One thing that can be said for certain about a life of pastoral ministry is that it is a busy one. It seems nowadays that those of us in ministry – particularly pastors – are facing greater demands for our time. There is more and more to do and less time in which to do it. Those who shepherd are caught up in a frantic pace of preaching and teaching, visitation and counseling, committee meetings and administrative duties, and a hundred other important tasks that call for our attention.
With all that ministry requires from spiritual leaders, it is often difficult for us to take time for rest and renewal. This fast-paced, media-driven society in which we live has created a false sense of urgency that drives those with a gift for shepherding to feel as though any period of idleness means time lost in ministry. But taking time away from our ministry to spend with the Lord is not idleness. It is actually a vital part of our ministry; and frankly, without it, the underlying power and spirit behind that ministry will diminish and even become counterproductive. Understanding the importance of taking a quiet time for rest, reflection and renewal is crucial if ministry leaders are to remain strong shepherds of those under their care.
Perhaps the biggest reason for taking a quiet time with God is found in the following verse:
“Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:11a)
This is not some nice thought; it is actually a command. Our Father wants us to come away from the distractions of the world and spend time with Him so that we may take ourselves off the throne of our lives and put Him on it. When we are full of the noise of our own self-importance, we cannot know God in the truest sense. If we place the quotation from the psalm within its context, we see that when the world around us is erupting in chaos and confusion, God commands us to still our souls so that we may see that He is forever sovereign in power and loving in how He unfolds His plans. He desires that we know Him and His will for our lives; and that can never take place until we know what it means to “be still.”
Jesus understood the need to retreat from the world to regroup and enter into deep communication with the Father. He even commanded this of His disciples:
He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. (Mark 6:31)
The reason so many in ministry struggle with taking time for God is that they have forgotten the real importance of this experience. In order to come to a better understanding of the purposes and benefits of a personal, contemplative time, we have no better example than the Lord Himself. Let us look at the reasons why He took time away from the crowds and the results of those holy encounters with God, to find application for our own lives and ministries.
One of the first such inner retreats Jesus experienced occurred immediately after His baptism in the Jordan by John. In Matthew we read:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)
The passage tells us that Jesus was led into the desert, driven by the Spirit to face the Tempter. According to the story, Jesus prepared for His encounter with Satan by a 40-day period of fasting and prayer. The enemy offered Jesus three temptations: to use His power to circumvent God’s will, to put His Father to the test, and to trade His mission of suffering and death for the power and prestige of earthly kingdoms. Each time, Jesus answered Satan with words from Deuteronomy (8:3, 6:13, 6:16). This is significant because it demonstrates Jesus’ faithfulness to the Law and His understanding that He was the fulfillment of that Law. He did not simply pull a few verses out of context to use at the right moment; those Scriptures were His food and drink. Though He was physically hungry, He had a feast of God’s word ever before Him. And this is the first point:
1) A quiet time is a satisfying feast with God.
Like sitting in front of the fire with a cup of tea, a snack and a good book, our quiet time should be a delightful period of indulgence where we take in God’s Word, bask in His care and reflect on the pleasure and power we receive when we get in touch with our Maker. Each morsel of this daily bread should fill us up until there is an abundance left over to share with the world. We are hungry people in the wilderness of this earthly pilgrimage, and we need to be nourished with God’s heavenly manna as we travel toward eternity.
Jesus also spent extended time alone just before making crucial decisions. Luke tells us about this:
In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named apostles: (Luke 6:12-13)
We can imagine that, rather than going over a list of applicants for positions, Our Lord, with His intimate and perfect knowledge of these men, held each disciple before the Father in prayer, knowing the confusion and fear and trials and suffering each man was to endure. In that time of solitude, Jesus connected so deeply to these men, that understanding who would be chosen and how those choices would be lived out was something that transcended time and presented itself in a moment of joy and determination.
This was the way of the Jesus, the Divine Artist. His bond to the men and mission was so complete, so intricate and so deep, that He could see the colors and shades of the unfolding reality before Him and know just how each man was to fit into God’s holy and eternal plan. And this is our second point:
2) A quiet time is a creative connection to God's purposes and plans.
Like writers and artists and sculptors who seek a muse, our contemplations connect us to the creative energy of God, allowing us to see life from a broader perspective. As we receive insight from the Word and inspiration from our intimate communication with God, we learn how to paint upon the canvas of life with more brilliant and deliberate strokes, shaping others’ lives, and drawing out what is beautiful and holy from our encounters with the world. This creative response to God’s call comes out of the depth of the intimacy we discover as we let ourselves be shaped by God’s creative Spirit. It is a wonderful experience because we know we are sharing in salvation’s plan and giving delight to our Father in heaven.
Jesus also withdrew from the crowds in moments of death and at turning points in His ministry. Take a look this passage from Matthew:
…and he had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. His disciples came and took away the corpse and buried him; and they went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. (Matthew 14:10-13)
It was a time for Jesus to grieve the death of His cousin John and reflect on the part John played in His journey to the cross. But Jesus also understood that this was a pivotal hour – a no turning back moment – in His ministry. And this is our third point:
3) A quiet time gives us the courage to surrender to God’s will.
As believers, we face many “deaths” in our walk with the Lord. In following Jesus day by day there are things we must leave behind and casualties in the battles we fight along the way. It may be a family member or friend who turns away from a moral decision we make. We may face opposition to our plans or persecution from those who find the cross a scandal. Though such times may tempt us to turn back to old ways and safe places, we know that as shepherds and ministers we need to seek solitude so that we may mourn these deaths, releasing them into the care of the One who guides the stars of the universe by His will. As we seek solace in the midst of the uncertainty of change, we can surrender to the sure and future hope that God will work all things out for the good for those whom He has called. In this act of obedience, we find the courage to move forward, hoping those we left behind will someday join us and believing that the sacrifices we make will lead to greater fulfillment and peace. Like Jesus, when we come back to the crowds, we will see them with compassionate eyes and discover ways we may extend our lives into theirs to bring healing and fulfill the plan of God.
This leads us to another time when Jesus sought solitude. Consider the following verses:
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. (Matthew 14:23)
At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place. The crowds went looking for him, and when they came to him, they tried to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” (Luke 4:42-43)
These passages represent a two-fold temptation that comes with ministry. One is to believe that our ministry will fall apart without us. The other is to become content with our ministry and fail in helping it grow. This is the temptation of the devil in the wilderness all over again. As Jesus grew more popular, the danger would be to become bogged down in His fame while forgetting His true mission. And this is the temptation we all face as followers of Jesus: to have our eyes fixed on the crown without considering the cross. As leaders, we can become caught up in our popularity and begin to act in our own strength, neglecting God’s greater purposes. And this is the fourth point:
4) A quiet time humbles us and allows us to let go.
It is easy to become caught up in the admiration and accolades of those to whom we minister and begin to think that all we accomplish comes from our own strength. We may also become so protective of our ministry that we fail to allow the Holy Spirit to move in the lives of others. But the reality is that God is the author of our lives and the lives we serve. We may need to allow our fellow believers to falter and fail in order for them to grow. Our tried and true methods of ministry may need a little shaking up every once in a while. Like many pastors who have preached sermons without preparing for them, we need take steps to remind ourselves that we are to rely on God’s provision and power for all that we do. Such humble submission can free us to move into new avenues of ministry, knowing God is on our side.
This kind of faithful surrender, prompted by our solitude and closeness to God, and acted out in the real world, is difficult work. Even Jesus Himself experienced this as shown by the following:
The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray. (Luke 5:15-16)
Ministry can be physically demanding and emotionally draining. And this is our fifth point:
5) A quiet time recharges our spiritual energies.
Caring for others is not an easy task. Even for those whose spiritual gifts are for service and hospitality, healing and counsel, the stress of shepherding can take a heavy spiritual toll. Introverted leaders are especially vulnerable to becoming burned out by constant contact with the struggles and personal issues of others. And no matter how strong we are or how much we thrive on our work, as we pour ourselves into the lives of others, we spend our spiritual store of grace in building up the Body of Christ. Eventually, we need that quiet time to reestablish our link to our divine lifeline, so that we may tap into the limitless supply of power that God provides. As we draw from the well of God’s Living Water, we find new strength for another day.
Of course, in addition to spending quiet time alone, there may be times when we join with other ministry leaders to commune with the Father. In the company of close friends, we share our common struggles and insights so that we may come to understand them more fully. Jesus did this with His disciples on the mount of Transfiguration:
After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” (Matthew 17:1-7)
Our communion with God is something that is deeply personal, but at the same time is intimately connected to other believers. This is our sixth point:
6) A quiet time spills over into communal support.
We need to take time to withdraw together with those who share in our ministry in order to see just how much we are bonded with the spirits of our brothers and sisters in leadership. Jesus took Peter, James and John, His three closest disciples, and revealed Himself in a moment of glory. It allowed the Father to affirm His Son’s mission and express His gratitude and approval for what Jesus was doing. We need this as well. There are times when our personal encounters with God spill out into communal praise and fellowship, and later, into communal action with a greater sense of purpose. Taking time away with colleagues helps us to answer crucial questions: Where are we going? What is our purpose? How will we get there? These hours of quiet time together can reconnect us to all that it means to be members of the Body of Christ and help us to affirm and support one another in our common ministry goals.
There is one final time when Jesus withdrew to commune with His Father, just before the most significant event in His life:
Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.” He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” (Mark 14:32-36)
Here was the hour of trial for our Lord. Here was the moment where everything was on the line. But rather than focusing on Himself and His fears, Jesus brought everything to His Heavenly Father in total submission. He could have turned away from the cross; but a lifetime of communion with the Father had prepared our Lord for this. He was ready to become the sacrificial lamb and to give His life as a ransom for ours. Though this event was happening in a moment in time, all of eternity was present in the powerful prayer that Jesus lifted up to His Father. And this is our seventh and final point:
7) A quiet time gives us supernatural strength for the trials.
As Shepherds, how do we survive our own journey to the cross? How do we come to that place where we can surrender our lives to fulfill our purpose and face the trials that are sure to come? How can we approach the raging waters of hardship and cross our own Jordan River to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of God’s will? We need to embrace Gethsemane. We may close our eyes from exhaustion, we may scatter when the persecution starts, and we may even deny that we know our Lord and fall to our knees and weep bitterly for our failures; but we still need to embrace Gethsemane, for it is there that the real truth of our time with our Father is revealed. It is God who rescues us, who reveals Himself to us, and who joins His very life to ours, so that we may take in the power and purpose of the Holy Spirit and live it out to its fullest measure.
We need our quiet time to carve out a healing space within us – a refuge of rest and a holy olive press where we can allow the pressure of the Father’s loving hand squeeze out the doubts, the fears, the sins and the falsehoods that are a part of our human condition through Original Sin. We need to sweat out the blood of adversity and draw strength from the light of heaven as we surrender to the great mystery that is ours when we give our lives to Jesus. Consider this one last verse:
Lord, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me. Rather, I have stilled my soul. Like a weaned child to its mother, weaned is my soul. (Psalm 131:1-2)
Our Father longs for us to be one with Him – so connected with His Spirit that we share in His glory and His purpose. Our quiet time is meant to remove us from the world so that we may be moved inwardly by God, and in turn, returned to the world ready to take on the tasks to which we have been called. We rest, we surrender, we wrestle, we give, and we receive in this blessed inner chamber of communion with our Maker. Let us cherish these times when we commune with Him in the inner palace of our hearts; and let us bring those blessings back into our ministries so that we may bless others, build the Body of Christ and draw closer to the One who has called us His own.