“It’s the thought that counts,” we say and, of course, thoughts do count. But the mere thought to do something—the desire and intention to do it—falls short of actually doing it. “I thought about getting you a birthday present, but … I didn’t.” And yet, there is something about the desire and intention to do good that is itself good. It is the right place to start. We desire and then intend to do something good and that desire/intention is an essential part of being a good person. When we desire/intend to do good, we know that we are oriented in the right (the righteous) direction. When the good desire/intention becomes a habit with us, we find ourselves consistently desiring/intending to do the good. That’s marvelous. So, while “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” we can be sure that the pathway of those whose destiny is heaven involves good intentions too! It looks like Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees was precisely due to their lack of good desires and intentions. They had right acts, but those actions were motivated from bad desires (e.g., the desire to impress others—cf. Luke 18:9–14).
Paul says that the desires of Spirit and the desires of the flesh are in mutual opposition to each other (Gal. 5:17). We have desires to love God, place our hope in God, and entrust ourselves to him that are in us because the Spirit is in us. But these desires come into opposition with conflicting desires—desires of the flesh. These desires of the flesh (and the intentions and deeds that often follow) are at bottom desires to love something else in place of God, hope in something other than God, and entrust ourselves to our own resources independent of God. Because of this conflict, we end up “not do[ing] the things that [we] please” (Gal. 5:17). So the question arises: how do we strengthen the desires and intentions of the Spirit? Is there anything we can do to cooperate with the desires and intentions in us to live rightly?
This is, I think, the main reason why going on retreat is such a helpful spiritual practice. When we drive, walk, hike, bike, or in some other way pilgrimage to a setting in which our sole purpose is to draw near to God, we habituate our desire and intention to draw near to God in the process of getting there. Every step to the park, every mile to the retreat center, is a declaration to ourselves (to our bodies, our minds, our desires) that we want to love God more, hope in him alone, and deepen our trust in him. Going on retreat to cultivate communion with God is a way to crucify the flesh and its passions.
Have you ever noticed that the process of getting to the retreat can be as powerful as actually getting there? Perhaps this is part of the reason Jesus went to the “lonely places.” Luke reports, “Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:16). Perhaps “slipping away” or “withdrawing” was not just to be alone. Perhaps the repeated practice of taking some time to get somewhere else was as important (perhaps more important) than what happened once he got there. We might say that our Godward desires and intentions become habituated when we prolong the process of getting to our retreat location. Since we are not there yet, the whole walk or drive or bike ride becomes a habituation of the desire and intention. If something prevented us reaching our destination, we would say that we had intended to go on retreat. The whole drive or walk was a habituation of intention. No doubt this is part of why spiritual pilgrimage has been a longstanding practice in church history.
Practically speaking, this is why I always try to leave my normal surroundings and go someplace different to pray or spend time in Scripture. Even better, I try to go someplace I would not otherwise go except for my desire and intention to draw near to God. When I do that, the walk to the park or the drive to the prayer chapel becomes a habituation of the desire and intention. Of course, retreating to one’s favorite chair, bedroom, or backyard is good too, but it is important to remember the spiritual value of taking time to get there.