The “alone component of wilderness time describes creating a space to be with God. Many of the images of wilderness time presented in the Bible involve a literal wilderness as such a space: Elijah was called into the wilderness, as were John the Baptist and Jesus. However, this is not to the exclusion of other places; David would sit on his bed at night to meditate and Peter sat on a rooftop to pray. We don’t need to go into a literal wilderness in order to be alone with God.
“Alone” describes a particular way that we are with God. We can intentionally be with God in a variety of ways with others. Such instances might include church services, Bible studies, or group prayer. Being alone with God carries with it a kind of openness and vulnerability with God. John Chryssavgis, summarizing one of the desert fathers, vividly captures what being alone with God means in the context of the desert:
“Abba Alonius says that, in the presence of God, you face up to yourself in the desert. In the desert, you discover your true self, without any masks or myths. There you are forced to come to terms with your self. Ultimately, you are called to face up to and fight against your demons, without blaming either someone else or your past.”
In a sense, being alone with God takes being with God a step further. In being with God, we set aside distractions and undividedly attend to God. In being alone with God we also set aside the “masks or myths” that we hide behind and are ourselves before God. Elijah’s encounter with God on Mt. Horeb may serve to put more flesh and blood on this idea:
“So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God. And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and He said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” So he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and they seek to take my life.”
Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks into pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.” Then the Lord said to him: “Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
-1 Kings 19:8-18
After his triumph over the prophets of Baal, Elijah most likely expected Israel to turn back to God. However, he soon found out that the figureheads of Baal-worship, Ahab the king and his wife, Jezebel, were still very much in charge. With his life under threat, he flees into the wilderness and asks God to take his life because he has failed. It is at this time that God calls him to Horeb.
It is on the mountain that Elijah is alone with God and where he confronts himself. Here, though he covers his face with his mantle; he is figuratively naked before God. He brings his complaints directly to God rather than hiding them behind a mask of what he thinks he “ought” to do or say. When we are alone with God, we allow our true self to come out, warts and all. However, we are not facing our true self on our own. We must remember that, just like Elijah, we have God by our side. He will help us as we seek to move past our true self towards our True Self: past who we currently are towards who God has called us to be in Christ.
God’s answer to Elijah’s complaints may strike us as odd. Some may expect that He would chastise Elijah while others may expect Him to provide more comfort. Instead, God tells Elijah what to do in light of the fact that, despite appearances, God is still in control, not Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah then has a choice: to continue in despair under his true self or to submit to God’s calling to his True Self. When we are alone with God, His work on our hearts can take numerous forms based on what we need, but the common denominator will always be a requirement to submit to this work. Our true selves will resist it because it entails putting off the “old man” in order to put on the “new man” (Ephesians 4:20-24).
When Elijah is alone with God, he faces his true self and ultimately triumphs over it in order to follow God’s call to his True Self as a prophet. It was by bringing his true self before God that he is able to overcome it. He was not able to do this on his own as evinced by his despair prior to this episode on Horeb.
Likewise, when we are alone with God, we seek a space where we bring our true selves out before Him and rely on God as the source of our victory over it so that we might be repaired and reshaped, little by little, into our True Selves.