Introductory Note:

For anyone who has ever felt that the sky might fall in if he or she took a step away from work, home, or church life, Richard Foster offers a short excerpt from a longer piece on retreat and solitude to remind us that there is freedom in rendering ourselves useless (at least for a time).

And, of course, these times away will only equip us to come back to work, family, and ministry with a renewed spirit and vigor. And, in the meantime, perhaps we’ve empowered others to expand their own sense of accomplishment and ability in our absence. Win and win!

Renovaré Team

The Root of Our Fear 

[There is a par­tic­u­lar resis­tance] that invari­ably crops up any time we con­sid­er times of gen­uine soli­tude. It is the almost over­whelm­ing feel­ing that we will be passed over. Now, what we say is, I want to be avail­able to help when­ev­er there is a cri­sis or prob­lem.” But what real­ly con­cerns us is that peo­ple will get along quite well with­out us! You see, this strikes right at the root of our fear of becom­ing unim­por­tant, unneed­ed, insignif­i­cant, useless.

This is pre­cise­ly why soli­tude is such a fun­da­men­tal dis­ci­pline of the spir­i­tu­al life. As long as we are at the cen­ter of the action, we feel indis­pens­able. And we are sore­ly tempt­ed to micro-man­age every­one around us … for their good, of course! But gen­uine expe­ri­ences of soli­tude under­cut all the pre­tense. In the very act of retreat we resign as CEO of the uni­verse. We entrust peo­ple into the hands of God. We allow oth­ers to devel­op and grow with­out our con­stant over­sight. This, in time, gives us a pre­cious free­dom when we are among peo­ple — the free­dom to serve and be served with­out the slight­est need to man­age or con­trol either peo­ple or circumstances.

Ren­der­ing Our­selves Useless 

Besides, it isn’t all that bad to become use­less. Good teach­ers hope in time to make them­selves use­less to those under their tute­lage. Stu­dents unable to think for them­selves and thus for­ev­er depen­dent upon their teach­ers have not been taught well. Par­ents are exceed­ing­ly use­ful to young chil­dren. But good par­ents are con­stant­ly work­ing to make them­selves use­less as they nur­ture a grow­ing self-gov­ern­ment in their chil­dren. Per­pet­u­al depen­den­cy in a daugh­ter or son is a grotesque thing indeed.

An old writer, Hen­ry Clay Trum­bull, once said, There are ever two ways of striv­ing to fill one’s place in the world: one is by seek­ing to prove one’s self use­ful; the oth­er, by striv­ing to ren­der one’s self use­less. The first way is the com­mon­er and the more attrac­tive; the sec­ond is the rar­er and the more noble.” Reg­u­lar expe­ri­ences of spir­i­tu­al retreat and gen­uine soli­tude will empow­er us and give us the per­spec­tive nec­es­sary to ren­der our­selves useless.

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Per­spec­tives, April 51997.

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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