A Theology of Lonely Places
We have allowed our world to be filled with noise. Around us, there is a steady, constant cacophony of the whine and whir of life in the 21st century. It is so much a part of our environment that we are seldom aware of its presence or its impact. We recognize it only when, for some reason, it has been temporarily removed. When that happens, we find ourselves ‘disquiet in the quiet’, unused to the silence.
I am presently reading through Luke’s Gospel account. Chapter 5, verse 16, says this: “Jesus frequently withdrew to lonely places.” It was an intentional, deliberate, planned part of his regimen.
Why would Jesus do that in the face of the magnitude of the need around Him? He had only forty-two months to complete His mission and fulfill His ministry. No time to waste! But He did it, frequently.
There must be an important learning point here.
The truth is this we often shun the very things we need the most. Enamoured by the feeling of being needed, enmeshed in the vast volume of need, entrapped in the clamour around us, we deprive ourselves of the imperative of the lonely place and the ministry we receive there.
Jesus frequently withdrew to lonely places. Another version states it this way: ‘He withdrew to a lonely place, as His custom was.’
Jesus withdrew from the teeming masses of people and the clamour of the marketplace. He withdrew from His family and His friends, those closest to Him. He withdrew from the public demand to crown Him king and distract Him from His divine purpose. He withdrew from the brokenness and needs that lie all around Him. He withdrew from the constant barrage of criticism that He faced from those incensed by His unorthodox conversation and His conduct.
The Bible is filled with examples of God speaking to His servants in lonely places.
Consider Hagar. She was the little handmaid of Sarah. She had fallen into disfavour with her mistress and fled out into the wilderness, alone and pregnant. She had no family, no fortune, no apparent future. It was a lonely place, but in that lonely place, God spoke to her and identified Himself as ‘El Roi,’ the ‘God who sees.’ She went away assured that God would care for her needs and that He would always be watching over her. (Genesis 16)
Jacob, one of the patriarchs, was also a liar and a cheat. Eventually, his conniving caught up to him. He left his family and crossed Jabbok Brook. His Uncle Laban was pursuing him from one side, his brother Esau from the other. It was a lonely place, a desperate place. There he wrestled with the Lord throughout the long night. There God changed his name from Jacob to Israel, from Cheater to Prince with God. (Genesis 32)
After an emotionally charged victory over the prophets of Baal, Elijah, with a death threat hanging over his head, ran into the wilderness. Instead of celebrating his great victory, he prayed for death as he sat under some sagebrush. It was a lonely place. Yet there God fed him with heavenly food giving him divine strength to continue his ministry journey. (1 Kings 19)
The loneliest place ever experienced by a man, was when Jesus hung alone on the Cross. There in the dense unnatural darkness, carrying all the sin of all time, with all the demons of hell rejoicing over his crucifixion, we hear the most powerful words ever spoken in human history: “Tetelestai – it is finished. Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” From that loneliest of places, salvation flowed to humanity.
We need to define, defend, and incorporate into practice a theology of lonely places.
Lonely places are often uncomfortable places. But they are healing places, intimate places, places of correction, necessary places, pivotal places, places of refreshing, resolve and reengagement.
We should not avoid nor despise the lonely places, away from the crowd, shutting out the cacophony, turning temporarily from the crisis of the urgent. We need to embrace those times, intentionally including them into our noisy schedules, frequently making them part of the natural rhythm of our life.
It is in the lonely place where God speaks the loudest and clearest.
I have seldom been able to identify the Voice of God in the midst of the clamour and chaos of life, but I have frequently received His clear message in the loneliest of places.
Coming from those lonely places, it is that message received there which I am most qualified and confident to proclaim.