Getting ready for bigger challenges and greater opportunities
The experience of feeling isolated and alone can be devastating. For some, however, it can also be a blessing, for silence and solitude can bring healing to our hearts and prepare us for greater tasks.
“The Happiest I’ve Ever Been”
Chris Lewis is a 39-year-old former British paratrooper who fell on hard times after he retired from his regiment and military life. Homeless and sleeping on the street or in cars, he struggled to cope with civilian life. He finally found help and support when he connected with SSAFA, the British Armed Forces charity.1
In August 2017, he set off from his home in Swansea to walk around the entire United Kingdom coastline to raise £100,000 (about US$125,000) for SSAFA in gratefulness for the help he had received. On March 23, 2020, when the United Kingdom enacted its COVID-19-related lockdown, he was walking with his dog, Jet, on the main island of the Shetlands, sleeping in a tent. By that time, he had walked about 12,000 miles (ca. 19,300 kilometers).
Since he had no permanent home on the island and could not isolate in a tent in March, the owner of Hildasay, a small 108-hectare (267 acres) island off the west coast of the Shetland mainland, inhabited by 15 sheep and thousands of birds, gave him permission to stay in a former shepherd’s hut. Lewis was grateful, even though the hut didn’t have running water, electricity, or heating. “It has really given me a chance to enjoy the island,” Lewis said in a BBC article. “I’m able to reflect on the walk so far, just realizing what this has done to help me personally and the amount of amazing people there are in the U.K. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”2
I wonder how many of us would describe the past two months the way Lewis did. The lockdown orders, stay-at-home directives, or social-distancing guidelines have caused emotional pressures unknown to most of us. We wonder when we finally will be able, once again, to embrace an aging parent, a grandchild, or a dear friend. And yet, moments of isolation can be opportunities that help us refocus on first things, reorder our priorities, and recognize the inherit dangers and challenges of our media-saturated lives. We need silence and isolation.
In Scripture, silence and isolation often precede decisive moments. Noah and his family sat for seven days in the ark waiting for something they had never seen, felt, or experienced. The jeering outside the ark during these days must have been deafening. Moses spent 40 years as a shepherd in the semiarid desert of the Sinai Peninsula wondering what God had planned for his life. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, exposed to the temptations of the great deceiver. He didn’t just end up in a place devoid of people. The Bible states explicitly that Jesus “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matt. 4:1). Somehow, moments of isolation and solitude help us catch God’s vision.
Living in God’s Presence
First Kings 17:1-6 tell the story of the prophet Elijah marching into the palace of King Ahab in Samaria and declaring the Lord’s verdict: “As the LORD God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word” (verse 1).
Then Elijah runs and, following God’s command, hides by the Brook Cherith. There are no convenient supermarkets; no online shopping options; no Facetime, Skype, or Zoom with family at home. Toilet paper hasn’t even been invented yet. Elijah is all alone at a seasonal riverbed and is fed twice daily by ravens. His menu is quite luxurious. People living in Iron Age Israel didn’t eat meat and bread twice daily—except, perhaps, at the royal court. God looked well after Elijah’s physical needs, but what about his emotional needs?
Day in, day out, Elijah was totally dependent on God. God was his audience when he prayed. God listened when he wept and wondered about the people he had been called to serve. God even heard the silent yearnings and requests. Isolation forces us to refocus our lives. In the absence of normal relationship, we are nudged closer to truly live in God’s abiding presence.
The biblical narrative doesn’t tell us how much time Elijah spent at the Brook Cherith. Based on the larger context, I would imagine many months. One morning, the water has dried up and God speaks once again. “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. See, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you” (1 Kings 17:9).
Imagine Elijah’s reaction. God wanted him to go to the place where Jezebel, King Ahab’s Phoenician wife, had come from. God sent him straight into Baal’s territory. Elijah obeyed his Commander-in-chief—and became a blessing to a widow, her son, and the neighbors living in Zarephath who heard about the never-emptying flour pot and the jar of olive oil that never ran dry. They all witnessed the resurrection of the widow’s son and, through Elijah, met the God of Israel, whose domain was all the earth and whose power was unlimited.
God uses moments of isolation and solitude to prepare us for bigger challenges and greater opportunities. These are the times when growth takes place. These are the times when God is able to do what only He can do to uncover His image in us. When we feel helpless, isolated, alone, and perhaps even forgotten, we are assured that God has a much bigger plan. Ellen White seems to describe such moments when we are called to focus on God’s abiding presence: “Nothing is apparently more helpless, yet really more invincible, than the soul that feels its nothingness and relies wholly on the merits of the Saviour. By prayer, by the study of His word, by faith in His abiding presence, the weakest of human beings may live in contact with the living Christ, and He will hold them by a hand that will never let go.”3
Seasons of isolation and solitude can be our opportunity to discover the firm grasp of God’s invisible hand. When we recognize Him in our lives, we may just find ourselves on the launchpad of something bigger than we’ve ever dreamed of.
2 “Coronavirus: Ex-soldier self-isolating on ‘uninhabited’ Hildasay,” BBC News (April 20, 2020), online https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-52344025.
3Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905, 1942), p. 182.