At Work & Theology 101

If Work Matters to God, What About Vacation?

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What can vacation teach us about vocation? A fair bit, actually.

Several summers ago, I enjoyed a couple months of recreation and leisure, thanks to the generosity of my employer at the time. It was heavenly.

My family and I took a trip to the beach, we visited family and friends, we dined at local restaurants, we relaxed by the pool.

Such a lifestyle, of course, is one of the amazing perks of serving in the wonderful world of higher education. I feel extremely blessed, and every year I look forward to this opportunity to slow down, take a deep breath, and enjoy life.

Around the middle of the summer, however, a spirit of melancholy began to settle into my soul. Initially, it caught me off guard: “Wait a minute, shouldn’t I be ridiculously happy right now? I mean, look at me. I’m living the dream!”

But in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. On the one hand, humans were designed to experience rest and leisure. Without a doubt, this is essential to our flourishing.

But on the other hand, God also designed us to work, to make something of the world, to be productive in our various callings.

What, then, is the relationship between vacation and vocation?

Seeking Out Leisure to Prepare Ourselves for Work

In contemporary society, the de facto attitude is that we work, quite simply, in order to play. Our jobs have value, but only indirectly.

Of course, people rarely speak in these terms. And there are certainly a handful of folks who find great satisfaction and fulfillment in their work, quite independently from how their careers enable them to enjoy a three-day weekend.

But let’s be honest: these people are the exception, rather than the rule.

Too many people feel enslaved by their jobs, and not necessarily because of inadequate salaries or unreasonable job descriptions. In a fallen world, our work will always be hindered by internal and external obstacles, inevitably leading to disillusionment. It’s not surprising that we often find ourselves longing for a vacation, anxious to escape the pressures of the daily grind.

If we could find a way to view our work not as drudgery, but as a sacred calling, perhaps our approach to vacation would be transformed as well. Instead of working in order to play, the order gets reversed: we seek out rest and leisure to prepare ourselves for work.

Embracing an Ancient Understanding of Rest

This might seem like a strange proposal, especially given the apparent teaching in the creation narrative in scripture.

After all, Genesis 2:3 reads,

And on the seventh day God finished the work he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.

Doesn’t this text suggest that God’s rest occurs in response to his work, rather than as preparation for further work?

The answer is somewhat complicated.

According to Old Testament scholar John Walton, it’s crucial to grasp the ancient understanding of “rest” and how this perspective gets applied in the narrative. In The Lost World of Genesis One, he states:

Most of us think of rest as disengagement from the cares, worries and tasks of life. What comes to mind is sleeping in or taking an afternoon nap. But in the ancient world rest is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved, when things have ‘settled down.’ Consequently normal routines can be established and enjoyed. For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles rather than disengagement without responsibilities.

As Walton further explains, in scripture when the Hebrew word for “rest” is applied to God’s actions, it invariably denotes a transition into a condition of stability, rather than a literal ceasing of activity.

In other words, when God rested on the seventh day, this event merely initiated the governing of his creation, with God himself sitting on the throne, ruling in his cosmic temple.

This scenario, of course, is anything but idle; once again, it entails “engagement without obstacles.”

Challenging the Status Quo of What It Means to Be Restful

What, then, are the implications for our approach to leisure and vacation?

First of all, it remains the case that the fundamental purpose of all resting is to remind us that God rules the universe.

Upon this foundation, we exercise trust in his promises by temporarily ceasing from our everyday labors, recognizing that he is our ultimate provider. This requires a supreme act of faith, and is a disposition that runs contrary to the “spirit of the age.”

Furthermore, it suggests that our vacations should be active rather than passive, thereby imitating God’s own “resting” on the seventh day. 

I’m not claiming it’s inappropriate for Christians to take a day off from work; nor am I arguing that, if they do take a day off, it should be characterized by “busyness.” And I’m certainly not asserting that naps are unethical!

I’m simply challenging the status quo regarding, in general, what it means to be restful.

I’m claiming that however we spend our free time, whether it’s in the context of a holiday weekend or a full-fledged vacation, it should involve a range of activities that not only remind us of God’s providence in our lives, but also equip us to manifest the Imago Dei in our various spheres of influence, that is, our callings.

As believers, we have been called to a number of vocations that God instituted to spread his kingdom and advance the common good.

We are stewards, entrusted with the mission of serving as agents of common grace in a broken and fallen world.

What is our role in this mission?

I believe that our jobs represent the most tangible way that God works through our lives.

My proposal, therefore, is simple: if we’re ready to take our vocation seriously, then we ought to take our vacation just as seriously.

Again, let’s pursue rest, among other things, to prepare ourselves for work.

Editor’s note: Learn more about God’s purpose for work and rest in God’s Purpose in Creation: A Study in Genesis 1.

On “Flashback Friday” we publish some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was first published on Jan. 7, 2016.

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