Alone with God

Community is a great gift. Many of us have come to appreciate it now more than ever, since gathering with others has been restricted for several months. There’s nothing like being with, singing with, exercising the “one anothers” of the Bible, encouraging and being encouraged by God’s people.

So many have fallen away from regular church attendance, leaders have stressed the importance and benefits of Christian community in the last several years. But as often happens, the pendulum sometimes swings too far the other way. Some admonishments have overstated the importance of community. In one tweet I saw, some advocated changing the pronouns in hymnbooks from singular to plural!

I believe strongly in Christian community, in gathering regularly together as believers. I wrote about it here and here and here and here.

But some of the most poignant moments of life occur between the individual and God alone.

Joseph spent years isolated from a believing community after he was sold into slavery before his family came. If he had not known how to walk with God alone, his story would have come out very differently.

Two of the major events in Jacob’s life occurred when God met with him alone. One was in a dream on his journey to his uncle’s house; the other occurred when he wrestled with the angel of the Lord on the way back home to face Esau.

Daniel had three friends, but he faced the lion’s den alone, received visions from God alone, and prayed for his nation alone.

David spent much time alone and used much of it to write psalms.

The psalmists speak of remembering God’s word, work, and character and communing with Him alone in the middle of the night.

Elijah met with God alone after the great victory over Jezebel’s priests.

Paul traveled and ministered with companions, at times he had to stand alone.

Jesus ministered to crowds, small groups, and individuals, but sought time with His Father alone.

One of the blessings of the Christian life is that we have access to God directly. “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). We don’t have to go through a priest or anyone else to get to Him. And, though sometimes we come with others, there are times we interact with Him alone.

God formed us individually. Psalm 139:13-16 tells about God forming us, knitting us together in our mother’s wombs, making us in secret.

We’re born again individually. Someone might be with us; someone might have explained what salvation meant and prayed with us. But we’re saved when we individually believe on Christ. No one can do that for us.

We’ll give account of ourselves. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)

We have our own relationship with God. I wrote recently that the Christian life is a relationship with God, not a set of rules and rituals. We have a relationship all together as a family. But most families don’t relate to each other just as a group all the time. Each individual child has a relationship with the Father.

We meet with God individually. As vital as it is to meet together to hear God’s Word preached and explained, we need to partake of it on our own. Many verses compare God’s Word to food. We don’t eat just one or two times a week. We’d be pretty malnourished spiritually if we did. When I attended a Christian college, students were often reminded that it was an easy place to get away from the Lord. It was easy to coast on the atmosphere, to read the Bible for class assignments, to attend many Christian meetings, etc., without personally meeting with the Lord.

We walk with God individually. Just as we’re saved in a one-on-one exchange with God, so also our obedience, growth, and sanctification occur between us and God. Again, others help, teach, encourage. But they can’t obey and grow for us. They might help us resist temptation, but we need to apply the Word of God and yield to Him in our own hearts.

We encourage ourselves in the Lord. Other Christians are a great source of encouragement, and I have leaned on them many times. Yet sometimes we have to stand alone. David experienced one such instance when everyone was against him, even threatening to stone him. But David “encouraged himself in the Lord” (1 Samuel 30:6). So many of his psalms were written when he was alone, or at least they were written about being alone. Yes, the psalms were sung congregationally. Some dealt with God’s people as a whole. But many of the situations written about were experienced individually, written down, and sung with the congregation so that they then could individually be encouraged and apply the truth of them.

We can pray individually. Yes, Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20). But He also said, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret (Matthew 6:6a). He’s not forbidding public prayer in the latter verse, but illustrating that it’s not something we do for “show” (compare with verses 1-5). I’ve often requested prayer from the whole church body or texted a Christian friend with an urgent prayer request. But have you ever noticed how many times in the Bible people prayed alone? Take as just one example Elijah, of whom James says “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:17-18). Kevin Schaal says in This Is No Time for Timid Prayers:

Sometimes we minimize the power of the prayer of a Christian individual. We tend to view prayers like votes—ours is only one among many millions and God somehow looks at the collection of prayers before Him instead of the heartfelt cry of an individual. The Bible never presents prayer like that. James 5 does not say “the effectual fervent prayers of a large group of righteous people accomplishes a lot.” The individual prayer of one righteous person can change the world.

I’ve read in some missionary biographies of great victories that were followed a few weeks later by a note from some faithful supporter saying, “I felt strongly led to pray for you on this date. Was anything in particular going on?”

We worship God individually. Even when we’re worshiping with a congregation, we worship and praise in our own hearts. And we can and should worship and praise when we meet with God alone.

Meeting with God isn’t meant to happen either alone or with a group. We need both. Our time alone with God will inform and enrich our time with each other, and our time with each other should do the same for our individual walk with God.

I’ve appreciated the creative ways people have developed to keep in touch with each other through this pandemic. Let’s use all of those ways as much as possible. But be encouraged: you can pray, worship, serve, and walk with God in any circumstance, alone or with a group.

I could not do without Thee,
I cannot stand alone,
I have no strength or goodness,
No wisdom of my own;
But Thou, belovèd Savior,
Art all in all to me,
And perfect strength in weakness
Is theirs who lean on Thee.

I could not do without Thee!
No other friend can read
The spirit’s strange deep longings,
Interpreting its need;
No human heart could enter
Each dim recess of mine,
And soothe, and hush, and calm it,
O blessèd Lord, but Thine.

I could not do without Thee,
For years are fleeting fast,
And soon in solemn loneness
The river must be passed;
But Thou wilt never leave me,
And though the waves roll high,
I know Thou wilt be near me,
And whisper, It is I.

From “I Could Not Do Without Thee” by Frances Ridley Havergal

Psalm 62 God alone

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Don’t lose the individual in the community

The last few years have seen a marked increase in discussion of and emphasis on Christian community. Perhaps it has been spurred by the continual drop in church attendance or the tendency, in America at least, toward individualism.

God has ordained that we operate withing the realm of Christian community, meeting together regularly, sharpening each other, practicing all those Biblical “one anothers” on each other.

I’m thankful for Christian community. I love singing in church with brothers and sisters in Christ. I love group Bible studies and the way that discussion there stimulates my own thinking. I so appreciate being able to share prayer requests and burdens with others in the family of God. I don’t know how many times someone has shared a word of encouragement or conviction at just the right moment. I appreciate that God uses other people to sandpaper off my rough edges, though I don’t enjoy the process.

But I wonder if sometimes we lose the individual in the group. A few years ago a Christian leader wrote that “We will not know God, change deeply, nor win the world apart from community.” I disagreed. Though God uses community in each of those ways, the first two occur for me most often when alone with God. Recently I saw on Twitter a retweeted comment that we should change the pronouns in our hymnbooks and Christian songs from “I” and “me” to “our” and “we.” That particularly struck me because our church has been reading through the psalms together, and I had noticed over and over again that, though they were meant to be sung together, most of the psalms speak of individual experience. We don’t need to deemphasize our individual experience with God to reinforce the idea that we’re a group. Instead, we share with each other what God did for us individually, for the psalmist or songwriter or preacher or church member,  so that we encourage each other as we go back out into our individual lives that God will help us in the same way. An article I read which shared ways to incorporate Bible reading and study offered among its suggestions that of reading or studying with another person. Though studying the Bible with someone else is a great thing to do, it shouldn’t replace time alone in God’s Word.

We can’t imagine a family in which the father relates to the children just as a group and never one-to-one. Though we enjoy much time spent together as a family, we know that our father loves each of us, with all our foibles and quirks, individually. We know that we can talk to our father alone and ask for help or advice.

The same is true in our spiritual life. We shouldn’t worship or pray or read the Bible only with other people, as great as those experiences are.

God formed us individually. We’re born again individually. When we stand before God some day, we’ll give account only of ourselves. In-between those events, there will be times we have to stand alone. David encouraged himself in the Lord when everyone was against him. Joseph stood true and faithful to God when forsaken by his brothers, torn from his family, thrust into a new living experience foreign to everything he had grown up with and opposed to everything he believed. Notice in the psalms how many times the writer speaks of communing with God alone, remembering God’s kindness while lying awake at night. In Psalm 107, amidst the description of what God has done for the nation, the psalmist notes that God “satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.” Soul – singular. We’re not lost in the crowd. God sees us, loves us, and meets our personal, individual needs.

God is our Father: we need to get to know Him personally. God has blessed us with the gift of community, but that doesn’t replace our personal relationship with Himself. We need to feed on His Word and speak to Him ourselves. There will be times we have to stand alone, times when no one else is near to support or advise or lean on. When that happens, we find that He is more than sufficient for every need.

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