Rest in the face of pressure
When the work before us seems overwhelming, we can find reminders in Scripture of the sustaining goodness of God
Working in Japan is not easy. That’s true whether you’re doing frontline missionary work or something more like Paul’s tentmaking. Overcoming language and cultural barriers is part of the difficulty, and so is the sheer pace of twenty-first century life in Japan. What sort of reflection—right thinking about God—can help us counter the feeling of being on a treadmill in the work we do?
When the to-do list seems overwhelming, the promises of rest in places like Matthew 11:28–30 and Revelation 14:13 help me get perspective. But the pressure remains. And it can be felt whether we are involved in breaking new ground like Moses, sitting on top of an established infrastructure like King David, or at the end of our tether because the work seems to be going disastrously like Elijah.
Breaking new ground: Moses
We might think first of situations of breaking new ground, perhaps opening up new avenues of gospel work. I’ve never had to confront an autocratic national ruler, but I can understand why Moses put up repeated objections like we read in Exodus 3–4. (And he hadn’t even tried to master Japanese when he said he was unable to speak well!) But God’s response to Moses’s fears about being able to perform all the things demanded of him in a challenging and structure-upending context sets the tone for the whole Bible. God’s response each time is to remind Moses of God’s capacity. So that’s a key point for us to bear in mind when we feel pressured in a new or potentially overwhelming context.
Yet we will run ourselves into the ground if we convince ourselves that doing everything in God’s strength means carrying on as if fuelled by a nuclear battery that never loses power. Moses came to realise that truth courtesy of someone who knew him well, observed his work closely, and noted the unsustainability of it. Moses’s father-in-law told Moses—“What you are doing is not good . . . the work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Ex. 18:17–18 NIV). These are words worthy of consideration by people like missionaries in Japan.
Moses felt overwhelmed by the needs of the people, even though he did not have 125 million people before him whose mother tongue was not his own. If the advice to share the load was good for Moses, pride in our own capacity, reputation, or calling ought not prevent us from following Moses’s lead and finding others to share the load.
Continuing the work: David
Perhaps the work you are involved in feels a little less like Moses’s work of confronting a kingdom and a little more like King David’s work of defending and ruling a kingdom. You might be embedded in long-standing infrastructure that others built in the decades before you arrived in Japan. What might we learn from David, the shepherd turned king, the newcomer who became organisationally central?
If you are involved long term in the work of declaring the gospel in Japan, you might have days like David where you are sure there is someone out to get you and you need to be as wise as a serpent. You might even have exhibited David-like generosity of spirit and refused to cut down those who oppose you—either Japanese bureaucracy or colleagues with different approaches—even when the chance presented itself. Such generosity is particularly wearying when it is not reciprocated.
How do we not grow weary in the face of the responsibility we now bear after years of difficulty? What does David, the man with responsibilities that were probably greater than most of our own, have to teach us? His reflections are illuminating. In Psalm 23, he expresses trust in the Lord who provides all he needs, including when he’s faced with opposition. So his strength, which we can make ours too, comes from his connection to God. Rest, for him, requires turning to God.
But David’s reflections are also challenging. In Psalm 42 and 43, David encourages us to join him in turning to God, not human constructs, when life seems toughest. When downcast by the apparent resistance of Japanese culture and individuals to the gospel, do we long—with a deep longing like David had—for God? David’s thoughts resonate with those of Paul to the worshippers of other gods in Athens: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Nothing else can give us the rest gained from prayer when we remember the peace God offers.
Burning out: Elijah
Then again, perhaps the reality you experience is more like that felt by Elijah. The work seems unfruitful, ears seem unhearing, the language barrier seems insurmountable. We’re just plain tired and want to echo Elijah: “I have had enough, Lord” (1 Kings 19:4). Or when colleagues we value leave Japan, we might even feel “I am the only one left” (1 Kings 19:10) in this work.
When we feel overwhelmed and want to cry out like Elijah that tasks or people seem to be conspiring to kill us, it is good to remember God’s response to Elijah. Elijah was not offered superhuman strength. Rather, he was reminded of the power of God, before hearing a quiet word of encouragement. There might be times for us, like Elijah, to slow down and listen to the voice of God, in order to be strengthened and prepared to go on to the next task.
So back to the starting point of our thinking together. Sharing the gospel in Japan is God-honouring, life-changing, and valuable, but it comes with the pressure of feeling urgent, critical, and relentlessly wearying. What sort of right thinking about God can help us counter the feeling of being on a treadmill in the work we do? When the workload seems too heavy as it did for Moses, or the weight of responsibility hangs on us as it did for David, or we feel isolated in our work like Elijah, what might we learn about rest from these people in similar situations?
Looking to Exodus: rest and reliance
The narrative of Exodus offers us a couple of key points of instruction. The people, led by Moses, have worked hard in a foreign land. The commandment to rest in Exodus 20 is a key point in the narrative. But note that it is integrated into the story, not simply the fourth of ten commandments. It is preempted by Exodus 16, which teaches that not working, gathering, and harvesting is crucial for the people to realise they are reliant on God. So rest is targeted, not simply leisure. It reminds God’s people that they rely on him for strength and provision.
Why is stopping to remember our reliance on God so important? As we read more of the story of Exodus, we get a clue. It seems that the writer intentionally contrasts two things: stopping work regularly to remember that God is God and losing faith in God. Regular rest seems like the antidote to apostasy.
For example, the story of the golden calf, recorded in Exodus 32–34 is situated between reminders of the need to rest (Ex. 31:12–17; 35:1–3). Rest—that is, stopping to remember God’s provision for us—seems to be an integral part of remaining God’s people when the surrounding culture does not recognise God. Rest is so crucial that the Israelites are told that even when the harvest is ripe for the plucking, rest is not to be discarded in the name of urgency: “You shall rest; even during the ploughing season and harvest you must rest” (Ex. 34:21). This appears in the middle of God’s response to people who have refused to hope in God. It directly challenges the frenetic desire we and others might feel to stay on top of everything.
There is a potentially great harvest for the gospel in Japan. Resting has the potential to stall productivity and endanger hard-earned reputations of success and reliability. And maybe that’s the point—we are not to rest, so to speak, on our own laurels. So even though on home assignment we might, perhaps with good reason, want to cite Jesus’s words about the harvest being plentiful but the harvesters inadequate in number, we do well to ponder carefully before we fall into the trap of thinking that we have to work nonstop to bring in that harvest. God calls each of us to rest, even when we know there is much work to be done, lest we forget that we are dependent on him, as he alone provides the strength for our work.