Karina Brabham takes a long hard look at Christian service and rest, and the model Jesus sets for us.
Getting the balance right: Serving and rest
Have you ever begrudgingly volunteered to fill in on the roster because if you don’t, no-one else will—despite feeling like it’s the last thing you want to spend your time on? Or have you ever walked into a Bible study group you’re about to lead and thought, “I just need to hold it together long enough to get through this”?
I’ve been there. I’ve spent that five minutes before I’ve entered a room ramping myself up for what lies ahead. I’ve given up on sleep just to get that last bit of preparation done for the ministry event happening the next day. Yet despite the tiredness and stress my serving brings, saying “No” is a struggle. I’m always sure I’ve got just enough time or that my capacity level is high enough. I’m always sure that if I just power through, it will all get done. Because after all, it’s serving. And serving is the right and Christian thing to do. Isn’t it?
As Christians, we’re called to live in a way that shows that our lives are different by loving and serving those around us. But we don’t always enjoy doing it. In the busyness of everything—between work, home, family and friends—there’s church. Church isn’t just a Sunday thing or a once-a-night Bible study thing; church often means serving, and serving takes up time. The problem is, if you’re like me, the thing in your weekly timetable that you might be sacrificing in order to serve is rest. And your repeated justification that this is the right thing to do might be starting to sound dissatisfying. For many of us out there, we know serving is important—something we want to prioritise. Yet so often it comes at the expense of rest.
So how do we hold serving, a good biblical principle, with rest, another good biblical principle? Firstly, we need to figure out what the Bible has to say about both serving and rest and how we can get it wrong. Then we need to look to Jesus, our ultimate model of both service and rest, before working out how to get the balance right for ourselves.
Serving is not just a task for the To Do list
How should we think about serving? Often we make the mistake of turning it into work: our “serving” becomes a task—just another thing to tick off a list. Perhaps we only consider the rostered authorised task on a Sunday “real” Christian service. But this isn’t at all what God has in mind.
While serving does involve doing things, the language of Scripture often highlights the importance of how a task is done, not just the task itself. In the Old Testament, Israel was called to obey God’s commandments by loving and serving him “with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut 11:13). Their service was to be genuine and committed, not just mindlessly going through the motions or ticking the boxes. We see especially that the attitude behind the action was important when it came to the temple sacrifices: Isaiah 1 makes clear how much God hates the offerings of sheep and bulls when they are made by a people who are far from him in their hearts (Isa 1:10-11). Although the people “served” God with animal sacrifices, theirs was not the genuine and committed service God desired.
The New Testament also points out that attitude is essential to godly service. In Peter’s list of directives to the scattered church, 1 Peter 4 puts forward some principles on how members were to conduct themselves. Peter writes, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly” (v. 8), which forms the important context to what he says later about Christian service in verses 10-11:
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 4:10-11)
So to serve is to put what God has given us to use for the sake of others and, ultimately, for the sake of the glory of God. This reminds us that service is not about us; it’s an expression of our love and commitment to the God who has rescued us from sin and death. It’s an expression of love and unity to the community we become a part of—one people, one body, one church by the work of Christ in his death and resurrection. To serve is to act out our new identity as members of God’s family and kingdom. To serve comes out of the new heart and spirit gifted to us by God. To understand what it means to serve as a Christian is to understand the gospel that transforms us.
Sin gets in the way
When we understand serving like this, our failure to live it out is clear. There are many times when my attitude is most certainly not focused on others or on God—times innumerable when I’ve acted more from a place of seeking validation from others, from a desire to feel capable, and even from the motive of not wanting someone to think badly of me. Sin can sneak into our attitudes and actions so easily.
When we reduce serving to a set of tasks, we’re in danger of focusing too much on works. While on an intellectual level, we know that it is by grace we are saved, that doesn’t mean we are immune from unconsciously bringing what we do into our identity as Christians. If we place too much stock in how many times our name appears on the roster or how full our time is with “church stuff”, we can fall victim to believing that our worth as Christians comes from our service contribution. Our motivation for serving can become about proving (whether to ourselves or others) that we are good Christians and important members of the church. Our focus shifts from being centred on Christ and what he has achieved to being centred on ourselves.
The other pitfall we can sometimes fall into is buying into the idea that we can have it all. Often our struggle with serving comes from just how time-poor we are in general. Our diaries can be jam-packed, and while what we’re scheduling in might be good, an idol can still take up residence in our hearts. The picture our world paints of a successful life involves a career, a happy family, good friends, a nice house and car, a fit and healthy body, an overseas holiday, and so on. It’s the kind of life we want—the kind of life we are actively pursuing, only with the added pressure of serving at church. The people we look up to might be the kind of people who seem to have this down pat. This means we may come to believe that a busy life is a good life, because that’s what successful living looks like. However, 1 John 2:15-17 warns us not to love the world or the things in it, because they are incompatible with the life of the transformed believer. We can’t have it both ways—living for God and living for the world. Yet often this is what we get caught up in: we try to live the successful life of the world, with all its trappings, while also seeking to live for God and be successful “servers” in our churches.
Finally, the sin in our service might also be pride or letting the opinions of others shape us. We don’t want to be the person letting the team down; we want to be the person people thank and compliment for making things happen. We’re also great at adding imperatives to our responsibilities: we feel we must bake those cupcakes from scratch, because that’s what everyone else does. We must have that new song perfect for when we play it in the band on Sunday or we will be letting the music team down. We must hand write thank you notes to every member of the ministry team we lead so that they feel appreciated. While these “musts” often involve good and often helpful things, these things are rarely essential. The social fabric of church will not fall apart if there’s no homebaked goodies for morning tea. Not running a kids holiday club will not be the determining factor in whether the neighbour’s kid follows Christ. If we think like this, then either our church family has some bigger issues to work through or we need to re-assess the level of our trust in God’s sovereignty. Someone once helpfully pointed out to me that organisational disasters or cancelled events are not obstacles to God. If I believe that everything depends on me, I diminish the power of my creator and exaggerate my own influence.
God wants us to rest
The thing is, the Christian life isn’t just about service: Jesus tells us that life with him isn’t just about doing things, even if they are done for the glory of God. Life with him is also about rest: in Matthew 11:28-30 he says,
“Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
God isn’t a hard taskmaster, demanding we earn our place by the amount of service we put in; rather, being a Christian is about rest before it is about service. Putting our trust in Christ as our saviour means putting aside a life of working to please God and allowing Jesus to take the burden of our sin. The gospel message is all about the rest on offer in Christ. The life of service—of true gospel-saturated service in action and attitude—is done in the freedom of that rest.
Furthermore, rest is an essential part of God’s pattern for how his world operates. Genesis 1-2 tells us that God worked for six days and then rested on the seventh. This pattern is affirmed in the Old Testament law, where the Sabbath day had an important function: it was a time for refreshment—a sign of the covenant relationship between God and his people (Exod 31:12-17). The Sabbath reminds us that God wants his people to rest and not just work. It reminds us that God did not create all things with inexhaustible batteries; instead, creation needs to take breaks—even the land, which had its own assigned Sabbath year (Lev 26:34-35). To rest like this is to trust in God. In our weakness and need to stop and refresh our tired bodies, we are to rely on the strength of our powerful God. As Psalm 121 reminds us, God is a protector who doesn’t sleep and isn’t limited like we are.
We also need to pay attention to what rest looks like in the Bible beyond simply “not working”. The Sabbath rest day was holy to God and focused on God. The Book of Deuteronomy talks about how the Israelites found rest in the Promised Land, where they enjoyed the blessings of security and relationship with God. In Hebrews 4:1-13, this idea of rest in the land is expanded to help us see what ultimate rest is about: it’s the rest that comes with eternity with God—the time when all pain and suffering pass away and there is no battle left to fight—the time when we will dwell with God in peace and in the abundance of his blessings. True rest is integrally linked to relationship with God: he is the one who gives real and satisfying rest for our bodies and souls. We are to enjoy rest as an expression of our identity as God’s children and creation.
Jesus is our model—in service and in rest
If we want to find someone who got it right, we should look no further than Jesus. Reading through the Gospels show that Jesus did a lot of doing: he seemed to be continually meeting new people, travelling to different places, preaching, teaching, performing miracles—the list goes on. But Jesus also included rest in his ministry: he often withdrew from the crowds to pray (e.g. Mark 1:35), and advocated rest breaks to his disciples (Mark 6:31-32). While Jesus the servant shows us that serving is all about sacrifice and humility (Mark 10:45; Phil 2:1-11), after his death, he was raised to sit (not stand) at the right hand of his Father (Eph 1:20). There’s a balance to what Jesus’ ministry looks like: he works according to God’s purposes, but he also rests according to God’s purposes.
Finding the balance
Bringing it back to us, we need to find this balance between the actual doing of service—service that is rightly motivated by the gospel—and taking time out to refresh our bodies and our minds in Christ. There are lots of practical things we can do to keep ourselves on track. Here’s just a few that I’ve come up with:
- Figure out what commitments to prioritise and why. If life feels too busy and exhausting, it might be time to drop a few of the less important commitments—even if it’s just for a while.
- Schedule rest time into the rhythm of your week and protect that time. If, for some reason (and it needs to be a good reason), you end up filling your rest time with non-restful activities, you need to replace that rest time elsewhere.
- Remember there are different seasons to our lives: as things change, we need to adjust our expectations for serving and resting accordingly. As we get older, our bodies may not have the energy to keep doing as they did when we were younger. Other big changes in our lives—like starting a new job, having a child or family illness—will also impact us.
- Remember that our differences mean that the balance won’t look the same for everyone: as an introvert, I’m often exhausted by lots of social interaction, and I’ve learned that events or ministries where I’m meeting new people will tire me out quicker than someone who is much more extroverted. Yet as someone who is fairly organized, my capacity to “get things done” can seem higher, compared to someone else.
As we apply what the Bible says about both serving and resting, we should find our joy in both these things increasing. As I’ve reflected on this and how I often get the balance wrong, I’ve become more and more aware of my own sinful desires and attitudes. Yet I’ve also gained a growing appreciation for the wisdom, power and love of God as I’ve mapped the glorious vision the Bible shares with us about what service and rest look like in his plan. I don’t always get the application right, and saying “No” to something good for the sake of rest can often be hard. But I’m thankful I know a merciful God who knows what I really need, even when I fail to recognize it myself.