The Christian life is more than just “Jesus and me.” But it is not less.
Surely many individualistic modern Christians still need to be awakened to the deep rewards of studying and living Scripture in community. God’s word challenges and rebukes our post-Enlightenment individualism, page after page, from the beginning, to Abraham’s family and David’s nation, through the ups and downs of prophetic witness, and into the life of Christ and his church.
Corporate dynamics in the Christian life are vital, and thankfully a growing chorus of voices in this generation are joining in the ancient refrain of Hebrews 10:25, that we never neglect to meet together.
In our fresh push for the essential place of community in the Christian life, it is equally essential to remember that the Christian life is not only communal. “Time alone with God,” as some have called it, is as important as it’s ever been — likely even more so in our age of distraction. As Jonathan Edwards expresses, and Scripture exemplifies, one aspect of a Christ-enamored heart is a gnawing ache to get alone with him.
Just as a marriage will languish if husband and wife are never alone together, so will our union with Christ if our spiritual life has no retreat from community.
In the Secret, Quiet Place
One characteristic of healthy, adoring marriages is that husband and wife will see to it that they carve out their time alone together, even with a home full of kids and a revolving door of guests. So is the vibrant believer with our Lord. One delight, among others, in the born-again heart (which Edwards calls “true religion”) is to prioritize, and create, seasons to be alone with God to hear from him in his word and respond in prayer. Here’s how Edwards captured it some 250 years ago:
A true Christian doubtless delights in religious fellowship, and Christian conversation, and finds much to affect his heart in it; but he also delights at times to retire from all mankind, to converse with God in solitary places. And this also has its peculiar advantages for fixing his heart, and engaging his affections. True religion disposes persons to be much alone in solitary places, for holy meditation and prayer.
Do you “delight at times to retire from all mankind” — in person, in sight, in sound, on screen — “to converse with God in solitary places”? According to Edwards, such is not simply the instinct of the introvert, but a desire God’s Spirit sows in every heart he enlightens. Edwards continues,
[I]t is the nature of true grace, that however it loves Christian society in its place, yet it in a peculiar manner delights in retirement, and secret converse with God. So that if persons appear greatly engaged in social religion, and but little in the religion of the closet, and are often highly affected when with others, and but little moved when they have none but God and Christ to converse with, it looks very darkly upon their religion. (Religious Affections, 3:10)
As an unashamed advocate for Christian community, I find Edwards’s observation reasonable and convincing enough. But he would not be content for us to simply trust his observation and preference. He rehearses examples, from left to right across the Bible, of God meeting with his people not only in community, but personally, in solitude — from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Moses and the prophets, even to Mary, then Joseph, and the apostle John on the isle of Patmos.
In particular, the peculiar grace of solitude with God is powerful in the Psalms, which are surprising both for their intense corporate and personal nature. One psalm seems to begin so individually, then climaxes in an unanticipated flourish of corporate praise and communal consciousness. And just when we expect it all to be corporate, prominent lyrics like these in Psalm 63 show us the power of secret communion with God:
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night. (Psalm 63:5–6)
But even more significant than solitude in the Psalms is the life of God himself among us, as a waking and sleeping, praying and relating human like us. Edward exclaims, “How often do we read of his retiring into mountains and solitary places, for holy converse with his Father!” If our great Expiator and Exemplar delighted to retire, at times, from all mankind, how can we, who have his very life at work in us, not join him in this enjoyment? Jesus himself “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1), “went out to a desolate place” (Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42), and “went up on the mountain by himself to pray . . . alone” (Matthew 14:23) to carve out “secret converse” with his Father.
Word and Spirit, Always Together
But how? Practically what does it mean to “get alone” with Christ and “converse” with him? He is seated on heaven’s throne; our bodies are here on earth. How do we know we’re not just talking into thin air, or making up his part of the conversation in our subconscious?
What conversation with the risen Christ is, in reality, is precisely the opposite of how many of us instinctively go about it. It is not simply finding solitude, in a private room or in the woods, unloading your heart to him and then waiting for him to whisper back. Don’t assume the voices in your head are Christ’s. Assume they are yours.
No, communion with Christ happens by his revealed word, through his apostles and prophets in the Scriptures, and by the strange, mysterious, and dynamic power of his Spirit. We hear his voice to us in his written, public, objective word in the Bible, and his Spirit applies it to our souls personally, privately, subjectively, giving spiritual life for us to his words.
Unless you have his word before you to read, or memorized and hidden in your heart, you are not alone with God. You are just alone with yourself. Christ communicates himself to us through his word made alive and real to our souls by his Spirit.
Delight to Be Alone with Him
Let’s heed Edwards’s perceptive observation and gentle warning. Ask yourself, “Do I delight to retreat to a secret, solitary place to enjoy a season of undistracted focus on my Lord through his word?” If such desire is low or undiscernible at this time, now is the time to ask God to awaken it. And whatever desire is there, great or small, take the simple, but often difficult steps of saying no to some otherwise good things, and give way to your urge to be alone with Jesus.
Not only do the redeemed delight to be alone, on occasion, with their Redeemer, but it is also his delight to commune with his people — not only in public, but also in secret.