What would happen if you took 24 hours away from your routine sometime within the next month to be alone with God? What might be the results? I have put this question to many pastors and administrators over the past few years. Here are some of the common responses:
• God would refresh me.
• I would experience more of God.
• I wouldn’t be so stressed.
• God would probably tell me things I do not want to hear.
• God would give me more peace and rest.
• I would probably discover more of God’s agenda for my life.
• I would lead with more of God’s vision for my family and ministry.
• I would rethink what was really important.
So why do we not do it?
We give many excuses. We say we are too busy. We say what we are doing is too important to quit. We are too tired. We are worried that people will not wait for us. We feel like we just cannot slow down. Our excuses go on and on.
Scripture says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18). Not just people in our churches perish without vision, but we perish ourselves. Without God’s vision for our lives, we dry up. We often get into ruts that leave us living without new life in Christ.
Nearly 13 years ago, I realized that as a pastor I was going so fast with doing what I thought God wanted me to do in the ministry that I was too busy to hear His vision. God was blessing my ministry outside our home, but I was in need of vision for ministry with our family. God had to give me a wake-up call, and so He spoke through my two young children. Their voices cried out to me one night as I was hurrying out the door to a meeting at the church, “Daddy! Stay home tonight and play with us. You are always gone!”
Now I did not like to hear that message. I felt like I was doing all that God had called me to do. At the time, I was often working six nights a week: Bible studies with people in the community who were just inches away from making a decision for Christ; counseling sessions with couples close to divorce; hospital visits with those whose lives hung in the balance. I loved my family, but they got whatever was left of me.
So on that night, I gave each of my children a quick hug. I closed the door on my two crying children so that I could run to the church meeting. I knew something was wrong. Something was out of place.
As I walked through the snow on that cold night to get to my meeting, God gave me a second wake-up call. His still, small voice spoke to my heart, “Don, when I come again, I will not ask you first about the new church you are building for Me or the number of baptisms you have had this past year. I will ask you, ‘Where are your children?’ ”
I realized I was going so fast in my ministry that I was minimizing a huge part of my life, the children God had given to my wife and me. That was the beginning for God to begin calling me back to our precious children. But as He called me back to our children, I realized I would need some kind of tool God could use to help me be in tune with His vision for my relationship with Him, our family, and ministry.
So about 12 years ago, I began to take a 24-hour retreat alone with God, usually at the end of the year in December. It became a time to review my life with God and seek His vision for the next year. Every year, it has become a time for God to provide me with encouragement as well as needed course correction. It has become a time for renewal in my friendship with God. It has become a time to receive fresh vision from God that will impact every part of my life.
Years ago, the prophet Elijah desperately needed to slow down and just be with God alone. Mount Carmel was the peak of his ministry thus far, but one threatening letter from an angry woman sent him running the wrong way. Elijah needed to be refueled. He was tired out, discouraged, and depressed.
On Mount Horeb, God gave him a personal retreat with the One who loved him most. After Elijah slowed down and got some rest, he was finally able to hear God. And God had a toughlove question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah’s time alone with God in the cave was not the problem. The problem was that Elijah was overwhelmed with the burdens of his ministry. He needed to be overwhelmed with God’s presence, availability, and powerful vision and calling. Once Elijah slowed down, God ministered to him. He took care of his personal needs and tenderly shepherded his heart. Then, and only then, did God confront him with challenging questions and gave him new vision.
So why do we not just stop? Do not wait for a perfect time to get away with Jesus for a day. You could wait a lifetime. So just stop. Set aside a day.
What can you do to prepare?
Here are six steps that I have found helpful in making this retreat have the greatest impact.
1. Experience unrushed, daily time alone with God in His Word and prayer. The time you spend with God leading up to your personal retreat and following it, will make a great difference in what happens between you and God during your retreat.
A 24-hour retreat with God will never take the place of what must happen between God and us on a daily basis. Experiencing God through His Word and prayer every day deepens our hunger to grow in our relationship with Him. It also increases our longing to live and serve in the center of God’s will.
When you read and study the Bible daily for the purpose of knowing God and serving Him, God breaks open your heart both to speak to Him and listen. When we practice being still and knowing that God is God, He will tune our hearts to hear His still, small voice. The practice of hearing God’s voice through His Written Word and through prayer on a daily basis prepares us for increasing this kind of interaction with our best Friend during our retreat.
2. Create the proper environment. Choose a distraction-free environment (for example, out in nature, a motel near a state park, a cabin in a park, etc.). Go overnight somewhere. Plan for parts of two days with a night in between. You may be wondering why you cannot just save your money and stay at home. You need to get away from all that speaks of your routine.
Pastors’ spouses often ask if they can come along to enjoy their own spiritual retreat at the same time. Certainly! My wife and I have gone together several times. If you go together, ensure that the environment works for both of you; you need to feel safe, secure, and restful in the setting.
3. Solicit the ministry of your prayer partners. Ask several trusted people in your life to intercede for you during your retreat. Make sure that one of these prayer partners is one with whom you can get together after the retreat to debrief your experience. Choose someone of your gender who is faithful to God and knows God’s Word. Get the person’s honest feedback on what happened.
4. Provide your own meals. Take your food and water with you. Do not go out to eat in a restaurant. Free yourself of distractions. Eat simply. Avoid excessive sweets and oils. Eat basic fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables. Consider fasting. You want to have a clear mind.
In my younger years, fasting was a distraction during retreats. I got so hungry and weak that my ears were listening to the rumble of my appetite instead of God. Be practical about fasting. Over the years, fasting has become a blessing. But each time I go on a retreat, I now ask God if fasting would help me hear Him better or not. The Lord knows our bodies well, how hard we have been pushing ourselves in ministry, and whether this discipline helps or hinders at this time.
5. Avoid media outlets. Fast from the media. Our world is saturated with it. Turn it all off. Make a quiet retreat where you can be still, calm, and listen. My wife and I make a commitment that I will turn my phone on for a few minutes in the evening so we can connect together, pray together, and do the same with our three children. I always leave my wife with an emergency phone number of someone nearby who can reach me in case of an emergency.
Turn your cell phone off. Leave your laptop behind, unless you are sure you will not be tempted to get your email, and so on. I always find that the world goes on quite nicely without me for 24 hours. We are never as indispensable as we think we are!
6. Bring along spiritual materials. You cannot be without your Bible. If you keep a prayer journal, bring it to reflect on what God is doing in your life. If you do not keep a journal, take one to record your reflections and ideas that God brings to your mind. You may be wondering about bringing your favorite devotional book. Just keep it simple.
There is nothing like coming to God’s Word with just a notebook and a pen. Leave your briefcases brimming with the latest books. Focus on the main Book. This book will continually be your reference to test all experiences and impressions you receive during the retreat.
How can you make this retreat meaningful?
1. Be. Take time to just be. Slow down from your busy pace. Hike. This may take an hour or two. (If you have a long drive to your destination, that may be your slow-down time.) Let go of business and pressures. Make yourself available to God. Be still and know that He is God (Ps. 46:10).
2. Thank. Sometimes the last to receive our thanksgiving is God. Vocalize the unspoken lists of things that He has done for you lately. Celebrate what He’s presently doing in your life. Note the times over the past year that God has provided for you, blessed you, and encouraged you. You will find that in thanking Him, He will gently lift your thoughts to Him higher and still higher.
3. Praise. Spend time praising God for who He is. Tell Him what you love about His character. Voice to Him what makes you in awe of Him as your God and King.
4. Confess. Make things right with God. Surrender your attitude, desires, and heart to Him. You may need to make a call to someone you have wronged. Go into the rest of the retreat feeling at peace and restful in spirit.
Ask God to break open your heart to Him. Sometimes ministry can make our hearts hard toward people—and God. Give God your cynicism, criticism, lust, pride, and fears. Ask Him to give you a new heart by His Spirit.
5. Feed your mind. After confession, ask your heavenly Father to send the Holy Spirit to bring powerfully the Written Word of God to your heart. Spend time with the Bible. This is God’s Word to you personally. Read His promises to you. Reflect on stories of Bible characters of great faith. Here are a few suggestions for promises and stories to study and reflect on in God’s Word:
• Ephesians 3:20; Philippians 4:13, 19; James 1:5; 2 Corinthians 9:6–11;
• Noah—fearless antediluvian prophet who took God at His word;
• Joseph—fierce loyalty to God in the midst of darkness and injustice;
• Job—faith during adversity and loss;
• Ruth—devotion, invested in relationships, love story;
• Nehemiah—building what others said could not be built;
• Esther—one who seized the day for God;
• Daniel—integrity, strategic influence for God’s purposes;
• Elijah—faced a showdown with God’s strength;
• Paul—bold pioneer for the good news of Christ;
• Philip—followed the Holy Spirit to “barren” places.
6. Dialogue. List your life roles (for example, a disciple of Christ, spouse, parent, son, daughter, grandparent, neighbor, friend, pastor, administrator, leader, coach, etc.). Concentrate on your top four to eight roles. Review your roles with God and what is happening in these roles right now. Ask God what you can celebrate i n w h a t y o u are currently doing in each role. Write down the good things that God helped you to accomplish in each role over the past year. Ask God what He thinks needs to change in each of your roles. Ask God which one or two things you need to do in each role to be faithful to what He has entrusted to you. God has vision for the roles He has entrusted to you, so ask Him.
7. Listen, plan, and reflect. Take breaks to hike, listen, and pray. Jot down reflections on what God brings to your mind. Sleep on them. Spread out your reflections and convictions before God. Ask God, “This is what I am seeing—am I understanding what You want me to see?” Review and add to what you have. Let God’s wisdom on your life roles impact the way you accept or reject the opportunities before you. Will your life decisions help you be more or less faithful to the roles He has entrusted to you? Always test the insights you receive with the Written Word of God.
8. Claim God’s promises to accomplish His will.
9. Debrief. Find one of the prayer partners who prayed for you while you were on your retreat. Share how God blessed you. Share what God is asking of you in your life roles for the coming year. Invite honest feedback. Ask him or her to pray that you will follow through with God’s leading in your life.
If you are in doubt about any of the impressions you received during the retreat, invite your prayer partner to join you in testing your impressions with the Written Word of God.
Taking these extended retreats with God over the years has led me to a few conclusions: God is eager to meet with us in unrushed time. God is ready to refresh us. God longs to give us vision for our relationships with Him, our marriage, our relationships with our children, and the ministry that He has entrusted to us.
As we near the second coming of Christ, I find that God calls me to increase my retreats with Him. Let this annual 24-hour retreat whet your appetite for miniretreats of several hours, a half day, or an eight-hour day. Explore multiple day retreats as well. You may find that the Holy Spirit may impress you to spend this retreat in other ways than you have planned. Please take this article’s process and outline as simply a place to begin.