Learning to work hard is great—but working hard is not enough to have a balanced life. You must also learn how to stop working. That’s called rest. The ancient Hebrews called it taking a Sabbath. It was one of Ten Commandments. Scripture records, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Keeping something “holy” means you are committed to doing it.
But we don’t usually think of “committing” to Sabbath rest. In fact, in our overachieving world, not many care about rest at all. And yet, rest was just as much God’s idea as work was. And just like God works, God rests. When we don’t get enough rest it hurts us. In fact, doctors tell us that many of the stress-related illnesses people have today find their roots in the fact that we are overtired and burned out. On the whole, we have little more than disregard and disdain for rest; we only do it when we have to.
The 20th century Jewish rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote concerning the Sabbath: “When the Romans met the Jews and noticed their strict adherence to the law of abstaining from labor on the Sabbath, their only reaction was contempt. ‘The Sabbath is a sign of Jewish indolence,’ was the opinion held by [the Romans].” But we need to rethink that position on rest. Rest is actually God’s gift to us, a reward at the end of hard work.
Back to Heschel: “In defense of the Sabbath, Philo, the spokesman of the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, says: ‘On this day we are commanded to abstain from all work, not because the law inculcates slackness … its object is rather to give man relaxation from continuous and unending toil and by refreshing their bodies with a regularly calculated system of remissions to send them out renewed to their old activities.”
If you refuse to rest, it will catch up to you, which means rest is not an option—you will rest. It will either be something you learn to do on your own or something you learn through a heart attack or some kind of emotional breakdown. I think most of us would prefer choosing the scenario rather than just letting it happen dramatically.
When you don’t have enough rest, you begin to lose perspective on just about everything. Leonardo da Vinci said, “Every now and then, go away, take a little relaxation, because when you come back to your work, your judgment will be surer. To remain constantly at work will cause you to lose power of judgment. Go some distance away, because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance, and a lack of harmony or proportion is more readily seen.”
You need to catch the early signals of rest deprivation if you are going to learn how to establish a good work/rest rhythm. They are things like: mental fatigue (having difficulty concentrating or trouble thinking flexibly), irritability (you’re noticeably more defensive, argumentative or angry), anxiety (feeling of restlessness, insecurity or a general sense of worthlessness), apathy (the “blahs,” you just don’t care anymore, nothing seems interesting or fun) or just plain ol’ exhaustion (you fall asleep sitting at your desk or standing in the subway).
If you believe you are rest deprived do something about it. Otherwise your life will be dominated by fatigue, a loss of perspective, poor judgment, and confusion of heart. Author and syndicated cartoonist, Ashleigh Brilliant said, “Sometimes the most urgent and vital thing you can possibly do is take a complete rest.” And that is the truth. Simple sleep (even in nap form) is sometimes the best eraser in the world.
But in a world full of appointments, to-dos, relational responsibilities, deadlines, and power-lunches, one has to sometimes get creative in order to get enough rest. Rest seldom happens by accident. In our work-oriented, performance-based Western culture, even the time allotted to us where we don’t have to work is usually filled with some variation of work. How often do we use our “lunch” hour to actually work?
How to rest
We need to learn rest. But what “works” as rest is a very individual question. Things affect people differently. What feels like rest to you might feel like work to another. Every one has their own definition of too much, too little or just enough.
Just remember rest is a place of renewal. It happens when we choose to forget our problems and all the stuff life jams down our throats and we remember who we are and remember why it is we do what we do. And rest can be snagged in snippets: It’s a few minutes of solitude in the midst of a hectic day; it’s setting aside 15 minutes to go for a walk or power napping after lunch; it’s a time when we pause in the rough and tumble of life and remember a special moment from the past (never be afraid to sit for awhile and think); it’s stopping to look at the pictures of loved ones on our desk and remembering where the photos were taken; it’s pausing a few minutes here and there throughout the day to pray scripture or sing a hymn to God.
When a healthy dose of rest is taken daily, it restores our physical being and renews our emotional and spiritual energies.
Rest that comes from reflection is a beautiful thing. A Divine gift. Unpack it. Hold it. Treasure it. Use it well and life will grow sweeter. Harold Kushner writes of restful reflection: “In a world where not everyone will do great deeds or achieve great success, God has given us the capacity to find greatness in the everyday. Lunch can be a hurried refueling; the equivalent of an auto racer’s pit stop, or it can be an opportunity to savor the miracle that dirt, rain, seeds and human imagination can work on our taste buds. We just have to be wise enough to know how to recognize the miracle, and not rush headlong past it in our search for ‘something important’ … The good life, the truly human life is based not on a few great moments but on many, many little ones. It asks of us that we relax in our quest long enough to let those moments accumulate and add up to something.”
Decide to fight for and enjoy the “rest” of your life.
Ed Gungor is a pastor and author. He can be found at SaltTribe.org.