Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he provides for his beloved during sleep.
-Psalm 127:1-2 (NRSV)
“Daddy! Daaaaaddy! Daaaaaaaaaddy! DaDDY! DADDY!”
I slink into my daughter’s room, twenty minutes after my wife and I gently sang her lullaby and closed her door. The lullaby didn’t work. “What do you need, dear?” I ask her.
“Ummm… I’m thirsty.”
“You had a drink just before bed. You need to go to sleep.”
“Oh, okay. Goodnight Daddy.”
I can tell she’s determined to avoid sleep, so I brace myself for a barrage of excuses. And sure enough, five minutes later I hear, “Daddy! . . . I need to use the restroom.”
I begin to ponder the fact that children are experts at putting off rest, and the way they do it is one excuse at a time: “Daaaddy! I had a scary dream.” “Daaaaaddy! I have toots in my belly.” “Daaaaaaaddy! I’m not sleepy.”
But we do the same thing, don’t we? Too many times have I tried to persuade myself that I’ll rest after work. I’ll rest after supper. I’ll rest after the kid goes to bed. I’ll rest after this television episode. I’ll rest after I do a bit more work. I’ll rest after I read another chapter. I’m late to bed, but I’ll get some extra rest tomorrow.
Resting is a hard practice. The idols of our society—work, exertion, self-dependence—persuade us that our productivity will free us from the world. “Lazy” and “freeloader” are curses we call down upon the heads of our enemies, and we dare not rest for fear that others will see us as weak or irresponsible.
All of this is a big fat lie.
Scripture shows us again and again that rest reflects—and fosters—an abiding faith in God. In Exodus 18, Moses explained to his father-in-law his great godly responsibility as judge in every dispute among his people. I suspect Moses was both shocked and relieved when his father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (NRSV).
Jesus, too, encouraged his apostles to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31 NRSV). He extends the invitation to us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV).
Rest is a physical and mental necessity. Even more than that, it is a spiritual necessity, an area in which my faith in God guides my daily life. Sometimes God calls me to participate in his work, but he calls me to trust his love and power at all times. By making time to rest from work and play, I acknowledge my helplessness and put into practice my belief that God is sovereign and good.
Resting also holds a huge a bonus for relationships: It facilitates communion. My best communication with my wife does not happen when we’re working, cooking, shopping, or entertaining our daughter. Our deepest and most honest discussions happen when we are at rest, when we are away from busyness and distractions. Likewise, my best times of reflection and of conveying my thoughts and feelings to God occur when I step out of my blur of activity and choose to rest. And most of the time that is also when I perceive God speaking to me.
I encourage you to evaluate your habit of rest (or your habit of avoiding it). Let me offer five questions for reflection:
How can you fight the lie that unceasing productivity creates freedom?
Consider that busy people encourage busyness, and restful people encourage restfulness. Which sort of people are around you, and how do you affect others?
Understand that life has seasons of busyness, but be honest with yourself: Are you simply having a busy season or have you cultivated a busy lifestyle?
How can you plan regular times of rest and then plan your activities around those? When planning, beware of busy activities disguised as restful ones. Rest needs to be rest, and it needs to allow room for spontaneity.
What can you do to make God the center of your rest, and rest with faith in his power and goodness?
Remember the words of Jesus: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27 NRSV). Rest in the peace of God.