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Jesus has been in ministry for about a year and a half. Along with His disciples, He is at a synagogue in Capernaum when a demon-possessed man cries out to Him in the midst of His preaching. Jesus casts the demon out and after His message, goes to Peter’s house to find his mother-in-law ill with a fever. After He heals her, she immediately begins to prepare a meal for them. Word travels quickly and people who saw or heard about the miraculous healing of the demon-possessed man show up at Peter’s house with family and friends suffering from various diseases. Late into the night, Jesus is healing them all.

We are then told Jesus gets up in the early hours of morning; in fact, while it is still dark. He leaves the house and goes off to a solitary place to pray. The Greek work used in Scripture for “solitary place” is the word eremos, which means a desolate, out of the way place, a lonely place. Oftentimes, Jesus seeks that eremos place where He stays for hours at a time to be alone with His Father. He is fully man, and in these times of solitude, demonstrates His utter dependence and obedience to His Father. It is alone with God that Jesus not only receives instructions, but is strengthened and sustained.

In the meantime, Simon Peter is preoccupied with the crowd that has gathered at his house and is eager to minister to them. Mark 1:36 tells us, “Simon and his companions went to look for [Jesus] and when they found him, they exclaimed, ‘Everyone is looking for you!’” It is almost as if a revival is taking place outside Peter’s home and he is busy planning Jesus’ next steps for Him. We may be very well-intentioned in our plans, but if we have not prioritized solitude with God, we will find ourselves working to fulfill our own agendas with our own resources because we have left God out of the equation.

In ministry, we are particularly vulnerable. The danger is we can get so preoccupied with wanting to be the omniscient one, knowing the needs around us and trying to accommodate them, that we focus on the work of the Lord, rather than the Lord of the work. Without time alone with God, we neglect His agenda and take the needs of others upon ourselves. We can easily get into a fast, active pace with all kinds of good things we are doing, but the problem is we become burned-out and frustrated just as quickly because Christ is not fueling our ministry. We are doing that ourselves and operating in our own strength.

The disciples find Jesus and what does He say to them? “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That’s why I have come” (Mark 1:38). This response probably stunned the disciples. “Go somewhere else,” when there is a crowd of people waiting for Him? But Jesus has just spent time alone with God and knows what His next step is. In John’s Gospel, He says, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19). This comes about because of the many hours Jesus regularly spends in intimate communion with His Father.

There are warning signs that creep into our lives when we drift away from these times of solitude with God. Irritability can set in with a loss of joy and motivation in our service to Him. A lack of openness and honesty before God also comes into play, and slowly, subtly we lose the connection that so inspired us in the first place. If we wait for times when we feel like praying, then days, weeks and even months can easily go by while allowing other things to crowd our lives. We all need an eremos, a secret place where we get alone with God so that it becomes an automatic built-in rhythm to our lives.

There are basically four levels of conversation in any relationship. There is first the casual conversation; things like the weather we talk about with acquaintances. The next is informative conversation in which we discuss what is going on in our lives or in the world today and is usually an exchange of information on varying topics. The next layer is the area of our feelings where emotions are expressed and will often convey how we are really doing. Fourthly, is the most intimate place, the secret place where our deepest fears and desires reside, things we would not reveal to just anyone.

When it comes to conversation, there is usually quite a difference between men and women. When a wife asks her husband how his day went, he might say, “Good,” which he thinks tells her all that she needs to know. On the other hand, when a husband asks his wife how her day went, he’s given a detailed description of everything she’s done and how she felt about it. Half an hour later, he’s realizing his answer should have been more than just “good,” because he now has an understanding of all the emotions derived from his wife’s activities. Receiving a colourful rendition of her day, gives him insight into what makes her tick, what pleases or displeases her, and he gets the inside scoop reserved for him.

God does not need the casual conversation, but wants the inside scoop. He wants to hear from us about our joys and our fears, but one of the biggest challenges in our busy lives is to make precious time alone with God. Speaking of the importance of solitude with God, Henri Nouwen writes, “We enter into solitude first of all to meet with our Lord and to be with Him and Him alone. Only in the context of grace can we face our sin. So we are invited into this one on one time with grace. And only in the place of healing do we dare show our wounds, only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature. Solitude is a place where Christ remodels us in His own image and frees us from the victimizing compulsions of the world.” Just as there are four levels of conversation, there are four levels of prayer and what God wants from us is deep, meaningful prayer in which our innermost feelings are unearthed.

There is only one instance in all the Gospels where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them something explicit and that is to teach them to pray. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). Jesus’ own life epitomizes the importance of going to that secret place to be alone with God because it is there we are aligned with His purpose. And when we speak from the depths of our hearts, particularly in troubling situations, He moulds our perspective into His perspective, which changes everything.

There is a reward when we intentionally carve out time from our busy schedules to be alone with God. To quote Henri Nouwen again, “Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. We do not take the spiritual life seriously if we do not set aside some time to be with God and listen to Him.” God invites all of us into that solitary place where nothing is hidden and everything is real. This is the beauty and mystery of prayer. The God who spoke all of creation into existence is listening to us and the reward of prayer is deepening our relationship with Him, which brings us into profoundly wonderful experiences of God Himself. Jesus felt the need for intimate solitude with God and set the example of what we need to do. At the start of this New Year, may we be reminded of how much more we need solitude with God and pray for the discipline to put it into practice.