Rest Takes Work
“It is perfectly clear that God’s good plan always included human beings working, or, more specifically, living in the constant cycle of work and rest.”
– Ben Witherington –
Fridays are my day off. Within Christian circles we might call it a Sabbath or day of rest. Mine is on Friday; I know, not Sunday. We pastors have an ironic relationship with Sundays—“the official day of rest” is perhaps our most tiring of the week. Though this is quickly changing, historically Sundays have been set aside for rest—inside and outside the church. Shops used to be closed. Deliveries took a break. And people generally paused too. However with a decreasing inclination to allow religious principles (whatever those are) dictate social norms, Sundays are becoming just another day. And so we may still have “the weekend” but few have rhythmic rest. But if we’re honest the real issue is not a society full of non-religious norms, rather our ailment lies much deep. And if I can be honest, we pastors are often the chief of sinners.
Every Friday my calendar’s message is clear—stop working. However as soon as my alarm goes off on Friday mornings a craving for output moves from my heart … to my head … to my hands and feet. Before I know it I’ve opened a dozen emails, organized an agenda for a future meeting, or (and!) edited sermon notes. After all, productivity sets the pace of every other day of the week and so when it comes time to embrace a different pace and slow down, I feel a bit out of place.
How about you?
Let’s be clear. Work is good. In fact God reveals himself to be a God who works. From the very beginning of the Christian story, God acts and wills the universe into existence by speaking (Genesis 1:3). Moses records the crescendo of his poetic retelling of the creation of the world when he writes, “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from his work that he had done” (Genesis 2:2, emphasis added). God works. And because God made human beings in his image it is not surprising that one of the defining aspects of his image imprinted on us is work. Therefore, “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Humanity is meant to embrace the dignity and joy of work as demonstrated and granted by God himself.
However, like every good gift God has given us, we wrongfully revised work’s meaning and usage. In this case we have responded to the gift of work predominately in two ways—laziness or workaholism. We’ve either rejected the dignity of work and consider it inherently evil or inflated its importance. When we are lazy we minimize the power and purpose of our labor and effort. And so we often refuse to work—at least we refuse to work with great energy and intentionality.
This perspective has led us to incorrectly imagine paradise (in the age to come) as an existence free from the bondage of sweat. We assume when we get to heaven we’ll do little more than sit on or at least in close proximity to a cloud while sipping sweet tea for eternity. In considering work this way we’ve failed to acknowledge that paradise (in the beginning) included God-honoring work. On the other hand when we overextend the value and capacity of work, we refuse to stop working. We believe our work makes us. An ideology like this fails to take the full frame of God’s design of humanity into account. Nor does it fully appreciate that only God “finished” his work (Genesis 1:2) and only Jesus could ever rightly say, “it is finished” (John 19:30). Regularly we reveal our exaggerated appreciation for work by refusing to rest until we go on vacation, after that project, or when we have time. We wait to rest when the work is done. But the work is never done and so we never rest.
What I’ve discovered is that rest takes work. Which is less surprising than it initially sounds because God designed work and rest to live in harmony. After all, Scripture’s entire concept of Sabbath is established in the rest of God on the seventh day (Exodus 20:11). But I have issues with that. And I imagine you do too. You see, our hearts are still tempted to laziness and workaholism. We don’t want to work because we believe our comfort is the chief expression of happiness. We can’t stop working because we think our work makes us valuable and vital. Either way, we are at the center of both our concept of work and rest. And both are killing us.
Resting without the appropriate embrace of work steals our humanity by neglecting to cultivate and cherish the good gifts God has given us. Refusing to work idolizes comfort.
Working without the proper dose of rest inflates our self-worth and self-determinism because it binds us to a constant hustle which falsely promises our best life is right around the corner. Refusing to rest idolizes productivity.
In both temptations we think we are God. And supposing ourselves to be divine kills us because, well, we are not divine. We are human beings. The remedy for all of this is Jesus. The Son of God, Jesus Christ is the truly divine one who became a human being—a human being who worked perfectly and rested obediently. Jesus came to fill the void we daily try to fill with work and rest. That means by faith in his death and resurrection, he alone renews us into full and purposeful human beings because he is the only one who could ever rightly say, “it is finished” (John 19:30). As he spoke these words on the cross, the full consequence of our idolatry—death—was paid in full. Therefore in Jesus work and rest find their true place again. Through the work of Jesus, we find true rest because Jesus is our rest (Hebrews 4). In him we do not have to fight for our identity through our work because who we are is found only and fully in Christ. And we don’t have to seek any other avenue of comfort in this life because Jesus is our real Comforter. In Jesus we find true rest and true meaning in all kinds of work.
However even in Christ, when Fridays come I need to work. When we rise on our days off, with us awakes an established pace of productivity. And like me, I’m sure your heart pulls you either to laziness and more work; comfort or productivity. Like I said, rest takes work. One agin, the true and eternal work took place on the cross and through the empty tomb. However a daily labor is taking place in our hearts to fully believe what he has already done (Philippians 2:12). We must work out our rest, growing in our awareness and embrace of the work Jesus has already done.
Here are a few ways I’m learning to work at rest, I hope you find helpful …
- Plan a weekly day off. I realize actually having a day which you have no work commitments, let alone work habits may take some time to accomplish. So that’s the first step. Talk with your boss or supervisor, talk with your spouse, talk with colleagues, and make a plan to set a day free from productivity and hurry every week.
- Put it on your calendar. When a day off and rest is on the calendar we are prone to treat like a commitment, rather than a good idea we’ll get to if nothing else is going on.
- Read your Bible. When our day of rest is set in the Scriptures—may I suggest starting with Genesis 1 and 2 if a day off is new for you—it sets the appropriate framework for believing and loving Jesus and his gift of work and rest which help to keep you in an appropriate posture all day long.
- Serve and encourage someone. Make plans and take intentional steps to serve your family, your neighbors, and others. This is a great way to embrace the reality that rest is not about you. (Personally I find doing dishes, working on our house, and giving my wife—who stays home full time with our kids—some alone time to be helpful regular day off rhythms.)
- Beware of Netflix (and social media). Rest is not about indulgence. It’s a lot like drinking a bottle of soda, you think it’s satisfying but only leaves you more thirsty. So beware of things that rob your energy rather than replenish.
- Cultivate a hobby. I am still really working on this one, however using a skill or enjoying something that speaks of God’s goodness and beauty in a unique way from your work and don’t create stressful output fills us up.
- Tell your kids about your day off. It’s amazing how much accountability a five-year-old daughter provides. Mine asks me everyday if I’m “staying home” or going to work. It keeps the vitalness of my day off in perspective.
- Don’t send or read emails. This may be the most difficult rhythm to kick for many of us. To be sure things come up, but “things” don’t come us nearly as much as we assume. Emails often feel like a tether back to work even when we are “not working”. In other words we may be with family and not at the office, but we are still seeking to be productivity and hustle for our identity through work when we keep checking our inbox. When we constantly read and (or) reply to email while we are resting, we are not resting. But when we turn off notification and truly disconnect we remind ourself we are not God.
Rest takes work. But the real work for true rest is finished. Therefore the work now lies in embracing and believing and enjoying the gospel. Fridays are my day off. When is yours?