Chapter 6 - Resting From Work: Taking a Break
What do you think of when you hear the word “rest”?
Do you dream of quiet days in a deck chair on a deserted beach? Or perhaps time with family and friends, completely free of the prospect of work?
What the Bible says about rest
There is much in the Scriptures about rest – almost as much as about work. This is not surprising when you consider that work and rest are two sides of the one coin. You can’t have one without the other. And their relationship to each other is modeled in Genesis, chapters 1 and 2 … within the story of Creation.
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Gen. 2:2-3)
What exactly did God do when he rested?
He took a break. He refreshed himself. Was God exhausted so that he needed a rest? Or did he just want to stand back and enjoy what he had made? If we hope to appreciate the worth of something, we need to take time to enjoy and evaluate it, to catch a glimpse of the big picture and gain a new sense of perspective.
Early in the history of the people of Israel, a “sabbath” was established, based on the example of the Creation story. It was a sign of the covenant. The fourth commandment is one of only two that are given in a positive form – “Remember the sabbath, to keep it holy”. For the sabbath was intended by God to be a day of delight. An opportunity to celebrate life and anticipate the future. It was also a day to be set apart, consecrated and dedicated to God.
Like the other commandments, the sabbath was given in order to keep the people of Israel liberated. For the call to “lay down the tools” for one day a week was a discipline which was intended to break the relentless demands of work. In this sense, it was not so much a “commandment” as a kindness, an example of God’s care.
In the Gospels the sabbath plays a prominent role. Not surprising, since many of the run-ins that Jesus had with the religious authorities sprang out of sabbath-keeping. The legalism of the day had tied the sabbath into a highly negative command – with laws against all kinds of trivial activities. This was consistent with the “ethics of avoidance” predominant among the Jews at the time. Their effort to “avoid sin” missed the point of sabbath rest entirely. The response that Jesus made was to demonstrate mercy, healing, liberation and restoration. In doing so he made a dramatic point about the true meaning of the sabbath.
Sabbath then is, viewed biblically, a day of pause, a time of physical rest and renewal, an opportunity for spiritual refreshment. It is a gift from God.
Rest – not leisure
It’s important to note the distinction between rest and leisure. Rest and sabbath are not the same as leisure, though they may certainly overlap. Rest is all about recovering our equilibrium – with God, with ourselves, with others and with creation. The goal of leisure is personal enjoyment – which may well be a by-product of rest, but not its primary purpose.
In fact, leisure can frequently divert us from rest. For many people it either becomes so dependent on frenetic activity that it is just another form of work (like the old “work hard, play hard” maxim) or so caught up in personal pleasure that there is little room to reconnect with God, our inner selves, and others.
A further complication is the place consumerism has come to play in our culture. We are constantly being asked to buy this or that gadget, or take this overseas holiday or that thrill-seeking adventure – as if filling our lives up with more and more pleasurable experiences will somehow lead to greater happiness.
Unquestionably a Christian needs to discover a place for leisure. However leisure is not the biblical opposite of work – rest is. For it’s as we seek to be renewed and re-energized that we are able to re-enter the rhythm of work.
Rest is a dirty word
In spite of the clear biblical mandate to rest, life is increasingly so full that few people take the time to rest well. Alvin Toffler’s prophetic words of the ‘70’s have been confirmed with remarkable accuracy. Life is dramatically faster now than it was a generation or so ago. Little wonder that the reply I expect most when I ask friends how their week has been is, “I’m just so incredibly busy,” or “Flat stick!”
Why have we allowed the treadmill of life to speed up? Why do we have to live faster and faster, so that our lives seem to be spent just trying to keep pace? No doubt there are many factors, but three key ones Gordon MacDonald identifies in his short article “Rest Stops” are:
Rest is not “productive”
Efficiency and productivity are virtues in our society. And productivity means efficient activity. Our narrow definition of productivity excludes any concept of strengthened relationship, often with unfortunate results. For example, in an efficiency drive in orphanages, staff numbers were reduced. However, it was quickly discovered that when there were not enough staff to handle and hug the babies, the babies simply died.
We can even make ourselves feel guilty if we’re not working or being “productive”. It’s our “productivity” which generally feeds our sense of value and worth.
Obviously rest doesn’t fit too well into this equation! It’s not productive, it doesn’t feed our self-worth, and therefore it’s a distraction from what is seen as really important in life.
Our culture is fixated on standards of living. We even measure the economy by how much it has grown each year – through the lens of productivity and consumption. Unfortunately the church has largely bought into this. We are very much products of our society. In the incessant drive to possess more, we have laid a real trap for ourselves. For as Gordon MacDonald says, “The more we want, the more revenue we must produce to get it. The more revenue we must produce, the longer and harder we have to work. So we build larger homes, buy more cars, take on added financial burdens and then find ourselves having to work harder to pay for it all. More work, less rest.”
In fact, under these conditions, rest becomes the enemy of work.
The role of technology
Technology is a wonderful thing. During the writing of this book several years ago, one of us travelled extensively overseas, yet we were able to continue the process of writing and developing the content via a laptop and email, passing the text backwards and forwards around the planet.
It has never been so easy. But the same benefits of technology are also responsible for very negative consequences. Smart phones, wi-fi, social media, supersonic travel, and the like, mean that life is now actually more hectic than ever before. Virtually everywhere on earth is easily accessible. And our wireless devices have conditioned us to desire continuous “connection”. As a result, our work and rest have become so intertwined that many people live most of their week in a confused milieu, unable to concentrate 100% on any one activity, constantly distracted by texts, emails, and Facebook. Not able to truly work. Not able to truly rest.
Far from liberating us, digital technology has enslaved us. It has become our master, we its servants.
The call to simplicity
Somewhere in the midst of all this madness, the gospel calls us to simplicity. Because of the intense pressure exerted to speed up life, to be more “productive”, to accumulate more, to experience this and that, to “connect” with everyone, we need to take deliberate action if we’re to fight against the current.
Some practical forms of simplicity
All of us live in our own unique circumstances. What I face weekly may well be very different to the challenges you face. However, each of us can develop habits and routines that help us grow a work/rest rhythm in our lives. Here are some things we, the writers of this book, have consciously worked at.
Dropping our lifestyle expectations
We’ve noticed that an enormous amount of stress and effort is given to appeasing our appetite for an increased standard of living. Many of us can actually live on substantially less with very little pain. Buying a house in a cheaper area of town and then resisting the desire to “upgrade”; buying a second hand vehicle that has already depreciated substantially but still has good life in it; settling for mainly secondhand furniture; eating out only occasionally; keeping one’s wardrobe to a minimum and wearing clothes till they are well-worn; choosing cheaper forms of entertainment and holidays – all these are some of the practices we have pursued over the years. And they have reduced the cost of living substantially.
During the years of greatest expense (teenage children!), simplifying our standard of living meant much less financial pressure on us than on many of our friends. We were content to live on a lower income and therefore have more time and energy to give to other matters – including rest.
Walking rather than driving
One of the great technological marvels of our age remains the motor vehicle. It enables many of us to live and work in very different communities, and to visit family and friends hundreds of miles away in a short period of time.
One of the downsides of my car, I discovered, was that it “upped” the frenetic pace of my life because I was able to get to more places, do more things, and see more people in a day. Plus, city traffic being what it is, my stress levels often increased while in the car.
One of the habits I have developed to counter this hectic pace, has been to walk where I can, or even take public transport. (That’s a challenge for me. I happen to be an ex-car dealer!) Walking slows me down. It fills my lungs with air, my nose becomes sensitive to the smell of trees and flowers, I see things that I miss at 50km an hour, and I meet people I would normally drive straight past. It gives me time to think, to reflect, to pray and to relax. Unhurried, I build a rhythm into my daily life, which makes me better prepared to face the times of busyness.
Not becoming a slave to being “connected”
Modern inventions have changed the pace of life, and the ubiquitous telephone is one of the clearest examples. Whether landline or cellphone, its insistent ring has become one of the great compulsions of modern life – even more so with the advent of the smart phone.
I base most of my work from home. There are tremendous advantages to working from home. I don’t have far to commute each day (the traffic is very light on our stairwell!), I keep overheads to a minimum, and there is great flexibility in my day for mixing family, friendship and community responsibilities with employment.
However, with all upsides there are downsides. One is the accessibility people have to me via the phone. They know that I can be reached all times of the day, night and weekend. The interruption this can cause to family life, let alone rest and recreation, is potentially enormous.
I experienced a real breakthrough when I realized that I wasn’t obliged to answer the phone every time it rang. I did not have to be at the beck and call of everyone.
When I am in need of some time for reflection, rest or writing, or when we have visitors, I will frequently just let the phone ring. Visitors sometimes get quite unnerved about this – their faces seem distraught as I continue listening or talking while the phone rings! Almost an, “aren’t-you-going-to-get-that?”plea.
Since writing the initial edition of this book, there has been a monumental shift in digital technology – away from the fixed line telephones, televisions, and stereos, to mobile devices that can go wherever we go. Smartphones, MP3 players, tablets – these are now so dominant in our culture that for many people they act kind of like a prosthetic – an extension of who they are; something they simply can’t imagine doing without.
Being wired (or connected) is now a 24/7 experience. Public and private spaces, work and recreation, have within a short space of time become thoroughly colonized by screens. Texting, social media, email, downloadable music, movies, video clips, and TV shows, online video games, avatar personas, Skype and Facetime – these are the things that fill our lives.
There are some benefits to all this new technology. However, such a constant connectivity has also come at great cost. It has blurred the lines between work, rest, and leisure. It has shortened our attention spans so that most of us are now distracted and have swallowed hook, line, and sinker, the lie that “multi-tasking” is more productive than focusing on a single task. Our relationships at work and at home have become significantly mediated through the media we use – fundamentally changing the very nature of relationships (and in fact, the way our brains function). This has resulted in the human need for face-to-face, undistracted, intimacy becoming harder to find.
And…our capacity to desire and find genuine solitude and silence, so we can think, pray, reflect, and be renewed by our relationships with God and ourselves, has been deeply diminished.
If we are to be freed from the tyranny of 24/7 connectivity, most of us will need to take very deliberate, intentional steps to restructure our lives. This will inevitably include carving out spaces and times where we disconnect from the digital world.
The biblical rhythms of life
Not only did God intend for us to experience the regular rhythms of the day (day and night) and week (six days working, one day sabbath), but there are other laws he laid down for the people of Israel. These include regular “religious festivals” (some lasting several days), the sabbatical year (every seventh year when the land was rested) and the year of Jubilee (the 50th year – after seven sets of seven years).
All were intended to structure into the normal schedule of work a balancing rhythm of rest. How we do this in our modern and largely urban context is a personal challenge we all must face. But rest we must – not only because our weary minds and bodies need a “breather”, but also because of the constant need to realign ourselves with our Creator and his creation.
Up Close and Personal
- If you grew up in the church, describe what part the sabbath played in your early life – how was it expressed in your family and church context? Then think about how this has changed now – both in your understanding and practice of sabbath.
- What are some of the changes in our society that now make rest and sabbath more difficult to keep than, say, thirty years ago?
- Do you agree with the distinction made between rest and leisure? What forms of leisure do you think are also restful? What type of leisure works against sabbath?
- Productivity, consumerism, and technology have been mentioned above as factors that have contributed to the speeding up of life. How have these affected your life? Are there other factors?
- Spend some discussing the section on connectivity. Do you agree or disagree? Share your own experiences and reflections of its influence on your life. What kinds of practices might help you to be freed from the tyranny of 24/7 connectivity?
- Have you ever had the opportunity for a sabbatical? Share your experiences, the lessons you learnt, or the things you would do differently next time. Discuss creative ways of making space for sabbaticals.
Gordon MacDonald “Rest Stops” in [email protected] Journal, Vol 2, No.4.
I’d had a difficult year. Despite my intense commitment to working with unchurched young people, I was feeling tired and drawn. Everything was an effort. And the challenges I was presented with just served to overwhelm me. At the end of the year I sat with the other leaders of the organization I served and discussed my predicament. Conversation was well meaning but didn’t really touch me, until one of the leaders – a middle-aged man – spoke about the need for sabbaticals. I had heard the term before – mainly used by my old university lecturers, but it was a totally foreign concept in the environment of our organization. As he talked, the penny dropped – not that this would be the golden answer to my woes, but the timing was right to experience a break.
Six months later my wife Jill and I, along with our eight-month-old daughter, found ourselves travelling into the deep south, to a small isolated community. It was the beginning of a four-month adventure that not only restored my sagging energy levels, but more importantly helped set the compass of our lives for the next “season”.
During those delightful few months we explored beautiful Fiordland, I worked ten hours a week for a small Baptist fellowship – preaching, leading, pastoring – we developed rich and deep friendships, and I studied (a correspondence paper from a North American college).
Being enveloped by a caring community and appreciated for what we could contribute to them, having freedom to be a family without the usual demands on our time, studying church history, regaining a sense of spontaneity and of awe – all these elements combined to refresh and renew me. They were some of the key ingredients that made those few months a watershed in my life.
Sabbaticals frequently result in directional changes. I have seen this time and time again with my friends. My one was just that for me. I came back convinced that my time in youth work was close to an end. I was still completely unaware of what lay ahead, but the direction of my compass was already changing. I discussed this feeling with my fellow-workers, and we agreed that I would serve another 15 months – long enough to pass the baton to others.
As it happened I ended up going overseas to study at the college I had previously done the correspondence paper from. A new organization was also in its infancy – and with my colleagues I was able to develop some fresh material and trial new ideas. It was an exciting time. The energy and confidence to explore and change was largely due to the invigoration of the sabbatical.
Sabbaticals can be for everyone
Often I hear from people, “Oh, it’s okay for you. You can take time out. But I can’t. My boss would never allow me to take an extended time and he certainly wouldn’t pay me for it! You’re lucky.”
Of course there’s truth in these sentiments. Many of us aren’t in the position where we can just take a break from our employment. And yet it may not be as impossible as at first appears.
For some there may be an opportunity to make use of long service leave. Others may be able to apply for leave without pay. Others again may be able to accumulate holidays. Perhaps alternative low-stress employment for a period. A friend of mine took a year off from youth work and drove buses. “The most enjoyable year of my life,” he tells me.
The critical thing is not so much the length of time – but the intention and purpose of the time.
Even if the ideal of a complete break is not physically possible, there is still the opportunity for opting out of an aspect of our work for a period of time, in order to rest and consider where we are headed. For example, this could involve taking a year-long sabbatical from church responsibilities or community activities. While this won’t provide all the opportunities that a complete break from work does, if it’s well structured it can certainly give space for plenty of rest, reflection and re-evaluation of priorities.
I realize that the idea of a sabbatical seems risky. It’s not easy to abandon the security of our regular life and work commitments. Yet my experience, and that of several friends, is that it’s a richly rewarding exercise. Forgoing it means that you’ll miss out on a wonderfully refreshing opportunity.
There will often be a cost – lost wages or a lower income. One sabbaticaI I took resulted in my small business suffering, as I had no one to replace me. And there was some inevitable dislocation in the commitments and relationships I was involved in.
But at the end of the day, as with our God-inspired call to take time out each week, we know the cost is worth it – because it’s an investment in our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health, and a re-creation for the next phase of our work.
I’m not indispensable
My experience of a sabbatical has taught me one invaluable lesson. None of us, no matter what our gifts, positions of responsibility, or contribution to church and society, is indispensable. God is capable of achieving his purposes without us. I know this might come as a shock to some – but it’s true!
We are valuable to God, not primarily because of what we can “do” for him, but because of who we are. Sure, he delights in using us, but none of us is indispensable.
This truth has the potential to set us free from our activism and our desperate longing to feel needed. It can cause us to allow our relationships with God, with others, and indeed with ourselves, to become genuinely renewed.
This, I’m convinced, is one of the great benefits of the weekly sabbath – and of sabbaticals.