Habits of the Heart
Three stages of a joyful journey
I have a continual longing for Christ to be formed within, the hope of glory. I long to be beautified every day with the meekness and gentleness of Christ, growing in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ up to the full stature of men and women in Christ Jesus.”1
It is perhaps the least practiced spiritual habit of our harried age. Yet solitude is preeminently the habit on which all our progress as spiritual persons depends.
“Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10),2 the Lord says to His people whenever they are anxious and fearful. But we live and move as though we think that just the inverse of His Word is true—that we can know Him just as well amid the roar and din we still somehow prefer. “Speak to me instead through the earthquake, wind, and fire,” we protest to the God who prefers the “sound of a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12, NLT).3
So it is that we shy away from time alone the way a 10-year-old devises ways to avoid piano practice. We invent urgent duties—homework, even; we recall other obligations; we volunteer for otherwise unwelcome tasks, fearing any environment in which we make the only sounds.
The prospect of spending half a day alone terrifies well more than half the world’s population, for we have absorbed the normative noise of our overstimulated world. Without the ambient sounds of our humming devices and chattering companions, we grow suspicious that something fundamental is wrong, perhaps even dangerous. A dozen Hollywood movies have made us wary of anything “too quiet,” for in just such moments, the dreaded something lurks.
If we hear no human voices; if we hear no digitized music; if we see no flickering images upon a screen, we also feel deprived, as though our senses are experiencing unhealthy starvation. And so we make of solitude an unattainable goal, an accomplishment only for saints. The habit of solitude becomes a virtue we take none too seriously because it makes us feel uncomfortable, ill at ease, or unsettled.
But it wasn’t so with Jesus. The Scriptures tell us that He chose aloneness at the beginning of His public ministry: “Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him” (Mark 1:12, 13).
After rejoicing in His Father’s audible approval at His Jordan River baptism, Jesus chose the prolonged quietness of the wilderness in which only His Father spoke to Him. Before He turned water into wine at Cana, Jesus knew in the desert that quiet could be turned into strength. Before He gave a deaf-mute man the power to speak again, Jesus chose for Himself a fast from everyday words, except perhaps the words He whispered to His Father.
The wilderness experience of Jesus underscores for us the differences between godly solitude and simple aloneness. Solitude was the habit Jesus chose, not just the accidental opening that occurred when all companions had departed and the crowd temporarily couldn’t find Him. Solitude doesn’t happen when others leave, but when we leave the places where we usually work, rest, and play.
Jesus walked into solitude as a bridegroom preparing for a wedding—joyously, expectantly—certain that this chosen time alone would deepen both His joy and His usefulness. Thus we find Mark telling us that after Jesus’ first recorded day of healing and teaching, “in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed” (Mark 1:35). This isn’t the Man of sorrows we see here, sleep-deprived and tortured in spirit. No, this is the Son of man who found in solitude the grace and fullness from which to give unstintingly of Himself when He chose to be with others. “From hours spent alone with God He came forth, morning by morning, to bring the light of heaven to men.”4
It was also in solitude that Jesus experienced the conviction that the words He chose to speak were important and consequential: “The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works” (John 14:10). Solitude provided Him the witness that He was quoting no one other than His Father when He spoke the truth to multitudes and to individuals. No human could justly claim that Jesus had borrowed their ideas or phrases, or that His teaching was originally theirs. Even the hardened Temple officers confessed to His sworn enemies, “No man ever spoke like this Man!” (John 7:46).
As it did for Jesus, the habit of chosen aloneness will offer us a refuge from the din of soulless technology and the spin of others’ words. It will offer us, as it did Him, the certainty that we are offering the world something solid, significant, and life-saving when we tell the Savior’s story. The aloneness that we choose—where we are apart from everyone else but fully with the Father—allows us to reverently say to the world what Jesus said: “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63).
The choice of solitude results in certitude.
“Help my unbelief!” the father of a tortured boy once pleaded with Jesus (Mark 9:24), and in so doing voiced the heart cry of so many.
An old cynicism reminds us that we can truly be certain of only two things in this life—death and taxes—and loss is the common denominator of both. We lose health and vigor to age or illness; we lose those we love to cancer, heart attack, or stroke; we lose savings to once-wise investments now gone south; we watch paychecks shrink to fund an ever-growing government. We can be certain, we say, only of the negatives—that we can never win, that we can never gain, that we can never get ahead.
The pace at which we usually live our lives also seems perversely calculated to keep us doubtful and uncertain. We race through relationships, trying to extract what joy we can, and wondering why they offer us no deep, abiding sense of well-being and groundedness. We flit through our devotional time—all wings and color—and wonder why we get so little from it. Even the Sabbath, God’s weekly symbol of deep rest and sweet assurance, becomes for some a lengthy irritant. “When will the Sabbath be over, so we can buy and sell?” we ask repeatedly of the clock (see Amos 8:5).
But Jesus came to free us from the tyranny of things we can’t be sure of. “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32), He said, underlining the essential connection between His Word and the sense of deep security He intends His followers to know. Certitude is the fortunate experience of being sure of the most essential truths—truths that change and shape our everyday experiences.
So much of what we have come to think of as “normal” in the Christian journey—periodic anxiety, at least occasional doubt, and restlessness—was never in His plan for His disciples, then or now. He intended that His Word convey to us the blessed certainties of existence—that God is love (1 John 4:8); that we are loved (1 John 4:16); that we can learn to love as God does (1 John 4:21).
In place of our question marks, Jesus offers His declarations: “My peace I give to you,” He assured His closest friends, “not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27). “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), He promises. Choicest among the good things He offers us is the gift of discovering that we are deeply loved—before we are ever sorry for our sins; before we ever repent and reform; before we ever become useful to His kingdom (Rom. 5:8). It is only His estimate of our worth that makes us begin to believe that we are truly valuable, and that our lives have meaning beyond what we can get or achieve.
When we learn that His love for us is so deep and vast and different that He laid down His life for those He prophesies will be His “friends” (John 15:15), we discover a new certainty we have never previously known. Nothing we have ever experienced in this life and nothing we can imagine in death can ever separate us from a love so broad and vast and deep (Rom. 8:38, 39). Even death, the greatest threat to human certitude, gives up its prizes on that day when it “is swallowed up in victory”
(1 Cor. 15:54).
Certitude, then, is more than simple optimism or righteous wishful thinking. Certitude is the habit of the heart in which we trust that what God says about us is always more true than anything we can say about ourselves. When His Word tells us that we are great sinners, we accept His Word by faith, even when we don’t feel ourselves to be so very sinful (see Ps. 139:23, 24). And when, having confessed and forsaken our sins according to His Word (1 John 1:9), we still feel condemned and guilt-ridden, we place our weight upon the righteousness that His Word says has actually been imputed to us: “And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things” (1 John 3:19, 20).
Ellen White echoes this great truth in words we ought to frame for every wall:
“We need a more firm reliance upon a ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ If we have this, we shall not trust to feeling, and be ruled by feeling. God asks us to rest in His love. It is our privilege to know the Word of God as a sure and tried guide, an infallible assurance. Let us work on the faith side of the question. Let us believe and trust, and talk faith and hope and courage.”5
Knowing these truths with such certainty, we can also face the unknown with equanimity, for we have His assurance that God is with us, “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). Even before we experience the deliverance that He has promised to all who put their faith in Him, we begin to sing as Jehoshaphat’s unarmed battalions did the thankful songs that celebrate what He is about to do: “Praise the Lord, for His mercy endures forever” (2 Chron. 20:21).
The solitude that leads to certitude ends up in gratitude.
This is the habit of the heart about which we think we know the most. Ever since we were children, we have been routinely saying thank you to somebody—to playmates who loaned us toys in the sandbox; to classmates who loaned us study notes to prep for the big exam.
By the time we entered the first grade, we had already been schooled in the basics of politeness—“Please,” “Thank you,” and “You’re welcome.” Saying thank you was a duty—a civic obligation, if you please—expected of everyone who didn’t want to be thought crude and ill-mannered. We gave our parents roses or carnations at graduation ceremonies and cards on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, reaching for some overwrought words to share the thanks they so much longed to hear, especially in public.
But saying thanks isn’t the same thing as gratitude, for we can say thank you a dozen times a day and still be lacking in the grace of gratitude. Truth is, we have thanked many a waitress or mechanic for their services without meaning to be truly grateful: we fully intended to forget their chatter or their skill once we were fed or on our way again. Saying thanks is a cultural saying—a phrase, albeit an important one. Gratitude, however, is an enduring habit, a way of living that often finds words but doesn’t actually require them.
Gratitude is the habit of “thinking with admiration” about the one who has given us good things—contemplating the qualities in them that cause them to be so good and generous to us. And when, usually some years into our following of Jesus, we begin to regularly think with reverent admiration about “the Father of lights,” from whom comes “every good gift and every perfect gift” (James 1:17), we have finally identified the Source of all that blesses us, enriches us, and makes our lives joyful and secure.
Gratitude is thus not a polite social remembrance for things given to us—toys, flowers, or graduation gifts—but a deep, abiding appreciation for and a relationship with the one who has done the giving. Gratitude to Jesus insists that we pursue a continuing relationship with Him. His poignant question to the one leper who returned after being healed reminds us that it is us and not just our thanks that He really wants: “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine?” (Luke 17:17).
True gratitude may begin with simple words such as “thank you,” but it goes on to become the habit of our hearts in moments too deep and too momentous for words. Ellen White reminds us: “God would make it impossible for man to say that He could have done more. With Christ He gave all the resources of heaven, that nothing might be wanting in the plan for man’s uplifting. Here is love—the contemplation of which should fill the soul with inexpressible gratitude!”6
We sing doxologies not just when the offering has been collected, and we remember that He owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 50:10). We also silently express our gratitude in the dark night of hospital wards when we find His comfort in the midst of our pain (1 Cor. 1:4). Our gratitude becomes solid and substantial in the midst of private storms when we come to deeply trust that “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17, NRSV).7
At its heart, gratitude is just another word for the affection we always feel when we meet the risen Jesus—an affection that grows deeper and more committed the longer that we journey with Him. He gives Himself extravagantly to obscure disciples on the road, and love reciprocates in hearts that are “strangely warmed.”8 “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32; see also verses 13-34). It is time walking with Jesus that brings us to the restful place called Emmaus (“warm spring”), and there we learn that this is just another name for gratitude.
The journey that began in solitude leads on to certitude and ends in gratitude—which leads us back to solitude, and to certitude, and so on, and so on, until the New Jerusalem itself comes into view, and we break bread with Him in that life that never has an end. n
- Ellen G. White, Our High Calling (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), p. 247.
- All Bible texts are quoted from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated. Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
- Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 56.
- Ellen G. White, The Upward Look (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), p. 37.
- Ellen G. White, Australasian Union Record, April 1, 1901.
- Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
- The phrase is originally that of John Wesley, who used it to describe the moment of his conversion.