Because of the way I am wired I have always viewed rest as weakness and a colossal waste of my time. Why should I have to spend such a large chunk of every day doing nothing when there are books and articles to write, things to do, and people to see? From my skewed perspective, rest has always seemed like an impediment to keep me from accomplishing all the things that I have really wanted to do.
I remember once reading about the Puritan John Owen with great appreciation for the way that he disciplined himself to get by on 3-4 hours of sleep a night in order to accomplish more for the kingdom of God. I even began patterning my life after his despite the fact that I knew he may well have ruined his health and hastened his own death by not resting for long enough periods of time. This tendency in me to minimize the importance of rest and overplay the significance of work is part and parcel of the western world in which we live. I once heard a friend of mine from Russia complain about how unfriendly the US is to families. When I expressed surprise at her statement, she justified her complaint by pointing out that Americans work too hard: “You guys don’t understand the concept of rest.”
Whether or not we agree completely with my friend’s comments, we can still acknowledge that there is some degree of merit in what she says. Many of us at least don’t understand the concept of rest. We see it as a necessary evil, something to be tolerated only as much as we absolutely have to. And so we scale back on our rest when and where we can, or we work when we are supposed to be resting. I know that I am certainly guilty on both counts. If you are anything like me, you will acknowledge your own need to be reminded over and over again of the importance of rest.
The Bible has a lot to say about this topic probably as a response to the ongoing temptation we all face to be “like God.” Ever since the Garden of Eden, Satan has been tempting people with this grand delusion (Gen. 3:5). It has led us to believe that, among other things, we are infinite and indestructible and that we don’t need to take time to rest. Because of this temptation, we need to be continually reminded that we are not God. We are finite and frail, although we may not like to admit it. Our bodies break down. We get sick. We run out of energy, and we even burn out. We are not “Energizer Bunnies;” we cannot keep going and going forever. Our need for rest is a gracious reminder from the Lord that we are wholly dependent upon Him at all times and for everything we do, even when it may not seem like it.
There are three main things I would like us to see in the Bible’s teaching on rest: (1) everyone needs to rest; (2) rest is always unto work; and (3) rest prepares us for heaven. In what remains of this article, I hope to unpack the first of these ideas in more detail. I would then like to devote the next couple of articles to examining the second and third points in turn.
No matter how strong we are, how much energy we think we have, or how necessary we perceive ourselves to be, we all need to rest from time to time. Surely this is what God intended to communicate by resting on the seventh day after working for six in creating “the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) and establishing that as a weekly pattern for us to follow (Ex. 20:8-11). In doing so, the Lord built into His creation a cycle of work and rest every week and guaranteed just over 7 weeks of vacation every year for every one of His creatures.
To make certain that we wouldn’t miss our need for rest in the regular weekly cycle that He instituted in creation, God went even farther and actually built a “system of sabbaths” into the very fabric of society. When God commanded His people to keep certain feasts each year, He specifically required them to add in extra rest days in connection with them (see Lev. 23). In addition to all these sabbath days, however, God also instituted a sabbath year (Lev. 25:1-7) in which the land, and thus also the people, were to rest for one year in every seven. They were not to sow or prune or reap for that entire sabbath year. And, then, after seven of these sabbath years went by, the people were commanded to celebrate a “Year of Jubilee” in which no work was to be done and all property that had been bought or sold was to be returned to the original owner (Lev. 25:8ff).
In establishing this “system of sabbaths,” God was guaranteeing that rest would remain a central part of the lives of His people. He was ensuring that the principle of one in seven would color everything the Israelites did and experienced to such a degree that they couldn’t have missed their need for rest. To be sure this is an overwhelming example of grace in the Old Testament. God, knowing the frame of His creatures and knowing their need for rest, built reminders and, more than that, mandates, into the very fabric of society so that His people could develop the habit of resting from their worldly labors for a season.
Even though this system of sabbaths has been fulfilled in Christ (see, for instance, Col. 2:16-17), the need for rest has not been. We are still as much in need of rest as ever before. Two things make that abundantly clear for us in the New Testament. One is the continuing principle of one day of rest every week, which we clearly see laid out for us in the ten commandments. The command to “keep a Sabbath” in Exodus 20:8-11 is not tied to the Mosaic Covenant or to Old Testament Israel but to creation itself. It is “because” (see Ex. 20:11) God worked to create the universe and everything in it in six days and rested on the seventh that His creatures are to follow the same pattern. This tie to creation indicates that the requirement to rest one day in seven will remain in place until the created order itself comes to an end.
The second factor highlighting the ongoing validity of rest for New Testament Christians is the emphasis we see on rest as the greatest of all blessings. We will give more attention to this in the third article in this series, but, for now, let me simply say that what I have in mind here is the promise held out in passages like Matthew 11:28-29, “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.” One of the things these verses teach us is that while unrest is the condition of humankind apart from Christ, true and lasting rest can only be found in and through Christ. It is the grand blessing held out to all who follow after Jesus not only for this lifetime but forevermore.
We live in a world that values work and oftentimes pressures us to work 7 days a week. Technology has made it easier for us to do this too. Laptops and, most especially, smart phones have “freed” us up to work anytime and anywhere. We need to be reminded that the relentless call to work all the time is a ticking time bomb in our lives. We may be able to go without adequate rest in the short run, but eventually this will catch up to us. God has made us to work; but He has also made us to rest as well. We are not indestructible, and we certainly don’t have endless supplies of energy and limitless resources. Only God has these things.
We all need rest, but how much rest we need and what that rest will look like will be different for everyone. Each of us has different personalities, capacities for work and stress, etc. What one person finds restful, another may see as anything but. In my own life, for instance, exercise has always been a primary source of rest for me (along with my acknowledged need to sleep adequately each night). Exercise rejuvenates me and enables me to deal with the normal stresses and strains of the day. And the harder the exercise, the more helpful I find it to be. But, for many of my friends, this kind of exercise is too much like work. They need to relax and watch television, listen to music, or read a book.
My point is that we all need to find the best form of rest for ourselves and then to protect that time in our schedules with all our might. The degree to which we fail to protect this time is the degree to which we will fail to be effective in everything else we do. And that is because we all need rest.