Resting in Peace
What do you think of when you hear the word 'rest'? Do you dream of quiet days in a deck chair on a deserted beach? Or perhaps time with family and friends, completely free of the prospect of work?
There is much in the Scriptures about rest - almost as much as about work. This is not surprising when you consider that work and rest are two sides of the one coin. You can't have one without the other. And their relationship to each other is modelled within the story of Creation in Genesis, chapters 1 and 2.
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.1
What exactly did God do when he rested? He took a break. He refreshed himself. Was God exhausted so that he needed a rest? Or did he just want to stand back and enjoy what he had made? If we hope to appreciate the worth of something, we need to take time to enjoy and evaluate it, to catch a glimpse of the big picture and gain a new sense of perspective.
Early in the history of the people of Israel a 'sabbath' was established, based on the example of the Creation story. It was a sign of the covenant. The fourth commandment is one of only two that are given in a positive form: "Remember the sabbath, to keep it holy". For the sabbath was intended by God to be a day of delight - an opportunity to celebrate life and to anticipate the future. It was also a day to be set apart, consecrated and dedicated to God.
As Klaus Blockmuel has said, like the other commandments the sabbath was given in order to keep the people of Israel liberated. For the call to 'lay down the tools' for one day a week was a discipline which was intended to break the relentless demands of work. In this sense, it was not so much a 'commandment' as a kindness, an example of God's care.
In the Gospels the sabbath plays a prominent role. Not surprising, since many of the run-ins that Jesus had with the religious authorities sprang out of sabbath-keeping. The legalism of the day had tied the sabbath into a highly negative command - with laws against all kinds of trivial activities.
This was consistent with the 'ethics of avoidance' predominant among the Jews at the time. Their effort to 'avoid sin' missed the point of the sabbath rest entirely. The response that Jesus made was to demonstrate mercy, healing, liberation and restoration. In doing so he made a dramatic point about the true meaning of the sabbath.
Sabbath then is, viewed biblically, a day of pause, a time of physical rest and renewal, an opportunity for spiritual refreshment. It is a gift from God.
Rest - not leisure
It's important to note the distinction between rest and leisure. Rest and sabbath are not the same as leisure, though they may certainly overlap. Rest is all about recovering our equilibrium - with God, with ourselves, with others and with creation. Leisure has as its goal personal enjoyment - which may well be a by-product of rest, but is not its purpose. The goal of rest is quite different.
In fact, leisure can frequently divert us from rest. For many people it either becomes so dependent on frenetic activity that it is just another form of work (like the old 'work hard, play hard' maxim) or so caught up in personal pleasure that there is little room to reconnect with God, our inner selves and others.
A further complication is the place consumerism has come to play in our culture. We are constantly being asked to buy this or that gadget, or take this overseas holiday or that thrill-seeking adventure - as if filling our lives up with more and more pleasurable experiences will somehow lead to greater happiness.
Unquestionably a Christian needs to discover a place for leisure. However, leisure is not the biblical opposite of work - rest is. For it's as we seek to be renewed and re-energised that we are able to re-enter the rhythm of work.
Rest is a dirty word
In spite of the clear biblical mandate to rest, life is increasingly so full that few people take the time to rest well. Alvin Toffler's prophetic words of the 70s have been confirmed with remarkable accuracy. Life is dramatically faster now than it was a generation ago. Little wonder that the reply we expect most when we ask friends how their week has been is, "I'm just so incredibly busy", or "Flat stick!"
Why have we allowed the treadmill of life to speed up? Why do we have to live faster and faster, so that our lives seem to be spent just trying to keep pace? No doubt there are many factors, but three key ones are identified by Gordon MacDonald in his short article "Rest Stops"2:
Rest is not 'productive'
Efficiency and productivity are virtues in our society. (Of course productivity is measured in very narrow terms, and doesn't normally include the idea of strengthened relationships. Something that demonstrates this point dramatically is an early mistake that was made in orphanage care. In drives for efficiency, staff numbers were often reduced. However, it was quickly discovered that when there were not enough staff to handle and hug the babies, then the babies simply died.)
We can even make ourselves feel guilty if we're not working. It's our narrowly defined 'productivity' that generally feeds our sense of value and worth.
Obviously rest doesn't fit too well into this equation! It's not productive, it doesn't feed our self-worth, and therefore it's a distraction from what is seen as really important in life.
Our culture is fixated on standards of living. We even measure the economy by how much it has grown each year - through the lens of productivity and consumption. Unfortunately the church has largely bought into this. We are very much products of our society. In the incessant drive to possess more we have laid a real trap for ourselves. For, as Gordon MacDonald says,
The more we want, the more revenue we must produce to get it. The more revenue we must produce, the longer and harder we have to work. So we build larger homes, buy more cars, take on added financial burdens and then find ourselves having to work harder to pay for it all. More work, less rest.3
In fact, under these conditions, rest becomes the enemy of work.
The role of technology
Technology is a wonderful thing. We have certainly profited from it. While we were writing the book one of us travelled extensively overseas, yet we were able to continue the process of writing and developing the content via a laptop computer and email, passing the text backwards and forwards round the planet.
It has never been so easy. But the same benefits of technology are also responsible for very negative consequences. Mobile phones, computers, jet aeroplanes and the like mean that life is now actually more hectic and faster than ever before. Virtually everywhere on earth is easily accessible. Consequently it is more and more difficult to get away from the pace, noise and demands of everyday life.
A British editor with whom we were recently working planned a one-week holiday in the French Alps at a remote cabin. It was a marvellous break for her. Only problem was, when she returned to her office the following week she found 103 emails waiting for her! An increase of the very 'paperwork' that such technology was designed to reduce.
The call to simplicity
Somewhere in the midst of all this madness, the gospel calls us to simplicity. Because of the intense pressure exerted to speed up life, to be more 'productive', to accumulate more, to experience this and that, we need to take deliberate action if we're to fight against the current.
All of us live in our own unique circumstances. What we face weekly may well be very different to the challenges you face. However, each of us can develop habits and routines that help us grow a work/rest rhythm in our lives. Here are some things we have consciously worked at.
Dropping our expectations
We've noticed that an enormous amount of stress and effort is given to appeasing our appetite for an increased standard of living. Many of us can actually live on substantially less with very little pain.
Buying a house in a cheaper area of town and then resisting the desire to 'upgrade'; buying a second hand vehicle that has already depreciated substantially but still has good life in it; settling for mainly second-hand furniture; eating out only occasionally; keeping one's wardrobe to a minimum and wearing clothes till they are well-worn; choosing cheaper forms of entertainment and holidays - all these are some of the practices we have pursued over the years. And they have reduced the cost of living substantially.
During the years of greatest expense (those of teenage children!), simplifying our standard of living has meant much less financial pressure on us than on many of our friends. We are content to live on a lower income and therefore have more time and energy to give to other matters - including rest.
Not being slave to the phone
Modern inventions have changed the pace of life, and the ubiquitous telephone is one of the clearest examples. Whether it is a landline phone or a cellphone, its insistent ring has become one of the great compulsions of modern life.
I [Wayne] base most of my work from home. The room off my bedroom acts as office, study and library. There are tremendous advantages to working from home. I don't have far to commute each day (the traffic is very light on our stairwell!), I keep overheads to a minimum, and there is great flexibility in my day for mixing family, friendship and community responsibilities with employment.
However, with all upsides there are downsides. One is the accessibility people have to me via the phone. They know that I can be reached at all times of the day, night and weekend. The interruption this can cause to family life, let alone rest and recreation, is potentially enormous.
I experienced a real breakthrough when I realised that I wasn't obliged to answer the phone every time it rang. I did not have to be at the beck and call of everyone. After all, with the modern invention of answer phones people could easily leave a message. If it was urgent I could always ring them back.
When I need some time for reflection, rest or writing, or when we have visitors, I will frequently just let the phone ring. Visitors sometimes get quite unnerved about this - their faces seem distraught - almost an "Aren't-you-going-to-get-that?" plea - as I continue listening or talking while the phone rings!
Family times are another discipline for me. I try to avoid answering the phone between 6pm and 8pm in the evenings. These are peak family times and I find it much easier either to let the phone ring, or to let one of the other family members answer and take a message.
Developing a regular time of solitude and silence
Some of us work in incredibly busy and noisy environments. Then at the end of the day we may come back home to more noise - stereos blaring, televisions blasting, maybe children crying or fighting - noise and busyness everywhere. Not exactly the way to nurture a restful spirit!
In our [Wayne's] home, disciplined use of the television and stereo aid us enormously. Not only is the television only on when there is a specific programme someone is watching (at least, that's the ideal I strive for!) but the wonderful button on the remote labelled 'Mute' frees us from the tyranny of adverts. Watching a programme, we have discovered, is a much more restful experience when we don't allow ourselves to be subjected to the onslaught and noise of ads.
Different spaces in the home also help - especially areas for reading and chatting. And of course, if someone can't get a noise-free environment in the house, there's always outside - and when even that doesn't work taking a walk provides respite.
I find the most restful times are often first thing in the morning - when everyone else is still in bed (a real challenge in our house as we have a very early riser!), or in the still of the early evening - particularly during the summer months.
Walking rather than driving
Perhaps the most obvious technological marvel of our age is the motor vehicle. It enables many of us to live and work in very different communities, and to visit family and friends who live hundreds of miles away in a short period of time.
One of the downsides of my car, I [Wayne] discovered, was that it 'upped' the frenetic pace of my life because I was able to get to more places, do more things, and see more people in a day and - city traffic being what it is - my stress levels often increased while in the car.
One of the habits I have developed to counter this hectic pace has been to walk where I can, or even take public transport. (That's a challenge for me. I happen to be a car dealer!) Walking slows me down. It fills my lungs with air, my nose becomes sensitive to the smell of trees and flowers, I see things that I miss at 50km an hour, and I meet people I would normally drive straight past. It gives me time to think, to reflect, to pray and to relax. Unhurried, I build a rhythm into my daily life that makes me better prepared to face the times of busyness.
The biblical rhythms of life
Not only did God intend us to experience the regular rhythms of the day (day and night) and week (six days working, one day sabbath), but he also laid down other laws pertaining to rest for the people of Israel. These include regular religious festivals (some lasting several days), the sabbatical year (every seventh year when the land was rested) and the year of Jubilee (the 50th year - after seven sets of seven years). All these were intended to structure into the normal schedule of work a balancing rhythm of rest.
How we do this in our modern and largely urban context is a personal challenge we all must face. But rest we must - not only because our weary minds and bodies need a 'breather', but also because of the constant need to realign ourselves with our Creator and his Creation.