Saturday, September 21, 2013

Rest: It Was Very Good

This blog post is a lightly revised version of a talk I gave in College Life Christian Fellowship in October, 2011.
The research that went into it changed my life. I saw things that were wrong and I saw answers that I desperately needed. Two years later, this talk continues to challenge my perceptions of time, work, heaven, and abiding in God.
Since it was given as a 25-minute sermonette, it is longer than my usual posts, and it will be the only one this week. Instead, I will be resting, and I hope you will be encouraged to also.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
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.
(Genesis 1:31-2:3)

In December, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor woke up with a pounding headache. She tried to continue about her routine despite the headache, when all of a sudden her brain chatter--the normal background noise of one's inner dialogue--went completely silent as if someone had pressed a mute button. A blood vessel in the left hemisphere of her brain had popped and that part of her brain was starting to shut down. Her job and any stress relating to it or her life melted away and she was just floating.

Then all of a sudden her left hemisphere came back online and said, "Hey, you're having a stroke! We need to get help!" She began freaking out when the left hemisphere drifted back out. She watched her brain become more and more incapable of functioning as it came on and offline. She was losing all her memories, her language...and yet she felt a peace she had never known before. She had pure silence; no thoughts, just the immediate experience of the world around her. And, she says, "I had joy." As she began to get better, that silence got pushed out.

"I do believe that there are times when you need to let your brain chatter be quiet," she says at the close of her interview with Radiolab (Words podcast, beginning at 30:00 minutes). She says she misses that silence sometimes as the flow of words and work have come back and her life is noisy again with worry and thought. Sometimes, the silence caused by the stroke sounds almost inviting.

Having a stroke isn’t the only way to quiet your brain chatter, though. Rest is about getting rid of your to-do list for a while and getting to experience unplanned, unstructured time. It is about stopping your first-person narrative and hearing the story that God is writing.

Scary as it might sound to be without a plan and something to do, it’s something that God set up to be an integral part of a healthy life. In the creation story we see God modeling rest as a part of his creative process, as something going hand-in-hand with work. If we were created to work with God in finishing his work, we were also created to rest from that work on a regular basis.

But before we talk about why God calls us to rest, we need to talk about the definition of rest. In our culture we tend to re-define a lot of words, like “dank”: cool/awesome or damp/moldy?—and likewise we tend to mis-define rest and put the idea in the wrong context.

So I have 5 things that define rest, and then we’ll talk about the 3 reasons why God calls us to rest.

1. Rest is Not Doing. It says in verse two, “God had finished the work he had been doing.” Rest is putting aside all the things you have on your plate. Many of us live lifestyles of not finishing; things are always in process, and we’re always making things bigger, better, faster, stronger. We’re never done. We’re a society of incomplete perfectionists.

Rest is about finishing that project up and not starting in on something else, but waiting and Not Doing.

2. Consequently, rest is not just another thing that goes on your to-do list. Rest is not having a list, a schedule, or a timeline. The only thing God did on the seventh day was rest. Verse 2 says that “on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” It shouldn’t be just another thing on the agenda. Rest is separate from your agenda.

I think it’s important to differentiate between Sabbath rest and Kingdom labor. Biblestudies, service projects, church events, leadership—these are all excellent things that I would encourage you to pursue. But good and necessary as these things are, we often need a rest that goes beyond them, outside of them. Church is awesome, but it can be a lot of work. God calls us to labor in and for the kingdom of heaven because we were made for work; but we were also made to take a regular rest from our work. Don’t necessarily think that because you are doing lots of kingdom labor, you are also getting plenty of rest.

3. Rest is not about being distracted. It doesn’t say that God sat down and watched a movie. In verse 31, he looked at everything he had done and said that it was good—actually, he said it was very good: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Rest involves sitting back to appreciate what has been done. I think entertainment can help us to relax, but it does not silence our brain chatter or help us to see how God has shaped the world and is shaping it.

Like Dr. Jill Taylor said, you have that inner dialogue; there is always a voice speaking into our thoughts. With mass media and commercial advertisements everywhere, that’s more common than ever. There are voices telling us what to do, where to go, how to look; even telling us what we’re supposed to want. Entertainment is just another voice, supposed to drown the others out for a while. We use it to replace all the other voices. But we could do that with silence. We could use silence to replace the other voices. I think the reason we choose entertainment over the rest and refreshment of silence is that we are afraid of what we’ll hear when we let our lives go quiet.

But we need to make space to hear the voice of God. It’s the most important voice we will ever hear, and it’s the one that is most necessary for us. Our Lord glories in you; there is no reason to be afraid of his voice. You are the dignity of his creation, made in his image. God loves you so much that Jesus freely gave up his life for us. We need to make space for Jesus’ voice; we need to listen as he communicates his love and comfort and hope.

4. Rest is about celebrating the results of our working and thanking God for what has been accomplished. Rest comes after a period of hard work and as a reward for the completion of our work. Rest does not mandate laziness! The Sabbath is meant to punctuate hard work with refreshment.

For some of you, over-working is the issue, but for others of you, that’s not the issue at all. The problem is not enough working. Instead of being in a cycle of working and resting, working and resting, you rest all the time. Others work all the time, but you rest all the time. And the thing about it is, usually it’s not real rest; it’s just entertainment, like we talked about: other voices trying to drown out the thoughts in our own heads.

Sometimes just the idea of how much work there is to do can be so paralyzing that we don’t do any work at all, and we just sit there. But rest outside of its proper place isn’t restful; it does not have the function it was designed for. It is no longer refreshment; it is stagnancy. We should feel enabled to work, knowing that our work will end after a time and we will rest and feel satisfied. Just as rest makes our work productive, so productive work makes our rest actually restful.

5. Finally, there is no set way to rest. There are a myriad of things that are restful, and I cannot tell you, “To rest you need to set aside three hours starting at noon; you’re not allowed to do laundry or make yourself dinner, you need to go for a walk and pray and you’re not allowed to let your mind wander and you have to add on five minutes every time it does; and that’s rest.” There are not rules to resting. The Israelites tried that and it didn’t work; “You can’t cook or gather food, so you have to have everything prepared the day before, and you can’t walk more than a quarter of a mile so your restfulness needs to be spent sitting at home and…” They ended up doing more work and not resting at all, and missing out on the blessing that God created the Sabbath to be for us.

In Luke 6, some Pharisees start pestering Jesus because he and his disciples picked heads of grain for a snack as they were walking through the fields. “It’s the Sabbath, and you’re essentially harvesting grain, which counts as work! You rebel!” But Jesus responds that their beloved King David also broke the Sabbath by doing “work” on it. You can’t make rules and regulations. Aside from rules defeating the purpose, we also just don’t have the authority; Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was created to be about him. That is what matters. Spending time with him is what we’re talking about here.

In sum, rest is stepping outside your normal work and setting aside your own plans and reveling in God’s work, his accomplishments, and his plans.

It says in verse 3 that God “blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” God set aside rest as something with a unique role in our lives: a time that heals us, freshens us, and re-energizes us for the work that he gave us to do. God finds regular rest so necessary that he not only includes it in the Ten Commandments, he models it for us in the very beginning of the world. What is it about rest that is so important?

It is because rest is an act of worship.

There are three components to this: sacrifice, celebration, and protection from idolatry.

First of all, rest is an act of worship because rest is a sacrifice. Probably the biggest thing that most of you are worrying about right now is, “I don’t have time to rest.” There are a thousand things to do each day, from grocery shopping, to going to work, to seeing your family, to spending quality time with your spouse or significant other; and that’s not including the fun social things like hanging out with friends and participating in book clubs, biblestudies, dinner parties, and sports teams. Even if you had more time, there are other things that would fill it, like the chores you didn’t have time to do this morning or yet another coffee date with someone you want to know better.

If we want to take time out to rest, we’re going to have to sacrifice something else, something which may be a very good thing: an opportunity to serve or love someone, or time with a friend. But that is why rest is an act of worship. Have you ever tried to read Leviticus? It’s really kind of boring. The Hebrew Books of the Law are mostly full of directions for sacrifices; but that’s because sacrifice is one of the primary ways by which we worship God. Rest may require us to sacrifice time spent on the things that are most important to us; but by sacrificing those things for time with God, we are showing to ourselves and to the world that our wonderful, mighty, creative Savior is more important to us than our activities, our spouses, our friends, prestige, money, a finished project, exercise, or church. What we are willing to sacrifice demonstrates how important God is to us.

It’s interesting to note that there were different scales of the Sabbath that God set up. There was the seventh day. Then there was the seventh year, where you would let the land have a rest and not plant anything: you trusted God to bring up from the soil what you needed to eat. Then, after seven sets of seven years, on the 50th year, they would cancel all debts, set their slaves free, and return inherited property back to the original family if it had been sold. What a sacrifice! If you honored that fiftieth year, the Year of Jubilee, you might have to give away a lot of property that maybe was bought by your parents; you’d lose your whole workforce—imagine businesses having to let go all their workers. The whole social structure would be reordered. Stability would be redefined and the status quo overturned. Because God was more important than all these things.

What about us? Imagine if we sacrificed some of our time in order to rest. Just think if we decided not to attend as many social events in order to get enough sleep (another act of restful worship, Psalm 4:8), or if we decided not to take as many hours at work so that we could spend more time being refreshed by. Are you willing to sacrifice the certainty and stability in your life? Are you willing to sacrifice your control? God has blessed the Sabbath, and when we trust him and take a rest, he honors that.

Secondly, rest is an act of worship because it is a celebration. When we rest, we are taking the time to celebrate the hurdles we’ve crossed so far in the work God’s given us. We are able to praise him for what he has done in us and through us. Rest is not only a solemn act of worship; it is a joyful act of worship! Resting is a time for enjoying the fruits of our labor. Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 says, “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.” Rest is a gift God gives us to enjoy life in the midst of our hard work.

It’s like when you cook a real, whole meal. The other night I cooked garlic soup; I spent forty-five minutes peeling garlic cloves and chopping onions and crying and chopping more onions. Finally when the whole meal was done and all the sides were ready and the kitchen smelled really good, I got to sit down with friends and eat it. Cooking can be really fun of course, but I don’t feel that I’ve fully enjoyed cooking until I get to eat the food that I’ve made. You work so that you can sit down and enjoy the fruits (or soup) of your labor.

The word ‘Sabbath’ in the Hebrew is not actually the word for what we normally associate it with: relaxation and leisure. It actually has the meaning of “refreshment” or “breath.” Jesus’ desire for us is to be refreshed: to have some breathing room from our work so that we can go back to it with renewed vigor. We get to partner with him in work, but we also get to partner with him in saying “it is very good”! God doesn’t bless us because he has to in order to look good and benevolent; he blesses us because he wants us to enjoy the world that he’s made. Our Sabbath-day of enjoyment is an act of celebratory worship of the Creator, for how well he has created.

This is why rest can look like such a plethora of things. What silences your mind most into the dwelling place of gratitude to God may be cooking a meal and sharing it with your family. It may be going on a walk all by yourself and plopping down somewhere solitary to journal or sing or just look at the world. It may be doing woodwork or sewing or some crafty project. Maybe gardening; praying; playing an instrument; reading a nonfiction book; going for a drive; reading your Bible; listening to music. God has created so many good things and we can enjoy them in so many ways. All of them are worshipful, thankful enjoyment. All of them can be rest.

Last of all, rest is an act of worship, because it protects us from idolatry. In ancient times, the command to rest on the seventh day would have been really unpleasant. Everyone was agrarian, so you were always working the soil, feeding your animals, pruning, harvesting, and milking; there’s always more work to do. And what’s more, some of that work is time sensitive. We think our world is stressful now because it is ruled by bosses with tight and unpredictable schedules; but back then, it was stressful because nature ruled it. You had to harvest your crops in a very particular time-window, and you often were working against the weather, trying to collect everything before it got too hot or before the rains destroyed the crop. To take a day off from your labor was ridiculous.

I’m sure the Hittites, Amorites, Philistines, and everyone else must have been laughing at them. If you didn't work, you didn't eat. And if you’re not working, someone else might come in and take what you've worked for. It seems like a plan that would lead to ruin and breakdown of an entire nation. By telling them to take a Sabbath day of rest, God was asking the Israelites to believe in him, that the worst wouldn't happen, and that even more, they would prosper in the Promised Land.

And that’s the whole point: rest forces us to put our trust in God. In forcing us to turn to him, it helps us to relinquish the idols that we’re clinging to as our hope for our future. Back then there were gods of everything: the sun, the rain, the earth, each individual plot of land. God’s for everything that was unpredictable. You would be so tempted to create some god of your own to worship to make life seem more controllable and certain. If there’s someone up top who’s open for bribery, you just try to give them stuff that’ll make them happy so that they will make you happy. We still do this, of course. The god of good grades might be appeased by people who study feverishly a few hours before the test. What can I give to get what I want in return while still doing what I want?

Or you might work hard day after day and as your work prospered, you would start celebrating your ability to bring things out of the earth and provide for your family. It’s true that we’re called to celebrate work and the fruit of it, but that celebration can quickly become worship of ourselves. We start taking credit for what we've supposedly done; “well, I worked ten hours a day, seven days a week, and started on this new harvesting method with a scythe of my own design, and it’s been working wonders.” “I only got five hours of sleep each night, I studied twenty hours for my midterm and started my term project two weeks early and went through four drafts, and even sacrificed going to biblestudy, but it was worth it in the end because I got an A.” After all that, you earned it. Right?

What happens when our arrangements for success don’t work out any more? Today we see the results of a generation who has been told, “You can do anything; it’s all in your capable hands.” But when they can’t get to where they wanted in the company or make their marriage look just the way they pictured, they blame themselves or others; relationships end, community is broken, and people are depressed and angry. It turned out it wasn't all in their hands to control.

This life was made for Jesus, not for the individual. Colossians 1:16 says, “For by Jesus all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” Our work is for him, not for ourselves. Yet our work can become a selfish snatch for the place of control, instead of an expression of worship of Jesus Christ, who holds all of our life together. He has given you every talent you possess and every minute in your day, and without him we would be broken, depressed, and hopeless. When we set him in the rightful place of worship in our lives, we align ourselves with the reality of his sovereignty and control, and our most trivial work takes on eternal value for the kingdom of God.

In order to keep from worshiping ourselves, we need to take time off from our work and our laboring and rest on what Jesus has done for us. We need to trust him and not our frivolous idol gods like a good reputation or a driven personality. We need to stop, look around ourselves, and realize that all of this is a result of the God who stood before creation, eternity in his hands, and spoke the world into motion.

Rest helps us see the true nature of things. Jesus tells us to take a Sabbath in order to invite us to see what he is doing, so that when we return to our work, we can join in with him.

One of my old roommates and best friends (we’ll call her EN) was a Chemistry major and a pre-med. Let me explain: Chemistry. And medical school prerequisites. Really hard science plus doctoring. Anyone who does that to themselves is already way more driven than the average human being. She studied nonstop; then she would go to class; then she would come back and study. Every single morning, she woke up at 5:30 and started studying. (Now that she is in med school, I think she still does that, except with cutting up cadavers too. She is pretty hard-core.)

Early on during her years at UC Davis, a mentor friend was talking to her about taking a weekly Sabbath, which she did through her college years. EN’s thoughts were, “That’s great, but there is no way that I can do that.” But a while later, the thought came to her one night, “I really should take a weekly Sabbath.” It was a crazy thought, trying to cram seven days into six, but it sounded like God, and EN, driven woman that she is, persuaded herself to try it.

At first, and all throughout the rest of college, she had times of feeling guilty that she wasn't being productive one of the days each week. But she decided that Sabbath was a way to put faith into action and trust God. In her own words, “Setting a day aside gave me the grace to not always be working, and actually enjoy myself. On Sundays I felt free to schedule time with friends, and longer quiet times didn't feel as if they were cutting into my studying time. I was able to take naps, long walks, and just relax.”

She found her identity less in being a student and more in being a child of God. Instead of having her whole life and all her efforts tied to her grades, she could step back and see the bigger picture: that it was Jesus who defined her and that the world, and the work, was his.

What EN did sounds crazy, but crazy is precisely the sort of opportunity God takes to show his glory. We all need a Sabbath to worshipfully sacrifice our time, celebrate our work, and keep us from placing our trust in idols that will fail us.

I’ll boast about her a little more. Taking a Sabbath, which she still tries to do in medical school, isn't the end of her story. God rewarded that time when others were studying and she was resting by giving her a very sharp mind, excellent grades, and, when the time came to apply to schools, an overwhelming number of secondaries. She had more interviews with med schools than any other pre-med student I know, which gave her the freedom to choose a program that was a good match for what she was looking for. God rewards our rest.

I want to leave you with one last thought. The pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson said, “Sabbath is a deliberate act of interference, an interruption of our work each week, a decree of no-work so that we are able to notice, to attend, to listen, to assimilate this comprehensive and majestic work of God, to orient our work in the work of God.”

Sabbath-keeping protects us; it protects our time, our sense of self, and our ability to work productively with Christ. Rest is part of the kingdom of heaven breaking into our reality, part of Jesus restoring the peace and joy that he designed the world for. It is a hard, sacrificial act that allows us to enter into the worshipful celebration of Jesus’ victory over sin. The worship-rest act helps us to realize the life that God made us for.


The hardest thing for me is substituting entertainment for rest: specifically, playing Sudoku or watching something on Netflix instead of letting my life be silent for a bit. What’s the hardest thing for you? And are you going to change it this week?

If you cannot set aside a whole day, I challenge you to set aside several hours; start small and see how it goes. If you find it helps you live your life in Jesus Christ, then increase the time a little next month. Just take some time to put aside your work—whatever this looks like for you—let your brain chatter go quiet, and spend some quality time with the Creator in creation.