In my work with students at Ohio Wesleyan University, sometimes I need to do a little convincing to get them to participate in the outdoor activities we do. “There will be wild ponies!” This is how I sold some of them on joining my fall break trip for four days of backpacking in the mountains of southern Virginia. I also told them that we would be using our time there to slow down and evaluate where we are in our faith journey and relationship with God. I think some of them were definitely interested in that part but were ultimately convinced by the chance to see ponies.
The main idea we explored during that trip was that we need time to step away from our normal routines and busyness to be alone with God. And in that time, we need to allow him to lead and direct us instead of being shaped by the world and culture we are immersed in. John Ortberg talks about this in his book, “The Life You’ve Always Wanted”: “What makes solitude so important? Solitude is the one place where we can gain freedom from the forces of society that will otherwise relentlessly mold us. According to a much-traveled analogy, if we put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately hop out. But put the frog in water that’s at room temperature and heat it slowly, and the creature will stay there until it boils to death. Put him in a lethal environment suddenly, and he will escape. But introduce the danger gradually, and he will never notice.”
When we step away for solitude with God, we’re able to take the temperature of the water we’ve been swimming in. We’re able to see how the relentless busyness of our lives is affecting us. These times of solitude with God are one way of living out Paul’s exhortation to us in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” When we remove ourselves from our normal society, God can more easily reveal to us how we are conforming to the world and not allowing him to shape us. He also reveals to us the things in which we are finding our worth instead of him. Ortberg continues, quoting Henri Nouwen, “In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding. Scaffolding is all the stuff we use to keep ourselves propped up, to convince ourselves that we are important or okay.”
For many of us, our scaffolding is, in fact, the busyness of our lives. That’s why this type of solitude also necessarily involves being still. This means having no agenda, no tasks, and no expectation of being productive. It means not doing anything except sitting with God. I believe this is what the psalmist was talking about in Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” The Hebrew word translated “be still” also carries these meanings: to let go, release, put something down, refrain, be quiet, sink down, be weak. This kind of stillness does not usually come easy to us.
Why is this so hard? Ben Witherington writes in his book, “Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor,” “I know people who can do five things at once who are incapable of doing nothing. I know people who are able to decide what to do without being able to do less of it.”
The reason that many of us cannot slow down, much less actually be still, is because we have put our identity and our worth in our work and productivity. If we stopped doing we wouldn’t know who we are! But God wants us to slow down enough so that we can hear him tell us who we are.
The backpacking trip with my students helped them to see the ways they conform to the culture they live in without realizing it. It also helped them to see the things they use as substitutes for God to find their worth and identity in. And they did get to see lots of wild ponies! May we all find ways to regularly sit and be still with God even if we can’t go backpacking in Virginia.
William Hayes has been the associate chaplain and director of Wilderness Ministry at Ohio Wesleyan University since 2009. He lives in Delaware with his wife and four children.