I recently had to do a personal retreat for a class I’m taking, and I had to write a reflection paper on the experience. It turned into much more of a learning experience than I anticipated and thought it would be good to share. If nothing else, it should help you see that we pastors don’t have it all figured out and God is constantly teaching us as well!
For my personal retreat, I went to the Williamsburg Christian Retreat Center near Williamsburg, Virginia. I went up in the early evening and stayed the night until near noon the next day. I went into it with high hopes that I would hear something from God. I did, but it was not in the way that I was hoping or expecting.
Once I arrived and got settled, I soon realized that I was literally the only human being on the whole retreat grounds. It was a bit eerie. The building I was staying in was effectively a hotel, two stories with numbered rooms on each side of a long hallway. I took a little time to walk around. In the upstairs, all the doors were shut like normal, but downstairs all the rooms were open and it was kind of dark, so the eerie feeling only increased. Another thing I discovered was that there was a meeting room at the end of the hall that had a box piano in it. I used to take piano lessons, and I know a little chord theory, so I sat down and played a few songs that I looked up on my phone. It was quite an enjoyable time of worship. Then I went back to my room and prepared for a time of listening to God.
For that, I turned everything off, allowing the only light in the room to be the setting sun outside. I laid down on the bed looking at the ceiling and just waited in silence. I laid there for about an hour. It was not easy. I have the kind of mind that rarely slows down, thoughts swirling all the time. So, it took about the first twenty minutes just to get to a place where my brain was silent. And so I waited for a voice from God, but nothing came. Perhaps I should have stayed there longer, but eventually I got up and decided to do some Scripture reading.
For Scripture reading, I did some comparing of the end of Leviticus to the various judgments inflicted on the earth in Revelation. I started preaching through Revelation recently and had been studying for it all summer, so it was top of mind. What I found was quite fascinating and gave me an even deeper appreciation for the complexity and comprehensiveness of God’s Word and His overall plan for the world. As I was making these awesome discoveries, it occurred to me that it is through God’s Word that I feel He speaks to me the most. As I dig into it, the Spirit gives me new insights and connections that give me a deeper appreciation and greater awe of our God. He reveals to me His plan and His will for my life. The experience has reaffirmed my commitment to Scripture as the true voice of God.
After reading Scripture for about an hour, I felt hungry and ate the food I had brought, but then I started thinking about the morning. I had no food for breakfast. So, I decided to drive to a nearby store to get some. Well, as I said, I was all alone in the whole place, and as I went outside a sense of fear came over me. It was quite dark except for a few lights, and I kept having the fear that if someone wanted to do me harm there was no stopping them out here in the middle of nowhere. So, I rushed to my car, got in and drove off. I did not feel any safer. In fact, as I drove down the two lane road, the fear increased. There were no street lights, so it was quite dark out there and the further I went the fear just increased and increased to the point that I couldn’t go any further and turned around to head back. Once back on the grounds I quickly went into my room and locked the door. My heart was racing and I was still gripped with fear to the point that I was watching under the door to see if any shadows appeared from footsteps in the hall. Eventually I calmed down, but that whole experience really shook me. As I was calming down and getting ready to go to sleep, I was talking to the Lord and asking Him what that was all about. I’d like to say I got an answer, but I didn’t.
I eventually did calm down enough to go to sleep and I had a rather peaceful rest. The next morning, I woke up at a reasonable hour and spent some time working on the questions from another class for which I needed to take a retreat. This one retreat was used for both, but what I was really hoping for was a “God-Experience.” I wanted to hear a word from God, like a voice in my head, or an overwhelming feeling of His presence. I’ve experienced both of those in my past, and I was hoping to do it again. Instead I got silence and fear. Now, I know that fear like that does not come from God, but He does allow the enemy to do things to us within limits for our ultimate good and for His glory. So, I know that, despite it not going like I hoped, I did indeed have a God-Experience. And I think that is the point that God was impressing on me.
I went into it with a preconceived notion of what a God-Experience should be. I wanted God to speak to me the way I wanted Him to. Instead, He spoke to me alright, but on His own terms instead of mine. I was demanding a voice from Heaven, so He gave me silence that was louder than a voice. I was demanding some kind of heavenly experience, instead He withdrew heaven enough to let me feel the fear that He is always protecting me from. It’s as if I went into it like a little child demanding that Mom and Dad give me a fancy Christmas present while being unaware of, or at least ungrateful for, all the things that they provide on a daily basis that I take for granted. I wanted God to show me something amazing. Instead, He withdrew to show me how amazing I already have it. I see now that it is sometimes necessary for God to remove His presence so that we can see just how dependent we are on it. When it is always there, it is easy to get prideful and think my good fortune is my own doing.
Moving forward from this experience there are a few things that are clear to me that I need to start doing and focusing on. One is that I must be disciplined in my daily time with God. If I ever hope to be an effective leader or minister or even Christ Follower, I need to spend significant time in His presence on a daily basis. Otherwise, the distractions of life have a way of swamping my mind and my spirit. But it is not enough to simply be disciplined in the dedicated time, but I also need to be disciplined within that time. I need to go into my prayer time with a plan for how to keep myself from being distracted and not focusing on God. One practice we learned from one of the books in this course is to have a list of things to pray about so that I don’t have to try to think of it on the spot. I know that when I try to wing it, it’s the only time my mind actually shuts down!
The other major thing I took away from this experience is just how blessed I truly am and that I need to make a concerted effort to recognize that and keep from getting prideful about it. Instead of waiting for a voice from heaven, I should be content that I know he is speaking to me all day long through the thoughts in my head and the feelings in my heart. I often teach that if you start the day with an attitude that says “I choose to live in the Spirit, and choosing it makes is so,” that for the rest of the day you can trust that God is guiding you in your thoughts. This is especially true if you keep your head saturated with the Word of God. But one thing I have recognized through this process is that it is easy to just start taking the Spirit for granted. It is easy to get to a place where you just assume that it is normal to be constantly blessed and guided by God. And by normal, I mean humanly normal without the help of God. It sounds silly, but ultimately that is what I discovered I was doing. I was walking in the Spirit and starting to think it was because I was so awesome myself. This experience reminded me that I am not. And that is a good thing.