Searching for God’s Rest

I’m in a funk. I am exhausted but I can’t sleep. I have things to process but I don’t want to think. I have places to be, but I don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t want to talk to anyone and I don’t want to go on…

This was me mid-June. By that time, I felt like I was just going through the motions. I had made it through a busy year, but I didn’t know how to continue. I was exhausted in every way – emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Problem is, it wasn’t the first time in my life that I’d found myself in such a state. In fact, the feeling is all too familiar. When I’ve pushed myself too far, I tend to start withdrawing emotionally while continuing to go through the motions, so people may think I’m okay. In fact, I may even think I’m okay! Until I break down physically.

So this is the first time in my life that I put the brakes on before I crashed. Every other time, I would continue down this road and then wake up in a hospital bed. I remember once feeling absolutely relieved to be in that hospital bed because it meant that I couldn’t continue to go through the motions anymore. However, spending time in the hospital does not provide the true rest that my body needs (what with nurses coming to take my blood at all hours of the night!) nor was it the place for emotional and spiritual recovery. It was merely recovery from being overworked and, essentially, self-abused. As soon as I had enough energy, I would be back in the race of life (I’ve even being yelled at by nurses for this!).

It’s been a few years since it got that bad, so it seems as though I’ve learned a thing or two about adding more space to my schedule and more room to breathe. I would always say, “I do sleep at least a little every night, er, most nights!” And that is how I defined rest. So I can honestly say that until this year, I have not really understood how Biblical rest applies to me personally. Toward the end of 2011, God impressed upon my heart the need to learn what rest really means. So I took a big step and blocked out four weeks of the summer, went to a location where I knew no one, with no agenda, and asked God what he wanted to show me about rest. Well, first I simply slept for a few days (actually it took me a while to learn how to sleep again!). Then I learned to be still before the Lord, and hear from him. The lessons are many, but here is a bit of what I learned as it relates specifically to rest.

First, I think that there are many illusions of rest in our lives. It’s possible to carve out a lot of time for things that seem restful but aren’t truly restful or sufficiently restful. For example, sleeping every night is a form of rest, but it is a necessary daily rest that is needed in order to function from day to day. It is also perhaps the form of rest that is most severely abused. How often do we really get sufficient rest on any given night so we can function to the best of our ability the next day (which I guess might mean waking up without an alarm clock and being alert without coffee)? Although I don’t work graveyard shifts anymore like I did in college, I still find that my nights are often cut short for one reason or another.

Another form of false rest could be, for example, watching television. Because of my driven nature, I couldn’t bring myself to even engage in this activity until the last few years. However, following the example of others, I started to come home sometimes, feeling exhausted, and figured that watching a movie or TV show would help me “unwind.” While I think this activity can have it’s place, it became for me more of an escape, because by watching television, I didn’t have to face life’s complications (which at times I really needed to do). It can be relaxing, but it’s not the kind of rest that God offers to us. Along the same lines, procrastination is not true rest, either (if nothing else it adds more stress in the long run).

Taking vacation can be restful, but “vacation” does not necessarily equal rest. A few years ago I went on a road trip with a friend. We covered a lot of ground in a short time, had many early mornings, hit as many attractions as possible and spent a lot of time walking and hiking. When I returned home, I was more exhausted than before I left. Yet I was applauding myself for finally taking a “real” vacation! While it was a fun and interesting trip, it could not be equated with the true rest that God intends for us.

The theme of rest in the Bible is extensive and is covered from Genesis (God rested on the seventh day – Gen 2:2-3) to Revelation (the dead will rest from their labor – Rev 14:13). Much of Scripture’s storyline involves rest. God instituted the seventh day to be the Sabbath rest for his people (Ex. 31:15), the Temple was God’s resting place (Ps 132:8, 14) and God was leading his people into a land of rest (Deut 12:8-11). The theme continues throughout Scripture with more instructions along the way and our eternal promise as believers to enter God’s rest (Heb 4). This summer, God has helped me to better understand the following six lessons about rest.

1. Rest is a gift from God

God promised to give rest to the Israelites throughout their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land (Ex 33:14). Jesus also promises rest to all who come to him (Matt 11:28-30). Yet because it is a gift, it can either be accepted or denied. The Israelites did not enter God’s rest because of unbelief (see Hebrews 4). We can only benefit from this gift if we accept it.

2. Rest is found in the presence of the Lord

God told Moses, who was leading the Israelites out of Egypt, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex 33:14). Scripture also seems to indicate that finding rest in God’s presence involves a movement away from the noise and business of life and toward God. The Psalmist speaks of finding rest through stillness and quietness in God’s presence (Ps. 23:2; 37:7). Jesus calls the weary away from their work and to himself for rest (Matt 11:28-30, Mark 6:31). Herein I believe lies the difference between the superficial forms of rest listed above and God’s rest. We can stop all activity and still neglect being quiet before the Lord. Scripture also seems to indicate a need for time in God’s presence that extends beyond our daily communication with him through Bible study and prayer. Even though I am in communion with the Lord throughout my daily activities, I definitely found something sacred about stepping away from my daily activity for a time of serenity in God’s presence.

3. Rest is personal

Searching for God’s rest is an individual journey. It cannot be prescribed or forced. I think it may also take different forms based on individual needs and life’s seasons. I was blessed to have four weeks in a place of quiet solitude. Yet this would not be possible or practical for some of my friends who are young mothers. Still, they definitely need time to rest in God’s presence, as well. We should all make it a priority in life to rest, but in a way and space that works in our individual situations. God called me to take drastic action this summer to find rest (something like a detox from my normal routine perhaps?), but I also know that it is possible to find rest in places closer to home and on a more regular basis.

4. Rest is life-giving

In Luke 13:10-17, we read the story of a synagogue leader rebuking Jesus for healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath day. The synagogue leader thought the Sabbath was about rules instead of understanding that true rest comes when we meet with God. The woman found the most important aspect of rest that day – she met with Jesus and was set free from her bondage. It’s so easy to start thinking that Sabbath=Sunday (or another day of the week) instead of realizing that Sabbath=Rest.

The time of rest this summer has definitely been life-giving for me as I have met with Jesus. You could say it’s been hard work as he has been showing me areas of my heart that need to be submitted to him. Yet it has truly been life-giving. It has brought me back to the reality that true life, joy, and peace are found in Christ alone and that all the other cares of life should never creep into that sacred place of intimacy with God.

5. Rest is a discipline

In the context of Sabbath rest, not working is associated with self-denial several times in Scripture (Lev 16:29-31; 23:28-29, Num 29:7). It just seems a bit ironic, thinking of the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), that Mary was the one denying herself by not rushing about to serve Jesus. From a distance, it seems like Martha was the selfless one.

In our fast-paced world, it is not surprising that many of us find it difficult to step away from our work. How easily work can become an idol, a part of our identity, or an obsession. When God calls us to rest, we are denying ourselves of something that is close to our heart – our work, our labour. It takes humility and vulnerability to be able to walk away from our work in order to come into God’s presence and recognize our utter dependence upon him. Consciously doing that on a regular basis requires discipline. Especially for those of us who are recovering workaholics. In Hebrews 4:10, we are admonished to make “every effort” to enter God’s Sabbath rest.

6. Rest is healing

This is obvious when it comes to sports. Any serious athlete knows that ignoring rest in a training regime will be detrimental to their health and physical ability. We also need time and space for emotional and spiritual healing. Like going to therapy, we need time to process the difficult moments of our lives with our Savior and hear from him about what is right and true for us. If we don’t take time for healing when it is needed, we can start to shut down emotionally or blame God for pain and distance ourselves from him. It is easy to run to others with our pain and find an empathetic ear. It can be difficult to go to the Lord where we risk being convicted about our sin, letting go of our idols and forgiving our offenders. Yet Jesus alone can heal our souls and make us whole again. For an amazing picture of the kind of healing that can be experienced through fasting and entering God’s rest, read Isaiah 57-58.

This summer, I have experienced healing in many areas of my life and I feel like I’m in a much healthier state than I was in June. I think that when we have truly and sufficiently rested, we will be motivated to action, recharged and ready for a fresh start. Thankfully, that is where I am now. It’s a new feeling for me, but definitely a good one. And now as I return to the craziness of life, I realize how important it is to escape for a quiet retreat from time to time—whether it be for an afternoon, a day, a weekend, a week—I  don’t want to live life anymore without fully embracing God’s gift of rest.

Lord, I Believe a Rest Remains
by Charles Wesley, 1740

Lord, I believe a rest remains
To all Thy people known,
A rest where pure enjoyment reigns,
And Thou art loved alone.

A rest where all our soul’s desire
Is fixed on things above;
Where fear, and sin, and grief expire,
Cast out by perfect love.

O that I now the rest might know,
Believe, and enter in!
Now, Savior, now the power bestow,
And let me cease from sin.

Remove this hardness from my heart,
This unbelief remove:
To me the rest of faith impart,
The Sabbath of Thy love.