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Withdraw to the wilderness: seeing Jesus in coronavirus isolation

I consider myself quite a solitary person – I'm no raging introvert, but I do prefer to be in my own company. More often than not, you’ll find me with my headphones in, deep in my own thoughts, hiding under a duvet in my room or walking peacefully through Epping Forest (solo, of course). 

But there have been times in my life where I’ve been forced to have to stay away from other people – catching a nasty cold and being bedridden, being snowed in during a winter storm (no – not in the UK, we don’t get ‘proper’ snow here) and this week, self-isolation, as part of our national effort to eradicate the spread of the coronavirus.  

Strangely, in these times where I am forced to do what I normally love most, I start to panic and long to be outside, surrounded by people and socialising. Why? Because isolation is a strange concept in our modern, connected and fast-paced society. We thrive off of being in contact with each other (why do you think we spend so much time on social media?), and most of us, even if we pretend otherwise, feel at our best when we’re around all the people we love and care about. Stepping away from this crazy, in-contact world, taking a break and retreating into our own space feels very alien.  

Being surrounded by people it the norm for us youth and children’s workers – we often work within a team with large groups of young people. Getting space or ‘going solo’ just doesn’t fly with this kind of work. Many of us may feel that we get our energy from being around the kids we care for, or that we best bounce off of each other, and so we know isolation is not going to be easy.  

However, isolation was normal for Jesus (though he may have called it something far less fear-inducing like ‘solitude’). We know that Jesus “frequently withdrew to the wilderness” (Luke 5:16), even spending 40 days there on his own. In fact, in any time of grief, thought or deep prayer, Jesus would go to “desolate places” (Matthew 14:13) to be in isolation. That’s not to say that God doesn’t appreciate community – he brings people together in their droves and the Son spent time “among the people” (Matthew 4:23), but he undoubtedly values the “solitary place” (Mark 1:35).  

Isn’t that comforting? I know for me at this time of confusion and unrest, knowing that God values the time we have in isolation makes me feel much less anxious. Being alone means having more time to focus on him, just as Jesus did.  

It doesn’t make it OK, but it might just help 

I’m not using Jesus’ isolation as a means to say that all of what’s going on in the world is alright and that God is using Coronavirus to force us into solitude and focus on him. No, no. Not at all. What I am saying is that this is a prime example of us having the chance to make the best out of a bad situation and create light in the darkness.  

Jesus’ intimate, one-on-one relationship with the Father gave him wisdom, compassion, joy and power in truck loads. He prioritised taking time to be alone before all of the major events in his life. Jesus retreated into isolation before beginning his ministry, making important decisions and when grieving. He used time away from the busy world to care for his soul, to educate his disciples and even to prepare for his death on the cross. It was part of his way. 

And Jesus has always been inviting us to join him in solitude through his example in the Bible: “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). So, at least for me in this season of social distancing and self-isolation – I'm trying to embrace solitude and use it as a time to grow closer to God than ever before.  

Not convinced? That’s OK. Let’s give this a go. Here are some of my suggestions on how we can make the most of this time spiritually. Hopefully you’ll find them somewhat useful and inspiring – and while these tips are aimed at you youth and children’s workers (and parents, too), feel free to share them with your young people.  

Calm your soul and get some rest 

Most of us retreat into our own space to get some rest and calm ourselves after a long day anyway (my evening tends to go: wine, check, bed, check, book, check) – so this period of being stuck indoors needs to be no different. I’ve found it helpful to set myself a schedule for time that I’m going to be talking to people and socialising (while this is by phone as I live alone, it still counts as being around people), and a time that I’m going to be in solitude and focusing in.  

In resting, I’ve noticed that I’ve got plenty of energy for new, exciting hobbies or picking back up old ones. I lugged my crochet materials and sewing machine down from the loft, picked up a music theory book and have even taken up exercise (I know, what is that?). Amazing what a little bit of rest can do.  

I’ve already mentioned how Jesus asked his followers in Mark to go to a “quiet place” to “rest”. Need I say more? 

Realign your priorities and goals 

Solitude is a great way to recalibrate. Think about all the times you’ve booked to go on holiday to lie face down on a beach away from your stressful job so you can come back feeling rested and rejuvenated to get a hard task done. This season is a time to reset. Turn off your internal hard-drive, reboot, do all those updates that you’ve been waiting to do and be ready to get back to it.  

The most noticeable change for me is that I’m starting to see joy again in the littlest things – and no, I’m not talking about toilet paper and pasta. Birdsong, the sunrise, the smell of the grass when I’m out walking my dog. Suddenly, God’s beautiful earth is ten times cooler to me because I treasure my time out experiencing it a lot more.  

Need evidence? Paul underwent a dramatic conversion – but his response was not to “consult human beings” but to spend time alone in the Arabian desert to reset himself and prepare for doing God’s work (Galatians 1:15-18).  

Reflect on where you’re at 

Jesus used his alone time to examine the bigger picture and recognise what he felt emotionally by connecting with God. Sitting and thinking gives us a chance to see where we are at in our relationship with him and to start putting things in place to improve in areas where we are lacking. In being alone, we become vulnerable, and this vulnerability can reveal the things we really need to work on.  

Listen closely to God 

If we’re constantly surrounded by the noise and hustle-bustle of other people, how are we going to hear God whisper? OK, so now we may be dealing with screaming children, family members listening to the TV too loud and the dreaded BBC news update notification noise every three seconds – but once all that stops, isn’t it so quiet?  

We know that God can speak loudly, but he’s also described as talking to us through a “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12), which it’s unlikely we will hear in the noise of our normal routine.  

Jess Lester is deputy editor of Premier Youth and Children’s Work magazine.