Part 16 of series:
How Does God Guide Us?
In my last post, I talked about how important it is to quiet our hearts if we’re to receive guidance through the Holy Spirit. I suggested that literal silence, such as what we might experience on a silent retreat, helps promote internal silence. But how is this helpful to ordinary folks, to people who can’t easily make time to get away for a silent retreat?
First, in my experience I am able to make time for that which I value. Whether it’s a favorite TV show, exercise, or hanging out with my family, I am disciplined enough in the use of my calendar to make sure I do the important things, in addition to my work. I think this is true for most people, even extraordinary busy ones. Indeed, there may be short seasons of life when it’s almost impossible for you to get alone with God for a while–like when you’re a new mom with a tiny baby–but most of us can set aside at least an hour for quiet if we truly want to. The question is: Do we truly want to do this?
Silence can be scary, especially for those of us who aren’t used to it. We can be afraid that silence will be boring. Or we may be afraid that in silence we’ll have to deal with hard things in our life that we’d rather avoid. For example, when I spend quiet time with God, I’m sometimes reminded of things I have done wrong. God brings these to mind so that I may confess them and be forgiven, and so that I may talk with him about how I can do better in the future. But the experience of remembering forgotten sins isn’t particularly pleasant. Many of us fill our lives with noise because we don’t want to face our fears, our hurts, or our disappointments, in addition to our sins.
If you find yourself resistant to the whole notion of being quiet with God, I’d encourage you to talk about this with a trusted Christian brother or sister. Perhaps your first efforts at silence can be shared with this person, who will be there to support you in prayer and other ways.
Second, I think many of us don’t take time to be alone with God because we set the bar too high at first. We might read about saints who spends days in silence and decided to imitate them. But when we try, our efforts quickly fail. Most of us need to begin more humbly and realistically, not with days of solitude and silence, but with minutes or hours.
Some years ago, I encouraged members of my congregation at Irvine Presbyterian Church to set aside one hour once a month for solitude. More was fine. But one hour once a month was a great start. I recommended that folks go to a place that fosters silence, perhaps a secluded park or beach, or maybe a quiet retreat center. Personally, I find it difficult to be quiet and alone when I’m at home or work. Others might have more discipline and focus than I do, but it seems that most people are helped when they’re in a place that fosters quiet fellowship with God.
Moreover, I’d urge you to work with your natural inclinations, not against them. For example, I know people who can pray for long periods of time when sitting or kneeling. I’m not one of these people. Yet if I’m walking, and especially if I’m walking in a place where I can pray out loud, then I can go for longer stretches. Similarly, some people are helped to pray by going to a church sanctuary. I, on the other hand, find nature to be my best “sanctuary.” The beauty of the natural world reminds my of the beauty of God, and helps me to sense God’s presence.
For most of my life, I prayed either out loud or silently. Then, about eight years ago, I began to write out my prayers in a journal. I discovered that the practice of journaling helped me to focus, both on what I wanted to say to the Lord and on what he wanted to say to me. Of course I don’t journal when I’m walking! But many of my non-ambulatory prayer sessions now involve writing. This may or may not be helpful to you. If you haven’t tried journaling before, you may want to give it a shot.
To sum up, here’s what I’m saying in this blog post:
1. If you value solitude and silence, you’ll find a way to get it into your calendar.
2. If the whole idea of silence is scary, find a partner with whom to share your hesitations and your experiences.
3. Be realistic in your expectations. Commit to spending one hour in solitude once a month. More is fine, but start with what you can manage.
4. Work with your natural inclinations, not against them.
5. Try writing out your prayers in a journal.
As with every facet of the Christian life, learning to discern the voice of the Spirit is something we should do as a committed member of Christian community. Certainly, times of solitude are essential, but not a lifetime of separation from our spiritual family. A healthy Christian community will help you listen to the whisper of the Spirit, discern which voices are really from God, and speak in a way that doesn’t trivialize spiritual guidance by turning everything into a word from the Lord.