I’m an introvert. I don’t think this comes as a surprise to anyone who knows me. My nigh-monastic study habits, my aversion to raucous crowds, and my delight in the silent moments of my day, have probably given me away by now. I am also a Pastor. As such, it is my duty and delight to glorify God through working for the good of His people. Both of these realities are true: I am an introvert and a Pastor. Thus, the following tips on how best to use your time in isolation are given not only from a pastoral desire to be a help to you, but also from years of experience in the finer mechanics of solitude.
- Use this time to work on your prayer life. I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who was fully satisfied with their prayer life; all of us could and should pray more. It’s often the case that our times of prayer are relegated to a few minutes at the end of our day (if that), when they should be the most important times of our day. While you’re at home and without anything particularly pressing upon your time, consider your communion with God in prayer. Evaluate where you have been, and set plans to work on praying more and more deeply. And – most importantly – PRAY! We become proficient at any discipline by practicing that discipline. We learn to pray by praying. Don’t grow too discouraged if it’s difficult at first; before we read, we must know our alphabet! Persevere, dear friends; the Lord hears through Christ even your weakest attempts at prayer.
- Study the Word. Related to the first recommendation, I recommend that you use your time in isolation to study the Scriptures. I know that some of our people are using M’Cheyne’s plan to read through the Bible in a year; for those of you doing this, I recommend that you take one of those readings (there are four chapters a day; take one of the chapters) and live in it for a while every day. Ask questions of the text: Why did he use this word? How does this chapter relate to the overall narrative/argument of the book? to the whole of the canon? etc. Instead of reading past the cross-references, look them up; write out the passage in such a way that it includes all the cross-references (perhaps in the margin of your page). Pray through the passage; indeed, begin your study by asking God’s blessing on your study, and then pray as you read for deeper insight into God’s Word. Use online commentaries to supplement your study (all of Calvin’s Commentaries are free online). For those who aren’t using M’Cheyne’s plan, take a book of the Bible (for example, Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians) and work through it slowly in the way I’ve described. It is the persevering miner who unearths the most beautiful jewels.
- Read a difficult or longer book. Many books today are written in such a way as to be read in a single sitting; this is because publishers and authors know their audience. Because people are supposedly on the go at all times, it’s not likely they will sit down and digest a long or a difficult book. This, I think, has widely contributed to the intellectual shallowness of the church and of our society. Don’t be afraid of big books; they may have more pages, but usually that’s because the author has more to say than can be consumed in bite-sized pamphlets. Don’t be afraid of difficult books; again, for the person who perseveres, the pay-off is often (not always, but often) worth the work. Currently, I’m coming to the end of John Owen’s Christologia; or, The Person of Christ in Vol.1 of the Collected Works from Banner of Truth; Owen’s syntax is sometimes difficult (much like the long Pauline sentences we find in the Greek of his epistles), but I have learned much from the “prince of the Puritans” in this volume, just as I have from others of his. At the same time, I’m reading the two-volume authorized biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones by Iain Murray. It’s a great deal longer than Owen’s book, but it’s also much easier to read, and truly a delight and inspiration. To assist you in this endeavor, here are a few recommendations:
David Copperfield Charles Dickens
Les Miserables Victor Hugo
The Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien. Though this is usually published in three volumes, it is really one long epic – I recommend you read it from start to finish as one book.
The Once and Future King T.H. White. This is the most accessible version of the Arthurian Legend available to modern readers, but I commend to you also Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, von Eschenbach’s Parzival, Chretian de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances, and the anonymous The Quest for the Holy Grail, along with Tennyson’s poetic Idylls of the King. Also, another modern take on Arthurian Legend that is worth the read is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.
The Autobiography of Charles Spurgeon (2 volumes; order from Banner of Truth)
Logic Vern Poythress. Poythress offers an excellent primer in the science of logic, whilst also pointing the reader to the God-centeredness of his subject.
The Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin. This work is not difficult to read, but it takes a great deal of thought and biblical reflection to understand competently. The fullest edition is the 1559 final edit; it is the most widely available, and can be found in a number of translations from the original Latin. There is also what has been termed the “Essentials” edition of 1541; it is much shorter than the 1559, and a new translation from the French has been recently published by Banner of Truth.
Communion with God John Owen. I recommend that you order this through Banner of Truth; not only do they have the unabridged original (Vol. 2 of the Complete Works) but also an abridged and “made-easy-to-read” edition that was edited by the late R.J.K. Law, a pastor who also saw the benefit of his people reading the works of this Puritan giant.
Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky. This is a novel, and is thus not too difficult to read; the difficulty lies in comprehending the subject matter underlying the dark narrative told by the Russian literary master. I do not recommend this book to those of you who may be struggling with depression and the negative aspects of isolation; however, I do recommend it, and if you can work through the difficult narrative, you may come out the other side with a deeper understanding of humanity “under the sun”, and a deeper appreciation of redemption. It’s available in numerous translations from the original Russian.
- Get outside as much as you safely can. Currently, many people are stuck at home; but if you can, and when you can safely (i.e., maintaining social distancing, etc.), you need to go outside. I like my little apartment, but if I had to remain in my little apartment, or my study at the church 24/7, it would be incredibly damaging to my mental health, just as I am sure would be the case with any normal person. In a prior post I commended the consideration of beauty as a daily spiritual discipline. I continue to commend it. Get outside – whether to the woods or just a walk around the block. Get sunlight and colors and rain. Don’t let your dwelling become a prison cell.
- Listen to music. Music is one of my favorite things in the world, and that’s not an exaggeration. I praise the Lord that He has made us a musical people! Often, when I’m alone at the church, I’m singing or whistling; there always seems to be a song playing in my head. In difficult times, my go-to reaction is to sing – hymns, psalms, spiritual songs, and sometimes folk songs and Broadway tunes. Next to singing, one of my favorite things to do is to listen to other people sing and masterfully play music. I listen to everything from Bach to Bad Company, from John Dowland to Mumford & Sons (though I recommend discernment as to what is helpful and what is not). I guarantee I will be spending much of this difficult time listening to music.
- Get creative. Not everyone is an artist. But, if you are an artist, you are now offered a commodity that everyday life usually doesn’t proffer – time! Use this chronological capital to make art! Write a novel or memoir or poem or play. Paint a picture. Play your instruments (I’m currently learning how to play the Tin Whistle). Tell your children a story; or, in a responsible and helpful use of technology, tell the children of the world a story. Honor God by exercising the creative impulse for His glory!
If I could give one last recommendation – a negative to contrast with the positive above – do not waste time; don’t vegetate in front of a television or computer screen, taking in every news report and bemoaning the sad state of things in the days, weeks, and possibly months to come. All of these recommendations boil down to the authoritative apostolic command that we “redeem the time” or “make the most of every occasion” (Eph. 5:16); use this time wisely for the glory of God and the good of others!
*most of these books can be found on Amazon and delivered to your home or PO Box. I have mentioned specific books that are better ordered directly from the publisher (i.e., Banner of Truth). You can find them at http://www.banneroftruth.org.