From wildfires to floods, from gun violence to hotly contested midterm elections, 2018 has been a year of national turmoil and unrest. My colleagues and I have experienced anxiety and uncertainty about the future in our own place of work. Crime has increased in my neighborhood. My friends and family are slogging through an array of medical challenges, from chronic pain to cancer to the debilitation of dementia.
We need rest. We have always needed rest.
But we have not always been good at finding it.
I know I haven’t.
Americans, especially those of my generation, value a “can-do” attitude. It’s part of our cultural mythology, from Rosie the Riveter to Nike. We believe in the value of hard work and dedicated effort. We believe in building things, in making things happen. We cheer for stories of those who diligently bootstrap their way to success, who courageously take on impossible odds and triumph over obstacles and adversity.
Rest? That’s for slackers.
But no matter how hard we work, the headlines aren’t getting any better. Adversity still comes. Globally. Nationally. Locally. Personally. Lives falter. True, there are times when courage and fortitude can turn the tide. But there are also times when nothing we do seems to matter.
To say that we need rest isn’t the same as saying we need sleep, though that’s certainly part of it. I’ve had many conversations with people who wanted me to give them behavioral prescriptions to improve their relationships with their spouses and kids. After a bit of conversation, it became clear that at least one factor was their lack of adequate sleep, for which they were paying the price in irritability or impatience.
But even if we were to get the hours of sleep our bodies need, that wouldn’t guarantee the rest our spirits need. Rest from striving, rest from the burden of having to prove ourselves, the kind of rest that helps us remember that we are not God. Go ahead, say it with me: we are not God. Only God is God. Only God is sovereign over every detail of this broken world of ours, over every detail of our own broken lives.
And God is the one who both commands rest and gives it to us as a gift.
I don’t know why the Sabbath commandment often seems to be taken less seriously than the other nine, even in the church. Whole congregations may act as if the truly spiritual among them should be more like Martha than Mary, bustling about doing “God’s work,” tempted to believe too much in their own importance.
But we are commanded to rest. Even God rested from the work of creation (Gen 2:1-3); why should we, who are not God, be exempt? Moreover, we are commanded to keep the Sabbath as a reminder that we are no longer slaves (Deut 5:15). If we fail to take our need for rest seriously, to what are we still enslaved? What spiritual hole are we trying to fill with our efforts?
I’m not as young as I once was, and my health is not as good. My sleep is more important to me now than it ever was; I treat it like an essential nutrient.
But I still struggle with rest. If I awake in the middle of the night, my mind goes quickly to things that remain unfinished, ideas I need to remember in the morning. My body has has begun enforcing its own limits on my physical activity, but my mind can still be overactive, restless.
So what do I hope for in 2019? More rest.
Rest for my body, certainly, but also mind-rest, spirit-rest, soul-rest. I don’t want to make a slew of New Year’s resolutions that are all about effortful doing, resolutions that will burn out by the month’s end.
I want to resolve to rest, to enjoy the gift of Sabbath more, to let go of my need to be productive, to spend more time in the presence of God enjoying the fact that I don’t have to accomplish anything to be his beloved child.
And I want the same for you.
May this coming year be a balm to your restless spirit.