Retreating, sometimes called “wilderness time”, is a practice that we engage in to be formed by God. I have suggested that we define this time as intentionally being alone with God. We are mindful of our intentions because they set the tone for our time and actions. Our intention in wilderness time is to submit to God and to His work upon us. The way that we “be” with God is by setting aside distractions and the things that compete with Him for the top spot in our lives. By doing this we are able to give our undivided attention to Him whether we are listening to what He is telling us or simply waiting on Him. We are alone with God by finding a space where we are able to set aside the masks and pretenses that we hide behind. In doing this, we stop withholding things from God and allow Him to work on us in our entirety.
This definition speaks to the heart of wilderness time but says nothing about the shape of it. To put it differently, intentionally being alone with God is where we aim to be, but there is no special formula to get there. For example, the way in which I go about setting aside distractions may be different than the way you do. We seek the same destination but by different vehicles.
One thing that cannot be stressed enough is that God does not meet us only in the woods or only in the mountains. To think that God is limited by elements or locations is to make the same mistake as the servants of Ben-Hadad after they had been defeated by the Israelites (1 Kings 20:23-25). They reasoned that “their gods are gods of the hills. Therefore they were stronger than we; but if we fight against them in the plain, surely we will be stronger then they.” They thought that God would only be powerful as long as they were in the hills and so they sought to fight Israel in the plains, out of His reach. However, God overthrew them in the plain just as He did in the hills. God is not limited by location (Psalm 139:7-12). I know of a fellow who goes down to the local coffee shop for his wilderness time because it is amidst the activity and goings on that he can best attend to God.
Although intentionally being alone with God is the end we pursue, it is not the ultimate goal of wilderness time. The goal is to put ourselves in a place where we submit to God’s work upon us. Paul describes this work in his letter to the church in Ephesus:
“But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.”
In wilderness time, we listen to God and are taught by God. He helps us to take off and throw away our old self that rots away as it serves sin. He renews our mind and puts on us our new self that is made in His uncorrupted image. This taking off and putting on occurs piece by piece in a process that will not be complete until we are with God in heaven.
In many ways we might think of this process as being given a bath by God. We are His children bearing His image, but we have found a wonderful mud puddle and gotten ourselves absolutely filthy. God has given us an invitation to be cleaned up and get a fresh set of clothes. We truly accept His invitation by not only saying yes but actually letting Him give us a bath. However, we can often be like unruly children (or perhaps more accurately, ill-tempered cats) during this process. We resist what He is trying to do for us and many times run back to our favorite mud puddle only to realize that we were happier when we were cleaner. Fortunately, God is patient and welcomes us back with open arms when we turn to go back to Him. In wilderness time, we make a conscious effort to cooperate with the bath process and not fuss with Him. In doing this we find that He is indeed an interesting cleaner. Sometimes He tells us things about ourselves and sometimes He tells us things about Himself. Sometimes He shares with us stories from long ago and sometimes He sheds new light on new stories. Sometimes He speaks with us and sometimes He loves us in silence.
Perhaps this whole wilderness time/retreat business still seems rather vague and it is difficult to know where to start. Here are a few ideas that you may find helpful:
1) Find a place where you feel comfortable and alert, “alive” as it were. Go there and read one of the Gospels in that state of mind. Read at a leisurely pace, lingering at the parts that grab your attention.
2) Find a spot where you can listen to you favorite music album without distractions. When you listen to it, imagine that you are listening to it with God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit, whoever you are most comfortable with. Imagine His reactions and what He would say to you as you listen together.
3) Carve out some time to engage in your hobby. As you go about it, ask yourself why you enjoy it. Ask yourself where God fits into the picture: how has He blessed you through it, how does it lead you to Him.
Again, these are merely suggestions to help you get started and see what wilderness time looks and tastes like. Retreats/wilderness time is not something for only the monks and nuns or the “especially religious”. It is something for anyone who is seeking God and to be formed by Him. If you have been a Christian for many years and want to grow closer with God, the wilderness is calling. If you are not a Christian and are merely curious, the first suggestion above is a great way to do some hands-on-learning.
The desert monks would often spend time in solitude in spaces they had found or built called “cells”. The work of these monks in their cells is the same work we have been discussing over these last 4 weeks. In that spirit, allow me to conclude this series with the words of one of these monks concerning these cells:
“The monk’s cell is that furnace of Babylon in which the three children found the Son of God; but it is also the pillar of cloud, out of which God spoke to Moses.”