Have you ever had a vacation, or a day off, or maybe a weekend— something that you were really looking forward to, time away from the daily grind and you just knew you needed it? You could feel like, “Man, I just need a break right now.” And then you get into the actual vacation itself or the day off or the weekend and you come out the other side and it feels like it never even happened. You got your break, you got the thing you thought you needed, you felt like you wanted, and it didn’t do the thing. It didn’t restore and refresh and give you the deep rest that you were looking for. Have you ever had that experience? I know I certainly have. And I know that one of the most slow and difficult lessons I’ve ever had to learn in my life is that rest is not as easy as it sounds.
I think one of the reasons that rest is so hard for us is that it’s really easy to get it confused with other things. We can confuse rest with not doing stuff. We can confuse rest with self-indulgence. We can confuse rest with frantic activity to make ourselves feel happy or feel better. I remember one of the first times that I interacted at a more thoughtful level with the question of, “What is rest and how does rest actually become restful to my soul?”
I was listening to a sermon by Tim Keller. He was picking up on the idea that a vacation in and of itself actually doesn’t give us the deep inner rest we need. And he was interacting with an article he had read by Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times. Let me let Keller actually just speak for himself, laying out the core case that he makes in his February 2005 sermon called, “The Rest Giver.” Here’s a snippet that gets at the core of what he wants to get across.
“There are two levels of rest. Just as sleep will not really refresh you at night if you don’t have some deep sleep, rapid eye movement sleep, right? External rest, physical, emotional rest from your labor is not all you need. There needs to be a deep inner rest, and that’s what you’ve got to have. And no amount of vacations can cure your restlessness if you don’t learn how to get to that.”
Then I want to take a moment and dig into the article written by Judith Shulevitz, who is a columnist for a bunch of different publications, including The Times as I mentioned. And in an article called, “Bring Back the Sabbath,” you get this interesting comment. She is actually defending the idea that we need a Sabbath still today as modern contemporary people who have mostly looked at the Sabbath as something totally antiquated and weird, writing from a Jewish perspective but obviously to a heavily secular audience.
And she says this, “Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was much more complicated than that,” or excuse me, “a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily the way you might slip into bed at the end of a long day.” She goes on to say later that, “The difficulty of Sabbath has to do with turning off the machinery of self-censorship, that there is this difficulty in stilling the eternal inner murmur of self-reproach.”
My hope today is to think a little bit about what exactly is real rest?
For me the easiest way to get into this is to just think a bit about my own experience, my own story. As a kid I kept a very messy room. In fact, one time we got back from my grandparents who kept a spotless house and it was so stressful being there. I got home and I apparently went up to my room and took out every toy and every piece of clothing I owned and just dumped them in a big pile on the floor and said, “Oh, okay, I’m back. I can rest.”
So I was not a naturally orderly or motivated or driven person. I did what I needed to do to get by in school. I cared about things and I would put in effort on things when I cared about them. But the idea of practicing for a sport, it always just felt like, “Oh, man, that’s more than it’s worth. I’ll figure it out when I’m out on the field.” Laziness has been a near companion to me all my life.
And I remember going through phases with my parents, encouraging, and helping, and challenging, and at times enforcing consequences and growing to become someone who could have more self-control and who could get things done. And then getting to college and started dating a girl named Lauren, who is now my wife, and watching her work and watching her work ethic and her self-discipline and saying, “You know what? If I were like that, I could do a lot more here.” And my GPA took a significant boost from watching her and realizing, “Okay, this can be something I can do.” I’ll still have to fight laziness but I learned over the course of my life and especially in college to work. I learned how to organize my life. I learned how to actually care about getting things done and get things done and become a more responsible person.
Actually, there’s certainly a lot of talk out there about smartphones and the danger of smartphones and it’s all well-warranted, the problems are many. But I would say I’m somebody whose life has been radically changed for the better by having a smartphone in my pocket. Having a to-do list that I not only carry around with me but actually use and use all the time has been enormously helpful to me in making me not always be dropping balls and forgetting what I was supposed to be doing.
It hasn’t solved all my problems—in the space of five minutes I can forget to hand in the letter to the teacher for one of my kids when I was dropping them off at school to let them go on the field trip the next day. We don’t really trust me to remember things if I’m not going to be looking at my to-do list. But at least looking at my to-do list has been very helpful and I’ve learned a lot about how to work.
And I remember in my campus ministry days right after I graduated college, feeling like I could see the value of working for the kingdom. There’s this beautiful, “Yes, Lord, I am pressing forward. I understand and can make myself and push myself to continue to do things even when it’s not comfortable.” And there was a joy in that, there was a sense of, “Wow, this is great.” There’s a kingdom way to work, there’s a for-Christ way to work that has a joy in it. It can even be a significant and almost a fierce joy that one can have when one is pressing forward for the sake of the kingdom.
Well, that was an important lesson. It was great and I began to burn out fairly quickly in college ministry and came to seminary with a real question about, “Am I even going to be able to last in ministry at all?” And there are longer conversations that we could have that I won’t dig in today about boundaries and self-care. We’ve done podcasts and written on these sorts of things at CCEF before if you’re interested. But the crucial lesson I began to learn was that while the Lord had done amazing work in my heart teaching me how to work, I realized I didn’t actually know how to rest.
And for me, part of what burnout looks like as I began down that path was realizing that while I could go hard and do well in the working portion of my day, there was this increasingly obsessive, almost addictive, desire to be off, to not be working. And I began to hoard and to crave simply the idea of having my own time, my free time. And so what had functionally happened in my life is I had become someone who… I had a huge piece of my day, the vast majority of it in terms of percentage of waking hours was spent on Jesus’ business. I was working for the kingdom, but rest was this space, this little space in my life that I had carved out where actually I could escape from the constraints of the kingdom of Christ. Of course, I never would have thought about it that way, I wasn’t saying it that way, but functionally that is what I was doing, is that rest was my escape from the call of God in my life. It was actually walling out the Lord in what I was doing.
Here’s the problem with that kind of rest—the way I was doing it. Here’s the problem with the vacations, and the weekends, and the days off that many of us take. It’s that it isn’t actually rest. And therefore it doesn’t actually last. I can’t tell you how many counselees I have heard say over the years, something like, “This is so hard and I feel like I just need a break from it all. I can’t handle going on like this, I just need to get a little rest, a breather to get a break from this.”
And I absolutely understand what people mean when they say that, and different people say it for different reasons. And I think there’s some profound truth in it. There is a way in which what they’re craving, the rest, a chance to catch your breath is indeed a possibility and something that we can have in this life. Of course, there’s an eternal rest coming and we’ll say more about that. But there is this wonderful way in which counselees are seeing they need a rest. And yet I think so often my experience and theirs is that they’re not actually doing the things in the rest when they come they need.
As often as people say to me, “I just need a break,” it’s pretty rare when somebody gets a break to come back and say, “Man, my life is just really different now. It was so helpful to get that rest and that break and it’s just been so much easier to deal with my trials and sufferings and the hard people in my life, and the challenging situations.” Most of the time what we say is, “Yeah, it was really nice to get that break and I wish I was still there. I wish I was still in the thick of it. Now it feels like I’m back and it’s almost like it never happened.”
I had the good fortune as a teenager to have good relationships with adults in our church. And I remember one of them at one point saying, “The very best vacation I’ve ever had was this last one I just went on two weeks ago, and it’s because I went in thinking, ‘How can I be a servant to my family? How can I serve my wife and my kids?’” And that sounded so crazy to me as a teenager that somebody would even imagine doing that. I mean, that’s the opposite of vacation, you’re serving. Why are you doing this? But to not only say that, but actually to say it was the best vacation he’d ever had really caught my attention.
Here’s where I think we come to Scripture and find something deeply true, that deeply resonates with us and yet is profoundly counterintuitive—at least if you are at all someone who struggles with laziness as I do. When I think about Hebrews 4:9-11, the Book of Hebrews says this, “There remains then a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from His.” And it goes on to say, “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.” In saying, “Their example,” he’s referring to the Israelites in the wilderness who did not enter rest.
What does it mean to enter in God’s rest? Well, Keller gave some helpful thoughts in the sermon picking up on that phrase from Judith Shulevitz of “quieting the eternal inner murmur of self-reproach,” that there’s something the gospel does in us that actually changes our ability to rest. And I would phrase it this way, in my own experience. I would say, “There is way in which working for yourself, working to build your own kingdom, working under the endless strain of, ‘I must achieve this, I must make something of myself, I must bring in enough money. I must fill enough time, I must keep these people happy. I must get this stuff off my plate so that I can get to do what I really want to do.’” Whatever the case might be, whatever you’re working for, when you’re working for self it will always be endlessly draining. There may be successful moments and you may be the kind of a workaholic who gets their fix by getting an accomplishment and therefore you can keep driving yourself pretty hard for a long time. But ultimately even that cycle of accomplishment and drivenness leaves you empty. It is a slower, or in some cases, a quick march towards a death of soul, a death of life, a death of rhythm of life. And there is something so profoundly freeing about working for the kingdom. A work that is with the Lord, a work that is for the Lord, a work that is, “Lord Jesus, I am just entrusting these things into your hands. I am simply walking with you through the process of doing what you have called me to do right now in the next ten minutes, or the next six hours,” or whatever the case may be.
And in a similar way, rest for self is ultimately a path towards death. Rest that is self-obsessed, self-centered, self-indulgent—a rest that isn’t about the Lord and His kingdom but a rest that is rather some desperate attempt to hold onto feeling good enough, vacationing hard enough, getting enough time away, doing the right most fun things, getting enough peace and quiet so that I can finally feel better, right? It never lasts. I can attest, I can promise you from my own experience there is a never ending cycle of chasing after lasting rest and it doesn’t work. And it is a recipe for a Petri dish for addiction. It just drives you always harder, you always need more, you always become more desperate to get back to your book and to your couch or whatever the case may be for you.
And so in the same way that work for self kills and rest for self kills, there’s an opposing reality that kingdom rest, Christ-driven, Christ-centered, gospel-deep, whatever word you want to use, rest, is different. There’s this wonderful freedom to it. It’s not a rest that says, “I must have X to be okay,” it’s rather a rest that says, “I’m going to embrace this opportunity for the next 10 minutes, or the next six hours, or the next week,” or whatever the case may be. Whatever rest you have in store. And again, there’s a wisdom in needing to be able to choose rest and to choose to stop work and there are a lot of hard decisions. When do I rest? When do I work? But if both work and rest are kingdom-oriented, there is this enormous freedom to it.
One of the most helpful things that I have found myself able to say is, “You know what?” Right now as I have this article I need to write and I’m feeling stressed out by it and I don’t want to write this article, I just want to go read my novel. I’m trying to learn to say, “You know what? Lord, right now is this time to write the article and so I want to do that with you. I get to do this with you now, and later there will be a time to read this novel with you.”
Just earlier this week, I had an experience where I had about half an hour, unexpectedly at home before dinner my wife and kids were out swimming and they were to come back later than I expected. I had dinner going on the stove and I had a chance to just rest and do whatever I wanted. And I said, “This is great.” And I picked up my novel. In about every 10 minutes I had to actually check myself and realize I had… my shoulders were tensing and there was this desperation to dive in and sink into the novel, deep enough and hard enough to satisfy my sense of I need to rest after a long day. I have another long day coming tomorrow and the day after that.
And every time just having to say, “No, Lord, however many minutes I have, however much time, I get to read right now, that’s great. This is a gift and I just simply want to enjoy it. I need to not crave this but rather receive it with an open hand, thankful for these minutes right now in this way. And when my kids come bursting through the door and start hanging up swimming suits and asking where dinner is, then that will be my chance to love and to serve, and I want to embrace that opportunity with you.”
What does kingdom-centered rest look like? It looks like having confidence and peace in the midst of hard work. Actually part of what happens when both rest and work become kingdom-centered more and more is that rest actually comes and begins to infiltrate your work. There is a rest that happens in the midst of your most intensive effort, and it’s the rest of knowing your life, your hope—your hope in life and death does not depend on the outcome of this project.
Kingdom-centered rest looks like finding moments of micro-Sabbaths in addition to blocking out Sabbath on some kind of level on Sundays and again, if you’re a pastor that’s probably going to be a different day. And I’m trying to say there are many different ways to think about Sabbath and Sundays. But regardless of exactly how that plays out for you, the choice to find that Sabbath spirit, to take the lesson of Sabbath and to import it even into five-minute moments on a Thursday afternoon is profound. Part of the core of indulging in the Sabbath and indulging in the good sense of pouring yourself into the Sabbath is actually finding rest in the hope that God is the one who is there. It’s actually the chance to sit back and appreciate you are with the Lord in this very moment.
Sometimes for me, kingdom-centered rest actually just means walking more slowly down the hall to the bathroom rather than frantically racing to the bathroom and racing back so I can get 30 more seconds done than I otherwise would have. There’s something about just slowing down in life and saying, “You know what? I am with the Lord. I am safe. He is the one building his kingdom, not I. I think kingdom-centered rest can mean choosing breaks instead of sneaking breaks. How many times have you found yourself doing something that’s, it’s not wrong but it’s just not the best use of your time, especially often on a device. Whether it’s news, or social media, or a little game, or whatever, where you realize, “I’m doing this because I don’t want to do the next thing on my list and I know I probably should. I’m just sort of escaping in this little way and yet it’s not satisfying. It doesn’t restore, it doesn’t refresh.”
And there’s a joy in saying, “For the next 10 minutes I’m going to stop what I’m doing and I’m just going to read this article about sports, or I’m going to actually go on Facebook and look at whatever.” And knowing giving myself the freedom to do that and then actually having the discipline to stop at the end of 10 minutes is a radically different experience. And it will also tend to put pressure and you think, “Actually, is that really what I want to do with my time?”
I think there are profound opportunities to even spend literally one or two minutes simply stopping. Sometimes kingdom rest means you don’t do anything. You don’t entertain, you don’t work, you don’t check one more thing off your list. You’re not reorganizing your sock drawer, you’re simply sitting with the Lord, perhaps praying in a more direct sense and perhaps just simply appreciating the sky outside the window. Just letting yourself soak in, “Where am I and what has the Lord put me in the midst of right now?” There are so many ways in which we are called to taste and see that the Lord is good.
Okay, I know that was a lot. Just to briefly recap, the options there were: bringing your rest into the midst of work and having the confidence and peace that comes from that; taking moments of micro-Sabbaths; walking down the hall more slowly; choosing breaks rather than sneaking breaks; and lastly, just stopping for a couple of minutes. My goal, obviously in giving you lots of things to do and helping you rest is not to make you work, it’s not to take away from your rest. It’s rather to suggest just how many ways, simple little ways, rest can come rushing into your life.
What do you do when you fail? What about when you’re not resting? Well, gloriously, actually repentance itself is a form of rest. There’s this incredible relief, a joy that we are given in the ability to rest even from the burden of bearing the guilt of our sin. When we sin, when we fail, when we can’t even rightly execute a simple thing like resting, right? Resting ought to be the easiest thing in our life and of course, as you hear me saying, I’ve had to learn actually rest can be hard work in the best sense of the term.
But when we fail at rest, when we rest poorly, when we rest self-indulgently, when we don’t really rest at all, when we have false ideas about what it means to rest in the Lord, when our rest is not kingdom but is actually pushing us away, even then we are called to rest. And to rest in repentance, to rest in the beautiful gift that the Lord wipes away our failures and our faults.
Just as the Lord must be present in your work, so He must be present in your rest. Your goal, my goal today, invite Him into your rest and let Him invite you into His rest, now and forever.
Let me close with one last question. What is one step toward a kingdom-centered rest, a with-Christ-for-His-purposes rest that you could take today?