our tongues do not “go off” automatically. This discipline provides us with a certain inner distance that gives us time to consider our words fully and the presence of mind to control what we say and when we say it.[9]

Scripture tells us that there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.[10] The book of Proverbs speaks specifically about not speaking more than necessary.

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.[11]

Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life.[12]

He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.[13]

Speaking less, and much more carefully, can help us gain control of what we say, and we avoid just “shooting off our mouth.” It helps us consider what we’re saying to make sure it should be said. Speaking less helps us to better listen and pay attention to what others are saying. It makes us more considerate of others and their needs.

We’re all different; some of us are naturally quiet and others of us can really talk. While all of us can learn to speak less and listen more, some of us may need to practice this discipline more than others do. This can be done by abstaining from commenting or giving our opinion when others are speaking, and instead listening more intently to others. We can also avoid or postpone conversations or phone calls in order to “fast” from speaking unnecessarily.

For many, the thought of being alone and/or not speaking with others and/or not being connected online is a frightening prospect, especially if it’s for longer than a short time. However, in practicing solitude and silence, we are temporarily separated from other people, but we are not separated from the Lord of love. The purpose of these disciplines is to bring us into deeper and more intimate communication with God. They take us away from the normal interaction we have with others and help us enter into focused fellowship and communion with God.

It’s a sacrifice and a commitment to separate yourself for a time of fellowship with the Lord, but the benefit of giving Him your undivided attention is well worth the sacrifice. It can be difficult to find the opportunity for solitude, especially for extended periods of time, and more so if you are parents of younger children, but even carving out “one-minute retreats” is well worth the effort. I encourage you to bring the disciplines of solitude and silence into your life whenever possible.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry(Matthew 4:1–2).

[2] Luke 6:12–13.

[3] Matthew 14:13.

[4] Luke 5:13–16.

[5] Matthew 14:23.

[6] Mark 1:32–35.

[7] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (New York: HarperOne, 1988), 161.

[8] Henri Nouwen, “Silence, The Portable Cell” (Sojourners 9, July 1980), 22, as quoted by Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 10.

[9] Willard, Disciplines, 164.

[10] Ecclesiastes 3:7.

[11] Proverbs 10:19.

[12] Proverbs 13:3.

[13] Proverbs 21:23 NIV.