While Christians believe work is a good thing in itself, we are also aware that it is not good to work unceasingly.
We know from personal experience that we need rest in order to flourish, and this truth is reinforced in God’s establishment of the Sabbath, wherein he commanded the Israelites to abstain from work on the seventh day of every week.
But how should we rest today? While we are not bound to observe the Sabbath as rigorously as the Israelites, we still ought to take rest seriously because God has willed it for our good.
Some Christians have supported “taking a Sabbath” one day a week to rest. “Rest” is variously defined as refraining from doing anything related to our jobs (or school), not using the electronic devices that distract us and hinder us from rest, or praying and reading the Bible.
These are all good practices. However, framing rest solely in terms of things we must do prompts some of us to say, “Great. Now I have to work harder at resting too.” This is a sign that our thinking on the subject has gone off-track.
John Koessler’s The Radical Pursuit of Rest is a much-needed corrective to the idea that the key to finding rest is in doing certain things. Rather, our finding rest hinges on what has already been done.
Resting from Eternity
To reiterate, we may be tempted to think of rest primarily as something we do, something we have to get better at. Koessler warns that such thinking is misguided:
It is tempting to approach the problem of restlessness as merely a lack of discipline. If this were the case, the solution would require just a little more structure on our part. But this is a little like treating alcoholism with whiskey. It leads us to think the problem can be solved by adopting the proper technique or applying the right kind of pressure. We might try to be less driven. We could acquire skills that enable us to take a day off now and then. Or perhaps we could find someone to help us organize our lives, the way some people hire a consultant to help them remove the clutter from their closets. Maybe all we need to do is to be more regular in our observance of the Sabbath. None of these things is necessarily bad. Indeed, they might do us some practical good. But they are not the solution.
Disciplines for facilitating rest are not bad. However, they are not themselves the essence of rest. To find where our rest truly lies, Koessler directs us to consider Genesis 1.
After God completed his work of creation in six days, he rested on the seventh. What does it mean that God “rested”?
As Koessler points out, it does not mean that God was tired and needed to recover his strength. Nor is it simply a model for people attempting to honor the Sabbath. Instead, Koessler makes the paradoxical suggestion that even while God is “always at his work” (Jn 5:17), God is at the same time always at rest. He explains it this way:
The work God does in the present brings that which God has purposed in eternity past into the realm of our experience. As far as God’s purpose is concerned this work is already finished. Viewed from the perspective of our experience it is new or yet to be accomplished. This fact makes God’s rest in Genesis the fountainhead of all rest.
God’s finished work includes the work of salvation accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection. Therefore Jesus said, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30) before dying, and to the crowd in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Thus, if we accept Christ’s offer of rest, we no longer bear the burden of working to justify ourselves—in the context of salvation or otherwise. Rest is a gift before it is a discipline:
The lesson of Genesis is that the first work of rest is to cease from our own effort. All that needs to be done has already been done. The work of God was finished long before we ever came on the scene. The first move for those who hope to work at rest is to recognize its passive nature.
Realizing that rest is as intuitive as it seems—i.e., passive at its root, not active—is the crucial precondition to rightly practicing rest as a discipline.
The Sound of Silence
Once we understand that rest is a gift from God—“a state of being,” in Koessler’s words—then we can take a fresh look at rest as a discipline.
Recall one of the practices mentioned earlier – forgoing electronics. Part of the reason rest is so elusive is found in the devices that are the backbone of our present-day lifestyle:
Rest is harder to find in a digital culture because technology has dissolved the two fundamental boundaries that are essential to rest: solitude and silence.
Rest as a discipline simply consists of dispelling the distractions in our lives so that we can dwell in the finished work God has completed on our behalf. Because the social stimuli surrounding us often distract us from this truth, we must seek out solitude and silence to clear our minds and focus again on what God has already accomplished for us.
This truth is illustrated well in Mark 6:31, where it is written concerning Jesus and the twelve apostles:
Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
The obvious implication is that rest is difficult, if not impossible, to find in a crowded or noisy—that is to say, distracting—setting. This is also why Jesus “went off to a solitary place” to pray (Mark 1:35). In this way, rest really is a discipline of sorts:
We are tempted to think of rest as a kind of indulgence. But in reality the practice of rest often involves a measure of self-denial. Rest requires that we cease our ordinary activities and break away from our daily relationships.
It is important to remember, though, that situating ourselves in solitude and silence will not guarantee that we experience rest. Solitude and silence allow us to find rest:
The aim of all this effort is to create an atmosphere that will allow space for God. Or, more accurately, our aim is to create a climate that allows space for our own awareness of God.
When we put aside distractions and remember God’s finished work, this is true rest. At the same time, we recognize we have a part to play in that work, but we also know this work is finished even as it is ongoing. Remembering this will give us both the rest we seek and the energy to return to work.