I have been in a state of survival for years now. Every time I start to get things under control (which is really an illusion, by the way) something upends my calm and hurtles me headlong back into chaos. Whether it is pregnancy, international travel, toddlers, potty training, night waking, puppies (yes, we are crazy people and just got a puppy), or all of the above, there is always something.
Recently I came to a place where I decided I needed more rest for my mind, more space to think and be still. My husband and I agreed I would try to take one morning each week to escape the pressures of normal life and sit somewhere and read or write or whatever.
The funny thing I found out is, escape without a purpose deeply rooted in God’s calling is just more striving. Each time I would get away, I would return feeling like I had failed to use my time wisely or that I had not had enough time. No matter how good or how long or how much I accomplished, something would inhibit that feeling of deep rest. And the truth was I wasn’t really resting—I wasn’t finding deep soul refreshment.
When I think of refreshment, I think of taking a brisk walk or splashing cold water in my face. I think of sitting in a coffee shop (alone) or a good night’s sleep after a long day of travel. I think of the things that revive and restore the body. But I also think of refreshment as a means to an end. What can I use to refresh me so that I can do more? How can I fill up my tank, so to speak, in order to pour everything out again? I think mine is a common, but rather broken, way of seeing deep soul rest.
One day, a month or two ago, one of the podcasts I listen to featured a writer named Hannah Anderson. She spoke about the idea of humility being a source of real soul rest so I picked up her book, Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul. Much of her thesis centers on Matthew 11:28-29:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke up you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart,
And you will find rest for your souls.”
I have heard that verse at least 100 times; I know it by heart. And yet I almost never contemplate the heart behind verse 29. To take up a yoke, even if it is God’s, is to submit to another master. God doesn’t say, Lie down and rest in green pastures if you want to be less weary, he says, “take up my yoke.” He is essentially asking us to exchange one kind of work for another. Deep humility is the path to true rest because it says: I cannot do this by myself. Show me how to live!
“When we believe that we are responsible for our own existence, when we trust our ability to care for ourselves, we will have nothing but stress because we are unequal to the task. You know this. Deep inside, you know your limits even as you fight against them.”
In other words, I am a creature. I am created by God to follow him, to acknowledge my God-given limits and to acknowledge those limits as blessing. One of the unique ways God made me and you and all of us was with a regular need for Sabbath. Not just rest as a means to fill up and do it all over again, but Sabbath as a means to bring us into deeper communion with God himself. God, who also rested, not because he needed to, but because he wanted to sit back and delight in what he had done, because it was good.
In his article, “Wisdom and Sabbath Rest,” Tim Keller writes,
“God did not just cease from his labor; he stopped and enjoyed what he had made . . . We need to stop and enjoy God, to enjoy his creation, to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The whole point of Sabbath is joy in what God has done. “
Often, I am my own worst enemy when it comes to rest. I will observe the Sabbath only as a day to complete all my projects or perhaps only to do nothing at all. These practices leave me feeling either exhausted or empty (or both!)—in other words, not rested. Keller recommends enjoying several kinds of rest in order to experience real Sabbath (soul-refreshing rest). He parallels the Christian life with the field in Leviticus 25 that is allowed to rest every seventh year to avoid over-farming. He recommends time for:
- Unstructured inactivity
- Avocational Activity (pleasurable work that you don’t do for a living) — he also suggests spending time in worship and quiet, spending time in recreation and allowing time for what he calls, “aesthetic rest,” where you are resting in beauty of some kind whether it is nature or the arts.
Keller quotes a Jewish (the originators of Sabbath) writer, Judith Shulevitz, who says,
“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 a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily. This is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional. The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as well as by social sanction.”
Why is rest so hard for us? Why do we do it so poorly? Why do all the things of this world distract my heart and mind from true rest? This is a simplistic answer, but perhaps it is in part because we are still on this side of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are still in a fallen world. Keller writes:
“Anyone who overworks is really a slave. Anyone who cannot rest from work is a slave—to a need for success, to a materialistic culture, to exploitative employers, to parental expectations, or to all of the above. These slave masters will abuse you if you are not disciplined in the practice of Sabbath rest. Sabbath is a declaration of freedom.”
Like any of our failures to perfectly keep the law, our failure to “remember the Sabbath” exposes our need for a mediator and drives us to rely on the perfect work of Jesus all the more. We need his grace, his spirit and his provision to help us rest well. He created us with limits, and unless we exchange our self-sufficient yoke with his light one, we will be incapable of finding the rest we need. Furthermore, Sabbath was pre-fall. We were made for rest. God modeled what it looks like to rest when he rested from his creation work at the dawn of time. Much of our failure lies in our refusal to acknowledge those aforementioned limits and exert our wills to keep Sabbath, even when it seems inconvenient. Like Shulevitz said, “You cannot downshift casually and easily.”
When I have taken on too much, when I have been running ragged in a season of busyness, sometimes I do genuinely need more sleep or a day to myself. More often than not, however, I need a humble self-assessment. Have I been trying to do or be more than God is asking of me? Am I trying to take on the work of my creator, rather than doing his work as a created being? Usually a reorientation of how I view myself, a submission to his yoke is infinitely more helpful than a hot bath. Observing Sabbath is far more fruitful than a trip to the spa. It is just like God to tell us to do things we can actually do—embrace the humility deserving of our station or take Sabbath rest regularly—rather than a bunch of things we may not have the time, money or opportunities to do. No matter how we find refreshment, soul rest comes from resting in him.