Rest: The Reward for Work
My friend, Dr. Brent Whitefield, returned to Calvary Church for a short visit and shared a much-needed message about work and rest.
We have all heard the medical benefits of sleep extolled, and warnings about the health consequences of too little rest: stress, weight gain, anxiety, headaches, memory loss, and many others. But what about the spiritual effects of too little rest? There is little doubt that many aspects of our contemporary culture and the pursuit of the American dream wage war on a solid theology of rest. The idolatry of work, the equating of work and self-worth, and the pursuit of material abundance have made work for many of us an all-consuming obsession rather than a part of our calling. Until recently, Western society carved out times for rest and wove them into the pattern of the week and the year. On Sundays, most people enjoyed a day free from work and commercial activity, free to spend unhurried time in worship, sleep or with family. Intense periods of work in certain seasons of the year were balanced with periods of leisure and recuperation. Weddings, holidays, parties, and festivals were often multi-day events, opportunities for protracted feasting, conversation, and lingering in one another’s company.
Things have changed drastically in the last two generations. As sociologist Arlie Hochschild has noted, for many modern Americans, work feels like home and home feels like work. Many people today admit that while they never look at their watch at work, they constantly monitor and ration their time at home, making sure that hours spent constitute ‘quality time.’ Languid hours around the water cooler at work are an investment, activity-less hours in the company of family are ‘wasted.’ Sundays are just another day for commerce and competition - the need to be available to your work 24/7 is no longer felt only by emergency medical personnel. People spend less time with their friends and family and more time at work. Nearly half of all Americans confess that they get too little sleep and have too little time. Time is money. Respect for one another’s precious time means that many party invitations actually indicate an ending time, unthinkable in other times and most other cultures.
The lack of time for rest is taking a toll on our collective spiritual life as well. Our lives are poorer for the little time and energy we have to invest in one another. Christians used to attend church two or three times a week. Now two times a month seems to be the new norm. But more harmful than foregone fellowship opportunities is foregone rest. The second chapter of Genesis tells us that God rested on the seventh day from his labors and more than that: he blessed that day and called it ‘holy.’ Later with the institution of the Abrahamic law, this day was set as a day of rest for God’s people. Now, the fourth commandment given to Moses is the only of the ten that we proudly and unapologetically violate, boasting of our work ethic or responsibilities that afford us no rest.
Of course, Christians who know their theology understand that our Sabbath rest is now found in Christ. In Him, we may cease our striving to earn God’s favor and rest in the completed work on the cross. We are right to steer clear of the kind of rigid prescriptions about the Sabbath that preoccupied the Pharisees and infuriated Jesus. And yet it is not out of theological ignorance or legalistic pedantry that Christian communities have almost always sought to honor the principle of a Sabbath day, a weekly cessation from money-making and achievement, to worship and rest.
I see most Christians today in critical need of rest - rest even from worthwhile kingdom service. For many, their frenetic pace of life affords them little pause for spiritual growth, which comes more often through decreased, rather than increased activity levels. I like the way that scholar Joseph Pieper reflected on this idea in his paean to leisure:
Leisure is essentially "non-activity"; it is a form of silence. Leisure amounts to that precise way of being silent which is a prerequisite for listening in order to hear; for only the listener is able to hear. Leisure implies an attitude of total receptivity toward, and willing immersion in, reality; an openness of the soul, through which alone may come about those great and blessed insights that no amount of "mental labor" can ever achieve.
How urgently we need to recapture a theology of rest. How desperately we need leisure to cultivate the life of the mind in Christ. How much more effective we would be in advancing the kingdom if we laid down our idols of vain achievement and mindless material pursuit and rested in the achievements of Christ for us. All the while we wait and yearn for what Calvin called “that perpetual Sabbath in which there is the highest felicity, when there will be a likeness between men and God, to whom they will be united.” Come Lord Jesus and bring us that rest, woven into the created order itself, that is the full expression of our salvation in You.