Work has been part of God’s plan for mankind since creation, but so has rest. Setting wise boundaries between work and rest is not only a successful strategy for maintaining our productivity, it also reflects on the health of our relationship with God and our fellow people.
The alarm clock that goes off in the morning, making us long for a few more minutes of sleep. The days left until the holiday, which we count in our minds, recharging our batteries for another morning and then another. The holiday from which we return exhausted, as if we had paid for extra tiredness. The guilt that comes with a day off or a midday nap, as if the world might collapse from unfinished business. The conviction that we deserve to rest only when we’ve finished our work, except that, guess what, the work never ends. The shame of admitting, in a society where we compete with others to see who is busier, that we (need) time off and that we can’t remain productive without breaks to gather our strength.
Christians’ view of rest seems rather ambiguous when we refer to their work schedule and pace. While some may indulge in idleness, most fail to draw clear enough boundaries between work and rest. God, however, has a clear view on the subject. While the Bible does not speak of holidays and paid leave today, it does make it clear that rest is a gift and an essential human need—and also that work is a blessing for us.
Work is blessed
According to the writer Elisabeth Elliot, “It is the joy of work well done that enables us to enjoy rest.” In a book devoted to a deeper understanding of discipline, Elliot presents her beliefs about the role of work in the lives of Christians.
First, the author argues that there is no such thing as Christian work per se. Whatever work a Christian does (whether it is cleaning the bathroom or writing a book), it is God-given work. Therefore, job satisfaction comes not so much from the kind of work we do, but from the way we do it.
Secondly, work is a duty. God is the one who draws our line of duty—and duty, according to the author, is not just the work we are paid to do, but anything that needs to be done for us or for others. In order to know what our duty is, we should identify the tasks set for us by the needs of our family and those God has placed in our vicinity.
“God is a constant worker. All things in nature do their allotted work” (Ellen White).
Our work is a blessing, writes Elliot, describing how she learned to appreciate the therapeutic value of work after the death of her first husband. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she had to tackle all the tasks that couldn’t be put off—from childcare and treating sick people at work to translation and correspondence.
While caring for her second husband, who was in the throes of a slow death from cancer, Elliot writes that daily work helped her bear the suffering, and confesses that she often woke up happy to have a basket of dirty clothes to wash. In a world torn apart by sin, it’s not just work that is a blessing, but also the ability to work, and to be given what others have been denied (healthy hands and legs or an optimally functioning brain) is cause for gratitude, she concludes.
Work is a gift, not a curse, regardless of its nature, writes Pastor Joe Thorn, pointing out that before the fall, Adam and Eve were placed in a garden to work. We don’t work just to pay our bills, we work because God made us that way; we work because we are made in the image and likeness of God and we know that He is at work: He created the world, He cares for the whole universe, and He is working for our salvation and restoration. And if work is good, rest is good too—He rested, though He does not tire, to give us an example.
Rest for body and soul
We work hard and conscientiously because God has given us a job to do, and we rest to give our minds and bodies a chance to recover before we return to work, Thorn points out. Ultimately, however, neither work nor rest is an end in itself. We don’t live to work or to rest but we live for the glory of God, says the pastor.
We spend more than a third of our lives sleeping—therefore being as helpless as a baby—and there is certainly a lesson in that, writes Pastor John Piper. God gave us sleep as a gift to remind us not to give in to unrest, but to trust Him like children. Sleep reminds us that we cannot take His place, that the workings of the world do not depend on what we do; the only work that sustains the world is the work of the One who “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4), so we can rest fully in Him, the pastor concludes.
Rest is not a reward for work, but “the place from which all work would start.”
The challenge of our day is not to keep ourselves busy, but to find true rest, says doctor Saundra Dalton-Smith, noting that the mentality promoted by our society is that we deserve rest when our work is done. And because work never ends, we never fully rest.
The message society gives us contradicts the biblical model, Dalton-Smith explains. God has put rest at the heart of our relationship with Him. Humans rested on the seventh day, meaning the day after they were created. Therefore, rest was not a reward for work, but “the place from which all work would start.”
The lesson for us is that we will not be able to carry out our duties in a way that is fulfilling for us and honours God unless we enter into His rest, spend time with Him and allow Him to strengthen us for the task at hand. Therefore, rest is “the ability to step away from your duties for a time, while you focus not on the calling but the One who called you.”
The Sabbath is the day when we stop what we are doing and enter into God’s rest, preparing ourselves for the week ahead.
By this logic, the Sabbath is not the way we end a busy week, but the day we stop what we are doing and enter into God’s rest, preparing ourselves for the week ahead, Dalton-Smith points out.
Spiritual rest is the first form of rest we neglect, although it is the most important of all, notes one Christian author. On busy days we may sacrifice time for prayer or Bible study because so many things seem more urgent than seeking His presence. However, even though the maths tells us that we gain time by rushing through what we have to do, the reality is that not only the effectiveness but also the results (the temporary but especially the eternal results) of our work depend on returning to the source of our rest.
Do Christians need a holiday?
Perhaps we have been judged for taking (some of our) holidays, or perhaps we are the ones who have judged others. How appropriate is it for a Christian to go on holiday? This question comes up time and time again in different ways—while some believe it is natural to enjoy a holiday that you can afford, others wonder if the time or money spent on a vacation could be put to better use.
Pastor Joe Thorn says he encourages his parishioners to take holidays—not because God directly commands it in His Word, but because it is a means of replenishing our physical and spiritual resources for the fulfilment of our mission.
Where do holidays fit in when we talk about not wasting our time?
In attempting to answer this question, Pastor John Piper says that the issue of holidays is one that needs to be handled wisely. Just like days off or our nightly sleep, holidays create the right framework for us to replenish ourselves so that our work becomes more productive, creative, and fulfilling, Piper says.
However, there are some people for whom the line between rest and work is very blurred, because they love what they do so much that they don’t feel the need to take a break. In every situation, we need to take a hard look at ourselves and our limits and needs, concludes the pastor, advising his listeners to also consider the boundaries and desires of their families, who may need the peace and quiet of a holiday.
It is also true that a holiday can go by with little to show for it—a truth we have experienced at least once. Piper writes that he usually follows a three-step plan to make sure he doesn’t waste his holiday. First, he prays for the wisdom to plan his holiday as well as possible. Second, he sets some goals for the upcoming holiday (e.g., to return from the holiday rested and not exhausted, to spend more time with his wife, to give his children experiences and reasons for joy, to read poetry, etc.). The final step is to determine the concrete means by which they can tick off the goals they have set for the holiday.
Christians believe that they are simply stewards of the resources they have. Would a faithful steward spend his money on a holiday? It’s a question that Christian author Julia Stager Mayo answers with a series of questions. When planning a holiday, we should honestly answer some questions that will help us discern our intentions and outcomes for the holiday:
- What is the purpose of the holiday? Do I want to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life for a few days of rest and closeness to God? Do I want to fill my time with activities that will connect me with God and strengthen family or friendship relationships? Do I intend to show off my travels to others? Am I running away from unresolved issues at home? Is my holiday based on impulse?
- Will this holiday expose me to temptation?
- Could I get the same benefits that I am getting from a particular type of holiday, but at a lower cost?
- After praying about the holiday and its details, does this idea still sound good to me?
In a list of holidays we should avoid, journalist Chuck Bentley includes expensive holidays, those that put us into debt or strain the family budget, holidays spent in environments that openly invite sin, and extravagant destinations. Bentley also offers some budget-friendly ideas, advising his readers to either decide not to go on holiday, or to go on holiday with a well-set budget, the right motivation, and practices that keep us spiritually healthy.
Holidays come with the temptation to leave our Christianity at home, writes Joshua Arnold in an article that looks at the problems that arise when we give in to this temptation. As ambassadors for Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:20), our behaviour adds weight to our testimony or discredits it, Arnold points out. Another problem is that sin lurks on our doorstep even when we’re on holiday—it could be the anger caused by traffic, or neglecting to pray because we want to sleep in, pride, and any other temptation we’re susceptible to that can catch us off guard (especially) on holiday.
“Everything Christians believe remains true, even when we are taking a break from the rest of our normal lives, and we should continue to live like it,” the journalist concludes.
If we don’t live in the presence of God, even our days off and our holidays are nothing more than “seeds planted in granite.” For, as Augustine notes, true rest comes from an even greater gift, a relationship for which we were created: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”