by Shawn Cohen
It was 446 BC. Buddhism was just catching on in India, Socrates was studying philosophy in Athens, and Mount Zion was in ruins. But Nehemiah had a vision that would restore much of Jerusalem's former beauty. No one besides him, however, understood the full ramifications of God's plan. Yet that design became reality in a mere seventy days, once Nehemiah and his crew set up camp outside of Jerusalem.
Many leaders, including Nehemiah, have long enjoyed a secret that attunes them to God's desires for His people. It is the secret of quietness and solitude that enabled Nehemiah to envision the rebuilding project and carry it out according to the Lord's design. Preachers often mention the cupbearer's "flare prayer" before the king (Neh. 2:4) but don't always speak of the months of supplication that preceded his encounter with the emperor (Neh. 1:4—2:1). Solitude is God's invitation for us to separate from the activity of the crowd and experience spiritual transformation while we are alone in His presence.
Today's fast-paced techno-world continually entangles us in its crowd-driven clutches. With the advent of the Web, e-mail, and even instant messaging, we now have the capability of being surrounded by digital companionship even when we are physically alone.
And why not? After all, crowds are safe. Sitting next to King Artaxerxes in the Persian capital of Shushan, Nehemiah lived in one of the most secure cities on the planet. There was little to fear. He was in the midst of the crowd and he was safe.
Yet there is danger in the crowd. Among other problems, crowds tend to incite activity that may not necessarily be beneficial—"mob rule."
In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri J. M. Nouwen recalls meeting a fellow minister who was rushing through life in a flurry of activity. When the man complained that there were problems in spite of his prodigious efforts, Nouwen asked him whose problems he was talking about. After a reluctant pause, the man replied, "I guess—my own I guess I am busy in order to avoid a painful self-concentration."1
By staying close to the crowd and the bustle it generates, I can avoid answering those nagging questions that eat away at the core of my existence. Questions like "Why am I here? Why do I feel lonely? Is there something more to life than ceaseless ministry? Do I really know God or am I trying to serve a stranger?"
Only the Father, through the Scriptures, can respond to these questions with any measure of finality, but those answers often come after deep thought and painstaking thoroughness in our relationship with Him. If I choose to run exclusively with the crowd, the distraction will permit me to avoid the pain of healthy self-confrontation. However, it will also bar me from ever attaining the quietness of spirit that results when God solidifies my divided soul (James 1:5-8).
In essence, separating from the crowd is our plea to the Great Physician that we are looking for the healing only He can offer us.
Yet many resist seeking solitude with God, far away from the crowd, because of the vulnerability that accompanies such an exposed relationship. But when I come face to face with the burning, all-consuming love of God, I have little strength to withstand His transforming power. By separating ourselves for a time, we make ourselves vulnerable before the Father's merciful, albeit painful, ability to conform us to the image of His Son.
The answer that Paul received regarding his thorn in the flesh was heartrending, yet he could only accept its reality after being vulnerably honest before the Father. This exchange led Paul to a new discovery and a fresh outlook on life (2 Cor. 12:7-9).
Nehemiah sought solitude in order to get a clearer picture of the assignment that lay ahead of him. Surrounded by enemies from the moment he entered the promised land, Nehemiah entrusted himself to the Lord's protection as he considered the task that his compatriots would complete in the coming days (Neh. 2:13-16).
God's call to separate from the crowd does not always include prolonged extrication from one's circumstances. For a lot of people, such a separation would be impossible. Instead, He will primarily invite us to a spiritual solitude that will include shorter times of physical isolation in which our earthly pursuits will wane in priority.
Leave the crowd and take the plunge into solitude. Walk alone into the light of God's healing presence—vulnerability will never taste sweeter.
1. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Image Books, 1990), 90