We moved a few months ago from the bustling excitement that is Tel Aviv—Israel’s New York City—to the sleepy suburbs of Ashkelon, just a few minutes north of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. We did so to be close to Elana’s 84-year-old mother, who needs Elana’s attention. Elana grew up here and knows many people, and I know no one (other than my mother-in-law).
Not long ago, Elana went to Tel Aviv for a doctor’s appointment and stayed overnight to spend time with our daughters, who live there. I was home, and as it got later in the afternoon, I got lonely. In Tel Aviv, I just walk outside, and there is instant activity. Here…not so much (though this is a cool sculpture of an octopus!). I started feeling sorry for myself. I was tempted to send some guilt-laced, passive-aggressive texts to Elana, encouraging her to come home. I could feel sadness seeping in.
I turned on YouTube (somehow Google always knows what I need…AI…creepy), and there was a short video from John Mark Comer about sadness. (How did you know, Google!?) He talked about not running away from sadness, as we often do. (Proof positive, I was sad and looking on YouTube to get rid of it!) He played a clip from the now-disgraced Louis CK. It takes chutzpah to play Louis CK in church. But the clip was (edited and) so powerful.
Comer talked about why he doesn’t let his kids have a phone. He talked about his own battle with sadness. He would distract himself with apps and texting to keep the sadness at bay. One day, he decided that he would just let the sadness come over him. Instead of running from it, he embraced it. He found himself crying. And he just went with it; he cried, and he cried. And when he was done, he felt cleansed, happy.
But in our day and age, we run from being alone, and if we have to be alone, we distract ourselves with Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube, anything but silence. Worse, preachers tell us to just rebuke that sadness, resist it, and bind it, “God wants you happy all the time.” “Depression is the devil.” Tell that to Yeshua in the Garden of Gethsemane! Tell that to Jeremiah after being rejected by everyone for giving accurate prophecy. “Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!” (Jeremiah 20:14).
So…back to me being alone…At that moment, I chose to embrace the sadness and solitude. I remembered the discipline of solitude. I looked to the Lord and said, “I give my loneliness to you. I choose solitude. I want to enjoy you in my loneliness.” I thought about the monks who take vows of silence just to be closer to God. Today, we can’t go five minutes without checking our phones. People do not know what to do in solitude or in sadness.
As I embraced solitude that day not too long ago, a peace came over me. The next morning, I woke up and had one of the most powerful devotional experiences of my life. I did not want to stop praying; so close was the intimacy with the Son. I got a nice Son-tan!
From Martyr to Celebrity
In the fourth century, Christianity suddenly became legal in Rome when Constantine converted from paganism in 312 CE. (Technically, it was a year later with the Edict of Milan.) Christians could now come out of the shadows without fear of persecution. It was only in 380 CE that Christianity became the official state religion in Rome under the order of Emperor Theodosius.
Imagine if you were a Christian leader at that time. Many of your predecessors became martyrs for the faith. You have no paradigm to understand what it's like to legally be a believer in Jesus or to hold meetings in public. Sadly, such freedom has tended to lead toward corruption and lukewarmness.
Within a generation, Christianity had moved from being a persecuted movement on the fringes of imperial culture to becoming its establishment. The Christian church was simply not prepared for this radical transition. Its bishops were once merely leaders of congregations; they now became pillars of Roman society, with power and influence. Its churches were once private homes; they were now massive dedicated buildings, publicly affirming the important place of Christianity in imperial culture. The simple forms of early worship were replaced by ceremonies and processions of increased complexity, adapted to the splendor of the great basilicas now springing up in the imperial cities.
Desert Fathers and Mothers
Like in the day of Elijah, there was a pure remnant. These believers were grieved by the changes and the corruption. They fled to the remote regions of Egypt and Syria. “Significant numbers of Christians began to make their homes in these regions, in order to get away from the population centers, with all the distractions that these offered.”
The words monk and monastery come from the Greek monachos, meaning solitary. These became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The early ones chose complete isolation believing their sacrifice would be pleasing to God. Sure, there were extremes, but these people were hungry for God. Over time, they would form communities.
Laodicea vs. Smyrna
Yeshua’s harshest words in Revelation were against the rich, lukewarm Laodicean church. I was just there during my Turkey tour, and even the ruins of Laodicea are stunning. “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:16). But he had nothing bad to say about the saints in Smyrna, he says:
I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) … Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Rev. 2:9-10).
The fact is comfort and wealth have tended to have a negative effect on the Church, while persecution and poverty tend to push people to God. I have heard that the fastest-growing churches in the world are in Iran and Afghanistan, while many Western churches are obsessed with politics and entertainment.
The idea of solitude didn’t start with the zealous and hungry desert monks. Yeshua taught on private prayer (Matt. 6:6). Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray (Luke 5:16). There were times “He spent the whole night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). Mark records that, “In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there” (Mark 1:35). Luke tells us that he spent the night in prayer before choosing his disciples (Luke 6:12-16).
In part two, we will ask the question, “What happens (in the spirit) in solitude?”
 McGrath, Alister E.. Christian History (pp. 43-44). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
 McGrath, Alister E.. Christian History (p. 33). Wiley. Kindle Edition.