Balancing Rhythms of Rest and Work (Overview)
Introduction – Rest and Work
Human beings need a rhythm of work and rest in order to live up to their God-given potential. Just as God gives people important work to do, God also asks people to rest periodically from their labor. Work gives each individual the opportunity to partner with God in his goals for creation, while rest lets that person enter into communion with God in enjoyment of creation. Ideally, all people would work and rest in comfortable alternation, leaving humanity physically healthy, mentally stimulated, and spiritually fulfilled.
Making Time Off Predictable and Required
Read more here about a new study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"
Alas, for many people this happens rarely. Many neglect to rest or do not have the opportunity to rest, given the patterns of their lives. With the dizzying advance of technology, people can work anywhere and anytime. In 2014 The Economist reported that 60% of people who use smartphones are connected to their offices for 13.5 or more hours a day. Many people have ceased to attempt to balance work with rest. Others find all their time consumed by the need to earn a paycheck, care for children or aging parents (or both), and fulfill others’ needs and expectations of them. Over-worked, they find it increasingly difficult to experience the kind of life-restoring, humanizing rest that they need.
Conversely, some people are under-worked, either for lack of full-time employment or from feeling disengaged from their jobs. Some lack the motivation to work or have not developed habits needed for work. Structural changes in the labor market over the past half-century have decreased work opportunities for those without access to higher education. And even those who work full time may suffer from a lack of productive engagement. If a worker feels that his or her work isn’t valued, measured, or appreciated, that worker will struggle to exhibit ownership over the task at hand. If he or she is not prepared to work productively, successful results are unlikely. The outcome will be a life-depleting lack of motivation.
When people lack rest they suffer physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Physical and mental exhaustion can often lead to emotional volatility, as a poorly rested individual become easily irritated and/or anxious. This lack of rest can escalate into larger issues. Relationships become strained. Over time a person’s spiritual life—a connection to God and the deepest meaning and joy in life—becomes diminished too.
Research bears out the cascading consequences of a rest deficiency. First, lack of rest can compromise health and the quality of work. Heavy workloads and long hours are a significant source of stress in the work place. According to an American Psychological Association survey, more than a third (36%) of workers experience chronic work stress, which can lead to anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, increased blood pressure, as well as a weakened immune system. This kind of stress can also increase chances of heart disease, diabetes, and depression. Furthermore, exhaustion depletes a person’s skill at managing interpersonal relationships. Studies show that when someone is tired he or she misreads other people’s social signals. A tired person will project negative motives onto other people, and find it hard to resist lashing out in response. Finally, there are spiritual implications to lack of rest. God created both work and rest, and carelessness in these areas can estrange people from him.
Behind the Sabbath, our holidays, and our vacations we find the notion—all work includes rest. Rest is not escape, but essential to the high calling of our daily work.
Both those who are over-worked and those who are under-worked may find it hard to connect with God in a rhythm of work and rest.
Yet by God’s grace it is still possible to integrate rest and work into the pattern of life that God intends. This study will explore the reasons why and how to do so.
From the opening pages of the Bible, both work and rest are surprisingly significant topics. In the first chapter of Genesis God creates everything, yet despite his infinite power and perfection God takes time to rest. This topical study will trace the theme of rest in scripture through four main topics: 1) why people need to rest, 2) why people can’t rest, 3) how rest is restored, and 4) and how people can rest in faith.
“Why is everyone so busy?” The Economist, December 20, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21636612-time-poverty-problem-partly-perception-and-partly-distribution-why
Marsh, Nigel. “How to make work-life balance work,” https://www.ted.com/talks/nigel_marsh_how_to_make_work_life_balance_work (Posted Feb 2011).
“Why is everyone so busy?” The Economist, December 20, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21636612-time-poverty-problem-partly-perception-and-partly-distribution-why
Patrick Lencioni, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers (And Their Employees) (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007).
Alistair Mackenzie and Wayne Kirkland, Where’s God on Monday? (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2015), 98.
Stephanie Overman, “Stressed at work? How to move up or out” fortune.com, March 22, 2011, http://management.fortune.cnn.com/2011/03/22/stressed-at-work-how-to-move-up-or-out/
Ron Friedman, “Working Too Hard Makes Leading More Difficult,” hbr.org, December 30, 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/12/working-too-hard-makes-leading-more-difficult
On the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:2-3)
The seventh day is the very first thing to be hallowed in Scripture, to acquire that special status that properly belongs to God alone. In this way Genesis emphasizes the sacredness of the sabbath. – Bruce Waltke 
After six days of creation, God looks upon the works of his hands and pronounces it “very good” (Gen 1:31). But it is not until the seventh day that God calls something, “holy,” the day of rest that he interjects into the time and space of creation. The day of rest receives the attribution of holiness, which is the very essence of God’s character. The two short verses of Genesis 2:2-3 emphasize three times that God rested.
Today, many people think of rest as something they have to do so that they can work. Given the choice, some people would prefer bodies that did not need rest. In modern society, rest is often seen as the opposite of productivity. Rest is a functional necessity, serving the higher end of work, devoid of higher meaning or significance. Is this view of rest and work biblically accurate?
In Genesis 2 God both works and rests. God, in his omnipotence, clearly does not need to rest for reasons of physical tiredness or exhaustion. He does not need to rest so that he can become more productive, given that he has already created everything. So clearly there is something more to rest than maintaining energy for the production line.
It is also interesting that the first thing in all of creation that is made holy is not a person or even an object, rather it is a day. What then is the significance of rest for God, and why does he make this day holy? Genesis 2 does not say why God makes the seventh day holy, merely that he does make it holy. So it helps to turn to the concept of sabbath as it is developed throughout the Bible. Surprisingly, the term sabbath does not appear again until Exodus 16:23-29, when Israel is wandering in the wilderness after being delivered from Egypt. The next significant mention of sabbath occurs in the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:8-11. The fourth commandment to remember the sabbath and to keep it holy is grounded upon God’s pattern of working six days and resting on the seventh, making an explicit link between creation and sabbath observance, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.” (Exodus 20:11). Israel is commanded to rest because God rests in creation.
It is important to note that the sanctity of rest in no way undervalues the importance or dignity of work. Rather, these opening chapters of Genesis establish a pattern of work and rest; to do one without the other is a deviation from God’s created order. In fact, the fourth commandment combines both a command to work and to rest: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” God affirms the goodness of work and the sacredness of rest, with the two beautifully woven together. The fourth commandment as given in Deuteronomy supports the rhythm of work and rest with a different argument—because of God’s deliverance of his people out of Egypt. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:13-15) People should work and rest as God instructs because of his model in creation and his model in redemption.
Exodus 31:16-17 provides even deeper insights. “Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” Two important discoveries come from this passage. First, the sabbath functions as a sign, pointing to the “covenant” between God and Israel. This covenant embodies the privileged relationship that Israel enjoys with God, which begins with the patriarch Abraham. Old Testament scholar John Durham writes in his commentary, “The reason the sabbath is to be kept is that Yahweh has commanded it as a sign of the covenant in perpetuity between himself and Israel, the covenant by which Israel has made a response to the gift of Yahweh’s Presence.” In other words, keeping sabbath is a living out of the special relationship God’s people enjoy with God. Second, the sabbath is a day when God himself is “refreshed” and he wants his people to experience that same refreshment. Thus the sabbath enacts God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with his people. God offers his people weekly refreshment through communion with him and with his creation.
Further evidence of this relational aspect of the Sabbath emerges in Ezekiel 20:12, “I gave them my sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, so that they might know that I the Lord sanctify them.” According to this verse, God gives Israel “his sabbaths” (the refreshment that belongs to him, as a relational sign between God and his people) so that they might know who he is as well as know the sanctifying effects of relating with him. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke corroborates this relational emphasis: “[T]he sabbath is the sign that Creator has set Israel apart for a special covenantal relationship with him.” The sign is not arbitrary, like a tattoo or a secret gesture. Instead, the sign of sabbath is real participation with God in the delight of resting in God’s own creation. God chooses not to be distant from his creation. Rather, God chooses to intimately commune with his people and with his creation through their participation in his sabbath rest.
The New Testament extends both the directive to enter into God’s rest and the possibility of doing so. Hebrews chapter four encourages Jesus’ followers to rest. “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” (Hebrews 4:1) The ancient Israelites, according to Hebrews, fail to take God up on his offer of rest because they are disobedient to him. But followers of Jesus receive good news about the rest God promises from the beginning. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, believers are able to accept God’s offer of rest regardless of who they are or where they live. “A Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” (Heb. 4:9-11)
These texts convey a deeper significance to rest, communicated by this notion of “sabbath.” Rest is much more than recuperating from a hectic, tiring week. It is the affirmation of a special relationship people have with God. Rest is a privilege graciously extended by a God who desires his creation to delight in the refreshment he enjoys. The sabbath is holy because it is a day that belongs to God and he graciously chooses to share himself with his creation. He is a generous God who delights in the delight of his people. Rest communicates the character of a holy God who relishes in the act of creation (Proverbs 8:30-31) and desires to commune with it. Rest is the gracious outworking of God’s desire to be in intimate, joyful relationship with humanity and creation.
In 2017, the Harvard Business Review published a summary of recent medical and psychological studies arguing that humans are designed for periods of rest, silence, and deep thought: "Taking time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments in which so many of us now live, work, and lead." They also include four tips for cultivating silence and sabbath even in the middle of a busy workplace.
In sum, God sanctifies the seventh day in creation to set it apart from the other days as a day of rest. God does not need to rest, yet finds rest refreshing nonetheless. God rests so his people can partake in his refreshment. Moreover his rest from work fosters his relationship with his people. People take delight in the “very good” creation of God, upon which humanity’s work is meant to build.
In the first two chapters of Genesis, God both works and rests. God also create people to be similar to him: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth.” (Genesis 1:26) God creates people with a job in mind: responsibility over creation. Both the fact that people are created in God’s image and the immensity of the task he entrusts to them prove that God intends his people to be workers. Similarly, he intends his people to be resters, after the pattern he models on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:2). God’s dual invitations to work and to rest serve as a validation of the special bond between God, humanity, and creation.
Gordon J. Wenham, vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary : Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 36.
John I. Durham, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 3, Exodus (Thomas Nelson, 1987), 413.
Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan, 2001), 72.
If rest is a source of refreshment and a means to better relationship with God and with other people, why don’t people do it? The answer begins with the Fall of humanity.
To Adam God said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:17-19).
Adam and Eve’s disobedience breaks the intimate fellowship that they were intended to have with God, and they become estranged from their Creator. The impact of humanity’s rebellion is devastating to all aspects of creation including both work and rest. Work was originally intended to be an ennobling partnership with God, but because of man’s sin God curses the ground, and work becomes difficult and painful. Rest was intended to be a similarly ennobling affirmation of humanity’s intimate fellowship with God, but due to the chasm sin creates between God and people, rest becomes deeply distorted. After the fall rest becomes a necessary antidote to the harshness of work, yet rest is elusive because humanity’s perfect relationship with God is broken.
It is important to clarify here that work itself is not a curse; rather, the ground is cursed, giving rise to greater pain, frustration, and hardship associated with work. Work is still noble and it still brings joy, but because of sin it is also beset with challenges and difficulties. The Fall makes work exhausting, and, the deeper significance of rest established in creation is overshadowed by people’s physical need for rest. In a world that is broken, people rest merely to survive, to refuel for more backbreaking work.
Despite the brokenness that enters the world due to human sin, God’s goal is to restore for his people a holy rhythm of work and rest. He does this first by giving the Israelites specific commandments regarding work and rest. Later God expands the scope and possibility of both rest and work through the life and sacrifice of Jesus.
God sets out restoring guidelines in the law of the Old Testament. The most well-known of these commandments are the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai after Israel is delivered from slavery in Egypt. Amongst the Ten, God includes the commandment to rest:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work, - you, your son, or your daughter, your male or female slave your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it (Exodus 20:8-11).
God commands Israel to honor the sabbath and to keep it holy, resting from the work that defines the other six days. This rest includes the entire household, servants and animals, so that all can “be refreshed” (Exo 23:12). God ends this commandment with a reminder that he too rested on the seventh day following six days of creation. It is as if to say that following a commanded rhythm of work and rest might restore some of the utopic harmony that is lost to human beings after the Fall.
Because life out of Eden is extra hard for humans in their work, God also institutes other cycles of rest into Israel’s calendar year. There are seasonal festivals and feasts given by God in Leviticus 23, including the feast of the Passover, a harvest festival, a day for atonement, and a rest day preceding it by a week (known today as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah respectively), as well as the festival of booths (known today as Sukkot). For each of these festivals God commands the Israelites to stop their regular work and observe a rest. God also commands the Israelites to do specific actions on each festival day, which may serve to help the people connect better with God. Here is one such example of a command to rest and to perform a connecting ritual (in this case on Rosh Hashanah):
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall present the Lord’s offerings by fire. (Lev. 23:23-25)
On this festival God commands the people to rest from their normal occupations, and instead to take action that reminds them that God is the ultimate provider of both their work and their rest. In the case of this particular festival, the Israelites are commanded to blow the trumpets and to give some their earnings back to God in the form of a sacrifice.
A yearly pattern of rest is relevant even from a modern business perspective. Justice Louis Brandeis, who sat on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939, once took a short vacation right before the start of an important trial. He received criticism for this decision, but Brandeis delivered a convincing defense: “I need rest. I find that I can do a year’s work in eleven months, but I can’t do it in twelve.” Many people think their jobs are too all-encompassing to allow them to take a break during the year, but if a top US justice can do it then others probably can too.
God also commands the Israelites to observe patterns of extended rest every seven (Exodus 23, Leviticus 25:1-7) and forty-nine years (Lev 25:8-55). Because the land is cursed due to effects of The Fall, these extended periods of rest provide time for the land to recover.
In the Old Testament these weekly, yearly, seven-yearly and forty-nine-yearly cycles of rest serve two functions. The first is to give both people and land a physical rest from the hardship and frustration of work. The second reason for these rhythmic rests is to invite people to commune with God in worship, satisfying a greater need than just that of their physical bodies. God’s people need physical rest, yes, but also deep spiritual rest—rest from the instability, anxiety, and insecurity created by the threat of enemy invasion. God institutes these cycles of rest so that his people can set aside time to worship him and rediscover his covenantal love and faithfulness towards them. During these times of worship, Israel is reminded that God himself is their rest: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" (Exodus 33:14). When Israel turns to God in trust and obedience, this promise of rest is realized through Divine protection and blessing. Israel later achieves victory from her enemies in battle and gains possession of the Promised Land:
And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors; not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (Joshua 21:44-45).
Throughout the Bible there are numerous examples of the rest that God provides for his people, a rest which goes beyond simple physical rest. God provides rest from war (Joshua 11:23, Joshua 14:15; 1 Kings 5:4; 1 Chronicles 22:9; Psalm 46:9-10; Proverbs 1:33; Isaiah 14:3), from social strife (2 Corinthians 13:11, Ecclesiastes 10:4; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:11; Hebrews 12:14; James 3:17-18; 1 Peter 3:8), from fear (Mark 4:37-38; Matthew 8:24-25; Luke 8:23-24; Genesis 32:11; Psalm 127:2; Micah 4:4; Matthew 6:31; Luke 12:29), and from anxiety (1 Peter 5:7; Matthew 6:25; Philippians 4:6). His presence provides security (Deuteronomy 33:12; Proverbs 19:23) and peace in the midst of death (Deuteronomy 31:16; Job 3:13-17; Revelation 14:13).
This deeper rest can be described as a spiritual rest—a rest that comes from being in covenantal communion with God. The Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel describes this deep rest as menuha. According to Heschel, “menuha came into existence on the sabbath and can be described as tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose. Menuha is the state in which there is no strife and no fighting, no fear and no distrust.”
Heschel beautifully communicates what humanity loses in the Fall. In addition to the physical aspects of rest, there is a deeper spiritual need that all humans have—this yearning for menuha or the assurance that all is well. The problem is that many people look to all the wrong things to provide this deeper spiritual rest, resulting in increased restless.
This is the situation that plagues many people today. People may not be aware of the need for both physical and spiritual rest. Physical rest without spiritual rest is not satisfying; nor is spiritual rest without physical rest restoring. Honoring the sabbath does not mean engaging in soul-numbing frivolity nor is it austerely communing with God. Keeping the sabbath holy means recognizing the brokenness of the world after the Fall and looking to God to mend both broken bodies and misguided hopes.
The High Calling audio address by Howard E. Butt, Jr. January 1, 2008.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005), 23.
The biblical narrative of work and rest is a rich and somewhat complicated story. Work is intended to be an ennobling partnership with God, and rest is intended to be an invitation to enjoy intimate fellowship with him. The Fall makes work difficult, and creates a desperate need for people to experience both physical and spiritual rest. But people often find it difficult to rest. The next passage of Scripture will illuminate why that is.
On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather [manna], and they found none. The LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? See! The LORD has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day (Exodus 16:27–30).
This passage comes immediately after God’s dramatic rescue of Israel from Egypt. Through awesome displays of power and might, God demonstrates his faithfulness to Israel and delivers them from the bondage of slavery. As they journey towards the Promised Land, God continues to provide for all their needs, including food in the form of this unknown substance, manna. He specifically instructs them to collect enough manna for each day, but not more than a day’s need, with the exception of the sixth day when they are commanded to collect enough for two days, so they can rest from work on the sabbath (Exo 16:4-5).
God’s instructions are clear. Collect enough food for each day—no more, no less—and God will be faithful to provide each day. After experiencing the dramatic and miraculous exodus from Egypt, there should be no conceivable reason for the Israelites to believe that God wouldn’t provide for their needs. However, there are still some in Israel who go out on the seventh day to gather manna. Do they simply forget it is the sabbath? No, the explicit point of God’s instructions is to test whether Israel trusts and obeys: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not’” (Exo 16:4). God recognizes the deeper problem within the hearts of his people—they do not rest on the sabbath because their hearts do not trust in God’s provision. Similarly, people today who do not trust God will not be able to allow him to restore the relationship with him and with other people that is broken as a result of the Fall.
If distrust is one reason people overwork, dissatisfaction is another. The author of Ecclesiastes observes that some people work constantly because neither their work nor the fruits of their labor, nor pleasure brings them satisfaction.
I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil (Ecclesiastes 4:7–9).
People end up in the “unhappy business” of working to relieve dissatisfaction with their lives, their loss of relationship with God and with people, their fears about not having the things they need, and their inability to find pleasure in anything. But obsessive work only makes people more restless and unhappy.
Because refusing to rest on the sabbath stands in the way of God’s plan to restore the world from the effects of the Fall, it is a very serious offense in the Old Testament.
In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself! Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the sabbath day? Did not your ancestors act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring more wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.” (Nehemiah 13:18, emphasis added).
When God gives Israel the sabbath, he gives them a bit of the Garden of Eden. So when the people of God reject the sabbath, it “brings more wrath on Israel” by subjecting them to the effects of the Fall a second time.
The commandment to rest and the challenges to fulfilling that commandment are not particular to Israel. The struggle is real in modern times as well. Rest is as necessary as ever. It remains the pattern God lays out for people made in his image. The reasons that people can’t rest today are the same too. Either people are unable to rest because they are still enslaved by external forces, like Israel was in the land of Egypt, or like the Israelites in the desert people choose not to rest because they don’t trust God. Christ makes it possible for believers to rest, but still rest remains far from perfect .
Like the enslaved Israelites, many of God’s people today lack basic necessities, even the food and water to survive. The world is so broken by sin that God’s promise of provision is not always fulfilled in this life. It would be no good news to impose an undue burden on people in dire circumstances by commanding them to take a day off from work when such rest is impossible. The sabbath is intended to be a liberation for people, not an added burden. Jesus performs work to relieve people in need on the sabbath and teaches that “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Christ give people freedom to rest, not an impossible task to fulfill.
God ultimately delivers the Israelites from slavery and into the Promised Land. Jesus, similarly, shows nothing but compassion for those in distress, healing on the sabbath and explaining that, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath” (Matthew 12:11-12). So for those people currently enslaved either literally or by economic necessity, there is no rule that will allow anyone to judge them for their sabbath practices. All Christians would do well, rather, to partner with God in his continuing work of liberating the oppressed.
Others people operate in the rebellions mode that the Israelites adopted in the Sinai desert. Rather than believing that God will provide for their needs each day, these people put it upon themselves to obtain what they think they need. Many people would rather trust their own actions than trust a God who promises to provide for all the needs of his people yet remains unseen. The deeper problem leading to inability to rest is this lack of trust in God despite his demonstrated love and faithfulness. It’s this refusal to trust God that leads people to forfeit the rest they so desperately need.
Why is rest so difficult? Some people respond: “I feel guilty that I’m not working”, “I’m afraid other people will get ahead”, “I’ll lose my job if I don’t keep working”, “My coworkers will judge me”, “I won’t get promoted”, “My company will go under if I don’t work”, “People will think I’m lazy” or “So I won’t feel anxious”. Some would even respond, “I love what I do and enjoy the work.” This list can go on and on, and many of these reasons are not necessarily bad ones. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work hard to provide for a family or to keep a job, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with working hard to succeed or because it brings satisfaction intrinsically. God intends work for all these purposes. The problem arises when underlying these good desires is the desire to be god rather than to trust the real God.
When people today have time to rest and yet refuse to obey God’s command, they are doing exactly what the Israelites did in the wilderness. They do not believe that God will provide for their needs. Rather they trust in self-sufficiency, inadvertently stealing God’s job away from him. In futile and foolish attempts to be god, people forfeit the grace that God promises. As Augustine noted, people’s hearts will remain restless until they find their rest in God.
Conversely, people might be making a god out of work, seeking to find all of their fulfillment there rather than in God. Underlying what may superficially appear to be a harmless decision to work is actually a rejection of God, his grace, and his revealed character of generosity.
Regardless of an individual’s proclivities or economic circumstances, each person should ask him or herself whether current patterns of work and rest truly reflect God’s generosity and provision. Based on what a person has received by God’s grace so far, it often does not make sense to work so much and to rest so little. Indeed, the self-congratulation many people seek may not be what God wants to provide more of. In the moment when each person must decide whether to work or to rest, it may help to ask, “Is working now instead of resting actually the way to receive the good that God has in store for me and for others? Does my work have the power to gain for me anything that God would not provide if I rest?” Clearly, there will be cases when the answer is “yes,” analogously to when an animal falls into a pit and some immediate work is the only way to bring a good outcome (Matthew 12:11-12). But for many people ,when tempted to imagine there is no choice but to work at the expense of rest, the answer will be “no.”
Saint Augustine, Confessions (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009), 3.
What can break people out of this destructive, self-centered cycle so that they can experience the rest they need? As much as many would like rest to be a matter of strict discipline, people cannot simply schedule regular periods of rest into their calendars and expect to experience the deep menuha rest that Heschel described. The deeper problem with rest is not a matter of scheduling. It is a matter of trust in God. Somehow, people’s hearts have to be changed.
In the New Testament, two passages clarify how God is restoring rest. In the first passage, Jesus makes the unequivocal and controversial claim that he will give people rest.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, 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).
This claim infuriates some Israelites because only God can provide that kind of rest, as in Exodus 33:14, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” It is indeed Jesus’ intention to identify himself as the one true God who can provide the kind of rest that is promised to Israel. But how can Jesus provide this rest?
In the second passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes another startling claim that he is greater than the sabbath as he is “lord of the sabbath” (Matt 12:8).
“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (Matt 12:6-8)
Jesus makes the dramatic claim that he provides a greater rest than the law of the sabbath can offer. How does Jesus provide a deeper rest than the sabbath law? Romans gives an explanation.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3–4).
The sabbath law on its own has no ability to address the deeper problem within people. The fourth commandment teaches that people ought to rest, but it cannot enable them to do so because a commandment on its own is powerless to change hearts. The common inability to rest, rather, exposes a much deeper problem. People desire to be self-sufficient without God, and yet the effort that it takes to do so leaves people exhausted and empty. This is where the good news of the Gospel comes in. According to Romans (see below), God knows that the law is powerless to change hearts. Jesus refers to himself as the lord of the sabbath because he does something that the sabbath law could never do. God wants to commune with his people through rest, but people can’t commune with God if they fear his condemnation. Jesus frees people from condemnation by forgiving all sin through his sacrifice on the cross. In doing so Jesus grants Christians renewed access to God that individuals could never earn or accomplish on their own. No longer estranged from God due to sin, people can now enter into real restful communion with God.
Indeed, an examination of the Christian faith, as laid out in the letters to the early church, concurs about what Christ has accomplished for people with regard to rest.
First of all, in Christ believers are saved from condemnation under the Law.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)
Because people no longer need to be afraid of God, believers no longer feel compelled to work incessantly in a futile attempt to please God.
By establishing forgiveness, Christ reconciles each person’s relationship with God. In doing so, Jesus restores the possibility of people experiencing loving fellowship with God.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
According to this passage, all people should be able to experience a restful relationship with God, despite any real-world obstacles.
Furthermore, through Christ’s sacrifice the parent-child relationship between God and his people is restored.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)
Christ reinstates all the privileges and benefits of being a child of God that God gave people in the garden of Eden. Adopted as God’ children, people have every right to ask for what they need, and God promises not to withhold any good thing from them. (Romans 8:32, 2 Corinthians 9:8). Moreover, individuals have the honor of partnering with God in the work he intends to do in the world.
A spirit of adoption does not negate the possibility of suffering in the life of a Christian. Rather, suffering can be viewed as part of taking on the family business. People sometimes have the opportunity to suffer with God in the same way that Jesus comes alongside all people who are suffering. Whether believers feel extremely provided for or extremely in need, Jesus’ sacrifice means that they no longer have to turn to their own work as the ultimate source of security and identity.
Similarly, when people partner with God in his work of restoring the world to his original intention, the Holy Spirit empowers them to deepen their relationships with others. It is only through Jesus’ sacrifice that people receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-7). Thanks to the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers find it possible to give their time and property sacrificially to others (Acts 4:34). God gives his followers his very Spirit to empower them to live by faith, to work by faith, and finally to rest in faith.
The last insight on this subject in the New Testament is that Christ will come again one day to fully restore God’s intention for both work and rest. In the fallen world which continues today, people will always be subject to a pattern of frustration, exhaustion, and partial recuperation. But when Christ comes again to make the world the way God has always intended it to be, he will reestablish an integrated pattern of purposeful work in partnership with God and rest in perfect communion with him. The following passage from Revelation reveals both themes of work and rest.
The angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!" (Revelation 19:9-10)
Life in the new creation will involve both work (in fellow service with the angels) and rest (enjoying the marriage supper of the Lamb.) Human work and rest in the age to come will both occur in perfect partnership with God. Believers can wait for this eventuality in expectation, even as each person endeavors to experience closeness with God in his or her work and rest today (Hebrews 4:1).
The sacrifice of Jesus provides Christians freedom to enter into God’s rest on a perpetual basis. Therefore, it is an open question whether a practice of keeping a weekly day of rest, referred to in the Old Testament as sabbath, is necessary for a Christian believer. The New Testament scripture seems to give a Christian the freedom to choose for him or herself the answer to this question.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. (Romans 14:5-6)
Some Christians interpret this passage as warrant for not having a formal sabbath day, although Romans clearly states that those who choose to keep a sabbath should not be judged for it. Whether a believer sets aside a specific day for sabbath, or rests only as the spirit leads, this passage from Romans indicates that both practices should include thanking God.
Although people are free to choose when and how to rest, there are compelling arguments both for observing a weekly sabbath rest and for worshiping collectively with other Christians on a customary day of the week (whether or not the latter feels restful to an individual.) Some sort of weekly meeting involving worship has been widely observed throughout the history of the church.
Jesus’ disciples certainly go to the temple on the Jewish sabbath, if for no other reason than to convince others that Jesus is the Messiah.
After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. (Acts 17:1-4)
Indeed, Paul’s practice is to attend sabbath meeting in any town he visits and to use that platform to proclaim the good news about Jesus. It doesn’t seem particularly restful to him (indeed, his speeches are often followed by violent mob outbursts), and perhaps rest is not the primary reason he observes this custom.
In his own life Jesus demonstrates two distinct practices of sabbath. Jesus engages in both personal spiritual rests and communal worship experiences. Jesus takes moments alone to rest in God’s presence (Matthew 14:13). At other times, he uses the Jewish sabbath worship for reaching out to others with his message of salvation (Luke 4:16-21). Since both resting personally and worshiping communally are important in the life of Jesus, modern Christians might do well to make similar choices with their God-given freedom.
Whether or not people choose to rest in a particular weekly pattern, those who manage other people have a responsibility to ensure that these workers have proper access to rest. God’s commandment to the Israelites reveals his deep concern for the rest of his people:
But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:14-15)
In this passage, the end of slavery brings freedom to rest. Christians’ freedom to observe the sabbath in a manner of their choosing must always be seen in this light. Rest, at its core, is freedom from the unceasing work inherent in slavery. Because God delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he expects his followers at the very least to refrain from enslaving others. Furthermore, Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life is not limited to one religious group, but “for many” (Matthew 26:28). Thus when managers protect rest time for employees, they can view this management practice as partnering with God in his continual work of deliverance.
Providing for the rest of all workers may take different forms in different industries or organizations. Bandwidth.com, a telecommunications company based in North Carolina, has a policy that everyone should leave work by 6 pm in order to spend dinner time with the people they love. If necessary, people may work from home after 8 pm or so, but workers are expected not to work or communicate with one another at least between 6 and 8. Co-founder Henry Kaestner says the biblical Sabbath is an inspiration for the policy, not because of its religious particularity, but because it gives everyone time for rest and relationship.
The fast-food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A is well known for being closed on Sundays. This is certainly one way to ensure that everyone has a day off, at least from their work at the company itself. According to the company’s website, founder Truett Cathy’s decision to make weekly sabbath a company policy “was as much practical as spiritual. He believes that all franchised Chick-fil-A Operators and Restaurant employees should have an opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so.” Hopefully, in addition, everyone who works at the company doesn’t feel the need to work elsewhere on Sunday to make ends meet.
Henry Kaestner, panel discussion at Movement Day, New York City, October 10, 2013.
God loves people so much that he is willing to leave the place of perfect rest in order to enter into the unrest of this world. Christ, the lord of the sabbath, becomes incarnate as a man who has “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) so that his followers can find real rest. This final section explores how people can experience a greater and deeper rest. The first step is to look to Jesus in a deepening faith.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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)
Believers can give Jesus their burdens and experience deeper rest. However, it takes a full surrendering of minds, hearts, and wills.
Many barriers to rest start in the mind. Thoughts that are angry, fearful, or anxious prevent rest. It is particularly difficult to rest when life circumstances create resentments against others, fears of the myriad things that can go wrong, or anxiety about others’ expectations. Hebrews reminds believers to let go the obstacles of the mind and to look instead to Christ, with trust in him for the future.
Christ himself, as he faces the agony and shame of death, focuses upon the joy of the future.
Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
This freedom to fix active thoughts on Christ, and in particular a future hope of glory, can be found throughout the letters of the New Testament.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8).
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4).
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
A critical part of experiencing deep rest is being proactive about what thoughts fill the mind. Philippians exhorts people to think about things that are good and true and beautiful. Colossians encourages Christians to imagine the glorious future that awaits all those who look to Christ. 2 Corinthians asks believers to recognize current problems and difficulties as momentary afflictions compared to the eternal rest that awaits. Christians can choose to follow this advice or be overwhelmed by trials and difficulties. To rest fully is to anchor the mind upon Jesus and the perfect future that awaits all who follow him.
Secondly, entering into a faithful rest involves examining existing desires. Jesus invites “all who are weary” to come to him for rest (Matthew 11:28) but each individuals must first respond in his or her heart to that invitation. Coming to Christ is not a trivial or passive decision. Jesus makes clear that being a disciple is a life-consuming reality that requires a self-denial that doesn’t come naturally.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matt 16:24-26).
Each person has something in his or her heart that he or she falsely believes will bring rest. Many people don’t experience true rest because they are consciously or subconsciously pursuing something that promises rest, but can’t ever deliver it. The Bible considers anything people pursue above Christ to be an idol. Some people berate or abuse others, hoping it will make them feel less inadequate. Others entertain themselves to the point of numbness, or excite themselves to the point of exhaustion. Still others may pile up achievements, hoping to climb high enough to rise above the fear of lacking what they need. When people feel stress and fatigue from the work week or experience anxiety, many turn to these idols to bring a sense of relief. Pastor Tim Keller elaborates upon this point in his book, Counterfeit Gods.
An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving “face” and social standing. It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in the Christian ministry…. An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.
Keller argues that even good things can become idols that take the place of Christ. People instinctively look to these things to provide a sense of deeper rest, but idols will all fail at some point. Idols keep people from trusting God, thus people forfeit the grace that brings true rest. God invites his followers to rest amidst work, but idols require ever-increasing frenzy. How can people overthrow these idols and place Christ at the center of the heart’s desires? The answer is repentance. In repentance, an individual surrenders the illusion of control. He or she has to die to a false sense of self-sufficiency. Rather, each believer must trust that God can and will graciously provide for all the “desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Without this repentance, people cannot experience deep.rest.
Marva Dawn, in her book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, describes what people find when they repent of idols and surrender completely to God. “When we cease striving to be God, we learn a whole new kind of contentment, the delight of the presence of God in our present circumstances. When we give up our silly rebellion against God’s purposes, we discover that he provides the security for which we were searching.”
Lastly, peoples’ habits may hinder them from experiencing a deep rest. It is important to examine whether current rhythms of work and rest bring an individual closer to peaceful communion with God, or further away from it. In the Old Testament, God institutes various patterns or cycles of rest, creating regular rhythms for the Israelites. Though Jesus’ sacrifice frees Christians from needing to follow the Old Testament law to the letter, nevertheless weekly, monthly, seasonal, annual, and sabbatical rhythms of can provide needed guidelines for people who want to enter into the freeing rest that Christ makes possible.
To sum up, here are some practical suggestions for those who are looking to release their burdens to Jesus and enter into God’s rest:
- Reflect on things that are just, pure, and pleasing (Philippians 4:8). Some people find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal.
- Imagine a future that transcends the current problems of this world (Colossians 3:1-4). It may help to cultivate a holy imagination.
- Reframe current troubles as small within an eternal timescale (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). Imagine looking at a current situation from a distant future time point (also known as a “fast-forward” model of decision making.) 
- If there is a solution that promises to fix all life’s problems, and it’s not Jesus, repent of it.
- Reflect on whether adding daily rest practices might be helpful. Examples include: reading a daily devotional book or Bible reading plan (if this doesn't feel like unpleasant work), praying worshipfully at the beginning and end of every day, or praying together with family members at an evening meal.
- Reflect on weekly rest practices that feel resourcing. Some people commit to one full day of rest a week, or to a weekly meeting of a small group of Christians. Many people find a weekly church service refreshing, but that shouldn’t serve as some sort of high-water mark of sabbath rest. Other weekly rest ideas include: eating a meal with friends and neighbors, playing or listening to music, or engaging in a fun physical activity.
- There are other rest practices that might help people refocus on God either seasonally or annually. Spend extended times in prayer or reading scripture. Go on a retreat. Celebrate holidays or seasons of more intensive spiritual devotion, such as Advent and Lent.
An important question about personal rest practices, whatever they are, is whether they pull an individual into a deeper experience of God’s faithfulness. God gives the weekly sabbath to remind the Israelites of his never-ending faithful provision, and Jesus heals on the sabbath to prove his ultimate dominion over all problems. Any particular approach, whether it be attending a church service, reading a devotional, or eating with friends, is not a fool-proof solution. Rather, all practices afford people greater opportunities to commune with God, in whom humanity finds the deepest and most satisfying rest.
It is also important to note that there are seasons in life where an individual may not be able to experience the rest that he or she might need. New parents, for example, cannot take a day off from caring for the needs of their infant. Entrepreneurs, who often have no one to whom they can delegate all the necessary work, may find it impossible to set aside enough time for rest. In these seasons when people are not able to rest properly, they need not feel guilty, but instead turn to God with hopeful expectation for future rhythms of rest and work. “A Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9), both from an eternal perspective and in this lifetime. Babies get older, start-ups develop institutional capacities, and personal practices of sabbath change even as God’s goodness remains constant.
Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (Dutton Adult, 2009), xviii.
Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 56, 61.
Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (Dutton Adult, 2009)
In conclusion, rest is intended to remind people of the inestimable privilege of being created in God’s image. The hallowing of the seventh day is God’s gracious invitation to enjoy an intimate communion with him and to delight in his creation. Yet because of humanity’s sin in the Fall, work, which God originally creates as good, now becomes painful and frustrating.
Even as physical rest is necessity to survive, human limitations point to the need for spiritual rest too. With the exception of those who work in slavery-like conditions, chronic overwork arises from a disbelief in God’s provision and attempts to take matters into human hands. Work addiction has its roots in deep fears and insecurities. Without the drum-beat of constant work, some people may be insecure about future stability, identity, or self-worth.
Into this vicious cycle, Jesus enters as the “lord of the sabbath,” the one who is greater than the sabbath and accomplishes what the sabbath law can never do alone. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection restore peoples’ relationship with God. Once again humanity can work in partnership with God and rest in his presence.
Each individual has the freedom to choose wise rhythms of work and rest for him or herself. Yet ultimately, it is faith in Christ that leads to a deeper spiritual rest. Jesus offers to take each believer’s burdens, and he means it. The God-given identity that Jesus provides for each person who follows him gives Christians both the strength to seek out physical rest and the courage to advocate for the freedom of others. Yes, there is always a future God’s people can hope for with more satisfying work and more pleasant rest. In the meantime, however, Christians can follow God’s lead and throw themselves fully into both work and rest.