Rest: A Spiritual Discipline

Our world runs at a break-neck speed! Busyness seems to be both the universal complaint and the modern badge of honor.  Our jobs demand huge chunks of our lives and many other admirable pursuits clamor for our time.  Even children seem to careen from one activity to the next.  And on top of all of that, as Christians we know we should be involved with our church!  So we try to fit it all in, and our calendars become full, and we get less and less sleep. We hope that our constant activity will achieve success, honor, security-maybe even God's glory-but as we scurry to the next appointment we think, "How can I get off this treadmill!  Is this the way God wants me to live?"

I suspected that this hurried motion was not what God wanted.  So I began to examine my own life.  Was I trying to do too much?  Did God want me to be this busy?  I felt paralyzed not knowing how God would answer. I found myself feeling guilty when I slowed down.  I knew God would not condemn me, but I felt like I was letting him down.  I began to pray and to search the scriptures and gradually God started turning on some lights. The first place that he did that was in Psalm 127.  It is a familiar passage: "Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain."  We had often used that verse on our staff team to remind us that we had better be sure that our work was in line with God's blueprint.  Otherwise, everything that we were doing would be useless.  But I was arrested by verse two, "In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat-for he grants sleep to those he loves."  I did not feel like I was toiling for selfish gain, but the "rising early and staying up late" sure sounded familiar.  If God grants sleep to those he loves why was I not getting enough?

I went to the Scriptures to see what they had to say about getting some rest.  I found that God wanted the Israelites to rest on the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).  None of them were to do any work.  Somehow, resting was a sign of Israel being God's people.  It was a sign of the covenant.  Another place "not working" was described as "denying oneself" (Leviticus 23:28-29).  I wondered, "How on earth could taking a break be described as 'denying myself'?"

And then it began to click.  The Israelites lived in a primitive agricultural society.  Each day they toiled to scrape enough food from the land. If they did not work they did not eat!  In order to stop working, Israel had to trust God that he would provide what they needed.  Keeping the Sabbath showed Israel's complete dependence on God.  It was a visible statement that the source of their daily food was God and not their own labor.  It must have been very tempting to keep working on the Sabbath, but anyone who gave in to that temptation showed a real lack of trust in God.

It dawned on me that I had misunderstood Psalm 127.  It does not say, "Unless you build according to God's design you are wasting your effort."  It says, "Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain."  Most of us would say-and have said-that God is the one who works in our lives and in our ministries to make things happen.  We do not try to claim the credit when people give their lives to Jesus, or when we make decisions that honor him. We know that without God being at work nothing of real spiritual significance can happen.  But this psalm makes it clear that the same is true for our work lives.  The psalmist is clearly talking about the work that goes into making a living-"toiling for food"-when he promises that God gives rest and sleep to those he loves.  God supplies every need in all areas of our life.

But my rest habits do not always reflect that belief.  There have been many times when I have acted like I was responsible for everything.  One of the things that brought me to realize that things needed to change was that I could never seem to actually take my day off.  Early in the process of learning that God wanted me to take a day off I was tested severely.  I found out one Wednesday night that the drummer of our youth band had not been able to arrange transportation for his very large drum set.  We were supposed to leave Friday morning to go lead worship for a District wide youth rally.  I figured that I could probably rent a van, but Thursday was supposed to be my day off and I had already made plans to accompany my youngest daughter on an all-day school field trip.  I prayed about the situation and was convinced that God wanted me to go with my daughter.  I prayed earnestly that He would supply the needed transportation.  I hate to admit it but I worried the whole day about how I was going to get that drum set halfway across the state to the youth rally.  As soon as we were home from the field trip I tried to locate a van but as I had expected all of the car rental companies were closed by that time of the evening.  So, early Friday morning I called every rental company in the phone book.  No one had a van that they could rent to me. 

So I prayed.  As I was praying I realized that I could take most of the equipment in my station wagon-but my wife needed that for transportation while I was gone.  But…I could rent a car for her!  And cars were available.  In that prayer I realized that even though I didn't know it God had supplied what I needed-just in a form that I didn't recognize.  In my prayer God reminded me of that provision.  And I think that is the way it works sometimes.  I've recognized that when I come up against a situation where it looks like I will have to work on my day off if I step back and look at it from a different angel, God may not have to provide super human abilities or miraculous intervention.  He may just simply have to remind me that that thing really doesn't have to be done.  So, I called the first place that I had talked to that morning.  I reminded them of who I was and while I was trying to tell them that I now wanted to rent a car the lady interrupted to say, "Actually, I just had a cancellation on a van and you can have it."  Bingo!  In a situation where really against my better judgment, I went ahead and took the day off, God supplied even more than I needed!

For me, just as it was for Israel, taking time to slow down and rest is a visible and concrete statement that I truly believe what I say.  It shows that I am trusting God with "my ministry," "my job," and "my family."  The pressure for us to keep running is incredible.  There is always more that needs to be done.  And the activities that we are involved in are often so important! Many of us are involved in kingdom work-we have important ministries in the church.  But the reality is that the work is never done.  At least, I never get to the point where I can say, "Well, everything is done now, so I guess I don't have to get out of bed tomorrow."  Even Jesus did not get to that point in his earthly ministry: there were always more people who needed to be healed and people who needed to hear about the kingdom.  As a pastor I have found that when I set aside time for rest it says, "This ministry doesn't belong to me it belongs to God."  As a husband, father, and homeowner when I take time to rest even though all kinds of things are crowding in and clamoring to get done, it says, "I am not ultimately in charge of my life, God is."

Of course, I need to be responsible.  The Bible is clear that being lazy is not pleasing to God.  But that is not the problem that most of us live with.  Most of us have the "speed" knob for our life cranked up way too high.  And when that happens we don't have time to savor our relationships.  We rush through our quiet times without really having the time to listen for God.  We don't get a chance to think about others.  Ultimately, we are not available to God.  We are too busy!

Often, when we are too busy it is because we are trying to build our own lives-to accomplish our own dreams.  We believe that it all depends upon us!  Psalm 127 reminds us that it is not our exertion that provides the good things-the blessings of this life.  They are gifts from God rather than the fruit of our labor.  The antidote for the hurried pace is a true belief that God will supply every need-physical, emotional, and spiritual.  "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. . . In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat-for he grants sleep to those he loves (Psalm 127:1, 2)."