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Marrying Service and Solitude

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We're called to worship and pray. We're called to serve and work. In the whirlwind of life, how do we find the calm?

Throughout the ages, Christians have struggled to discern the proper balance between the cloistered existence and the life of reckless, zealous ministry—between bustling service and sacred hush—between Walden and the whirlwind. We contend with the Mary and Martha inside us. (Mary sat at Jesus' feet listening to what He said while her sister, Martha, was busy with the preparations for visitors in their home. See Lk. 10:38-42.)

To set aside everyday concerns and gaze uninterrupted at the Lord seems utopian and escapist. But the continual giving of ourselves in service for Christ brings a sobering awareness of our frail humanity and limited store. We become caught in the Mary-Martha dilemma, weighing the active life with the contemplative life.

To Work and To Wait

True service for Christ, however, occurs only when Mary and Martha marry—when neither isolation nor compulsion characterizes our lives. Bernard of Clairvaux, born in 1091, wrote, "Action and contemplation are very close companions; they live together in one house on equal terms; Martha is Mary’s sister."[2] Bernard of Clairvaux, Selections from the Writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, ed. Douglas V. Steere (Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1961), p. 25. William Barclay also referred to a kind of coexistence: "The more one reads of the lives and works of great men, the more one sees that they have a twin capacity—the capacity to work and the capacity to wait."[3] William Barclay, Daily Celebration, vol. II (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1973), p. 165.

The Christian life should have a rhythm—doing and resting, speaking and listening, giving and receiving. The life of Jesus illustrates that perfect balance. This busy Man (in perfect harmony with His Father, Himself, and His purpose on earth), who completed to the fullest the work given to Him, withdrew for prayer again and again. The Scriptures indicate that Jesus worked at getting alone, just as He worked at serving and teaching.

From the beginning of His ministry when He spent forty days alone in the desert, to the end of His ministry when He prayed nights on the Mount of Olives, Jesus' life was interlaced with periods of solitude. In these quiet times alone, He enjoyed a deep, abiding fellowship with His Father. Psalm 16:11 records David’s expression of the exultant delight of this kind of communion with God: "You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand."

Jesus was ever occupied with relating to and pleasing the Father, not in making use of Him. Prayer was the expression of Their unity, not a grip to wrest something from the Father. German pastor Otto Borchert wrote of Their relationship, "Prayer went like a divine shuttle backward and forward between Him and the Father—speech and answer, giving and receiving, a continual loving aloud, in the most intimate tones that the world has ever heard."[4] Otto Borchert, The Original Jesus (London: Lutterworth Press, 1936), p. 223.

Jesus considered prayer crucial to ministry. Periods of prayer preceded the critical junctures of His life: before He began His public ministry, before choosing the twelve disciples, before His transfiguration that prepared His disciples for a fuller revelation of who He was, and before Gethsemane. On one occasion, He rebuked His disciples after they attempted, unsuccessfully, to cast out an evil spirit that had tormented a boy since his childhood. When the disciples asked why they were unable to drive it out, Jesus replied, "This kind can come out only by prayer" (Mk. 9:29).

Solitude in the life of Jesus meant prayer, and prayer meant solitude. While the religious leaders stood conspicuously on street corners to pray, Jesus rose early in the morning or departed after dark to pray in private. It was His practice to enter His closet and shut the door.

Work is Worship, Also

To a culture that considered cloistered contemplation the highest status of the godly, Martin Luther proclaimed that work can be worship, too. Jesus said, "As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me" (Jn. 9:4). Jesus was a Man of work, just as He was a Man of prayer. Throughout the Gospels we see Him giving Himself to people: He healed, cast out demons, and proclaimed deepest truth. Jesus engaged in earnest conversation with those who knew little of serious talk. He demonstrated His servant disposition as He cooked meals for His disciples on the beach or washed their feet. His life was one of sacrificial service even apart from His Death on the Cross. Virtue went from Him as He healed. His labors kept Him from food and brought Him to exhausted sleep in the stern of a boat. His ministry was hard work. Yet, as Romano Guardini has aptly observed, "Jesus is the bringer of the tidings of all tidings, but they neither crush nor drive him: he and his message are one."[5] Romano Guardini, The Lord (Chicago: The Henry Regnery Company, 1954), p. 343.

Jesus and His message are inseparable. He stands as the perfect embodiment of all He proclaimed and taught. His totally integrated life and ministry reflect His union with the Father. His work, the expression of His life, is worship.

No Happy Medium

The marrying of service and solitude is not to be found in the balance of a happy medium, or in a swath down the middle between service and solitude. Rather, it requires pursuing distinct paths in each direction. E. Stanley Jones, fifty years a missionary in India, said, "I found myself going off in solitude and reading my New Testament, and when I came across a verse that spoke of Him, I found myself reverently pressing my lips to that verse.... But I'm soon up on my feet again with a compulsion, a divine compulsion to share this with everyone, everywhere."[6] E. Stanley Jones, A Song of Ascents (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1968), p. 29.

This same rhythm of service and solitude characterized James Hervey (1713-1785): "But in-doors or out-of-doors, he was always full of his Master’s business, always redeeming the time, always reading, writing, or speaking about Christ, and always behaving like a man who had recently come from his Lord’s presence to say something, and was soon going back again."[7] J. C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), p. 350. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, says of His sheep, "He will come in and go out, and find pasture" (Jn. 10:9). Jesus has called us to go out into the world for Him, but He has also called us to come to Him for refreshment.

We Need To Be Fed, Too

Service and solitude both require our full attention. Neither can stand alone and be truly Christian. Service without time apart for spiritual nourishment, reflection, and fresh instruction from God deteriorates into humanitarian effort. True spiritual ministry acknowledges God as the Source; the minister is merely the channel. The idea of living in Christ and letting Him live out His life in us is a recurring theme in the New Testament:

No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (Jn. 15:4-5)

Not only must God minister through us, He must minister to us. We must practice what we preach. Jesus called the honored teachers of His day whitewashed tombs because they taught what they didn't practice. Earlier He had declared, "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 5:20). We must not become so busy serving that we fail to obey God ourselves.

Unless we take time to reflect on who God is (His attributes) and what He has done in the past (our history), and contemplate what He says He will do in the future (His promises), our good works may have no eternal substance. Service in His Kingdom consists not of isolated acts for the benefit of mankind, but of acts of obedience done for Him, in Him, because of who He is and what He is like.

Likewise, solitude without service easily degenerates into self-absorption. Time with the Lord must quicken us to our needy world, not provide a soothing insulation from it. The natural fruit of looking at God is a heightened zeal and vigor to serve Him. As we ponder His grace and love, we long to express our gratitude in acts of obedience and to communicate Him to others.

If we emulate the Lord’s pattern, we embrace the poles: service and solitude. We acknowledge that although the needs of the world are great and ever-present, we do no real service if we are spiritually destitute ourselves. Withdrawing to be alone is not indolence or dereliction of duty; it is an imperative. But we must also remember the Jesus who left His silent chamber to freely give His life for our sake thousands of times, and then faced the Cross.

href="">NavPress. This article is adapted from a chapter of her forthcoming book Between Walden and the Whirlwind, to be published by NavPress in October, 1985, as part of the Christian Character Library.

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