Being Present to the Presence of God

Solitude as a Practice to Distinguish the Voice of God

Drew Jackson

Drew serves as Pastor of Hope East Village, a church he planted in New York City in 2018. His debut poetry collection, God Speaks Through Wombs, was released with InterVaristy Press in September 2021. Drew is deeply committed to seeing the contemplative life, the work of prophetic justice, and peacemaking embodied in his own life, writing, and within the life of the church. He is blessed to share life with his wife Genay, and their twin daughters, Zora and Suhaila.


Hey, everyone. It’s an honor to be with you and to be joining you for Created For. And today, I have the privilege of speaking to you about the topic “Being While Becoming” and asking the question: who gets to tell me who I should become? And how do I listen when there are so many voices trying to do just that? And to do so, I want to look briefly at an account from the life of Jesus found in the Gospel of Luke. 

In Luke chapter 4, we find Jesus as He’s just starting out in His public ministry. It begins in His hometown of Nazareth, preaching in the synagogue. And after preaching a hard word to the people from His town, it says that they try to throw Him off a cliff. Now, that would be enough for me to feel like all of life is pressing in on me trying to define who I am. But that was only the beginning for Jesus. 

After leaving Nazareth, He goes down to a city called Capernaum to continue in His ministry. It’s in Capernaum where He not only continued His teaching, but He began His ministry of healing and exorcism (casting out demons). So He’s confronting all sorts of unclean spirits in that city and demonstrating His power over all of them and over every illness. And naturally, with that sort of demonstration of power, word starts to get around the region of Galilee. And people, I mean, they’re hearing about Jesus, people got their iPhones out, and they’re catching videos of Jesus, and He’s going viral on TikTok. And everyone — they want to bring their aunties, and uncles, and moms, and dads, and grandmas out to see Jesus so that they can get some healing. 

So you can imagine what that sort of boom in ministry happening for Jesus overnight, how overwhelmed Jesus might have felt. So like any good leader, Jesus decides that He needs to recruit and train some others who will be able to take on some of the work that needs to get done. With the ways that things are growing, there’s no way that life and ministry could be sustainable if things remained as they were with just Him doing all of the work. 

So at the beginning of Luke, chapter five, Jesus goes out and He calls the disciples to come and follow Him so that they can be trained in the ministry of the kingdom of God. But if you’ve ever been in a position where you’re responsible for training others, you know that, while in the long run this is the best solution, in the short term, it only adds to the amount of work that you have to do. And so with all of these things going on, people trying to throw Him off cliffs, His popularity expanding, crowds following Him, endless people to heal, and now pretty incompetent disciples to train — it says in verse 16 of Luke chapter five that in response to all of these things pressing in on Him and trying to tell Him who He should be, it says: “Jesus would withdraw to deserted places for prayer.” This is the spiritual practice of solitude. When His identity was being tested, Jesus withdrew in solitude to be in prayer in order to hear afresh the words of God the Father reaffirming His identity. 

See, it was in solitude that Jesus was reminded that He was a beloved Son with whom His Father was well pleased. It was in solitude that He was reminded that His Father being pleased with Him had nothing to do with Him performing great miracles, or preaching powerfully, or healing people. He was beloved of God; His identity was secure because He was a Son. That was the ground of His being, and that was enough.

In the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun — which I highly recommend — Calhoun defines solitude simply as to leave people behind and enter into time alone with God. And now the introverts in the room get excited when I talk about solitude, but solitude in the life of prayer isn’t just getting away from people because you feel like being by yourself — although that’s okay. Solitude is all about disconnecting from everyone and everything that seemingly has a demand on your life in order to be alone with God and to be present to the presence of God.

There are so many things in our lives that place demands on us and try to have a say in who we are: our family and friends, our jobs, our school, our finances, social media. All these things and more are constantly pressing in on us, trying to dictate to us who we need to be. And see, what ends up happening is that, because we live constantly surrounded by all of these different voices trying to tell us who we are and what we should give our lives to, it becomes nearly impossible for us to distinguish between the various voices of the world and the voice of God. 

So one of the primary gifts of solitude is that it teaches us, it gives us space to distinguish clearly between the voices of the world and the voice of God. And it’s only when we can clearly hear the voice of God, speaking to us day in and day out, that we can remember who we are and what our lives are meant to be. And so the one thing that I want you to take home with you today as a lesson in “Being While Becoming” is that a regular practice of solitude creates space to help reveal to me who I am and to remind me whose I am. Solitude allows us to interrogate the question, “Who am I when productivity and recognition fall away and God is the only one watching me? Who am I?” 

Our identities get so wrapped up in trying to live into the expectations of others that we have no idea who we actually, really are. And we lose focus on the one voice that matters. Our intimacy with God, our emotional health, and our spiritual vitality will only increase when we learn to disconnect from the plethora of voices that seek to identify us, and we can connect in solitude to the voice of God — who alone can speak words of gospel identity over us. 

We need to constantly hear that we are beloved sons and daughters because every day the world tells us otherwise. We need to constantly hear that God is pleased with us because every day we tell ourselves that God is not for one reason or another. We need to constantly hear that God’s being pleased with us has nothing to do with our performance for God but has everything to do with what Christ has done for us because, see, we’re constantly trying to work ourselves into God’s good graces. 

But when we go through our lives cluttered with all of these voices, busy with a crazy pace of life, we have no space to even recognize that we don’t know who we are, and that we’ve forgotten what our lives are meant for. And so we’re offered solitude as a gift because solitude gives the Spirit of God time and space to do deep work within us and allows the Spirit to reveal to us things about ourselves and things about God that we would not notice with the normal preoccupations of life. Solitude reveals to us who we are and reminds us whose we are. 

In closing, I want to leave you with this poem that I wrote, from my collection God Speaks Through Wombs, which is a conversation with the first eight chapters of the Gospel of Luke. And this poem is called “Withdraw,” and it’s written in reflection on Luke chapter five, verse 16. 

“My God, I withdraw, so that I might be drawn closer, that nothing may hinder this flux of love. This arid place deprives me of the praise that attempts to water my soul. No applause from the hands of mortals, no lauding from their lips, can satisfy like the silence of this moment with You. Oh, sacred silence. Oh, saintly stillness. Oh, solemn solitude. Taking space to feel the air passing through pulmonary pathways, remaining connected to this holy ground beneath my feet. Keep me grounded, that I may not be found with hubris, forgetting that I am ever of this humus. Amen.”

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