Thoughts on Christian Theology and Pastoring

The Rest We Need

God rested, not for his sake, but for ours: to teach us that all life and its activity is for delighting in a relationship with God within the work he has completed. This is why Jesus, who completed the work of our salvation, invites us to come to him for our true soul-rest.

And 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.
Genesis 2:2

I once heard a story about a group of prisoners in a concentration camp who were told to move a pile of rocks from one end of the camp to the other. Dutifully, the prisoners obeyed, lugging each stone and stacking them all in a pile at the opposite end of the camp. When they had finished this grueling task, their captors gave them another order: move that same pile of rocks back to its original place. Over and over again, they were told to move the rocks back and forth until, as the story goes, the prisoners began to go insane.

We feel in our hearts that it is torturous and dehumanizing to labor without end or aim, to spend time and strength without ever pausing to reflect and feel satisfied in what we have accomplished. If we were completely honest, we would admit that this is a bit what our lives feel like—on both a physical and spiritual level.

Do you feel at rest now? When it comes to your body, do you feel the need for sleep, or are you sleep-deprived, worn out, and fatigued? What about your mind? Can you think calmly and steadily, or do you find your thoughts yanked in different directions? Now what about that deeper part of you—your soul? Depending on how much “noise” you have going on in your life, this one might be the hardest to answer. You need to take time to think about it. Do you feel a deep calm, or a frenzied uncertainty?

In Genesis 2:1-3, we read that God himself, after working to bring the universe to completion, stopped to rest. Let us learn what this teaches us about (1) God’s purpose for rest, (2) our need for rest, and (3) God’s provision for rest.

1. God’s Purpose for Rest

We normally think that rest is a human need arising from our limited reserves of energy, so it comes as a surprise to read that God rested. What purpose would God have for resting? There are a couple answers we can rule out immediately.

First, God did not rest because he was tired out. True, he had just brought the entire universe into existence, but observe how easily he did it! “He spoke and it came to be” (Psalm 33:9). He could have spoken a trillion universes into existence, but his stores of divine energy would have not been depleted at all. The eloquent prophet Isaiah invites us:

“Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all things?
He brings out the starry host one by one
and calls for teach of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.”

No, the work of creation had not diminished his strength. God did not rest to refresh himself.

Besides this, God purpose for resting was not to make a complete end of all his work. After all, the book of Genesis goes on to record many things that God did. The entire Bible is a story of “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). And Jesus himself said (significantly, on the Sabbath day), “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” Even after he had created all things, God continues to “uphold all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3).

So if God did not rest to replenish his energy or to completely cease from all work, what was his purpose in resting?

The answer is that God rested, not for his sake, but for ours: to teach us that all life and its activity is for delighting in a relationship with God within the work he has completed. This answer will become clearer as we look at a picture of this rest and the precept for this rest.

First, the picture of this rest is given in the rest of Genesis chapter 2, which depicts the garden of Eden. When God wants to show us what this rest looks like, he shows us human beings cultivating his creation in communion with God. There they are, surrounded by rivers, fruit-bearing trees, and crops watered by a mist that springs from the ground. There are precious metals and stones: gold, bdellium, and onyx. This is a beautiful, living sanctuary, a place in which all human activity is from God, with God, and for God. This is not cessation from all activity; rather, it is refreshing activity. This is true rest.

Second, the precept of rest is given long after humans broke their relationship with God, and with it, their rest in God. After this fall into sin, work no longer became refreshing, but grueling: “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 3:19). Human activity is no longer exclusively a way to cultivate creation in communion with God. Now it is partially a frantic race to outpace death—a race everyone knows they will one day lose. It is no longer freedom but slavery.

This is why the Israelite’s slavery in Egypt became a fitting dramatization of what sin has done to human work. In Egypt, the Israelites were forced to work in a way that was draining and self-destructive instead of delightful and refreshing. Their work for Pharoah had no rest, no aim, no end. When God finally brought them out of slavery, he gave them a precept: the fourth of the Ten Commandments. This commandment required them to take the seventh day of every week as a Sabbath, ceasing from their normal labors to remember and rejoice in the fact that God had freed them from their slave labor in Egypt. By observing the Sabbath, they would never forget that they belonged not to Pharaoh but to God, and that their activities for God are refreshing, not life-draining.

2. Our Need for Rest

When you think carefully about this meaning of rest, you may become aware that it is something you badly need. Maybe your activities tend to have a frenzied, pointless quality to them, much like Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes: “When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). We cannot stand inactivity—after all, as God’s image-bearers exercising dominion is part of our nature—but so much of our activity becomes frustrating, exhausting, and unsatisfying. Even what we do for “relaxation”—a vacation, watching the news, scrolling through social media—can wear us out.

And even when your body feels rested, you may experience an underlying exhaustion of soul: the feeling that you never measure up to some ideal—whether in your career, or your role as a mother or father, wife or husband, grandparent or child. Maybe you feel that you can never do enough to get God to be satisfied with you. Something is chasing you down, keeping you running in exhaustion, even when you cannot quite name what it is.

A few years ago I was at a pastoral retreat on the coast of North Carolina. One night I decided to take a calming walk on the beach by myself. A thick cloud covered the moon and stars, and a stiff breeze blew in from the ocean. As I strolled along in the darkness, with the sound of the waves lapping against the beach, I began to hear another sound: what seemed to be crunching noises behind me. I thought for a moment that someone might be following me, and so—instead of turning around as a sensible person would do—I started walking faster. The faster I walked, the more I heard the rustling sound directly behind me. My silly worry that someone was following me quickly mutated into an irrational panic, and I began jogging, then running, then sprinting! When I finally turned around, I realized it was only the long, dry grass along the beach rustling in the wind. Besides embarrassing myself, I was less relaxed than when I had begun. What was supposed to be a refreshing stroll on the beach turned out to be a panicky run, as I thought I was being chased by some indefinable terror.

I think the frenzied nature of our activity is similar to my panicky run on the beach. We act as if we are being chased by some indefinable terror. We fill our calendars with activities. We check our phones for updates and notifications. We are afraid to be silent and stand still. Seventeenth-century Christian apologist Blaise Pascal wrote that the human problem can be seen simply in this: we can’t sit quietly in a room alone. What he meant is that we are so deeply miserable that we need constant distractions to keep us from thinking about it. Death chases us all, and we can outrun it only for a few decades. And we fear that, when it catches us, it will reveal all our accomplishments to be castles of sand. Most people would rather sprint faster and faster than stare this terror in the face.

If this is true, we need rest—but rest of a very special kind. We need rest that can only be gained by the defeat of the enemy that chases and enslaves us. We need rest that will change our sprint to a stroll, our frenzied pace to a fruitful peace, a guarantee that “our labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

3. God’s Provision of Rest

When Jesus lived on this earth, he gave this invitation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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).

The more you think about it, the more astounding and attractive this invitation is. Jesus claims to give rest—not by relieving a persons’ body of a load they cannot bear, but by taking a load off their soul. If we take this claim seriously, and combine it with the fact that we recognize this is a rest we badly need, we should demand to know what authority he has to make such a claim.

In Matthew’s gospel, this invitation is followed by two events that validate Jesus’ authority to give this invitation. First, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grainfield on the Sabbath, and his hungry disciples started eating some of the heads of grain. A rule had been made prohibiting the gathering of food on the Sabbath, so the religious leaders accused Jesus’ disciples of breaking the Sabbath rule. Jesus responded by proving to them from Scripture that the Sabbath was not intended to be a day on which people go hungry, but instead was a day on which people should enjoy what God has provided. Later that day Jesus healed a man’s shriveled hand. This also enraged the religious leaders who felt that the Sabbath rule was again being violated. Jesus said, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” In effect, Jesus was saying: “Far from forbidding people to be healed on the Day of Rest (Sabbath), healing and refreshment is what the Day of Rest is for! In fact, I am the Lord of the Sabbath—the Master who gives the rest this day is all about, and I prove it by restoring health to broken people!”

Yes, Jesus came to give rest—but not just by healing people’s bodies. He also confronted and overcame the one captor that binds everyone to frenzied work without end, without aim, and without satisfaction. By dying on the cross, Jesus defeated sin and death. He was doing a great work—the work of our redemption. And when he had done it, he cried, “It is finished!” In the beginning, God completed the work of creation and rested; at the cross, the God the Son completed the work of redemption and invites us to rest in that completed work. This is the rest that remains for the people of God (Hebrews 4:9-11). By rising on the first day of the week, Jesus was inaugurating that endless day of rest—the day in which all human activity is enjoyed as a gift from God, is done with God, and for the glory of God. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

4. Our Practice of Rest

No one who feels within themselves deep weariness of soul—and who doesn’t?—can be neutral to Jesus’ invitation to come to him for rest. If he really is the Rest-giver, then your response must be simply to come to him for rest. This means that you must honestly and humbly admit that you cannot carry your own burden. But this confession, humiliating as it is, gives way to a brighter joy that you have found true rest for your soul.

And if you have found in Jesus your soul’s rest, shouldn’t that rest be evident in the habits and rhythms of your life? I don’t mean that you will be lazy and inactive. Remember: rest doesn’t mean ceasing all activity; it means the freedom to engage in a new kind of activity, even to engage in your necessary work in a new way.

The ancient Israelites showed their faith in God as the Rest-giver by ceasing from all normal labor on the seventh day of the week, as required by the Fourth Commandment. Like all Ten Commandments, this one still applies to us, but in a way that has been intensified and transformed by Christ who came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The commandment is but a “shadow” of which Christ is the “reality” (Colossians 2:17).

To keep the Fourth Commandment, then, means ultimately to rest in Christ’s finished work of salvation. But it also means weaving the wisdom of rest into the regular routines of your life. It means making spaces in your regular routines to cease from your normal labor, trusting that even though you are not at that moment earning a wage, God will take care of you since you belong to him. It means, in those times of rest, deliberately keeping in mind that life is not about climbing the ladder, packing your calendar full of activities, or earning higher grades; rather, life and all its activities are for delighting in your relationship with God, resting in what he does for you.

I was able to discuss the practical application of this rest with Christian friends of mine. A dairy farmer, whose responsibilities require daily attention, shared that he turns the barn into a house of prayer, calling out to God while he milks his cows, and that he tries to start his chores even earlier on Sunday mornings so that he can come to church. A man whose work involves using social media resolved to limit the amount of time spent on social media sites—ceasing what otherwise could be soul-wearying scrolling. Another friend and his wife have decided to put away screen devices for a twenty-four hour period every week so that they can engage in refreshing, creative activities. Even under extreme circumstances, Christians have found ways to put into practice their rest in Christ. Susanna Wesley—mother of the famous John and Charles, who raised nine other children as well—found her rest by throwing an apron over her head, and in that miniature but holy tabernacle, would read her Bible and pray.

What lies beneath these varied ways of practicing rest? It is faith in Christ as our Rest-giver. We practice rest because we belong to him who has completed the work of our salvation. But it is also love for Christ. We practice rest because we want to spend time delighting in him, engaging in activities that further the new creation work he has begun. Finally, it is hope in Christ. We practice rest now as we eagerly await our final rest in the future: the Heavenly Jerusalem where the very presence of sin is banished, death is no more, and the most refreshing of all work begins. “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him” (Revelation 22:3).

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