Retreat is not always a sign of defeat.
To avoid the appearance of a defeat, military commanders sometimes order a “strategic withdrawal” instead of a retreat. It is more than a trick of words; there is a real difference. In terms of war, a retreat could mean the abandonment of territory gained in battle or previously possessed. A strategic withdrawal is a delaying action, saving the army to fight again another day.
In spiritual terms a retreat is usually considered a positive thing. It is much more like a strategic withdrawal. We are not surrendering to the forces arrayed against us. We are withdrawing from the front lines for a time of rest and recreation. In modern warfare this necessity has been so recognized as to need only its initials—“R&R.”
Sometimes it didn’t turn out so well.
In the American Civil War the regiment from the state of Maine commanded by Col. Joshua Chamberlin was placed in the center of the line on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg because they had been severely reduced by their heroic rout of Confederate troops at Little Round Top. The center of the line was considered the safest place for them to rest. The next day General Robert E. Lee order one of the largest infantry charges on the whole war, led by General Pickett, on that very spot, the center of the Union line. The was no rest for the boys from Maine.
In World War II the same thing happened with the First Infantry Division. After months of continuous combat, they were sent to the center of the line in the Ardennes, thought to be safe from German assault. That is where the Battle of the Bulge began.
Retreating in the Bible
The Old Testament required equal parts of rest and worship for the Sabbath Day and for all the feast days prescribed for Old Covenant worship. Perhaps the reason mankind has been ordered to rest by our Creator is our internal drive that some of us have to work. This impulse needs moderation. In others, the impulse to work seems to missing and they attempt to make life one long Sabbath. In other words while some of us need for someone to built a fire under us, most of us need to let the fires within us become campfires warming us while we sit beside them and dream. The fires within the believer, when they burn with the oil of the Holy Spirit, will provide warm and safety while we rest awhile by their light.
Jesus Himself knew how to retreat for a time during His earthly ministry.
There were times when He dismissed the crowds and went away alone to pray. At other times, He left the disciples to find a place of solitude. In the book of Acts, the apostles followed His example of the prayer retreat—a strategic withdrawal. These prayer retreats preceded important decisions or discoveries:
- Jesus spent the night in prayer before He chose the twelve disciples.
- Jesus retreated to pray alone before He walked on water.
- The transfiguration happened on a prayer retreat with Jesus, James, John, and Peter.
- The Garden of Gethsemane was the last of their prayer retreats.
- Peter went alone to the rooftop to pray and saw a vision that changed everything in his life and expressed the inclusive nature of the New Covenant.
In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus located daily prayer in a place of seclusion, free from distractions and interference. That place of prayer is called different things in different versions: the closet, the secret place, your room, your inner room, your most private room and the point is obvious.
When we find that place of retreat, we yield no ground to the enemy, we acknowledge no permanent defeat, we put out no fires within us, and we fear no enemy out there in the dark. In the Secret Place of prayer we stoke our fires, polish our weapons, nourish our inner selves, and we rest in the assurance of tomorrow’s victory. This retreat is not defeat; it is a strategic withdrawal.
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles:
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.
Matthew 6:6-7 NKJV
But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
Lord Jesus, Just as I find my calling and vocation in You, I also find my rest in You. Help me avoid the “Messiah Complex” that says to rest from my labors is a sin, or at least an act of neglect. Lord, I know, that I am just a part of Your Kingdom and that things will go well as I rest–of course they will. Let my mind rest today. Send me interesting things to think about that will enrich and refresh me. Help me find activities that are wholesome and restorative. I know that Your great heart includes times of retreat and renewal–all in the heart of God! Thank You, Lord! Amen.
Near to the Heart of God
Words and Music: Cleland Boyd McAfee
1. There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God,
a place where sin cannot molest, near to the heart of God.
O Jesus, blest Redeemer, sent from the heart of God,
hold us, who wait before thee, near to the heart of God.
2. There is a place of comfort sweet, near to the heart of God,
a place where we our Savior meet, near to the heart of God.
3. There is a place of full release, near to the heart of God,
a place where all is joy and peace, near to the heart of God.
© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved