Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God

 “If we don’t come apart for while, we will come apart after awhile.”
–Dallas Willard

Brad is a pastor whose church is going well. Attendance at weekend services is growing steadily, and they have just completed a building project that is enabling them to grow and provide a variety of ministries to meet needs within their growing congregation and the community surrounding them. People respond well to his preaching, and his church is known around town as being a church that cares.

Brad is growing in stature and reputation among local leaders—even becoming a respected voice regarding important issues facing the community—which means he is in demand and attends many meetings. He is increasingly aware that it takes a full-time schedule and more to keep all the plates spinning. His two young children could use much more attention than he is able to give them, and his wife is exhausted from picking up the slack from his busy schedule. When he looks in her eyes he sees a hollowness that mirrors the emptiness he feels in his own soul, but the demands of being a young pastor whose star is rising, the husband and father of growing family, and a soul that is longing for more seem mutually exclusive. 

Emptiness under the surface

Jen is a stay-at-home mom with four kids. She loves being a mom and sees this as her highest priority, yet over the years she has had a niggling sense that there is something more she is supposed to do with herself and her gifts. Her husband travels regularly for work, which means the lion’s share of care for home and family falls to her; she has little time to devote to getting in touch with her spiritual desires and her sense of calling.

Most of the time Jen is able to put aside her questions and desires in order to make sure everyone else’s needs are cared for, but lately they have been pressing in on her. She finds herself close to tears a lot, questioning her worth, questioning her motives, and wondering if she is doing enough for all the people who need her. She feels her sense of self slipping away and is alarmed by feelings of anger, unsettledness, and even depression.

Something not quite right

Jeremy is a gifted entrepreneur who is just starting to achieve recognition for the work his creative company is offering. The phone is ringing with offers of more work than their company can handle, and they have even received a few awards for their work. At the same time, there are internal problems in the company—dissension in the ranks, stress fractures in the leadership, and temptations when he travels.

Given the external accolades, he cannot understand why things feel so broken on the inside. He realizes that if he does not get some time away to reflect on what’s really going on, to listen to God, and to get a handle on his motivations and behaviors, he may ruin everything he’s worked so hard for due to bad decision-making— decision-making that is disconnected from discerning God’s presence and activity in his life.

What do Brad, Jen and Jeremy have in common? They all need a retreat!

A generous commitment to our friendship with God

Retreat in the context of the spiritual life is an extended time apart for the purpose of being with God and giving God our full and undivided attention; it is, as Emilie Griffin puts it, “a generous commitment to our friendship with God.” The emphasis is on the words extended and generous. Truth is, we are not always generous with ourselves where God is concerned. Many of us have done well to incorporate regular times of solitude and silence into the rhythm of our ordinary lives, which means we’ve gotten pretty good at giving God twenty minutes here and half an hour there. And there’s no question we are better for it!

But many of us are longing for more—and we have a sense that there is more if we could create more space for quiet to give attention to God at the center of our beings. We sense that a kind of fullness and satisfaction is discovered more in the silence than in the words, more in solitude than in socializing, more in spaciousness than in busyness.

“Times come,” Emilie Griffin goes on to say, “when we yearn for more of God than our schedules will allow. We are tired, we are crushed, we are crowded by friends and acquaintances, commitments and obligations. The life of grace is abounding, but we are too busy for it. Even good obligations begin to hem us in.”

Biblical images for retreat

Fr. Ron Rolheiser points out three images for retreat used in Scripture that meet us in our yearning; all of them apply in different ways at different times.

  • There is the lonely place to which Jesus invited his disciples when he said, “Come away to a deserted place . . . and rest a while.” With this invitation he was calling them out of their busyness to a place of rest beyond the demands of their life in ministry, as we referenced earlier.
  • There is the desert/wilderness that the Spirit drove Jesus to after his baptism. Here he did battle with Satan and faced his demons, as we all must. But there’s more!
  • Old Testament references hint at the fact that the wilderness (spiritually speaking) is also a place of intimacy where God tenderly speaks those things he has been wanting to say to our souls: “Therefore I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness  and speak tenderly to her. . . .  There she shall respond as in the days of her youth.” “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son [to a journey through the wilderness]. The more I called them, the more they went from me,” Clearly something special happens between God and his people in the wilderness!
  • And there is the Sabbath, the first retreat of all retreats, in which God introduces rhythms of work and rest to the way we order our lives. When time had no shape at all, God—by his example and by his instruction—established optimal rhythms for his creation that included working six days and resting on the seventh. This was not a lifestyle suggestion; it was a commandment as significant as not murdering, not committing adultery, and not lying.

These metaphors form the biblical/spiritual context for reclaiming retreat as spiritual practice for our time. In fact, there has never been a time when the invitation to retreat is so radical and so relevant, so needed and so welcome.

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2018. Adapted from Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God (InterVarsity Press). The Scriptures referenced above are Mark 6:30, Luke 4, Hosea 2: 14-15 and Hosea 11:1-2 respectively.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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Ruth I want to thank you for coming into my life in this season I am in currently. Your teaching via podcasts and your books have been gold to me! I have treasured your messages encouragement and understanding of what it means to draw close to the God we love and serve. I have begun to implement some of what you have talked about, and I am the beneficiary as I trust are others in my world. You are a true gift to the body of Christ and especially to those of us who serve and lead in ministry. Thank you so much.

Ruth, you have beautifully expressed what is true. And, this invitation…for me. I’m reminded of the feeling of being in a kayak on rough river water. Forceful movements are needed to paddle out of the current to the stillness of a nearby pool or shore. That’s the brutal part! To make the decision to paddle there and then to get myself there. Yet, the reward is so so good!

Oooh…I love this metaphor! That’s exactly how it is! Thanks, Dustin, for adding this to the conversation.

Hello Ruth, I must tell you that you are my favorite author at this time. My first introduction to your work was through WMI at Heritage College, Solitude & Silence. I have used this book and many more of yours since then in Women’s Bible studies. Thank you for sharing your gift.
I have a suggestion if possible. I live in Canada, if possible could you offer the Canadian rate when presenting your books. As well if there is a shipping cost. Thank you. Blessings Pat.

You are most welcome! (I believe our transforming resources manager has addressed you question off-line.)

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