Our Bankrupt Souls in an Age of Angst

by Stephen W. Smith


The great need at this juncture of world wide violence, cataclysmic events and disturbing addictions to busyness is one that no material thing can provide and no human leader has the capacity to offer.  It is for men and women to accept God’s invitation to sit quietly with themselves and alone for some time to reflect, ponder and experience the love of God.

In my work with leaders in ministry and the marketplace there is a dire need for us to learn the spiritual discipline of solitude and the other spiritual gift of silence.  In a noisy world and living at feverish speeds, the soul’s great need is for some slow time and some quiet time. 

It is far too loud in the outside world and friends, it is sadly far too loud in our interior souls.  Outside, we are hearing of violence every single day, destruction, national threats and world-wide terror.  It is no better in our inside worlds. There, in our interior souls, we hear the voices of shame and blame, the gnawing jeers of being guilty and feeling unloved. We live in fear and our hearts are held hostage. We are not free.

Silence and solitude are the ancient ways that we need so deeply today.  The answer is not to be MORE involved; attend MORE meetings or even church services.  Sadly, many of our churches are led by leaders, who themselves are internally bankrupt and who live quiet lives of desperation without the congregations knowing one thing about the leader’s private despair.  The market place is driven because we have to get ahead and we are living panicked lives that someone might get “there” before we do. We may lose out.

My friend, Ruth Barton writes,

"Even more disturbing is the reality that when the shepherds do not spend time in solitude receiving their soul’s nourishment from God, they may start to feed on the sheep–the very flock/ community they are supposed to be caring for. The result is a leader who is trying to get basic human needs for identity, approval and belonging met in the community rather than seeking to have these needs met in relationship with God. If these real human needs continue to remain unmet, spiritual starvation sets in and the shepherd eventually begins to devour the sheep.”

Whoah…. Go back and re-read Ruth’s words.  Don’t go any farther here until you go back.  Ok.  Now let me continue.

One of the problems with leaders is that many leaders lead with a subversive sense that they know it all. They’ve read the books, attended the seminars or had coffee with an author and to that extent, they are satisfied that their meager sense of dabbling in the spiritual world; that they are now the new spiritual peddlers to offer their cheap insights and offer them week after week to their congregations.  No leader can give what they do not possess.  No leader can offer peace when there is no peace inside their own heart. That is spiritual physics—as I call it.   It’s a sad situation indeed as I see this first hand every week in my work at Potter’s Inn.

Here’s the deal—most of us have simply not been trained or immersed in spiritual practices that have the potential to completely transform and unhinge us.  We want quotes to inspire us—not practices that will change us. We want Jesus’ core truth in a Twitter message so we can go back to what we have convinced ourselves is essential.  We, my friends, are living in the shallows when it is only the deep that can quench our thirsts.  We stay in the shallows by quoting Tweets and posting Facebook quotes without any real, personal or deeply held conviction that without solitude, we might just die.

Perhaps this is why Jesus, himself, “often went into lonely places”(Luke 5:15).  Jesus lived this just as he lived his work.  His way of life contained the truth of life. It’s not just his words that will save us. It is his way. It was both—the practice of being alone and being quiet as well as the practice of loving people so well that people literally “wanted what he was having.”

The two major spiritual exercises that offer men and women the greatest hope are the two we simply are afraid of today.  We are afraid of more aloneness because we are so deeply isolated that the mere thought of having to be alone robs us of the fruit of solitude. So we put our ear buds in and crank the podcast up—thinking we are alone when we are not alone at all.  The noise keeps us busy so we don’t have to feel alone. This is why we won’t be quiet and we cannot be still.

Solitude is the movement from being alone to being with God. It is a clear, marked movement that is difficult, hard and challenging.  My mentor Henri Nouwen writes about this struggle so profoundly as he writes,

“Solitude is the place of the great struggle against the compulsions of false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self...we will see that we are dealing here with that holy place where ministry and spirituality embrace each other...solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.”

I have seen hundreds of leaders “think” they are doing this because for whatever reason, these two disciplines seem to be the new “in.”  They are hip.  I hear people use these words and practices so wrongly—so cheaply that it just makes me so disturbed.

When we read what the Ancients tell us, we need to humbly and courageously receive help to work through our inner noise to our inner rooms of shalom.   To do that, my friends, we need help. We need to be mentored. We need this to be lowered to the lowest shelf so we can both “get” what really is offered to us in the quiet.

When the Psalmist says “Be still and know that I am God.”  I believe he meant it.  Knowing comes from stillness. Knowing does not come from busyness. It just doesn’t.  The modern church has sadly mistaken intensity for intimacy.  We “get loud” and fill our auditoriums with smoke to mimic some kind of manufactured feelings of awe. It doesn’t work and we have become intoxicated with the world’s ways and ushered this into our churches.  I’m saddened by this.  After the smoke has cleared our sanctuaries, we are still living lives of fear, depression and angst. There is another way to live my friends. There really is. 

The old Hebrew prophet Jeremiah speaks for God saying, “This is what the LORD says: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, 'We will not walk in it.'” Jeremiah 6:16.

Ancient ways of solitude and silence offer us the rest we seek but cannot find. 

Potter’s Inn is guided by a mandate in our charter to “resource” leaders with the tools to help them live a sustainable life—marked by the abundant life.  At each of our retreats, whether one on one or small group—through our books and tools, we are committed to offering people ancient paths that lead to what we have missed by living and being so modern.