Jesus said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.(Mark 6:31–32)
Modern life may be as hurried and anxious as it’s ever been. The competition for our attention is ruthless. We not only hear one distracting siren call after another, but an endless cacophony of calls all at once.
We’re not, of course, the first to encounter the challenges of the daily grind and preoccupation with the next thing. Jesus warned about “the cares of this world” (Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:19) that choke out his word from our hearts. For two thousand years, the teachings of Christ have called his people into rhythms of retreating from the world and entering back in. The healthy Christian life is neither wholly solitary nor wholly communal. We withdraw to a desolate place to commune with God, and then return to the bustle of daily tasks and the needs of others — to a harassed, helpless, and hungry world (Matthew 9:36).
It’s remarkable how often this theme of retreat and reentry turns up in the life of Christ himself. And if Jesus, of all men, needed such rhythms to tend to his soul, and make him maximally useful as an instrument of God’s grace, how much more do we?
With God in Solitude
For those who are born again, and truly taste and see the goodness of God, getting alone with him is no chore. To steal away from our everyday concerns and hear from him in his word, and respond in prayer, becomes a delight. The great preacher Jonathan Edwards captures that delight:
A true Christian doubtless delights in religious fellowship, and Christian conversation, and finds much to affect his heart in it; but he also delights at times to retire from all mankind, to converse with God in solitary places. . . . True religion disposes persons to be much alone in solitary places, for holy meditation and prayer. (Religious Affections, 374)
Such is not simply the instinct of the introvert, but a desire God’s Spirit sows in every redeemed heart. Precious and irreplaceable as fellowship is, we also “delight at times to retire from all mankind, to converse with God in solitary places.”
Edwards rehearses examples from all over Scripture, but the greatest model, of course, is Christ himself: “How often do we read of his retiring into mountains and solitary places, for holy converse with his Father!”
How Often Christ Retired
For Christ, “the wilderness” or “desolate place” often became his secret, quiet place where he could escape the noise and frenzy of society and be alone with his Father and give him his full attention. This is where his ministry began, when he spent forty long days alone in the wilderness (Mark 1:12; also Luke 4:1).
There in the first chapter of Mark, after “his fame spread everywhere” (1:28), and “the whole city was gathered together at the door” (1:33), he slips away the following morning to restore his soul in “secret converse” with his Father: “Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Luke also makes it unmistakable that this pattern of retreat and reentry was part of the ongoing dynamic of Christ’s human life: “He would withdraw to desolate places to pray” (Luke 5:16).
So also Matthew. After the death of John the Baptist, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 14:13). But even then, the crowds pursued him. He didn’t despise them but had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14). Then after feeding them, five thousand strong, “he went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23).
‘Come Away with Me’
But Jesus didn’t only retreat alone. He also taught his disciples to do the same. In Mark 6:31–32, he invites his men to join him, saying, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Mark explains, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.”
And of course, in his timeless Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught all his hearers, including us today, not only to give without show (Matthew 6:3–4), and fast without show (Matthew 6:17–18), but also to find our private place to seek our Father’s face: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
How better might our Father reward us than with more of himself through his Son? Oh to hear his voice in the Scriptures, and seek his face in prayer, and to know our Lord more each day.