“What are you preaching about this Sunday?”, my wife asked recently.
“Rest”, I replied.
She smiled and laughed (lovingly), much in the same way she and I do when we hear our eight-year-old son jamming away enthusiastically yet totally cluelessly on the guitar he got from Pappy. I would have been offended, but I had already received almost the same exact reaction earlier at our church staff meeting. That’s because they all know how bad I am at resting–and I don’t say that in some kind of workaholic-humblebrag kind of way, but as a real confession.
Resting, for me, is kind of like my golf game. I’ve played golf for years. I’ve read a lot about it and gotten tips and coaching from people who are good at it. I could tell you all about swing planes and club face angles and grips and putting strokes—but then I go to the course and none of it seems to come together the way I’d like. I enjoy golf, but I just don’t play regularly enough to get really good at it.
I’ve rested, obviously, over the years. I’ve read a lot about it and gotten tips and coaching from people who are good at it, but then I go out and try to do it and none of it seems to come together the way I’d like. I just don’t do it regularly enough to get really good at it—and I suspect that I’m not alone in this.
I was preaching on rest as the first part of a new stewardship series at Bellefield, which we’re calling, “I believe. Now what?” The intent is to explore how the Gospel transforms the way that we live our lives and the way that we use the things in our lives. The biblical word for this is stewardship, and it’s a concept that gives us a new understanding of who we are and how we are to use the things that God has given us in ways that honor him and bear witness to Christ’s kingdom.
One of the things that God has given us is time—so what are we to do with our time? Scripture presents us with a pattern, a healthy, creational, and even redemptive rhythm of work and rest. So I kicked off the series with a sermon on rest. It was a sermon I would have preached if I was the only on the sanctuary, and I was surprised at the chord it seemed to strike with many others. In light of that, I’ll summarize some of the material here in unpolished form, although you can hear the actual sermon on our podcast if you’re interested.
To start, let’s consider one of the great biblical passages related to rest. Jesus says,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”–Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)
How are we to steward our time, and why is rest a part of faithful stewardship? Let’s first consider the paradigm and approach that we find in our contemporary cultural context.
Our cultural view of rest.
A definition for rest that you could pull from our culture is this: rest is disengagement and/or facilitated distraction. We think rest means simply disengaging. The image is that of sleep or sitting on an empty beach with a Corona Light. We also think rest is facilitated distraction–the word for this is ‘entertainment’–and the more mindless the better. The image is one of plopping down on the couch for a nine-hour Netflix session or scrolling through social media aimlessly and endlessly.
I recently heard Andy Crouch point out that we have reduced the rich and robust version of rest that Scripture provides to mere “leisure” or what the older bible translations used to call “sloth”. This faulty understanding of rest leads us to two opposite but equally erroneous approaches. Either we don’t do it at all, or we think that’s all we should do: a life of unending leisure is the ultimate goal and reward.
A biblical theology of work shows us that the idea that leisure is all we should pursue is not godly stewardship of our time, but I want to focus here on the other error: the avoidance of real, biblical rest. This challenge is worsened because the modern, industrious, globalized, digital age incessantly lures us away from rest.
The current edition of The Atlantic (Jan/Feb 2017) has an article by James Hamblin entitled, “How to Sleep: A physician’s guide to sleep in a stressful age.” Hamblin provides medical data on the sleep patterns of Americans, and explores how things like caffeine, melatonin supplements, and electronic screens impact our restlessness. He concludes, “Effective sleep habits, like many things, seem to come back to self-awareness.” In other words, we know that we’re tired, but aren’t aware of why or just how bad we are at resting.
Part of this is because we avoid it, unless it is absolutely necessary. In his recent book, The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap, John Koessler writes,
“For those who value activism, rest seems unproductive. We cannot work while we rest. Rest is delay. It squanders precious time and diverts us from our real goal. Rest erodes our competitive edge. Devoting ourselves to rest does not seem like a good strategy for getting ahead. When we rest, we drop out of the race and yield the advantage to others. After all, it was while the hare napped that the tortoise won the race…In such an environment rest is an emergency measure rather than a primary pursuit. We rest out of necessity…We feel that we must first justify rest before we can indulge in it.”
Rest is difficult for many of us because we’ve bought into the lie that rest is a sign of weakness, laziness, or insignificance. Being busy proves that we are valuable and that our work is meaningful. In his book Crazy Busy, Kevin DeYoung points out that it’s usually some form of pride that lies underneath all of this, and that we suffer from what he calls “The tyranny of total obligation”.
If all of that sounds exhausting, well, it is. But you know that. If our culture doesn’t know how to rest, or what rest is actually supposed to look like, then we need to turn elsewhere. We need to find an ancient and eternal wisdom about why and how we are to use part of our time to rest.
The biblical view of rest.
A biblically-grounded definition of rest that I’ll suggest is this: rest is re-creative settledness. We use the word “recreation” as a synonym for “play/relaxation”, but it literally means “to create again or to restore”. Rest need not be complete inactivity, an idea I’ll come back to in a moment. To be settled is to be content and established. It is a quieting of the anxiety and unease that accompany our toil. That’s why the biblical concept of rest is so often linked to the biblical concept of peace. It is a rich, robust, and even, sometimes, dynamic idea rather than the thin, shallow, and completely static idea we gravitate towards.
So how does Scripture present it? Well, Sabbath rest is one of the Ten Commandments, so it’s pretty front and center in terms of what God calls his people to do. It’s actually the longest of the commandments (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5), all of which were given to God’s people after he had delivered them from slavery. That means their covenantal purpose is not God saying“here’s how to live so that you can be set free”, but God saying, “I have set you free, here is now how you are to live”. That’s why Jesus affirmed the enduring moral validity of the Ten Commandments, meaning they are still the pattern for how we are to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Many of Jesus’ debates with the scribes and pharisees had to do with the interpretation and application of the Sabbath laws, and I’m not going to try to get into all of that right now. The bottom line, at least, seems to be clear: we are called to set aside time to rest. But why?
The simplest answer, I think, is that resting is a display of dependence upon God as our Creator, Sustainer (physical), and Redeemer (spiritual). Resting our bodies is not only a physiological necessity, it also reveals a simple truth: we are not our own Creator. Psalm 3:5: “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.” Have you ever stopped to think how amazing it is that something as biologically inexplicable as sleep—closing our eyes, slowing our breathing and heart rate, and slipping into some kind of different neural state—is able to refresh you?
Sleep itself is re-creative settledness. Physically resting with an awareness of our dependency upon our Creator and Sustainer can actually be a kind of worship, because it gives God the honor that is his due. Since I don’t uphold the existence of all things, I can rest and trust the God who does.
Similarly, resting our souls reveals a simple truth: we are not our own Savior. To paraphrase Deuteronomy 5:15, God says there, “I have delivered you from your slavery and bondage, therefore rest, because I have done for you what you could not do for yourself”. This is why Jesus says, “Come to me to find rest for your soul”. Jesus Christ has done all that is necessary to bring us back to God, to rescue us from our captivity to sin and our submission to the grave. In Christ, we are presented faultless and blameless before the Throne. That’s why resting in Christ is a form of worship. By trusting in him alone for our redemption we are giving him the honor that is his due.
These twin ideas of physically and spiritually resting in the Lord is what lies behind Augustine’s famous quote, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless, until it rests in you.” If all of that sound refreshing, well, it is. Experiencing it, however, is a different story. So let’s take a moment to consider how to move towards this kind of rest.
How to steward your time.
I’ll offer three simple suggestions here (these were originally sermon notes, after all…):
1. Pursue rest
- This is the main theme in Koessler’s The Radical Pursuit of Rest (as you can glean from the title). We need to be intentional and deliberate. If you only rest whenever you manage to find time or when you hit the point of exhaustion, then you won’t be stewarding your time in the way that God calls you to. God commands it!
2. Engage in the biblical practice of Sabbath. Find a day (typically Sunday, but that’s another conversation) that includes the following things:
- Physical rest. Making sure you get enough sleep is part of stewarding your body well. This should be real rest, though, not just disengagement. Take what Kevin DeYoung calls a “screen Sabbath”.
- Re-creation, not just leisure. As paradoxical as this sounds, I believe that biblical rest can be active and creative. It is a cessation of futile striving/stress/frenzy but not necessarily all activity. God rested on the seventh day of creation, but that didn’t mean God stopped all activity, or else the cosmos would have fallen apart. In some way both mysterious and wonderful, God was perfectly resting as he was perfectly acting. We can’t do this, but I think it does show us that rest is more about being re-creative than just sedentary. Even as Jesus calls us to rest in him, he speaks about us resting as we take up his yoke. We need not be inert to experience refreshment. For me, mountain biking is a great example of this. I love going out on the trails for a few hours. As physically tiring as it can be, it is also re-creative and renewing. For you it could be reading a good book, playing games with friends, sharing a meal with family, knitting a scarf, the list is nearly endless.
- Worship. Part of the Sabbath command involved the component of worship. You can do that on your own, but there is something unique about gathering with others, which is part of what we are called to regularly do as we steward the time God has given us.
Koessler sums up this way of practicing Sabbath when he says,
“…deprivation is not the ultimate goal of rest…when we rest in this way we do not cease from all activity; we abstain from one kind of activity in order to engage in another. We deprive ourselves of our ordinary work for a time in order to engage in a higher calling with a better reward. The benefit we receive by leaving our other pursuits behind is that we are refreshed. The ancient command to observe the Sabbath was both a sign and an invitation to enter into the experience of God…The pursuit of rest is really the pursuit of God.”
3. Rest with an eye towards what is yet to come. When we rest, we enjoy a foretaste of what is to come (Hebrew 4:9). You know that feeling you get when you feel simultaneously relaxed and energized? When you feel refreshed and peaceful, but also invigorated and joyful? The times when we experience little bits of Sabbath rest here and now are like appetizers and reminders of what we will have eternally in Christ.
Rest for yourself and for others.
When my boys were one and three years old, we flew out to California to visit my brother and sister-in-law for a few days. Here’s some free life wisdom for those of you who might not know: crossing three time zones with a one year old is about as much fun as bare-knuckle boxing a grizzly bear.
Jameson, an early riser on the East Coast, woke up every day about 2am, no matter what we tried. This trip was during the 2012 Winter Olympics; so he and I would go downstairs, sit on the couch, and watch curling and biathlon reruns. By the time everyone else awoke, he and I would go back upstairs and take a nap. We tried to do some sightseeing and fun things, but he was ready for bed each day around 4pm, and I wasn’t too far behind. He had no idea how and when to rest, and it actually made things hard for those around him.
When we don’t know when or how to rest, we end up exhausting not only ourselves but can even introduce fatigue in the lives of others. Stewarding our lives in light of the Gospel involves using our time well. Using our time well includes resting—physically and spiritually—in the God who made us, sustains us, and has redeemed us. “Come to me,” Jesus said, “and you will find rest for your souls.”
Merciful and majestic God, we confess that we too often try to uphold the world through our own frenzied activity. We too often strive to establish our own righteousness rather than resting in Christ’s. Teach us to rest. Let the way in which we use our time honor you and bear witness to your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen.