Work and Rest

As Americans, we’re obsessed with being busy. Even during a pandemic, we’re preoccupied with how much we’re getting done. Our culture fixates on and rewards efficiency and productivity, even at the expense of our own health and relationships. It’s even how we talk to one another. People always ask, “What are you doing this week?” or “What have you been busy with?” I’ve never once been asked, “Did you get nine hours of sleep last night?” … or “Did you get enough vacation time this year?” The reality of life is that we’re busy—we’re tired—and we simply don’t get enough rest.

But we know rest is important. Countless studies show that there are all sorts of mental, physical, emotional, and relational benefits to rest. Whether it’s getting the right amount of sleep, standing up from your computer every hour, using your vacation days, taking a recovery day from your workout routine, or simply breaking up the monotony of your work, rest is good for us. Forbes recently wrote, “You can only work so hard and do so much in a day. Everybody needs to rest and recharge.” Whether you work 9 to 5, work from home, stay at home, or are retired—we all need to rest!

Before we dive into this article, I want to encourage you to stop for a moment and just breath…. Enjoy a moment of rest…. Alright, that’s enough. Back to reading and thinking about rest.  Why? Because Scripture reveals that everyone was made for purposeful rest!

Purposeful Rest

How do I know? Well, in addition to the significant number of scientific reasons for rest, I know that we were made for purposeful rest because Jesus said so. As it turns out, Jesus was pretty good at purposefully resting. In the language of his day, he was a master “Sabbath-keeper.” The word “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew Shabbat, which marked the designated day of rest for God’s people. In Jesus’ time, the day of rest had become pretty ritualized. There were whole libraries of literature devoted to discussing how to rest on the Sabbath. In fact, the religious leaders of the day had determined there were thirty-nine kinds of work that were prohibited on the Sabbath.

It’s in that context that we hear from Jesus about rest—and that all of us were made for purposeful rest. In the words of Mark 2, One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath? He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions. Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2.23-27, NIV)

So Jesus and his disciples work on the Sabbath, the religious leaders aren’t pleased with it, and what does Jesus do? He quotes the Bible to show that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. That is, human beings were not created for the explicit purpose of observing the holiness of the Sabbath day; rather, the Sabbath was created for our benefit. The day of rest is important—Jesus agrees—but the Pharisees forgot why it was important. They thought the Sabbath was a sacred day, something that was special because of itself. But Jesus says that the Sabbath is special because of what it provides for us: a time to stop and rest.

When God created humanity, He made rest part of the order of things. Indeed, the seven-day week is the only non-physical unit of time that we regularly use? Years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds—they’re all based on the sun, moon, earth’s rotation, or (in modern calculations) the rate of decay for two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom…. But not the week. The week doesn’t have a physical origin—it has its origins in scripture, which in the words of Eugene Peterson, says that every seven days we should take some “uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing.”

We Were Made for Purposeful Rest

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. We were made for purposeful rest. And both parts of that statement are important—that we were made for rest and that rest is meant to be purposeful.

In the desire to rid ourselves of the strict Jewish legalism about Sabbath-keeping, many followers of Jesus have actually gone too far: we don’t rest at all. Lauren Winner, who is a convert to Christianity from Judaism, writes that, “There is something in Jewish Sabbath that is absent from most Christian Sundays: a true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart….” Many of us simply don’t rest.

To be honest, that’s the way I am. Several weeks ago, I got toward the end of my work week and realized that I was only going to work 50 hours that week—and a wave of guilt washed over me for not working more. There was so much more to be done that I thought to myself, “Oh, I’ll just work a little on my normal day off to get more done….” If that resonates with you—if you’re thinking similar things—you need to repent, you need to stop living and thinking that way. Because we weren’t made to work all of the time; we were made for purposeful rest.

Some of you are workaholics like me; and others of you are unequivocally not workaholics…. Rest is something that comes naturally to you; no one needs to remind you to clock out after your forty hours. No one needs to make sure that you’re getting enough sleep. The lesson here for those folks is that they need to be more purposeful with their rest. Rest does not mean doing nothing—it doesn’t mean binging Netflix for 15 hours on your day off or watching whole seasons of Game of Thrones every weekend. No, the kind of rest that the Bible describes is more intentional than that.

Purposeful rest is rest that is God-focused and refreshing. It’s rest with intentionality, rest that’s restorative. It’s rest from work, but it’s also rest for work. Some of us have physically demanding jobs—maybe you’re a mechanic, plumber, or nurse. If so, at the end of your week, you need to refresh yourself by resting physically. When I was working as a handyman over the summers while I was in grad school, at the end of the week I needed a nap—I was physically exhausted. If that’s you, rest! Other work isn’t necessarily physically demanding, but is draining mentally, emotionally, or relationally. Perhaps you’re a teacher, counselor, or work in an office. Rest in those vocations may involve taking a nap too… but it may actually involve some physical exertion, like going to the gym or working on a project around your home. We are all made for purposeful rest—rest that is truly restorative for who we are and what we do.

Several Scriptural Suggestions for Successful Sabbathing

For the rest of this article, I want to share three ways to purposefully rest. Or, as the lead pastor at church might label them: “Several Scriptural Suggestions for Successful Sabbathing.” As we think about these practical ways to purposefully rest, I want to make clear that doing these things isn’t going to make Jesus love us any more—He already loves us! These are simply ways to live in love and obedience as a response to what Jesus has already done for us.

The first way to purposefully rest is to Plan to Rest. Whether you have trouble with resting or with being purposeful in your rest, it’s not going to happen without intentionally making the choice to purposefully rest. Every one of us has to decide when and how to Sabbath.

When God told Israel to Sabbath, he didn’t just leave it up to their whims, wants, and busy schedules. He actually gave pretty clear guidelines. Exodus 20 says, Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. (Exodus 20.8-10, NIV)

Those are some pretty clear directions on when and how to rest. Notice how Israel was expected to set aside the time for Sabbath. Their rest was clearly planned.

My mom has always been a good example of planning her Sabbath rests. Even as a homeschooling mother of five kids who ran a farm, she would plan her life around rest and spending time with God. Mom would routinely get up at some ungodly hour of the morning to call and pray with her friends, to spend time searching the scriptures. She took intentional, restful time for herself and God amidst the busyness of her life. When my parents built their house, she actually had her closet specifically designed to be large enough to store her Sabbath-keeping books and journals. Mom didn’t just expect her resting to happen—she planned her Sabbaths and made sure they happened.

That’s what each of us needs to do as well: intentionally plan our rest. Years ago, I heard Pastor Eugene Peterson say that in order to make sure that he rested, he had to put it on his calendar. So that’s what I do. Months out, I schedule “rest” on my calendar. And then when something “important” comes up, I treat that scheduled rest like any other appointment or meeting—“Sorry, I’m not available then.”.

The second thing to do is Protect Your Rest. This goes hand in hand with planning our rest, because once we plan it, we have to protect it—that is, prevent it from being overrun by other seemingly important things.

In the Old Testament, there are some pretty serious protections placed around the Sabbath. Exodus 31.15 (NIV), for example, says For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. Sounds like the Sabbath is pretty important, huh? Similarly, Leviticus 23.3 (NIV) says There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord.

The Old Testament makes the significance of Sabbath rest quite clear—it’s something serious and needs to be treated as such. Likewise in the New Testament, the author of the letter to the Hebrews entreats followers of Jesus to continue observing the Sabbath: There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. (In other words, the Sabbath is still important, because God set the example of rest for us in his work of creation.) Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4.9-11, NIV) Let us make every effort to rest, the author of Hebrews writes. Let’s do whatever it takes to protect our rest.

The Practicalities of Rest

The world’s greatest fast food restaurant (don’t @ me) is a testament to this fact. Chick-fil-a is famously closed on Sundays. But few people know the explicit reason why Chick-fil-a is closed on Sundays. According to founder Truett Cathy, it’s so that “employees [can] set aside one day to rest and worship if they choose.” In other words, Chick-fil-a recognizes the importance of rest—so they protect that rest for their employees by simply not opening on Sundays.

We can all learn from Chick-fil-a on how to protect our rest. I have three really practical suggestions for how to do this.

  • First, protect your rest by making it so you cannot work. Some of us need to turn our phones off, mute our text conversations, and make it so we cannot check email on the weekend. Leave your computer at the office; use the mute function on your phone. Give it a try sometime—make it so you can’t work. You’ll find that the world can go on without your constant work.
  • Second, protect your rest with accountability. Tell others when you’ve planned your rest so that they can help keep you accountable to that. One of the former elders at my church does a good job of this. He knows that my Sabbath typically takes place on Mondays, so he checks in with me from time to time about how I’m resting—and he very intentionally does not call, text, or email me on Mondays. Find a few people who can help you remain accountable to your plans for purposeful rest.
  • Third, protect your rest by encouraging rest in others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—especially when it comes to rest. Don’t always expect other people to always be working. Give people grace when they don’t immediately respond to your messages. Be understanding when people take time for themselves and don’t attend your social event. Encourage the people in your life—your boss, coworkers, spouse, friends, anyone—to be purposeful with their rest.

In her book, Breathe: Making Room for Sabbath, Priscilla Shirer writes that, “God always and eternally intended the Sabbath to be a lifestyle—an attitude, a perspective, an orientation that enables us to govern our lives and steer clear of bondage.” Protecting our planned times of purposeful rest is a crucial part of making God-honoring rest part of the fabric of our lives.

The final way for us to purposefully rest is to Rest in Jesus.  One of my favorite things Jesus says comes in Matthew 11, where He says, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11.28-30, NIV)

Jesus knows that life is hard. He knows that we’re weary and burdened by our work. He knows that we need rest. So he invites us to follow him, to take up his yoke. In the ancient world, a yoke was a symbol of servitude—something that represented the hardships and oppressions of life. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that following Him will make all of our work or troubles disappear. Rather, when we follow Him we have our heavy burdens replaced: first with rest and then with the yoke of Christ—the expectations of following Jesus.

Amidst all our busyness and work, don’t forget to stop and rest. Because we were made for purposeful rest.

What about you: What are your patterns of rest and Sabbath? How do you make sure you’re getting enough regular rest?

Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Christ-Follower. Married to Hayley. Father of Bree. PhD student in Historical Theology at Saint Louis University (19). Love Reading, Thinking, and Blogging.

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