Life has been busy lately. Our daughter is due soon, I am taking my comprehensive finals next month for my PhD, I’m writing/editing stuff, and I’ve taken on expanded responsibilities at our church. I’m sensitive to the danger of taking on too much, and I’ve continually had to surrender my schedule to the Lord and ask for wisdom. But for this season, I honestly feel the Lord has called me to all these things, and I’m enjoying them all and learning so much in the process. I have, however, had to reflect a great deal about the importance of setting up healthy habits of work and rest during this busy season. Somewhat paradoxically, I rest more deliberately and more consistently during this time of my life than I ever have. Here are 7 principles about Sabbath rest that I am learning. I share them in hopes they might help others fighting the battle of busyness, fatigue, and endurance.
1) Rest before you get tired
Working until you crash is an easy default. When there is a lot to do, it is easy to keep going as long as you have the energy. But I have found that effective Sabbath rest requires paying greater attention to patterns of behavior over the long haul than bursts of energy in the short-term. It can be difficult to wrench yourself away from the computer when you still feel like working. But it is healthy to have defined limits that are determined by objective plans more than by moment-by-moments feelings. If I go home at 5 PM even when I feel like I could keep working, for instance, I almost inevitably have more energy the next day. What this means is that taking Sabbath rest well actually requires discipline and intentionality. Paradoxically, rest is hard work!
2) Have a rhythm to your rest
I don’t think we are under the Sabbath regulations that old covenant believers were. But the principle of taking one day per week to rest is so wise. I have carved out particular portions of my week for particular kinds of rest. When I don’t have structured times of work and rest, my times of work are less productive, less enjoyable, and accompanied by a nagging feeling of guilt that I am over-working. By contrast, if I know I have a time for rest with my family coming up, I can work with greater productivity and with a sense of freedom, knowing that God’s pleasure is in my work insofar as I do it unto Him. It is a great feeling to come home exhausted, feel like I’ve given it my best, and then genuinely leave my work behind me.
I believe this balance of work and rest is how God designed life to work. After all, Sabbath is not merely a commandment to Israel (Exodus 20), but a foundational principle of creation (Genesis 1), and a picture of the gospel (Hebrews 4).
3) When you are resting, rest
It is easy to think during our day off, “I’ll just respond to this one email, it will only take 30 seconds.” But there is some healthy about having space that is truly blocked out for rest, space that nothing that can invade. An email may take 30 seconds to write, but it will probably take more psychological and mental energy, especially if its something important you will keep thinking about. There is also wisdom in setting good boundaries and helping people not expect immediate email responses all the time. (If you answer once, will they keep emailing?)
4) Rest from social media and other electronics as well
Social media speed up and often clutter life. They are great resources but can also be incredibly destructive if we abuse them. I try most weeks to take Sabbath rest from my phone and computer from noon Saturday to noon Sunday. It is a way to de-clutter my mind before church. I have found that I really need that, and I didn’t know how much I needed it until I started doing it. I wonder if sometimes our minds and habits are so enmeshed with social media that we are not even aware of the effect it is having upon us. It is healthy to take small steps and see what effect it has: even just turning your phone off for one hour in the middle of every day can start to show us just how addicted we have become.
5) Find a hobby
I think one of the reasons people don’t rest well is they don’t have hobbies. Hobbies are helpful because they occupy our minds and energies during Sabbath rest. That is often more balancing and more restorative than simply sitting on the couch and watching TV. More and more I think Sabbath rest is not just a matter of ceasing all activity, but redirecting our activity into alternative, life-giving channels. Again, paradoxically, Sabbath rest takes work!
Oftentimes it is good, I think, for our hobbies to be different from our profession. For instance, if you have a desk job, join an intramural sports team. Or if your job is highly relational and fast-paced, find a hobby that is leisurely and provides solitude. I think pastors and others who work in a Christian environment can often benefit from having hobbies that put them into close contact with non-Christians and/or in a non-leadership role. When your identity 6 days a week is “pastor,” there is something healthy about your identity switching on the that 7th day to “the guy out in right field.” It is healthy and normalizing. I know one pastor in the UK who joined a boxing league. He said he loved it, and also got to share the gospel with Muslims regularly. What a great idea: for the exercise, for the gospel opportunity, and also for the personal rejuvenation.
6) Find ways to rest with your family
Sometimes being a father/mother is exhausting, and sometimes marriage takes a lot of work. But for the most part, family can and should be a healthy distraction from busyness. I have heard it said that you can often measure how healthy a family is by how much they play together and have fun and laugh together. I think there is truth to that. The overworked dad may find nothing better for his own soul than to come home and play with his kids at the park. Rather than see it as another thing to do, see it as a divinely appointed distraction and Sabbath opportunity. For me, this means going to the park with my son between 5-5:45 PM every day. I started doing this to serve my wife and get more time with Isaiah, but now I look forward to it everyday. It is relaxing at the end of the day to be outside and slow down a bit before I come home for dinner.
7) Where you struggle with Sabbath, remember the gospel
If you struggle to take Sabbath rest, it may be a gospel issue—finding your identity in your work, or being a people pleaser, or using busyness to distract you from unhappiness. So much over-work is driven by self-justification efforts: we need to accomplish more and more because we are failing to apply to our hearts what Christ has already accomplished for us. So the most important thing to do during Sabbath rest is refresh your heart with fellowship with God, and enjoy your status as his beloved child because of what Christ has done. A great irony I sometimes I find is that if my day off is going poorly and is not fun/restful, I can start to get a little agitated or stressed at how poorly I am doing Sabbath! In those moments I need to remember that Jesus Himself is our truest Sabbath rest. Ultimately, our rest is not in a Sabbath day, but in Christ himself, who has promised us, “come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).