A requirement for a true spiritual retreat is that it will include silence—a space to listen deeply. In this article by Trevor Hudson, we see that opening our ears and our souls to the deeper cries within and around us allows us to hear from God. I’ve included the Scripture reference below that he builds his article around, take some time now to familiarize yourself with this passage.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
—Romans 8:22–27, ESVAll Scripture quotations are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Going away and giving yourself the gift of silence and solitude with God allows you to be open to things he might want you to know about yourself or those you minister to. We can’t hear as well when the volume of life is turned up—clutter in our calendars and in our souls doesn’t allow space to hear from God. While the primary way to listen on retreat is usually through a meditation on the Scriptures, Trevor Hudson shares with us a complement to this traditional emphasis with another kind of listening. The passage from Romans 8:22-27 falls between two other well-known biblical passages. “At the beginning of the eighth chapter there is a wonderful verse, a favorite among evangelicals, declaring that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. At the end of the chapter there is the magnificent statement, a favorite of universalists, that neither death nor life, nor anything else in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Hudson notes that the passage about the groans falls between these two statements. “Retreatants need to heed these words, otherwise it is very easy for our retreat experience to become otherworldly, abstract, and irrelevant to the world in which we are called to live out our faith.”
These verses in Romans tell us that three voices are groaning at the same time. They groan around us as well as within us. If we listen deeply, we can hear each one. Together they help us find our way into God’s purposes for our lives. The three “groans” are that of creation, personal, and the Spirit.
02. Creation Groans
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now (verse 22).
When we are on retreat, ideally, we are spending time outside taking in the beauty of nature. The created world has so much to offer our senses that the man-made world can never compete with. But compete it does! My first silent retreat experience was led by David and Juliet Benner in North Georgia. We were instructed to turn off phones, resist the urge to check in with work, and restrain from conversations with other retreatants for the three days at the retreat center. I recall how “loud” the world felt as I drove out of the retreat center on Sunday, alone in my quiet car. We had been given an opportunity to receive the invitation of silence so that we might have space to listen to God. The reentry into the man-made world felt deafening after a few days of silence among the pine trees and the Chattahoochee river trails.
Paul writing to the Romans urges the reader to listen to the groans of creation. “Now, if our retreat experience is going to help us play our part in God’s story of mending our world, we need to hear in the silence the groans around us.” Hudson provides some questions for us to consider as we come away with God. In the silence we can begin to think and reflect on things like these; “What are the human cries that surround me at home? At work? In the community? To which one is God calling me to respond? Which are those that frighten me and from which I want to flee? What is God saying to me through these cries? As we spend time in a place that offers both simplicity and silence, we can listen deeply and consider invitations God might have for us.
03. We Groan
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (verse 23).
When we are on retreat we can listen more deeply to our own groans. Whether it’s giving space to consider a desire or longing, or to sit with the pain of a current or past wounding—personal reflection in the presence of God is invaluable. However, this is precisely the reason many folks shy away from personal time in silence. The groans we haven’t paid attention to seem to get louder when we’re alone. And for some, that pain feels unbearable. It’s easy to understand the lure of busyness and turning up the volume of life in order to avoid dealing with unresolved pain. Every one of us longs for redemption, for all things to be made new, and so those groans are occurring, whether we “listen” to them or not.
Trevor gives us the story of Christ coming to Mary as she weeps outside the empty tomb. By asking a question, Jesus gives Mary the opportunity to face the story behind her tears. He says, “Like Mary, we are invited to examine our pain, to put words to our sorrow, to allow our tears to find their voice. On retreat we can share these tears with God.”
04. The Spirit Groans
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God(verses 26–27).
This passage brings such comfort and power to the life of the Believer. “God the Spirit, who shares in the groaning of creation, and in our own, is calling out to God the creator for the healing of the whole world. . . . Retreat is a time for us to listen deeply to the groaning of the Spirit who intercedes for us right here, right now,” says Hudson. The prayer Jesus taught his disciples, is the one that the Spirit petitions on our behalf and into our hearts. “It is the prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom, a prayer for God’s will to be done, a prayer for heaven to come to earth, a prayer for the mending of our broken world.” When listen to the groans of creation, the groans of our soul, and quiet ourselves enough to listen to the voice of the Spirit, we can rest knowing we are under his care. When we simply run out of words after voicing our tears to God, we can rest knowing that the Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.
05. Exercises and Questions for Reflection
Note: some of these are from the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook
- Can you describe your desire to get away alone with God? What is your soul aching for?
- How might retreating with God address some of the dangers that surround your soul?
- Under the heading, “We Groan,” Hudson says, “Too often we only think about our pain in God’s presence. We need to tell God about it.” The Psalms provide rich examples of people speaking aloud to God the painful things they were going through, and wondering where God is and what He’s up to. Spend some time reading a few Psalms and listen to the song, “How long, O Lord, How Long? (Psalm 13)” by Sovereign Grace Music
- If you can’t get away to a retreat center, plan a day outside or in some other quiet setting where you can spend time with the Lord. Take your Bible and a journal and open yourself to listen to the groans around and within. When your day is over bring some small memento (a rock, twig, take a photo) to remind you of your time with God.
- Trevor Hudson says, “Once we listen to the groans we will want to respond.” Retreat experiences leave us with the opportunity to move back into the hustle of life with a renewed sense of God’s presence and purpose for our lives. Think about a time you’ve experienced a “thin place” where the presence of heaven was near and allowed you to hear from God. Did this shift your perspective or open you to new ways that God was relating to you?