Somewhere along the Jordan River (probably just north of the Sea of Galilee), among a crowd of people Jesus is baptized by his famous cousin, John the Baptist. He emerges from the water and begins to pray.
And as he was praying, heaven was opened22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
Notice to whom this statement is directed. It is not spoken to John or to the crowd. The statement is addressed to Jesus. It is spoken primarily for his benefit.
It is vitally important to understand that this event occurred at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. At this point he hasn’t yet preached a single sermon. He hasn’t yet healed a sick person. He hasn’t yet driven out a single demon. He hasn’t yet performed a single miracle. There has been no public ministry performed whatsoever.
And yet the Father gives him this amazing affirmation. “You are my Son. Whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”
Imagine you were stepping out into ministry today. Suddenly, a cloud zips over you and an audible voice speaks over you: “You are my child. I love you so much. I take such pleasure in you.”
You haven’t preached a sermon yet. You haven’t visited a sick person in the hospital. You haven’t comforted a grieving family. You haven’t led an evangelistic outreach. You haven’t volunteered at a soup kitchen. You haven’t shared the gospel with a prisoner. You haven’t achieved anything worth measuring or celebrating in front of a large crowd.
And yet, the Father is giving you the one and only thing you will ever actually need. His loving affirmation.
If this one thing is not enough for you, nothing will ever be enough. You will spend your entire life in anxious tension feeling like you haven’t achieved enough. That you aren’t good enough. That you haven’t done enough.
And instead of loving people, you will end up using them. If you are not drawing your worth solely from the love of God, you will have to draw worth from somewhere.
Either you will need to be constantly fed by the affirmation of others, or you will do the opposite. You will draw worth from attacking people who may not share your exact theological views, political opinions, skin color, …or one of a billion other things.
But from the very beginning of his life, Jesus receives this astounding affirmation from his Father. And it was this loving affirmation that fueled his entire ministry. And not only from this one momentary experience. But we observe over and over again in the gospels that Jesus had a habit of solitude – periodically breaking away from the noise and activity of everyday life and ministry to get alone with his Father (For a few examples, see Matt. 4:1-11, Matt. 14:13, Luke 6:12, Matt. 14:23, Mark 1:35, Mark 6:31, Luke 5:16, Matt. 17:1-9, and Matt. 26:36-46).
Solitude was the container that enabled Jesus to remain constantly full of his Father’s love. And it was from this deep reservoir of his Father’s love that Jesus was able to stand secure in his identity (“You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”). Therefore, there was nothing his enemies could say or do that could shake him off course.
Because he was secure in his Father’s love, Jesus was also fully enabled to pour out love for each and every person he came in contact with, including the most despised sinners of his society, without fear of public backlash. Because his source of identity was not in the affirmation of public opinion. It was found in the love of his Father.
But once again, it was the practice of solitude that provided the container for Jesus to remain full of his Father’s love. This is why the spiritual disciplines (and the discipline of solitude in particular) are so indispensable to our spiritual transformation. Because they can enable us to experience the Father’s love on a daily basis.
We all know that God loves us. I have been singing about it since I was a little boy (“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”).
But how often do you experience his love? I don’t know if you have that kind of relationship with God, but I promise you it is available.
Psychologists say that one of the most powerful experiences that an infant can have is to look into the loving eyes of its mother. A mother’s loving gaze will actually shape the way the infant thinks about itself. It provides the baby with its earliest source of value and self-worth. It’s a mirroring exercise. The infant will become what it sees reflected in the eyes of its mother.
Prayerful solitude is much the same way. When we make time and space to be alone with the Father, it becomes an opportunity for us to experience his loving presence. To receive his divine gaze.
This is where our identity and value come from. And this is what empowers us to reflect that divine gaze back to God and to the people in our lives.
(The painting is Solitude, by Andrei Engelman.)
(Here is a song that in recent months has helped guide me into some meaningful encounters with God.)