An introduction to solitude, silence, and stillness

Apr 26, 2022 | 0 comments

As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come float in around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop.”[1] (Emphasis mine.) These words, from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, are spoken by Orleanna after the death of her youngest, Ruth May.

You’re probably from a culture where moving nonstop is valued. The mantra of just keep moving, no matter what may be familiar.

You probably know that slowing down, even stopping, is God’s best for you. So this message is no surprise. But it is risky because when you slow down, you don’t know what will catch up. Orleanna knew that it was her grief she was trying to stay ahead of. You might be trying to outrun insecurity, disappointment, betrayal, or fear that you won’t be provided for.

No matter what you are trying to keep at bay, even if subconsciously, God is bigger than it and God doesn’t want you beholden to it. When you slow down, God may want to assure you that you are enough, that you’re a good parent, that your efforts at studying the language are admirable, or that He will take care of a burden you are carrying. But slowing down is often easier said than done. So, today on Soul Tending Tuesday we’re going to take a brief look at the practices of solitude, silence, and stillness. 

If you are like me, these practices will feel a bit ridiculous at first. And unnatural and eternal. I can produce like a workhorse. If you need something done, I am your person. But withdraw and sit alone for five minutes? Agony. Be quiet without any background noise or multitasking? (Isn’t that why God made podcasts?) Boring. Stop moving without reading or scrolling through my phone? I start jonesing like the distraction addict I am.

Many of you find yourselves in environments that have more noise, more people, crowded public transportation, cramped living situations, slower internet, busy open markets, and almost-constant crises. Noise. Movement. Distraction. It would help if you had a three-day rotation of daily rhythms involving solitude, silence, and stillness. In brief, here are descriptions of these three practices:

Solitude. 

“Even when we aren’t physically present with each other, our days are punctuated with texts, tweets, and social media interactions. But somehow, people still feel deeply and profoundly lonely. Solitude–intentional withdrawal–teaches us to be present: present to ourselves, present to God, and present with others.”[2] If you are wired to help people, get a rush from being needed, or find your worth in solving problems, solitude will be a challenge for you. But as you start with five minutes alone with God—not checking your phone, not listening to a sermon, not doing anything that might be deemed helpful to others—you will grow in your ability to be present with your family, your team, and the locals you have come to serve.

Silence. 

Escaping noise is virtually impossible without intention. Traffic, music, sports, entertainment, children, construction, even household appliances add to the cacophony. Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist who collects sound all over the world. He says that quiet is a “think tank of the soul.”[3] Enter the practice of silence. “Silence actually teaches us to listen. It helps us learn how to listen to the voice of God, a voice we maybe have not been able to recognize. It helps us listen to the people in our lives who speak loving, truthful words of correction or affirmation to us. In silence we hear the truth that God is not as hard on us as we are on ourselves.”[4]

Stillness. 

Technology has changed how I consume information; too often my ability to focus resembles a pinball machine. While I am tempted to blame the “reality of modern life,” the truth is I have let many of these distractions into my life believing that their benefits outweigh their costs. The practice of stillness completes the three-day rotation.

“In addition to our drive to build a better world, we also live in a time when productivity and impact feed the lies we believe about ourselves. The constant pressure to do more, to fill up our schedules, to work harder. Stillness teaches us restraint, and in restraint we are able to discern what appropriate engagement looks like.”[5] Sit. Lie on your bed. Find a rock, a bench, a small corner of nature, and do not move. Be still for five minutes. Like Orleanna, see what catches up with you.

God will feed you through sermons, books (my personal favorite), podcasts (a close second for me), and worship music. But God will also nourish you straight from Himself. Start with five minutes of solitude on day one, five minutes of silence on day two, and five minutes of stillness on day three.

Over time, begin to add on, until you have fifteen minutes of sustained solitude, silence, or stillness. Instead of trying to run ahead of the loneliness, loss, and longing you’ll experience this year, allow these practices to root you more firmly in God.

Your ability to be present, to listen, and to engage with those around you will increase as you hear from Him.


[1] Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 381.

[2] Christopher L. Heuertz, The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 171.

[3] Krista Tippet, “Gordon Hempton: Silence and the Presence of Everything,”On Being, May 10, 2012 updated December 29, 2016, https://onbeing.org/programs/gordon-hempton-silence-and-the-presence-of-everything.

[4] Heuertz, The Sacred Enneagram, 171.

[5] Ibid., 171.

This post was adapted from a passage in Getting Started: Making the Most of Your First Year in Cross-Cultural Service by Amy Young.

Photo by Héctor López on Unsplash

Amy Young

Life enthusiast. Author. Sports lover. Jesus follower. Supporting cross-cultural work.

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