When doing nothing does not equate to resting
Finding rest in God requires us to change the way we think, not just find new scheduling techniques
Two-and-a-half years into my first church partnership, I realized I had a problem—I couldn’t say no to any invitation I received. If college students texted that everyone was going for a late-night jog, I was there. Full disclosure: I hate jogging. But who knew if tonight might be the night spiritual breakthroughs happened? I was young, single, and often lonely. All the more reason to go. However, being out past midnight and out the door again first thing in the morning had me on the fast track to burnout. When I was finally forced to realize I needed time away from ministry, I still didn’t find rest. In the stillness of my apartment, I was confronted with what drove me to exhaustion wasn’t a busy schedule but a busy heart.
At the root of a busy heart
As I look at my own story, I see several key contributing factors to my restlessness:
Proving my worth. To my sending churches and supporters, I wanted to demonstrate that I was being faithful with the funds provided for me to be a missionary in Japan. To high school teachers and distant relatives, I wanted to show that I wasn’t throwing my life away. I didn’t need to have a professional degree in order to find success in life. Faithfulness and pride were mixed motives that left me finding my value in what I did.
Seeking approval. I was often haunted by the questions: Am I accepted? Am I enough? Any misunderstanding or disagreement was proof that no one understood or loved me for who I was. My insecurities only deepened every time I compared myself with others. No number of texts or events on my calendar could quench the longing to be accepted and to belong.
An overblown sense of responsibility. I often thought, If I don’t do ___, who will? In a small church plant, there wasn’t a lot of extra help. My failure to stay on top of everything would inconvenience others. Furthermore, control brought with it a sense of security that I needed. Self-deception regarding my own importance kept me from asking for help when I needed it and rejecting it when it was offered.
Running from many fears. Fear of failure, fear of missing out, fear of rejection, fear of being unloved, fear of my own insignificance . . . the list went on and on. Since I couldn’t face my fears, I couldn’t see what was driving me. The only way I saw to fight fear was a slavish effort to avoid the worst-case scenarios my fears convinced me were imminent.
Grief. Within five years of arriving in Japan, I lost my grandpa, father, and grandma in unexpected and tragic ways. Some of my biggest protectors, providers, and encouragers were suddenly gone. Separated from other grieving family members, the losses took a lot longer to sink in. When it did, busyness kept the sadness at bay. But in silence, the doubts rushed in uninvited: “God, do you see? Do you care?” In the aftermath of loss, doubts kept me from seeking God, who “is our refuge and strength” (Ps. 46:1, ESV).
Do any of these sound familiar to you? If so, take heart. There is a way out.
Entering God’s rest at the end of striving
About the time I hit rock bottom and considered leaving the field, I attended a mentoring program run by my mission organization, Pioneers. In that mountain retreat, two significant things happened that changed the course of my life. First, I finally turned to face God with the grief, disappointment, and frustration that had built up in the first several years of being a missionary in Japan. I learned to be honest and vulnerable before God. The second was learning what God intended for us when he gave us the Sabbath. Mark Buchanan’s book The Rest of God significantly changed the way I view rest—it opened my eyes to the life-giving nature of God’s commands, which is rooted in his loving, generous character.
Why God commands us to rest
Our value comes from God alone. Our work easily becomes the source of our value and meaning. Rest forces us to acknowledge that our value is attributed to us by God’s work, not ours. He created us; he saves us. We deceive ourselves if we think our obedience adds anything to his finished work. Everything we receive is an act of his mercy and grace. I can stop striving to earn God’s approval or love, because he has already lavishly given them to me.
Rest recalibrates our view of God. When my view of God is too small, I act like it’s up to me to control the world. I know I am not alone in this. When God finally reveals himself to Job, a man who lost everything, God says, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). This is followed by 58 rhetorical questions, each showcasing God’s sovereign rule over the world (Job 38:5–41:14). Like Job, I walk away from those questions with a restored vision of who God is. Therefore, “If God can take any mess, any mishap, any wastage, any wreckage, any anything, and choreograph beauty and meaning from it, then you can take a day off . . . Either God is good and in control, or it all depends on you.”1 Rest is a gift that acknowledges God’s sovereign control.
Rest transforms our thinking. Rest gives us a chance to notice the world around us and give thanks. While a slave to fear, I never had much to be grateful for. As I grew in assurance of God’s “perfect love [that] casts out fear,” the way I saw the world changed too (1 John 4:18). Gratitude led to a deeper awareness of God’s love and provision, which in turn led to more gratitude. Gratitude provides a different lens to see life’s circumstances. “Under God’s economy, nothing really changes until our minds do. Transformation is the fruit of a changed outlook . . . God is more interested in changing your thinking than in changing your circumstances.”2
In the most heartrending losses of my life, I could begin to glimpse God’s protection and presence. The Father of the fatherless would provide me a home in Japan, not through the typical means of a husband and children, but through my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
Rest doesn’t mean doing nothing. As a child, I remember reading about a legalist church in bygone times that made children sit on hardwood benches and read the Bible until dark on the Sabbath. Nothing sounded more boring to me at the time. But has our view of Sabbath really changed? Buchanan’s points out the fourth commandment is one of the few that is a positive imperative and that we should see it for so much more than just prohibiting us from work.3
Just as Ephesians 4:28 reveals that laws don’t only prohibit evil but also reveal the good we are to do instead, the Sabbath teaches us to “Cease from what is necessary. Embrace that which gives life”.4 What that looks like will be different for each person. For the sedentary office worker, physical activity and being outside isn’t work, but it could be for a farmer. Hosting another dinner party might be work for a busy mom endlessly in the kitchen, but refreshing to a single person with limited opportunities to serve others in this way. How has God wired you? What fills you with enjoyment and gratitude for what God has given? Where do you notice his presence? In music? Nature? Creativity? Socializing? Solitude? Answering these questions might be key to discovering what restores your soul.
Restlessness fuels our search for God. Our restlessness directs our hearts to search for true rest, which will only be realized finally in God’s presence in heaven. Buchanan puts it this way, “The truth is, we’re always a bit restless. We’re supposed to be. This is not a flaw in our faith, it is faith’s substance . . . If ever we achieved perfect Sabbath here, unbroken rest and restfulness, then the eternal rest that Sabbath hints at would become irrelevant.”5 Notice the purpose in unfulfilled longings, loneliness, and brokenness that continue to plague us through life’s journey. They remind us we haven’t reached the destination yet.
Finding rest apart from God is impossible. We may enjoy leisure or have a really good nap, but in a little while, we will always need more. While we may enjoy many of his benefits here on earth, it is when we are finally with God himself that our satisfied souls will be at rest.
1. Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), Kindle, chap. 4.
2. Ibid, chap. 2.
3. Ibid, chap. 8.
5. Ibid, chap. 14.