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Last Friday evening, I had a powerful encounter with God. I finally admitted to myself that I had been feeling a constant battle between my flesh and my spirit and that something had to be done. I couldn't sleep until I wrote up this piece; even though it kept me up until 3 AM! I decided to wait to share it until after I had gone though the "retreat" in order to see what God revealed to me during that time. This is what I wrote that evening. I am working on streamlining my other journal entries and notes from the week so that I can create a post that shares the amazing ways I've grown spiritually as a result of this "retreat" or "challenge". Here's where it all started:
What does the word “retreat” mean anyway? The first thing I think of is to “get away”; to escape the distractions of everyday life and take time to focus on what really matters. It’s been about a week and a half since I’ve been feeling a strong battle between my flesh and my spirit. It has been harder to read the Bible and do my devotions. Looking back, I can see signs of it before that, but it wasn’t strong enough to be felt the way it is now. It has been harder to pray. I end up putting it off or doing it halfheartedly. My mind wanders. I get frustrated. When I get frustrated with myself, my focus is on myself rather than on God. I do my best to shift my focus back to God. I praise Him for being faithful, good, and powerful despite my negative emotions. My mind is racing; bouncing rapidly from one random thought to another. Things I need to do, things I should have done differently that day, memories ranging from the past few days to many years back. I struggle to pray. I struggle to sit still. I struggle to sleep.
As I realize this is happening day after day, I start to pray for guidance. Prayer is becoming more awkward. Harder for me to start and harder for me to sustain. I pray the same things I would typically pray, but feel I’m lacking my usual fervor. Where has my passion gone? I ask God to guide me back into a healthy prayer life. He brings me to Psalm 51. I start with a familiar verse: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit in me.” I meditate on this verse. I need to be cleaned, to be renewed. I read the whole psalm and find other deep prayer points. For God to have mercy on me and blot out my transgressions, to restore my joy, to grant me a willing spirit, and to help me then teach these things to people who don’t yet know Jesus and make disciples. That’s a pretty tall order all packed into one Psalm!
I write down these prayer points. I go back to them a few times on different days to get the prayer ball rolling. It helps, but I’m still feeling the battle. My spirit wanting to surrender to God and my flesh throwing a temper tantrum like a toddler, wanting to run off and do its own thing. I continue to read my Bible and do devotions, but it’s still a struggle. Granted, it would be a greater struggle if I wasn’t doing those things, but I don’t like this feeling of constant tug of war inside my body that seems to be growing stronger.
And now we’ve arrived at tonight. Friday night, May 13, 2017. I am again struck by the plague of procrastination when I should be reviewing my memory verses and reading my Bible passages for the day. I finally open my memory verses. Only 12 due today. I can do that. I actually do pretty well with them and thank God for his divine intervention in helping me memorize His word. However, despite my success, I don’t want to dig deeper. I can’t seem to bring myself to read my passages from my “Bible in a Year” plan for today. “Maybe I’m not supposed to do that today”, I thought. “Maybe I need to let God interrupt my routine.” I start praying, yet again, for God to break through to my flesh. I pray that He will reveal any unknown sin that is causing this struggle. I don’t know if that’s what’s causing the problem, but I know it’s a possibility. God gives me Psalm 139:14: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts.” I mediate on this verse and pray for a while. I decide to read the whole Psalm. Like Psalm 51, I find many points of prayer and praise. I read the Psalm aloud, so thankful that God is better with words than I am. My eyes glance over to the next page and I see Psalm 142. I see the subtitle is “Comfort in Prayer”. I read that aloud too. I go back to my new “go-to”, Psalm, 51, and read that aloud as well. I praise God for these Psalms, rich in prayerful language.
After reading those three Psalms aloud, I again turn my focus back to listening for God’s voice. Is there unknown sin here? Do I need to do something different? What do I need to focus on? I find myself thinking: “I wish there was a retreat coming up; I need a recharge. I need to feel closer to God.” Then God spoke (not audibly, but it was almost an instantaneous response): You don’t necessarily need others to have a retreat. Nor do you necessarily have to remove yourself from your daily life to do so (although both things are great experiences and important to do as well). God said: “Create your own retreat”. For a minute or so, that seemed like too big of a concept to wrap my head around. How could I do that? I asked God: “What do I need to do for my retreat?” Within about five minutes, maybe less, I had my bulleted list written. At this point, I don’t know if the list will change at all throughout the week, but I’m anxious to see. God poured ideas into my head that all boil down to the concept of being intentional about making Him my number one priority.
It’s one thing to say God is number one in our lives, but it’s another for our actions to reflect those words. None of the actions God presented to me were unfamiliar, but some of them seemed like “extreme” versions of things I already do. I listen to Bible teachings, read Scripture, and read books aligned with Scripture, but, during my retreat, God wants me to replace the vast majority of my entertainment time with these things. Swap out secular TV shows for a Bible teaching or a Christian movie. Keep all recreational reading to Christian books. Severely limit time on social media and replace that, too, with something directly related to my Lord and Savior. Even take a couple days off from social media altogether. The fact that some of these things seem so challenging is concerning because it means I’m growing too attached to secular things. God tells us in Colossians to “Set our mind on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:2).” He wants me to do that with extra intention this week. Now, this retreat feels like an invitation. Like God has invited me to spend a special week, just me and Him, focusing on him to the “extreme”. God doesn’t do anything without a purpose, so he must be inviting me on this retreat to reveal some special things to me. As I write this, some of the nervousness I’m feeling is being inched out by excitement about what God has in store for me this week.
While I believe we must always live intentionally and ultimately do everything for the glory of God and His Kingdom, I feel I should make it clear that this “extreme” (for lack of a better word) intentionality is meant to be periodic, not permanent. There are, absolutely, certain things we should always abstain from because they directly conflict the word of God. However, there are other things that we may need to be abstinent from for a season (the seasons will, inevitably, vary in length) to refocus our minds and our spirits, discipline our flesh, hear the voice of God more clearly, and grow closer to God. Then, God will reveal to us when (and sometimes if) we should partake in certain activities again, and to what extent. For example, it is a Biblical concept to fast from food for various lengths of time, but that certainly doesn’t mean we’re expected to never eat again! Instead, it is a short-term abstinence in which God often reveals special things to us.
This "retreat" will be different from what we often picture as a retreat experience because I will not be removed from my daily life throughout this week. I’ll still be following my daily routines except for the changes pointed out in my retreat guidelines. I plan to follow these guidelines for a week and see where God takes me from there. Yes, I’m nervous because I don’t like changing things up! But, I sure would like to see those prayer points from the aforementioned Psalms come to life and I want God to be my first love not just in words, but in my actions! So, here goes nothing!