Thoughts About Rest

Thoughts About Rest

Eagles Communication is a wonderful organization in Singapore, founded by Peter Chao, a Fuller alum and now one of our trustees. They publish a fine online magazine, Vantage Point, edited by John Ng, for Christians who want to serve God faithfully in the workplace. They asked me to write a piece on “Rest” for their November-December issue, now online. I am posting it here, but I do urge folks to become Vantage Point readers, at

“Rest for our Souls”

In a conversation that we were having a few years ago, my wife asked me what projects or assignments were presently high on my list of things-to-do. I responded by listing several things: reports that I needed to finish, meetings that I had to prepare for, and so on.

Then I added: “Right now, though, the thing that is really stressing me is this series of talks I have to give at a conference for pastors in two weeks.” “Oh, and what’s the topic of those talks?” Phyllis asked. “They want me to talk about rest,” I replied. She immediately started to laugh, and after a moment I joined in.

The point of our shared laughter was obvious to both of us. I have a hard time with rest. Indeed, I have even gained a reputation as a theologian who worries about Christians who rest too much. When I was installed as president of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1993, I organized my thoughts in my inaugural address around the theme of being “restless evangelicals.” We can’t be content with the status quo, I said. We need to keep pushing on to find new ways to serve the Lord in our efforts to equip people for service in Christ’s Kingdom. My dream for Fuller, I reported, was that we be “a restless seminary.”

I have spent much of my career calling for Christian “activism.” I have been critical of Christians who downplay the need to actively work for justice, peace, and righteousness in the world. The Christian life, I have argued, is about doing things. We must not become weary in our active efforts to promote the sorts of things that God cares about.

My advocacy of “restlessness” has even extended to the afterlife. Early in my days as a young scholar of Christian thought, I became quite critical of the image of heaven as a kind of eternal floating around in white robes playing harps. I emphasized the fact that the biblical promise of eternal life is wrapped up with the idea of the resurrection of the body. On the last day we will be raised up to new life. The heavenly state will be one of “reigning with Christ” in the New Creation. In the heaven that the Bible promises us, I have often said, we will be doing things.

And, of course, on the very personal level I am a bit of a workaholic. I don’t have any serious hobbies, and when people ask me what I do for relaxation I am usually caught off guard, and I mumble something about how much I enjoy reading.

None of this is bad in itself. We ought to be restless for the cause of the gospel. Work is an important part of the rhythms of life. And the biblical teaching about the resurrection is a wonderful promise for each of us.

But I have also come to recognize that these “activist” themes can be overdone. In obeying the call to action we can easily miss out on those blessings of the Christian life that can only be realized by also seeking out the quiet places. It is important for those of us who spend a lot of our time being literally “rest-less,” to think about God’s mandate that we seek out times that are “rest-full.”

At the heart of the Biblical teaching about rest is, of course, the mandate to “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” It is significant that while eight of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 are negative in tone –“Thou shalt nots” – this is one of only two that are positive. When it comes to resting, God is unambiguously straightforward: we must observe times of rest.

But it isn’t just that we are to schedule regular resting-times simply because God has commanded His people to do so. God isn’t being arbitrary. He is telling us something about His own nature. Long before God gave that command to the ancient Israelites, He scheduled a day of rest for Himself. After the six days of getting the creation started, God Himself took a day off from His labors. In doing so, He showed us that a part of what it means for us to be created in the very image of God is that we too must respect the need in our lives for seeing to it that we respect the cycles of work, play, and rest.

During the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus, rest actually becomes a key blessing that He offers to His followers. “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus says, and then “you shall find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28). What is this “soul rest” that Jesus promises to all who come to Him? Well, it is actually several different things. One thing that Jesus is promising us is an abiding kind of rest. That promise was already there in the Old Testament, where the psalmist tells us that those “who dwell in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty” (Ps 91:1). And in the New Testament Jesus extends this same invitation to “abide” in Him, since “apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).

I like the way the Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez put it in one of his books; prayer, he says, is “wasting time with God.” We know that “wasting time,” just hanging out together with no agenda, no stuff-to-do list, is important in our marriages and our close friendships. It is even more important in the most intimate relationship that we can experience –
our connection with the Living God. We just need to hang out with God, to “waste time” in His presence. By simply being there with Him, we gain much for our lives of service. For without Him we can do nothing. Healthy lives of action require times of quietly abiding in the divine presence.

The rest that Jesus promises us is also important for becoming a centered person. We live in a time where we run the risk of becoming increasingly fragmented selves. This tendency toward increasing fragmentation is viewed by many as a key characteristic of our “postmodern” era. Some scholars these days are even arguing that fragmented selfhood is a good thing. We simply have to adjust to the fact that we are – each of us – many “selves.” And we should stop trying to find that “real” self, that “center” that gives each of us our primary identity.

Of course, each of us does have many “selves,” distinct parts of who we are that relate to different contexts and relationships. I am a teacher. I am also a husband. Those are two different roles, each of them legitimate. But I know better than to lecture my wife! I may rightly speak as a professorial type in the classroom – but I had better not bring that role into the kitchen or the bedroom!

The challenge as Christians, of course, is to integrate our many “selves.” This also means setting priorities. There is nothing wrong with me being my sports-fan-self. But that part of me should not take precedence over my husband-self or my serving-the-poor-self. From a biblical perspective, it is a bad thing simply to be fragmented selves. That is the kind of selfhood that Jesus encountered when He met the young demon-possessed man who cried out in agony to Jesus: “My name is Legion; for we are many” (Mk 5:9). Jesus comes into our lives to make us whole, to give us the grace to embark on a journey of integrating our selves. But we can properly realize the blessings of this promised wholeness only if we spend time abiding in the quiet places, where we reflect upon who we are and what ought to be our priorities. This kind of reflection is a crucial element in the Christian life.

In emphasizing the need for integration, it is important to see the intimate connection between the concept of integrating and the idea of integrity. God wants us to be persons of integrity. This means that there must be a consistency between our private and our public selves.

One of the famous statues in the world is the Statue of Liberty, which has served as a welcoming symbol for many generations of immigrants who have arrived in the United States on ships that have sailed into the New York harbor. This large statue was crafted by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi in the 19th century. When Bartholdi designed his sculpture, he had no idea that someday planes and helicopters would fly overhead, looking down at the top of Liberty’s head. Yet he paid careful attention to the detail on the top of the statue, even though he did not know that people would eventually be able to observe carefully the work that he had done there. He wanted to pay as much attention to what he thought would not be seen by others as he was doing to that which would be publicly observable.

There is an important spiritual lesson in Bartholdi’s example. He wanted to be an artist whose work was characterized by integrity – by the integration of the private and the public. This is a necessary ingredient also of the Christian life. The hidden parts of who we are must be consistent with the parts of our selfhood that are on public display. And this takes spiritual work in the quiet spaces of our lives.

I have to confess that I struggle with this in my own life. It is no easy task to cultivate integrity – the consistency between the hidden and the public. What we need to keep reminding ourselves about, of course, is that there is nothing in our lives that is truly hidden. We live in the presence of an all-knowing, all-seeing God.

One of my favorite biblical passages is Psalm 139. It is a favorite of mine, not just because I find comfort in it, but also because it makes me uncomfortable in necessary ways. “O Lord,” says the psalmist, “you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar” (ESV, verses 1-2). Nothing is hidden from the Lord. And because of that we must constantly pray what the psalmist ends the Psalm by praying: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (ESV, verses 23-24).

Finding the safe places where we can pray like this on a regular basis – this too is an important part of what it means to seek out the rest that Jesus promises to all who are weary and weighed down with the burdens of life.

1 Comment »

  1. Regarding: Things About Rest.

    Another form of rest to consider is rest from independent works (self works)and embracing dependent works (those directed by the Holy Spirit). Note the word below “effort” associated with “entering that rest”.

    Heb 4:9 There remains, therefore, a Sabbath rest for the people of God. 10 For the one who enters God’s rest has himself rested from his own works, just as God did from his.11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fail by following their example of disobedience.

    Comment by Blair Hills — March 15, 2008 @ 7:58 am