Rest is important for everyone, but it’s a biblical command for God’s people. This Labor Day, remember that even God took a day to rest from all his labors. The rhythms of work and rest are critical for the care of our souls and our relationship with the one who calls us to rest.
God loves people so much that he was willing to leave his place of perfect rest in order to enter into the unrest of this world. Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, became incarnate, as a man who had “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), so that his followers could find real rest.
Then he called them to experience a greater and deeper rest by looking to him in a deepening faith.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly 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. Angry, fearful, or anxious thoughts 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 of the obstacles of the mind and 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 founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated 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, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, 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 appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
– Colossians 3:1-4
For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are 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. Second 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.
A critical part of experiencing deep rest is being proactive about what thoughts fill the mind.
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 individual 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 anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
– Matthew 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. Some stockpile money, and 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.
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. -Philippians 4:8
Releasing burdens to Jesus and entering God’s rest
For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said, “In repentance and rest you will be saved, In quietness and trust is your strength ….”
– Isaiah 30:15 (NASB 1995)
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 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 depending on adherence to the Old Testament law for salvation, nevertheless weekly, monthly, seasonal, annual, and sabbatical rhythms can provide needed guidelines for people who want to enter into the freeing rest Christ makes possible.
Try some of these things:
- Reflect on things that are just, pure, and lovely (Philippians 4:8). Some people find it helpful to keep a journal of these.
- 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 point in time (also known as a “fast-forward” model of decision-making.)
- If there is a solution that promises to fix all of 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. 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. Other weekly rest ideas include: eating a relaxing 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.
If there is a solution that promises to fix all of life’s problems, and it’s not Jesus, repent of it.
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 when 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. “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest 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.