In Good Company
For being the savior of the world, Jesus sure spends a lot of time alone. In story after story, we read how Jesus dwells in deserted places, is left to himself in lonely gardens, cozies up in quiet corners, summits solitary peaks, and sojourns into the wilds without another soul in sight. Of all the ways that Jesus could be spending his time, he repeatedly returns to solitude — inevitably missing out on more opportunities to bless and heal, to speak and teach, to show up and save. Think of how many more people Jesus could have reached, how many more miracles he could have performed, how many more lessons he could have imparted if only he did not have such a habit of venturing off alone.
Still drenched from his baptismal dunk in the Jordan, Jesus’s first act of ministry to the world according to the Gospel of Matthew was going on a hiking trip in the desert by himself — traversing the wilderness and all the treachery of its terrain solo. For forty days and nights, Jesus fasts and prays in the holy hermitage of the wild, and at the end of his solitude, finds himself face to face with his identity.
Even as the incarnation of a God who prioritizes communal love, Jesus still goes off alone on a regular basis and sometimes for well over a month at a time as our scripture for the first week of Lent suggests. If Jesus is supposed to be Immanuel, “God with us,” why does he spend so much time alone?
Why does Jesus spend so much time alone?
- He is spending time with God undistracted
- Quiet time and the priority of self care
- Prays alone before he prays with anyone else
- Solitude vs isolation
- Confronting the self and facing temptation
The 17th century mathematician, physicist, inventor, and Catholic religious philosopher, Blaise Pascal, famously once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Well before the age of access to all the knowledge of the world in the palm of our hand, before television and streaming services and the endless scrolling of posts and feeds, Pascal spoke to the difficulty humanity has spending time alone with ourselves free from diversion. Give us something to look at, something to read, something to watch or listen to; give us something to do to occupy our mind because simply being by ourselves is either too boring or too painful to bear. Even though things are probably more complicated than Pascal’s provocative claim might suggest, he still seems to be on to something.
In a scientific study led by a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, participants were left alone in a lab room for 15 minutes with a button that would administer a small electric shock that they could voluntarily push only if they wanted too. This study found that, of the hundreds of volunteer participants, 67% of male participants and 25% of female participants chose to push the button and shock themselves at some point during the 15 minutes that they were left alone. The conclusion was that a statistically significant number of participants would rather inflict a painful shock to themselves than simply be alone with their thoughts with nothing to do. Pascal probably wouldn’t be surprised and would take it even further, suggesting that this is evidence of a general human quality with dire repercussions — stemming from our lack of contentment within ourselves and the lengths that we will go to in order to shield our minds from our own suffering. Give me a shock if only it will save me from myself.
It’s a lot more complex than a one answer fits all, but when it’s estimated that 85 percent of human beings struggle with low self esteem, I wonder if at least part of the reason why it’s so hard to be alone with our thoughts is because we are afraid of confronting what we truly think of ourselves and are afraid that God will agree with our estimation. For many of us, perhaps beneath the boredom and the restlessness is the belief that being with ourselves is a waste of time because we are not worth our own attention.
Mirroring the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years after their liberation from Egypt, Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness doing a little wandering himself. We do not know what specifically happened during those forty days of solitude other than that Jesus fasted. We don’t know if he was at peace or miserable, if he ever doubted his resolve to keep going, or if he ever twisted his ankle. What we do know, though, is that Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted, which perhaps suggests that there was something within Jesus to be tempted in the first place. In the passage immediately before this, Jesus is baptized. When he emerges from the waters, the heavens open, God’s spirit descends upon him, and a voice from Heaven declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It’s an overwhelming moment of divine affirmation of Jesus’s identity, but I wonder if Jesus maybe had a hard time believing this for himself. I wonder if the purpose of being led into the lonely wild following his baptism was so Jesus could confront the temptation to doubt the truth of his own, God given identity.
By the end of the forty days, Jesus was hungry and left with no choice but to face himself and what kind of savior he was going to be. The text reads that Jesus was tempted three times: to turn stone into bread so he might satisfy his hunger, to throw himself off a cliff to test if God will save him, and to rule over all the world by submitting himself to the power of domination. Left with a choice, Jesus decides that he will not manipulate creation for his own instant gratification; that he will not test God by thinking his humanity was above biology and the laws of physics; and that his power comes from love, not force. Reaching this conclusion, angels attend him, and he sets off on the path of the Prince of Peace down the winding road to Calvary.
Before Jesus confronted the task of being the Christ, he had to first confront himself — finding that, in the end, he could in fact trust who God says he is and who God calls him to be after all. Rather than jumping right into miracles and hurrying to the cross, Jesus first slows down to sit with himself, wading through perhaps the deeper temptation of thinking that he could be anything other than God’s beloved called to love the world. Jesus spending time alone serves as a model for how we, too, are called to be in right relationship with ourselves — called to journey beneath all the layers of distraction and deception within us in order to find that we are someone worth sitting alone with.
Braving the vulnerability of confronting the self free from diversion is as courageous an act of faith as any — allowing us the opportunity to swim through the suffering, the confusion, the pain, and the fear, to eventually reach the depths of who we are as good company unto ourselves. And it’s okay to need help with this. It’s okay to say our prayers and take our prescriptions, too. It’s okay to practice silence and call out for support, too. It’s okay to go to church and to go to therapy, too. It’s okay to care for our bodies and minds in the ways that our bodies and mind’s need. And it’s okay if all we need sometimes is a little healthy distraction when life is just too much. But, sooner or later, we all have to face the image of God staring back at us in the mirror — for Jesus didn’t come to save us from ourselves; Jesus came to bring us back to ourselves and to who we are as God’s beloved.
To be alone with ourselves in the company of the Spirit gives us the opportunity to practice seeing ourselves as God see us — for it is no coincidence that God calls us good and good and very good when God set creation in motion. Further, as we work through our own pain and our own fear, it allows us to see below the pain and fear of others and into the goodness at the heart of their very being, too — a goodness that we all share even when it’s hard to see and believe it. Mark Nepo said, “When we heal ourselves, we heal the world.” Well, healing happens when we start seeing the good in our own company, and when enough people start to see the good in themselves and in each other, that’s a recipe for thy Kin-dom come.
Jesus and his solitude show that healing ourselves means confronting ourselves, which is a scary, messy, confusing process, but necessary nonetheless. May we do so not for the sake of criticism and judgement but for the sake of seeing ourselves the way we have always been seen by God: as beautiful, beloved, and worthy of our own undivided attention. This Lenten season, let us not underestimate the sacredness of solitude and the holiness of boredom as we courageously face the wilderness. As we do, may we hope for and work towards the day when we can believe in our hearts that even when we find ourselves sitting quietly in a room alone, that we are in good company.