As I was a few months from turning 30, I did a quick flip through the pages of my journal, and I saw just how badly I had digressed into all kinds of ruts—my social life, dating life, work life, spiritual life, health, everything.
As an entrepreneur, I let books about successful living from a worldly perspective have too much influence over my life.
I let TV commercials tell me what I needed.
I let songs on the radio guide my desires.
I let characters on TV shows replace real relationships.
I was consciously and subconsciously seeking counsel from idiots, and the last person I was listening to was the Holy Spirit.
I needed some kind of catalyst to kick me in the butt and get me moving in a new direction. All I knew was that I could not let my 30’s start the way my 20’s were ending. I had some work to do.
Thankfully, I was doing at least one thing right: I had established a mentor relationship with an older, wiser Christian man. Our times together were meaningful and he was able to observe my life with an objective eye, something I was unable to do at the time. He knew I was asking everyone around me for advice about my life and that this would only lead to a continual spinning of my wheels. He also knew those were questions that only my Creator could answer. Sure, he could give me career and relationship advice, but he was wise enough to discern that it was not advice that I truly needed, but simple, one-on-one time with the Lord. He suggested many times that I go on a short sabbatical to seek the Lord for direction.
So after much resistance, eventually I went. I rented a cabin in the woods. No internet, no TV, no iPhone, no contact with the outside world. Just the Lord and me. My mentor was right: the five days I spent quiet with the Lord changed the course of my life.
When I make bold statements like, “It changed the course of my life,” many people want to know the magic formula, so they too can see change in their own lives.
And the problem with that question is:
There are no formulas with God.
For years, I copied other people’s formulas and stories and failed miserably.
I am unique.
My story is unique.
So is yours.
Therefore, how the Lord wants to reach each of us will be different. But I firmly believe He does want each of us to be quiet before Him. And not just occasionally.
I had to stop listening to the distractors and following their good storylines for my life. And I had to stop listening to the destructors and following their safe storylines for my life. I was listening to everyone and everything but the Lord who wanted to lead me to an epic storyline for my life.
Good and safe are the most dangerous ways to live. There’s not much resistance involved in those terms. Change does bring resistance, but even better, change brings freedom. I try every day to still myself before the Lord, but a lot of times I let these good things from the modern world devour the great things the Lord has for me. Oh, the power of daily resistance to settle for good and not great.
I needed a sabbatical to hear God in a fresh way and get out of my rut. Some of us need that, but some of us just need to be obedient to the things we’ve already heard from Him. For me, a sabbatical was a tool to rekindle a relationship that I had allowed to grow stale. I’ve found it invaluable to go on periodic sabbaticals or spiritual retreats from time to time, even if it’s just for a weekend.
If you’re considering taking a sabbatical or spiritual retreat, I’ll walk you through my planning process. Again, it’s not a formula. These are just 4 things to consider as you decide what works best for you and how to make the most of your time on a spiritual retreat.
1. What Kind of Advanced Preparation Is Required?
From my own experience and the experience of my friends, I’ve found out the hardest part of taking a sabbatical is keeping it on your calendar. It’s one thing to write it on your calendar, but it’s a whole other thing to actually show up.
Believe it or not, the enemy hates extended, focused, and dedicated time with our Savior. Shocking. He doesn’t want us meditating on scripture. And He certainly doesn’t want us to be able to hear the Holy Spirit.
I resolved to take a sabbatical in January. I looked at the calendar, talked to the necessary people at work, and picked out a week in February. As soon as I wrote it down, it was as if I wrote it in stone. Unless there was a death in the family, I was showing up to that special appointment with God. I even told everyone around me I was going, so they could keep me accountable. I’ve never been so committed to an appointment in all my life, and it was that resolve that helped ensure that I did not back out. Otherwise, like some appointments in my life, I can let alternate things take precedence and bump them right off the calendar.
After the time was set, I began to pray about a place. I knew immediately I would not do it at my house. There were way too many distractions. I also knew I wanted the place to be out of the city and in nature. I brainstormed everyone I knew who might have a house or cabin and eventually found a discounted lake house on a really quiet street in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
I had two goals in preparing my heart: to show up empty and to show up with high expectations. I wanted to show up as a blank canvas and be ready for God to speak about anything He wanted to in my life. And He did. I also had the expectations that God would show up in a mighty way. And He did.
The Surprise Packing List
Two days before I left, I got into my car to make a Starbucks run. It was a beautiful Saturday morning, and as I began to return home I just had an urge to go for a drive. I live in a northern suburb of Dallas, and somehow 30 minutes later I found myself at a large, used bookstore in the city. I honestly just started driving and it wasn’t until I was several miles from the bookstore that it hit me to stop and pick up a few books for my trip.
I prayerfully wandered around the store for an hour and bought a half-dozen books. In only a way that God could do, He used many of those books to speak very specifically to me during the sabbatical. They were so well timed and included topics that I didn’t even realize God wanted to deal with me about. It was crazy cool.
Starting today, we should all give ourselves permission to stop producing and consuming from time to time and start resting. Let the Holy Spirit be the Holy Spirit and allow Him the quietness to move.
2. What Should I Do While I’m There?
In the church where I grew up, the phrase “hearing the Holy Spirit” was never really uttered. Well, maybe someone in a back hall said it, but it sure didn’t get mentioned enough where I could hear it. Therefore, I never really connected it in my young mind as being a “normal” part of the Christian life. For almost two decades as a Christian (ages 10-29), I did not pursue a relationship with the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Sure, He was with me at all times, and led and protected my steps in countless ways I’ll never know, but I never actively pursued to hear His voice or call Him by name.
I was 29 when I went on my first sabbatical, and in the couple of years leading up to that time I kept thinking that there had to be more to the Christian life than what my life had become. I had allowed myself to fall into the greatest trap in western Christianity: to become comfortable. To achieve “nice guy” status rather than becoming a reckless follower of Jesus Christ.
I take responsibility for falling into this trap. I do not blame this on the church.
How was I supposed to resist the trap of the safe and uninspired Christian life? I’m not fully there yet, but the best I can tell is that by faith, we are to hear and obey. Hear and obey.
When I went on my sabbatical, I started listening and I started hearing from God. I showed up to my retreat with a blank canvas for a heart and with really high expectations. I started to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit each day. To my surprise, it was not in a weird way at all, but in a kind, loving and friendly way–like He wanted to be my Counselor and Comforter if I’d let Him. (Funny, that’s what the Bible says about Him, too.)
On a daily basis, I simply heard in my spirit–not in an audible way–exactly what to do each day. A certain book of the Bible would come to mind to read. A specific book I brought with me would stand out to read. Sometimes I could see the “theme” for the day right away and sometimes it would be closer to evening before I saw how the events of the day fit together. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was beginning to listen to the Holy Spirit on a daily basis for the first time in my life.
Like I mentioned previously, my intent is not to offer some sort of step-by-step blanket plan for what a Christian sabbatical should be like. Everyone’s experience will look different.
For my sabbatical, each day had its own topic, and each day did have some structure to it:
- I would sleep in (until around 8 am each day) with no alarm clock.
- I would ask the Holy Spirit what to start reading/meditating on.
- Read, pray and journal until lunch. (I bought groceries beforehand, so I would never have a reason to go into town.)
- After lunch, I would go for a hike in the woods.
- When I returned, I would then pray and read and journal for a few hours.
- In the late afternoon, I would head out to the woods again for a hike.
- I would have dinner after the afternoon hike, then I’d have praise and worship after dinner. (Singing is not my thing, so this was really awkward for me to do by myself at first. I’ve done it in multiple sabbaticals since, and this personal worship time is now the highlight of my retreat.)
- After worship, I would pray, read, and journal again before bed.
Side note: I wish I was artistic and had brought some kind of activity to do with my hands when I got tired of reading and needed a break. (e.g. guitar, painting/drawing, craft of some sort, etc.) I’m a left-brained type, so I brought puzzles. It may sound cheesy, but I needed something to let my brain relax at different points throughout the day, since I was fasting from all forms of technology.
Surprisingly, not one day felt like it was dragging on. I woke up eagerly anticipating hearing from God each morning. I easily adapted to the slower pace, and I quickly saw the change in my contentment and joy as I started to realize what Scripture means when it says the Lord is “my daily bread.”
3. How Do I Handle My Re-Entry into the Real World?
When it was time to leave the secluded lake house after 5 days with no technology or human contact, I was ready to interact with the world around me again. However, there was one really strange thing that happened soon after:
Way before I reached for my iPhone or hurried to find an internet signal, I wanted to find some good food. My time was amazing but all I could think about was high-quality food. I went to the first restaurant I could find and picked a table in front of a TV. It was tuned to a 24-hour news station, and I was excited to see what had happened in the world while I was away.
I ordered a steak, watched TV and tried to relax. Unfortunately, the relaxation didn’t last very long. The longer I sat in front of the TV, the more uncomfortable I became in my spirit. I couldn’t figure it out. At first, I thought I was having this “holier than thou” moment where I was too good for TV after my sabbatical.
Was I so sanctified now, that I shouldn’t mix myself up with such worldly, trivial matters?
I became so uncomfortable that I eventually had to cut my meal short and get away from that evil box!
For days, I wrestled with what happen that night at the restaurant. Why did the TV make me feel so uncomfortable? I mean it was just the news–not a trashy sitcom or anything. And then it hit me: It was the commercials that made me uncomfortable.
I had just spent 5 days without seeing a single advertisement that told me what I was lacking in my life. Then, minding my own business, I walked into that restaurant and that stupid box in the corner kept telling me about all the things I was missing.
For 5 straight days, no one told me to upgrade my car, my furniture, my TV, or my phone. No one told me that I needed a certain brand to be more attractive to the ladies, and I never once heard that I needed more hair to get my confidence back.
I didn’t realize how much the Marketing Machine affected me until I removed myself from it. For those 5 days, I had no anxiety “to keep up.” And I didn’t play the Comparison Game with the world around me. It was bliss. Life was simple. Score keeping was not the norm. The Lord was my daily bread; therefore, true contentment reigned.
After this experience, I started seeking small ways to resist the effects of advertising in my life:
- In the car, I try to choose the iPod over the radio.
- Praise the Lord for DVR. I make it a point to not spend a large amount of time watching too much TV in the first place, but when I do watch it, I fast-forward through all commercials. (Except, let’s be honest–the Apple commercials. I’m always lured in to see what their newest products can do. The bite in the Apple logo is very appropriate.)
- Lastly, and this has been the biggest help, I try to never have the TV on in the background for “noise.” Changing my background “noise” to music or a message that I can control versus commercials (messages I can’t control) has made a big difference in my daily contentment.
Ads are not evil, and they allow us to get a lot of really great content for free, but some advertisements simply lie and manipulate and manufacture ridiculous desires within us that lead to our discontentment.
I thank God that He gave me an experience like that night at the restaurant to shed light on the power of constant advertisement flow. At least now I know that ads in the background do affect my spirit, even when I’m simply trying to watch the news.
4. Is There Anything I Need to Be On-Guard Against?
The enemy is crafty. Just after coming off the “high” of my sabbatical, I immediately went about making changes. I was excited to initiate many of them. My confidence was high, my vision was clear, and my path seemed a little straighter than it had in years.
I woke up every day excited about the new direction I had for my life. I was finally starting to see my way out of the ruts I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, a trend started to develop. For almost two months, after my “life-changing” sabbatical with the Lord, I cracked open my Bible very few times. I didn’t journal, worship or even pray much. It was a subtle drift, but one day led to two days, then a week, and eventually an entire month had passed and then two.
Looking back, the only way I can explain it is my selfishness. I got the tactical answers I needed from the Lord about a few key areas of life and then I disappeared. Thanks God, I’ll take it from here.
Or to view it another way–I got two months worth of quiet times done in 5 days, so I decided to take some time off. I honestly don’t know what happened for those two months after the sabbatical. I was busy executing, and I never went back to the Source.
This, of course, failed miserably. Months later, I was right back to being worn thin, anxious, discontent, and wandering with very limited vision. I was revisiting the summer camp “high,” I had always experienced as a child. But I was 29 years old at the time–at some point I should be putting away childish things.
Despite my disappearing act, though, the Lord didn’t condemn, but instead He drew me back with His kindness. No condemnation, no guilt–just patiently waiting for me to return like the prodigal son I had become.
So how did the enemy distract me for two months? He did it by having me focus on the good works of the past.
Conversely, how else does the enemy distract me at other times? He does it by having me focus on the sin of my past.
I learned that it’s not whether I look back at the good or the bad parts of my past, but it’s when I live in either that gives the enemy victory.