Henri Nouwen wrote a wonderful piece entitled “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry.” In this piece, he uses Luke 6 to demonstrate the pattern in the life of Jesus.
One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles. (Luke 6:12)
Jesus spent the night in prayer, then he chose his disciples, then they went out together to minister. In other words, he moved from solitude to community to ministry. This pattern is demonstrated throughout the gospel as Jesus “often went to a lonely place to pray.” Luke 5:16.
It is a common practice among those of us in the church that we come up with a wonderful idea for ministry. We call together friends to help us and then we pray. All appropriate kingdom work, right? However, Nouwen points out the pattern of Jesus to show us a better way. Jesus started with solitude. He spent all night in prayer, or he woke up early in the morning and went out to pray, or he went out to a lonely place to pray after a busy day of ministry. This is not the actions of one trying to fit in their quiet time when they have a few extra minutes. This was the sustenance by which Jesus was buoyed up throughout his full life of ministry.
Let me illustrate with another day in the life of Jesus as laid out in Matthew 14. At the beginning of this chapter, we are told of the beheading of John the Baptist. Verse 12 states that his disciples took his body and buried it and then went and told Jesus. I have read this passage many times and yet missed the significance of this event. John was the cousin of Jesus, the person who baptized him, and his forerunner. Theirs was an important relationship. John was most likely the only person alive who really “got” who Jesus was. The family of Jesus thought him crazy at times, his disciples didn’t understand even after he rose from the dead, the crowds and religious leaders did not comprehend his mission. John was alone in this understanding. Not only were they related by blood, but theirs was a deep connection in the work of the kingdom of God. What a blow this must have been to Jesus to lose this dear person in such a horrific manner!
The gospel writer goes on in his telling of this day. “Immediately, Jesus got in a boat to go to the other side to be alone.” Jesus wanted solitude. This was his first inclination. He needed to grieve this loss and lean into the embrace of his Father. Unfortunately, the crowds did not accommodate. They beat him to the other side and were waiting for him. “Having compassion on them, he healed the sick.” We know from the writings of the life of Jesus that this was not a hurried occurrence. Jesus touched the people he healed and spoke to them. This took some time. Then as evening approached, another event occurred. Jesus fed the multitude. What a day! In verse 23, we see that Jesus finally got his chance. He sent the disciples on ahead in the boat while he dismissed the crowd. He then went into the mountains to pray and was there alone. Yes! Jesus at last had the opportunity to be in solitude with his Father. My, how he much have yearned for that chance!
As mentioned previously, this was a common inclination of Jesus—to go off alone with the Father. These were not thirty-minute duties, but long relished slices of time. It was his sustenance.
In his article, Nouwen emphasizes the importance of solitude in the pattern of Jesus and also in the midst of our busy lives. He makes the point that as we spend time in solitude with God, we come to know God in a more intimate way. We come to know that God is love and that this love is offered to us without condition. This gradually comes to define us. Our identity is that we are loved by God! Once we accept this, no one can take it away from us. Unfortunately, however, it is not always just a simple rational acceptance. There are hurdles that we face as we overcome unhealthy images of God.
- We may have been taught that God is waiting to punish us if we step out of line. The big eye watching us.
- We may have suffered greatly in our life and cannot understand why God did not protect us.
- We may have experienced “unanswered” prayer and believe that God does not deem us worthy of God’s effort.
- We may shudder at the violence and hate in this world and wonder why a loving God allows it.
There is much that can get in the way of knowing God’s true character as love. Yet, as with any other relationship, we come to know God as we spend time with God. We do not have the answers but come to relish the relationship despite the questions. God can handle our doubt, anger, and hurt. We so need to be with God.
The fruit of being defined by God’s love, is that we can be with other people and not be tossed to and fro by their approval or disapproval. It does not define us–we are loved children of God! This understanding comes only from being in solitude with God and with it comes the shaping that allows us to go out and minister to this hurting world. That was the pattern of Jesus and perhaps that is a key to those of us who have dedicated our lives to follow in his path.