Editor's 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.

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Originally published in Perspectives, April 5, 1997.