It’s funny to me when high school students think they’re free thinkers because they act like their friends and not like their parents. Adults who think of themselves as free thinkers are not any less silly. There are no free thinkers; there are simply persons animated by either the Spirit of God or the spirit of the age.
In our moment in Western history, the spirit of the age manifests control over its disciples predominately through the means of digital technology. Often we outsource our decisions to the attention-grabbing economy and obediently sign ourselves up for whatever hot new service emerges from Silicon Valley’s conglomerates and their globalist-oligarchical class.
We don’t merely succumb to screens because we are lazy but because billions of dollars have been invested in scientifically grooming us as faithful consumers. Walter Bruggemann saw this tech-as-street-drugs trend long ago when he wrote in The Prophetic Imagination that our cultural situation, “propelled by electronic technology, is one of narcoticized insensibility to human reality.”
At the intersection of the Information Age and the ever-growing forms of digital technology lies the condition of hyper-connectedness, a state in which people are chronically bombarded with an array of media such that it no longer informs but ultimately numbs us to the sorrows and joys of real life.
The rise of personal digital technologies have both created and encouraged the ability to be chronically alienated from our own minds. One University of Virginia study described in Science magazine in 2014 revealed that many of the people studied (and a disproportionate 67 percent of the men) had become so maladapted to life from the constant stimulation that they preferred giving themselves electric shocks to spending 6–15 minutes alone with their thoughts.
The Practice of Being Alone with Your Thoughts
But being alone with our thoughts can be of great help to us. In fact, I believe that if Christians want to faithfully inhabit our world and resist the spirit of the age, we must disconnect from screens and engage instead in the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude.
If I want to know what my face looks like, I find a mirror; if I want to know my mind, I find solitude. Cal Newport defines solitude as “a subjective state of mind in which your mind is free from input from other minds.” This requires that we “move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences—wherever you happen to be.”
Silence tells the truth; this is why we hate it. When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Jesus answered with silence. Frederick Beuchner elaborates: “What Jesus lets his silence say is that truth is what words can’t tell but only tell about, what images can only point to.” We hate silence because without words and actions to hide behind, we begin to see ourselves for who we truly are, and it’s unpleasant. Silence puts us in front of the mirror and makes us stare at our unclothed hearts and minds. Behind our carefully crafted social media image—behind our resumés—there is just a person who is weak, insecure, idolatrous, envious, and distracted.
French Calvinist Jaques Ellul once said, "A refusal to listen to silence is a refusal to meet oneself.” And spiritual disciplines guru Adele Calhoun further illuminates how solitude with God fosters self-awareness when she writes:
Solitude is a discipline that gets behind those feelings to who we are when we feel invisible and unrecognized. Who are we when productivity and recognition fall away and God is the only one watching us?
Answering this question can be painful. In solitude, we experience how much we lie to ourselves, to God, and to others about who we are. In silence and solitude, we see how little we embrace our true identity in Christ.
When silence shows us who we really are, this is incredibly painful apart from the grace and presence of Jesus. As Dallas Willard says, “We can only survive solitude if we cling to Christ there.” But though it’s painful initially, self-awareness is ultimately a gift. When the theologizing and explaining are taken away and all we have left to do is be present to the Tri-Personal Godhead, we begin to live into who we are in Christ. As Willard says, “We are the beloved, and God is pleased with us. This identity is given; it is not earned.”
Truly a Discipline: A Radically Counter-cultural Act of Faith
So, staying in the place of silence, stillness, and solitude is certainly a discipline. It is truly countercultural, says Tish Warren: “In a culture that craves the big, the entertaining, the dramatic, and the shocking, cultivating space for solitude is a radically counter-cultural act of faith.”
If solitude has been difficult in past generations, it is more difficult now in a culture that has been saturated with digital technology for decades. In fact, our capacity to be disciplined has been undercut by digital tech. Andy Crouch observes that while digital technology is “devoted primarily to making our lives easier,” it makes more difficult any act “that involves disentangling ourselves from technology itself.”
But it is precisely the difficulty of the discipline that makes it necessary and beneficial.
Ordinarily, upon first attempting an hour of stillness, solitude, and silence, Christians experience waves of shame and self-loathing: “How am I so weak that I cannot stay focused on Jesus for even forty seconds?” This, too, is a gift. For, if you have left the mindful awareness of self and Spirit one hundred times, you have returned ninety-nine. Humans are prone to wander; Christians, in the Spirit, are prone to return. In this, too, we learn and experience the grace of God.
In silence and solitude, we also process the guilt of being “unproductive,” the clamor of our restless minds, and the surprise at how ugly our thoughts are when they are the only thing we can hear. This is the path to intimacy with God. When we begin to come to God as we are, not as we wish we were, we are able to connect with him in ways we had previously avoided.
Everything we notice in this struggle can become an invitation to prayer. Like a can opener, the silence opens up the contents of our heart, though it may feel violent, allowing us a deeper connection with God than we previously experienced. As we remain in the silence, the inner noise and chaos will begin to settle.
What does it look like to practice solitude and silence practically? Neuroscientists describe our minds as being plastic, having the capacity to make new synapses and to prune away unhelpful synapses. Our minds have been conditioned by our habits and they can be re-conditioned by new habits. So, even if we have used poor molds to shape our minds, we can, with new molds, reshape them.
For the next thirty days, here is a simple mold to start with.
Pay attention to what you notice. Pray what you notice.
Psalm 46:10–11 says, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
Seth Troutt is a pastor at Redemption Church. He has a BA from Arizona State, an M.Div from Phoenix Seminary, and is working on his D.Min from Covenant Theological Seminary. He and his family live in Gilbert, AZ.