Labor Day is a day of rest for most Americans. Rest from work is a myth for most of us unless it is prescribed through holidays or vacations. But Christians of all people should make rest a natural part of their lives because God both offers and demands the rest we need for our souls and our work.
Understanding the rest God offers and demands in the Sabbath is crucial to understanding what it means to be a part of the people of God and what it means to be in the presence of God.
This rhythm of life that God intends for his covenant people Israel teaches us that there is a mutual relationship between work and rest. He commands that they work hard for six days and then rest on the seventh day. An important question for us to ask of ourselves right out of the gate is, “What roles do work and rest play in our lives?” Do we have intentional time set apart for rest? Or, like much of 21st century America, do we push ourselves to the limit in our work in an effort to produce more and accomplish more? Do we find enough satisfaction in who we are and what we do that we can truly and deeply rest?
Three Reasons We Struggle to Rest From Our Work
The truth is that many of us greatly struggle to rest from our work for a plethora of reasons. Here are just three.
1. Security-Driven Work
One reason we struggle to rest from our work is that many jobs are simply insecure. Because of the insecurity of our jobs, we feel we have no time to rest. How can we slow down when at any moment we could be replaced? More production = more job security. I think back to when Erica was a first year teacher. She was stressed out for much of the second semester because she knew as a non-tenured teacher there was a good possibility she could be handed a pink slip. Her stress came from feeling a need to constantly prove herself to her principal so that maybe she wouldn’t be the one to go. Job insecurity produces restlessness in our hearts that physical rest cannot satisfy.
2. Technology-Driven Work
Another reason we struggle to rest from our work is the role of technology in our lives. Technology diminishes rest for two reasons. Outwardly, technology has made our work more efficient, which means we have more work to do. The devices that were created to make our jobs easier have ironically made them more demanding.
Inwardly, technology has connected us to the rest of the world in a way that fuels our innate desire to compare ourselves to others, which causes us to be perpetually dissatisfied with our work. As a pastor, I know that after I preach a sermon, I could download a much better sermon on the same passage before I get home on Sunday afternoon. Technology opens our eyes to see other people who do the exact same job as us, yet are much more gifted. This only causes our hearts to be more restless and dissatisfied in who we are and what we do.
3. Identity-Driven Work
A third reason we struggle to rest from our work is the role our jobs play in our place in society. We are defined by our work in ways that past cultures and societies would never be able to comprehend. A few hundred years ago, one of the first questions you would ask someone after learning their name would be, “So, whose family do you belong to?” This is because people from past cultures found their identity in their family. No one cared who your boss was, just who your dad was. Our experience is much different.
Today, when you meet a stranger on an airplane you typically ask three questions, “What is your name? Where are you from? And What do you do?” Even more telling, what is the most common question we ask our children as they go through school? “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Our identities are swallowed up by our job titles. How can we ever find true and deep rest when what we do is directly tied to who we are? We wouldn’t even know who we are anymore if we lost out on a promotion or lost our job entirely.
Universal Desire for Rest
There is a universal desire for rest in the heart of every person. And this rest we desire goes beyond a physical rest. It goes beyond a need to take a break from work. A week’s vacation cannot satisfy our deep heart-desire for rest. This is because the work we are doing is deeper than our jobs. We all naturally work and strive for soul-satisfaction. We work and strive for identity, purpose, significance, and worth. The reason we work so relentlessly hard at our jobs, the reason we struggle to rest physically, is because our hearts are desperately working for approval, accomplishment, and joy. Our hearts are constantly restless.
We see this in one of my favorite sports movies, Rocky I. In Rocky I, Rocky is a no name small-time boxer who has been challenged to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. As he prepares to fight this unbeatable champion, Rocky trains relentlessly hard. He’s punching frozen meat, chasing chickens, and running up massive flights of stairs to Eye of the Tiger. But why does he do all of this? Why is he working tirelessly to prepare for this fight? Is it because he wants to win?
Rocky says, “If I can go the distance, and that bell rings, and I’m still standing, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life that I’m not just another bum from the neighborhood.” It was a deep inner desire for significance, identity, accomplishment, and satisfaction that drove Rocky to work so hard. It was a desire for rest, a deep inner rest that he tried to achieve through his own work.
The answer for all of this longing and craving for deep spiritual rest is found in the Sabbath rest of God found only in Jesus Christ. The Sabbath itself was a day. It was a day set apart for the purposes of remembering, resting, and revering God’s work on behalf of his people. But the Sabbath day helped focus God’s people’s attention on the Sabbath rest that he freely offers by his grace and for our good.
Working for worth, identity, or salvation will only produce slavery. Sabbath rest is a declaration of freedom from a life of slave-driven work for significance, meaning, and purpose. In the book of Exodus, God’s Sabbath reminders bookend Israel’s idolatry and proceed their building of the tabernacle for an important reason. These reminders to keep the Sabbath are a declaration of freedom for the Israelites. They were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. They are not working to the beat of another slave-driver. They are commanded to rest, which tells them their work no longer defines them. Their relationship with God defines them. God will dwell with them in the tabernacle not because of their work in building it, but because of his work in redeeming them from Egypt.
John Mackay once wrote, “Each week the covenant people were called to remember not just what God had done in creation, but what he was working out in his redemptive action.” What great freedom there is in Sabbath rest! To recall the work of a gracious God who redeemed you from slavery.
The danger in our modern context is that we feel self-sufficient enough to get along just fine without depending on God’s provision. But Sabbath rest is all about trusting God to be enough for you. When God is your supreme treasure you can easily and gladly rest from your work, even if it means coming up short compared to those with a 24/7 work mentality.
Sabbath rest is about the kind of trust that produces total security and satisfaction in who you are. Trusting God’s work as the basis for your sustenance and satisfaction leads to deep inner rest.
So, I hope Labor Day isn’t the only day you rest. I hope vacations aren’t the only times you rest. I hope rest becomes a natural rhythm in your life as you trust in the sovereign providence and redemptive work of God for you. When you are able to rest the way God requires, your work will become much more meaningful because your identity will be found in the work of another.
Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.