“Fasting and solitude stops running dead in its tracks, which is vital to breaking addictive behaviors.”
Since my first expedition into the wilds of the Canadian north at age twenty-one, I have had a romantic love/hate relationship with solitude. Stripping my daily needs down to a canoe and two backpacks, off I would go, often for two weeks. Parking my car, loading my canoe, and paddling on the first lake, there were day-trippers to keep me company, families who wanted a taste of unpopulated shorelines without the rigors of leaving behind the car and tent trailer. The first portage into the next lake culls away the day-trippers, leaving a more serious folk, marked by their rugged gear and determined visage. Each portage thins the paddlers and, once deep enough in, it is not uncommon to have an entire lake to myself. A lake announces its solitude at night with the absence of distant flickering fires; instead, there is the darkness of the sky silhouetted by the deeper darkness of treetops. The only sounds are nocturnal creatures, the frequent wail of loon-song, and whispering inner voices.
On my previous wilderness trips with friends, I would often sit on a rock by the water, wondering if I would ever have the courage to venture out here alone. There was a longing to remove myself from the man-pack in order to explore the solitude that called to me from across the waves. Finally, at age 45, I mustered up the courage to do a solo canoe trip into the guts of Algonquin Park, a vast wilderness of hundreds of miles of portages joining over a thousand lakes. It was not bears or wolves that caused fear, but the thought of being alone for days with my own demons and no easy escape. Instinctively, I knew some great inner battle awaited me out there, one that I needed to face and win.
“How was your weekend?” “Busy,” I answer. It’s a good answer; I always feel good saying it. The questioner gives a nod of approval. After all, a weekend filled with work, hanging with friends, or family gatherings speaks of a successful, well-connected person. But what if I answered, “I did nothing but sit alone at home and meditate,” I might be met with a courteous smile masking pity or even mild suspicion. Human societies—even Christians—have always been a little distrustful of those who spend too much time alone, yet all of the famous figures of the bible spend a great deal of time alone. David, Moses, and many of the prophets were tempered in the fires of solitude. The desert was a symbol of fasting and solitude. Jesus, himself, left family and friends and ventured out into desolate hills to come face to face with his demon. In his weakest hour, he overcame tailor-made temptations offered to him by one who had been waiting.
Trial by fasting and solitude has involved some of my most painful moments. In the fires of solitude, the pretense of self-importance that comes from a busy life quickly falls away, revealing the stark reality of fears and insecurities that are always just below the surface. When life’s props are gone, the fragility and pending fatality of our humanness becomes exposed, which can leave you feeling naked and vulnerable. Being weakened by fasting only serves to enhance this feeling of vulnerability, forcing you to turn to your internal spiritual resources. If they are bankrupt due to lack of investment of quiet meditation and prayer, you will come face to face with a poverty of spirit within. I am convinced that spiritual poverty is at the root of addiction, whether it be to food, dysfunctional relationships, alcohol, or drugs. Addiction is a way to both dull and run away from a growing feeling of spiritual emptiness. Fasting and solitude stops running dead in its tracks, which is vital to breaking addictive behaviors.
Fifteen years of fasting and solitude finally developed within me the courage to venture into the wilds alone for eight days. I aimed a loaded canoe away from the access point and started paddling. As the park lodge and car faded behind me, there was a growing sense of anticipation of what lay ahead. The effect did not take long. Divorced from e-mail, cell phone, and internet, the silence of wilderness and solitude quickly allowed the ever-present voices of fear, guilt, and regret to move from the background to the foreground. During the second night, while on a lonely island, as the dying embers of the campfire allowed the darkness to embrace me, I realized how much my busyness had been simply running from the whispering words. But here on this island there was no escape, no drowning them out with TV or music. I was faced with one option: confront the voices head-on.
During the first four days of that trip, I faced some of the hardest moments of my life. Waves of guilt and regret assaulted me, faces of the people I had failed were marched across my memory. A broken marriage, secret sin, lust, envy, and unforgiveness filled my guts with bile. Doubt battered me on every side. The authenticity of every good thing I had done was in question—even the motives behind all my writing. There was no God, no loving Savior, only a blue sky filled with the weight of sin and regret. After four days of choking guilt, it finally came; in the deepest crisis of shame, Christ broke through with His grace. This was the unfinished business of my salvation, waiting for me when I had the courage to go deeper into my own sinfulness, so I could discover the depth of God’s love. Accepting God’s forgiveness allowed me to forgive myself and put to rest the accusing voices from which I had been fleeing. Solitude transformed from a terrifying unknown to a sanctuary of fellowship with God.
The harder it is for you to be alone, the more valuable fasting and solitude will be to exact personal freedom. A person who is content with being alone and has made peace with solitude will never be the same. The result will be autonomous, independent living that will free you to explore your creative side and God-given destiny.
No longer afraid to be alone, I am guarded from all kinds of grief, including entering into dysfunctional relationships. Greatest of all, I am experiencing a whole new level of intimacy with God. Alone with God. Alone, silent, and listening. The whispers of guilt and fear are still there, but I am no longer afraid of them. There is a greater truth than sin and shame: God’s grace and forgiveness.
Related Article: Going Dark While Fasting