by Dale Ryan
I saw a bumper sticker recently that said “Jesus is coming back. Look busy!” I think this reflects just about as distorted an image of God as I can imagine. It’s as if God is a kind of stern, watchful employer who resents every dime he has to spend on salaries and expects to see his employees busy every time he looks in their direction. Not looking busy means you might lose your job. Or it’s as if God is a suspicious teacher monitoring an exam in school. You’d better look busy, or you might be accused of cheating. Ever vigilant, these kinds of gods are constantly watching to make sure our behavior is appropriate. If you serve one of these gods–or any of the thousands of other performance-oriented deities who would love to have your devotion–your only chance to let your guard down and relax is when your god is elsewhere. If these gods show up, you’d better look busy. Or else.
So what would happen if Jesus were to return and find me resting? Suppose I was watching TV? Taking a nap? Bowling? Would I be in trouble? What would Jesus say if I was just hanging out, doing nothing in particular? What if I was at my favorite jazz club listening to music? Would that be a problem? Would I be in trouble? Wouldn’t Jesus be happier if he came back to find me at church? In prayer? Busy doing the work of the kingdom?
The Bible, thank God, is abundantly clear about this. Rest is a nonnegotiable as far as God is concerned. It is not just okay. It is required. No ifs, ands or buts about it. The operating manual for humans clearly describes the maintenance requirements. Regular rest is required or things will start to break. God worked for six days and then rested, and we are to do the same. Do we need less rest than God? The thought is absurd. If Jesus were to come back and find us resting, that would be just fine. Rest is a form of obedience. Rest is good. The Sabbath is holy. We are to find a way to honor the Sabbath. We are to rest no matter what. No matter who thinks that time should be crammed full of religious busyness.
Most of us, of course, do not find rest to be easy. One reason for this is that we don’t know how to rest. We are not good at it. We don’t practice resting so that we get better at it. When we rest it doesn’t seem like we are doing anything. What’s the point? We are so accustomed to being human doings that spending time as human beings seems pointless. This lack of familiarity with rest and lack of skills for resting has a history. In part it comes from the protestant work ethic that affects everyone, protestant or not. The unquestioned positives in our culture have long been hard work, dedication, and commitment. The corresponding unquestioned negatives have been sloth, laziness, procrastination and inefficiency. In our culture we need a reason, an excuse, to rest. The doctor said I need to rest. But we don’t need any reason to stay busy. The busy part comes naturally to us. We have “Idle hands are the devil’s playground” in our guts. It takes conscious effort before most of us can make room for the thought that rest is good.
Unfortunately, our resistance to rest is not just cultural. The most serious forms of resistance to rest are not external. They are in us. One of the payoffs for staying busy is that we don’t have time to feel. Who has time to process something emotionally painful when the kids need to be picked up at school and the clothes need to be dropped off at the dry cleaners and the bills need to be paid and the car needs an oil change and the neighbor’s dog is out again and there are ten unanswered messages on the answering machine? Sometimes we make our lives busy so that we don’t have time to feel. Rest poses a threat to this kind of avoidance strategy. As soon as we slow down a little, the stuff we have been working so hard to avoid may start to float to the surface. To prevent this, we work harder. We take an adventure vacation instead of a restful one. We keep moving. Just don’t stop. Maybe we can outrun those scary feelings. Does this ever work? No, it never works. Why? Because God designed us to rest. We must sleep every day. We need regular breaks from activity. We need rest. There is a paradox in all of this. If we dishonor the Sabbath, if we work ourselves to death, if we work to numb the pain, then we get less done. When we rest–even if it is uncomfortable, even if we are not skilled at it, even if it makes us anxious–we will be more productive. Tom Tellez, one of the coaches of the 1992 American Olympic sprinting team, gave his team this advice: “Slow down. You’ll run faster.” It is a paradox that applies not only to sprinting but also to living. If we are unable to slow down, we will eventually find ourselves moving at a crawl. But if we find the courage to rest, we might actually find ourselves making some progress.
This issue of STEPS looks at the intersection between work addiction, ministry addiction, and religious addiction. It is a territory that Christians in recovery can’t avoid. We have seen too many people settle for getting “addicted to serving Jesus” rather than finding a life free of all addiction. The temptation to mask our addictive process with religious language and religious behaviors is huge. What better rationalization could a work addict ask for than I’m working for God? Who can argue with that? Perhaps this is why the Bible is relentless in emphasizing the importance of rest. If you are experiencing the Christian life as just another demanding, performance-oriented, work-hard-get-tired opportunity, maybe it’s time to listen again to Jesus’ simple invitation “Come to me and rest.”
May God grant you the wisdom, courage and strength you need this day.
Reproduction in any form without the express written permission of the author is prohibited.