The Christian church offers an event called a “retreat” or “encounter.” There are “Men’s Retreats,” Women’s Retreats,” and “Couple’s Retreats.” The beauty and benefit that a retreat offers is a controlled environment, usually in a serene picturesque location, where a group of Christians can focus on their relationship with God and fellowship with each other for a set period of time void of the typical distractions of modern American living including cell phones, television shows, movies on demand, and the Internet as well as time away from healthy responsibilities including spouses, children, careers, household chores, yard work, and pets.
The idea and purpose of the Christian retreat is both venerable and respectable when the retreat is designed for the solid purpose of allowing the Christian the time, space, and environment void of distractions to deepen their walk with the Lord or be introduced to Jesus at a deeper level. In a culture filled with thousands of distractions every day including hundreds of obnoxious television and radio commercials, highways fenced with shock-value billboards, music ripe with objectionable and influencing lyrics, and mega stores offering 24/7 rotating sales and discounts it is completely understandable that a person might need to set a period of withdrawal from that environment to seek the still small quiet voice of God. And with the almost limitless amount of hobbies, new movies, sporting events, and amusement parks at the disposal of the average American, it is getting to the point where quiet time with God must be scheduled just like any other activity.
Yet even with the perfectly planned Christian retreat, much of the “event,” “experience,” or “encounter” is actually determined by the heart condition and intention of the retreat’s individual participants. It is truly a journey or a mini-pilgrimage within the man not outside the man to explore1 and cleanse the heart not to stimulate, excite, or temporarily manipulate the senses. The true purpose of the Christian retreat is to deepen and strengthen a individual’s relationship with God in a permanent and enduring fashion.
However, the American culture has produced several generations of people ranging from the age of young grandparents to the youth that are seeking something else–the spiritual high–an “experience” or an “encounter” that alters the mind and body experience like accessing the “zone” for athletes or the “high” experienced from drug use. What exactly is a “spiritual high?” Prior to committing my life to Jesus when my eldest daughter died, I had practiced several other religions for a period of a few years each. These religions used chanting, meditating, postures, or patterns of breathing to elicit a form of a “spiritual high.” The feelings, both emotional and physical sensations, resulting from these practices can clear the mind, create a feeling of euphoria or depth or fear or agitation, and can allow a person to hyper-focus. In my personal experience, it was similar to finding the “zone” for athletics.
It is important to study “how” this high occurs. In the case of using certain postures, chanting, or breathing exercises, the “spiritual high” is not resulting because of a truly spiritual experience but it is the result of altering the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood stream. I have taught the postures and breathing exercises as a means to eliminate anxiety2, fatigue, and fear as well as to improve overall health3. If a person does not understand the relationship between the breathe, posture, and resulting physiological state, then he could be easily deceived into believing he experienced something “spiritual” when instead it was a biological response. The same feeling of euphoria can be created by singing for a long period of time at a retreat which can be quite similar to chanting. Additionally, meditation and prayer typically result in clearing the mind and intense focusing which can induce feelings of peacefulness, strength, and even euphoria.
Armed with the understanding of the purpose of a Christian retreat and how the body responds to various patterns of breathing, chanting, singing, and meditation, a person can consciously seek a deeper relationship with God and Jesus at a Christian retreat rather than a set of feelings or states of body and mind that can be easily stimulated by various combinations of breathing, singing, dancing, movement, music, beats, lighting, and atmosphere.
The difference this knowledge makes for the Christian believer seeking to deepen his or her relationship with God at a Christian retreat is huge. If a person mistakes a “spiritual high” for the real deal–for genuinely connecting with Christ–then he has essentially been duped and bought a lie. That lie is much the same as the one that mind altering substances like drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes offer. These substances alter the mind by introducing chemicals in the body which stimulate certain “feelings” much the same way that altering breathing states, postures, exercises, or meditation can. It is common for those suffering from addictions to seek a similar “high” from their chosen stimulant whether that stimulant is sex, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food, masturbation, exercise, thrill-seeking behaviors, approval/acceptance, etc. All of these options can stimulate the release of chemicals in the brain which create the “states of mind” that some people (addicts) spend their life seeking.
Have you ever been in a room where one person started to laugh at something? Then a few people start laughing too a few seconds later, now about half know why they are laughing and the other half are just laughing at those laughing. By the time the laughter reach you, you begin to laugh too at them but you fail to know what originally ignited the laughter. This is much like the experience of a “spiritual high” at a retreat, Christian or another religion for that matter.
These “spiritual highs” can be harmful to people much like the way drugs can be both addictive and harmful. Try to recreate that laughter chain exactly the same way resulting in each person laughing the same with the same intensity. You will find that it is nearly impossible. That laughter happened spontaneously. Very few people would actually try recreate the same exact spontaneous laughter chain. Some people might suggest turning on a funny movie which might result in laughter but take notice that it will not be exactly the same.
Humans become addicted to drugs or experiences like “spiritual highs” because they are seeking to “feel exactly the same way” or better than last time. They are seeking to replicate the experience or top the experience. The same push for replication of an emotional state that drives drug addiction can be mirrored in the search to replicate a “spiritual high” found at a retreat. There are people who are willing to drive or fly across the country to attend a retreat–not truly for deepening their relationship with Christ as there are local Christian retreats and encounters available for that–but instead in search of the “spiritual high” that they felt at a specific retreat or heard about from a former participant.
Seeking a “spiritual high” is addictive and harmful. It creates masses of people who are literally running around to various Christian retreats seeking to replicate or top the last “spiritual high” while neglecting more important commands and duties found in the Bible including “loving God with the heart, mind, soul, and spirit,” “loving your neighbor as yourself,” “walking in love,” “turning the other cheek,” “repenting and changing your life to eliminate your opportunity to repeat the sin again,” “visiting widows,” “caring for orphans,” and “keeping oneself unspotted and uncontaminated from the world,” “reading the Word daily,” “praying without ceasing,” and “being anxious for nothing.”
In fact, it suffices to say that seeking a “spiritual high” at a retreat creates much anxiety in the seeker as he attempts to create or replicate the “high” and as he deals with life in the doldrums in between opportunities to attempt to reach a “spiritual high.” The “spiritual high” seeker may also experience anxiety and stress in trying to find, plan, or financially execute bringing their new friends to the “right” Christian retreat to experience the “spiritual high” for themselves. At this point, it becomes clear to the family and friends of “spiritual high” seekers that retreat attendance has been perverted into seeking a “spiritual high’ rather than seeking God or a personal relationship with Jesus.
If a person is attending Christian retreats or church encounters for a “spiritual high” or a “feeling” that appears to be produced during attendance, then this otherwise healthy spiritual practice has become nothing more than one more self-serving addiction much like masturbation, alcoholism, or drug addiction. One of the hallmarks of the Christian faith is that Christians “do not walk by sight but by faith” which can also mean that Christians do not live or make decisions by how they feel. The bible states that the heart is wicked. Christians are extorted to pray without ceasing, to give thanks in all things, and to offer a sacrifice of praise. Giving thanks in all things is the exact opposite of obeying or following your feelings because all things in life are not always happy, enjoyable, pleasurable, or exciting. When my daughter died, I still thanked God for my home, food, and a job because I still had much more than many people around the world but I did not feel like being thankful for anything at that time in my life. At that point, my expressed thankfulness for what I did have versus my loss was a genuine sacrifice of praise.
A vital component of truly genuinely seeking God is to be seeking truth, including the truth about yourself. Truth does not always feel good but truth is what sets a person free. If I attend a women’s retreat and a fellow Christian sister points out that I need to use less sarcasm with my family, this truth might sting, I might feel shame, and then I can bring my issue to the feet of Jesus at the cross and make a commitment to change my ways. I can admit and confess my sins before the Lord and a trusted sister in Christ. Then through prayer, reading the bible, and fellowship with my sisters in Christ, I can learn and practice new ways of responding more kindly to the ones that the Lord has entrusted me during my life on earth.
I will not feel a “spiritual high” through this experience, in fact I might feel a bit “low” or “sad” about the revelation of personal truth yet I might feel emotionally “lighter” and forgiven when I confess my sins. If I sin again, I will feel some shame and guilt which I can choose to interpret as healthy signals from my conscience that I need to ask for forgiveness, make amends, and change my ways. I might need to literally stick a poster board sign with the proper responses in each room of my home or I might need to wear a rubber band to snap my wrist each time I make an error again. Once again, I will not necessarily feel good or a “spiritual high” while correcting my ways and disciplining myself to obey the bible; however, I will feel strength by knowing that through Christ I can do all things including developing self-control over my thoughts, words, actions, and habits. At the point that I achieve freedom from sarcasm and finally have the law of kindness on my lips as the Proverbs 31 woman, then I will feel freedom, peace, and joy in being more than a conqueror of that sinful habit. It should be noted again that this is not a “spiritual high” either, but instead freedom from the bondage of sin and a peaceful mind and heart. Being free of anxiety and conscious willful sin is the “normal” state of the Christian according to Bible.
It is possible to initially feel closer to God at a Christian retreat in the absence of all the distractions of the modern world. And that is part of the point of the retreat environment. However, retreat participants should be taught how to recreate or access this closeness with God in their modern, every day life or the Christian retreat environment can be counterproductive to the individual participant’s walk with God. Many years ago, I was attending a meditation class. One of the participants asked the owner of the center why she did not choose a location outside of the city where it was more quiet and peaceful after a fire siren interrupted her concentration. The center was sandwiched in a multi-story building overlooking busy city streets with bright lights in close proximity to the local fire and police stations. The owner replied with wisdom that anyone can learn to meditate in a quiet, peaceful, serene, perfect retreat environment but it is more helpful to the meditation learners and practitioners to learn to meditate in all environments especially those most similar to the ones in which we find ourselves on a daily basis.
Going to a Christian retreat is like tuning the dial on an old fashioned radio. After you initially find the frequency in the peace and quiet, you can leave the radio set on the right signal for quick access later. The most excellent Christian retreats and encounters don’t emphasize or set out to create intense feelings in the participants but instead bring truth and light into the darkness of the modern life and culture to position and enable people to get truly set free from their sins, anxieties, wrong mindsets, and carnal habits. Participants should leave with relevant tools, literature, CDs, DVDs, techniques, and accountability partners that will help them seek and access God amidst distractions of a modern world. Hopefully new Godly friendships to help support each other in this journey called life will be sparked at the retreat and encounters. If a Christian retreat lacks these critical elements, then it is more like a weekend or week of concerts than an environment encouraging true spiritual depth and transformation.
Finally, participants must attend Christian retreats with the realization that much of our closeness to God is in our own hands. God has always been and will always be. God is a gentlemen who seldom forces Himself on anyone. Most of the time, we choose to turn away from God and instead look to distractions including little gods like selfishness, pleasure, ease, laziness, addictions, food, popularity, family, friends, human relationships, pets, shopping, fun, work, culture, and the media. If we attend an encounter or retreat and experience a deepening of our relationship with God, then we are responsible for continuing to seek God and cultivate our relationship with Him during the rest of the days, weeks, months, and years of our life that are not spent in the controlled environment of Christian retreats, encounters, or even church services. The Christian walk is a walk (a lifestyle) to be lived in the real world. Christians are to be the light of the world, this light must remain on long after the retreat experience and this light gets its power from having a daily personal relationship with Jesus through reading His Word, praying, meditating, and being “doers not just hearers” of the Word in our daily public and private life.
1Mark 7:20-22, BibleGateway.com
2Heather Inks, How to Handle Adversity, eHow.com
3Heather Inks, How to Teach Abdominal Breathing, eHow.com