In our achievement-focused, productivity-idolizing culture, where busyness is a badge of honor and anything else is laziness, there’s little value placed on rest. As a result, there’s as little expertise on how to make it (or allow it to) happen. So, rather than weighing you down underneath a ton of words, here’s a manifesto on why rest is so essential, along with some practical suggestions on how to revel in it. I hope it’ll help you better hear, and gladly accept, this “chance of a lifetime” invitation:
Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly (Matt. 11:28-30 MSG).
By the way, just because Jesus spoke those words over 2,000 years ago doesn’t mean He didn’t say them to you!
“Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” —Mark 6:31
When I was growing up, the worst punishment my parents could impose was to have me sit in the dreaded time-out chair. For crying out loud, who in his right mind wants to be alone?
Being removed from “where the action is,” of course, is precisely what we sometimes need. However, it’s also difficult. Yet in time and with practice, we come to see that the necessary action and the rest we desperately need occur when we are alone. Only then are we able to safely enter our frazzled and frenzied world with perspective and freedom.
Find a place where you won’t be interrupted. Reminding yourself that God is nearer to you than your next breath, pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in God’s loving presence; exhale all that distracts and weighs you down.
“Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power.” —Revelation 4:11
The Chinese character for busy combines the pictographs for heart and death , suggesting that busyness kills the heart. It reminds me of something I read once, which suggested that the most pervasive form of violence in the modern world is busyness. Not guns, not war, but busyness.
Something I read once suggested that the most pervasive form of violence in the modern world is busyness.
And it appears to me that most churches are frighteningly busy places. I worry that worship is sometimes too full of adrenaline, excitement, and activity. It concerns me that worship can become a place of self-reliance, where we take it upon ourselves to achieve a spiritual mood or experience, while Jesus calls us to let go of our spiritual striving and to rest in Him. Perhaps the most important thing about worship is not what we do but what we undo.
Gathering with God’s family to worship is an essential practice because it reorients us to the central truth of our identity: We are not what we do, or what we have, or what others think of us. We are God’s beloved children. Once we understand that, we can experience authentic rest—body and soul.
Acknowledge God’s greatness by singing a song, writing a letter, drawing (or painting) a picture, or making something with clay as an expression of your loving affection and gratitude.
“Be still.”—Psalm 46:10 NIV
Whenever I’ve clung to my desire to rule the roost or meddled where I have no business and fantasized grandiose plans, my wife has frequently said, “Fil, for crying out loud, let it go!”
What types of things do you cling to?
I always seem to be clinging to things too great or too difficult for me (Psalm 131:1)—in other words, matters too complicated and weighty for me to comprehend or figure out. Yesterday I clung to my desire to fix the world, and today I wanted to fix my marriage; tomorrow I’ll try to fix my children. There’s always something that I’m hanging on to, and the net result is still the same after all these years: My clinging leaves me dangerously tired.
The net result is still the same after all these years: My clinging leaves me dangerously tired.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that finally, when I’m exhausted, I may open up to the possibility of letting go of my efforts and receive something from God, who says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10 NIV). “Be still” literally means “Let go of your grip.”
“Let go” sounds like the wise choice to me!
What can you let go of—even just one thing that’s too complicated and weighty? It could be a book you feel obliged to read, a task to complete, a problem to solve, or a project that you can’t comprehend. It might even be a difficult relationship that, after all this time, you still can’t make right. Ask yourself what would happen if you were to let go. Write your thoughts on paper, if that would be helpful.
“I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.”—Psalm 131:2 NIV
How good are you at sitting still, doing nothing? How long can you lie in a hammock in your backyard without watering the plants, replaying in your mind a recent conversation, mentally planning the next day, or worrying about the economy or a neighbor? We’re generally adept at doing something, but we’re terrible at doing nothing.
Have you ever wondered why the shepherd in Psalm 23 makes his sheep lie down? He doesn’t invite or plead with them to lie down. He makes them stop and do nothing.
When it comes to the rest we need, we’re like sheep, or perhaps more like our young children at bedtime. Kids don’t naturally want to go to bed, no matter how tired they are. So, as good parents, we pick them up, carry them to their beds, and make them lie down.
Set a timer for 10 minutes, and then simply sit back, relax, and do nothing. When you’re finished, don’t evaluate the outcome.
“Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.”—Deuteronomy 33:12 NIV
The Old Testament prophet Elijah’s experience while sleeping under the broom tree (1 Kings 19) was a great comfort to me several years ago when I was on a retreat. Every time I tried to pray, I fell asleep. I couldn’t concentrate on the Scripture I read. All I wanted to do was curl up in my bed and sleep.
My first instinct was to judge myself for my lack of focus or discipline. When I asked a wise, more seasoned companion what the problem might be, he replied, “It sounds as if you’re tired and depleted.” His insight was a relief.
Americans get less sleep today than at any other time in history. Thus, our soul’s number one enemy is exhaustion. The need for sleep is undeniable and should be regarded as an ally, not an enemy. Restful sleep is an invaluable therapeutic gift. To be well-rested is a blessing, not a waste of time. But rest takes practice. Children learn to do it in the same way they learn to crawl, walk, run, and talk. It’s time for us to “become like little children” (Matt. 18:3 NIV) and relearn what we’ve lost.
If rest is learned through habit and repetition, so is restlessness. Our patterns of rest or restlessness shape our lives. This is true of our bodies, our minds, and our souls, which are delicately and deliberately intertwined.
I recently admired an infant sleeping quietly while all around her, adults were loudly singing. If only I could sleep like her, I thought to myself (or perhaps it was a prayer). Immediately, deep within me, I heard Someone say, “You can.”
One of my favorite moments in the Gospels is when Jesus retreated to the stern of a boat and took a nap during a storm. His ability to rest reflected His unwavering trust in God.
Yielding to sleep is a countercultural and revolutionary confession of our limits. It is an admission that we are not God (who never sleeps), and we cannot make ourselves sleep. Sleep is an act of surrender and a joyful declaration of trust in God’s infinite care for us.
Lie down in a hammock or recliner, on a sofa, or in your favorite cozy spot. Then imagine that you are resting in the arms of your heavenly Father, as if you are a small child in his mother’s embrace. Listen as God says to you, “I love you too much for you to have no limits. You may rest now.”
What kind of rest would refresh your body—exercise, a nap, going to bed early? What kind of rest would refresh your soul—retreat, sleep, music, reading, praying? Choose two times this week when you will intentionally engage in rest for your body and soul.
“My Father will honor the one who serves me.” —John 12:26 NIV
Our attitudes shape our feelings and behavior in profound ways. What we think affects our emotions and actions. Serving and being served are both means of experiencing God’s rest. Attitudes of pride, entitlement, and manipulative control over others rob us of God’s rest and peace. Attitudes of servanthood enable us to serve and be served with humility and hiddenness, resting and enjoying Jesus’ continual presence.
Attitudes of pride, entitlement, and manipulative control over others rob us of God’s rest and peace.
After washing the feet of His followers, Jesus said that they should wash one another’s feet. Following Jesus is synonymous with offering humble, loving service, which suggests that—as members of the body of Christ—we will also need to learn to be served. Both are clear and crucial.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Consider beginning the day by praying, “Jesus, bring me someone today whom I can serve, and if someone wishes to serve me, give me the humility I need to receive his or her service.”
Serve someone today with a smile, a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug, a kind word, or something to eat or drink.
“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven … a time to laugh … a time to dance.” —Ecclesiastes 3:1; Ecclesiastes 3:4 NLT
Our restless culture has made leisure a significant industry, yet most of us know very little about playing. Playfulness is a concept few of us readily welcome. To many people, play is pointless, shallow, disruptive, and fruitless. Often what we refer to as play is saddled with competition and compulsion—and isn’t at all restful.
So, what qualifies as play—eating ice cream, sleeping in, riding a bike, baking cookies, watching movies, cliff diving? And how do we differentiate our work from our play? Very simply, play is something we do for the sake of doing it, even if we don’t do it particularly well. It’s something that doesn’t need to be done, and there’s no usefulness or value involved. However, if some aspect becomes more important than the play itself—like winning, being the best, impressing others, or even getting into better shape—it ceases to be play.
Play is disruptive and subversive—that is, it subverts life as we know it. Play undermines necessity, utility, and effectiveness. It subverts all the deadlines, obligations, assignments, and responsibilities that mark most of life, seemingly making us useful and justifying our existence.
Whatever else Jesus meant when He urged His disciples to be childlike, I believe He wanted them to play more. All of the other virtues of childlikeness—trust, wonder, simplicity, humility—rise out of the richness of play. When we believe that we have no time to waste—no time to enjoy without excuse or guilt, or without having to show anything for it—all those other things wither.
If you’ve forgotten how to play or what is fun for you, consider this: What do you love doing—riding a bike, swimming, dancing, listening to music, watching a movie, reading a funny book, working a puzzle, or spending time with some children who make you laugh?
Recall a childhood friend inviting you to come outside to play. Imagine Jesus now inviting you to play. Do something simple and playful. Be frivolous. Be daring. Do nothing of significance.
Take a day to do nothing but play. If you can’t do that, play for an hour—even 30 minutes.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” —Ecclesiastes 9:10
Before we can fully appreciate God’s gift of rest, it’s essential that we appreciate His gift of work.
Most of our adult life is spent working. And when we aren’t working, we spend most of our time thinking about it—worrying, complaining, planning, recovering. We feel guilty when we don’t do enough, frustrated and disappointed when we don’t do it well, and resentful when we do too much.
Anytime, anywhere, in anything, you can be with God—even as you work.
God’s answer is rest. Yet it’s a unique kind of rest. We are to rest in Him amid our work.
Roughly 350 years ago, a man named Nicholas Herman discovered an invaluable secret when he decided to make his life an experiment in what he called a “habitual, silent, and secret conversation of the soul with God.”
He became better known by a new name: Brother Lawrence.
His simple, wise book, The Practice of the Presence of God, has been read by Christians of all backgrounds for generations. It speaks about a restful companionship with Jesus that’s without boundaries or breaking points. Anytime, anywhere, in anything, you can be with God—even as you work. And in God’s presence, there is rest.
Prayerfully invite God to teach you to find a way of working that is less anxious and more restful. Ask someone close to you for help establishing a plan to change your habits, with a renewed commitment to taking time off.
Illustrations by Axel Pfaender