Would it surprise you to know that we live in an era of unparalleled leisure time? It’s hardly a secret: historically labour-intensive duties—like a five-mile commute to work, access to world-class scholarly research or even just plain old laundry—have been reduced to the push of a pedal, a search of a website or perhaps the tap of your credit card at the laundromat. Even those of us who declare—often with great enthusiasm—how busy we are have to admit that our smorgasbord of extracurricular, career-building or social activities are mostly the result of personal choices, rather than unavoidable facts of life.
But for all the convenient privileges of the modern world, we’re left with a pressing question: if we have more free time than ever and infinitely more ways to fill it, why are we so often left feeling like we need so much more of it? Think of the work colleague who responds to the question, “How was your holiday?” with “It was far too short!”; the amateur Instagram travel bloggers who start planning their next excursion before their planes hit the home tarmac; and those weekends where you did little besides watch Netflix and eat takeout, only to reach Monday morning no more refreshed than when you clocked off Friday afternoon.
While it may not seem like a big deal at first glance, this problem with rest isn’t an issue to be taken lying down. Research has shown that the phenomenon of burnout—a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive or prolonged stress—is increasing across many different age, work and socioeconomic demographics in our society. Christians aren’t immune to its impact either; you might be surprised to learn how many strong believers you know are experiencing regular stress and anxiety when managing their daily lives, because they feel they can’t catch a break.1
As with almost all mental health struggles, the underlying causes are often varied and complex. So with that in mind, what I’m about to suggest is not a catch-all solution to the increasing frequency of burnout, stress and plain old exhaustion.2 Instead, let me suggest that our (mis)use of rest may be one of the regular contributors to our frazzled nerves. I think that somehow, despite hundreds of readily available ways to kick back and relax, we’ve actually become pretty bad at it. And if we’re not resting effectively, we won’t continue to do much else effectively for long either.
At the heart of our “never quite enough” mentality towards leisure time is the fact that many of us have come to see rest as an opportunity for escapism, rather than refreshment. This comes in many different forms, but they all work to the same effect. Think bingeing Netflix, long and unbroken hours of video gaming, and the constant desire for road trips and holidays away. Even avid readers can become overly dependent on a good novel or biography to bring them to their “happy place”.
Furthermore, one of our most common shared experiences—that is, social media—is compounding the problem. Frequent mindless newsfeed scrolling often leads to increased stress and anxiety for numerous reasons. Information overload, endless political debate, catastrophic news over which we have no control, and constant bombardment with the highlights of everyone else’s life (which makes ours look mundane and uninteresting by comparison) all amount to decidedly non-restful uses of our time.3
Wondering if you’ve unwittingly been indulging in this kind of escapism? Try asking yourself these questions:
- Do you become so involved with certain activities that they become your primary purpose in life, rather than a means of joyful refreshment?
- In your heart of hearts, do you see work, family, church and other necessary duties as a little bit of a distraction from what you really love to do?4
- Is the genuine desire to do anything besides game/watch TV/Facebook scroll or whatever your hobby of choice becoming increasingly rare?
In short, have you taken the mantra of “living for the weekend” and turned it into your lifestyle?
“But,” I hear you say, “rest is actually good, right?” Thankfully, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” For Christians, it’s vital to recognise that alongside a good theology of labour,5 we should have an equally high view of rest. When God created mankind in the garden of Eden, he created us to work. However, he also created us to be finite creatures for whom food, sleep and recreation are non-negotiable—so non-negotiable, in fact, that he built a day of rest into his people’s weekly calendar. Six days Israel was to labour, but on the seventh, they were to stop for the express purpose of rest (Exod 34:21). This is a good deal—especially considering God also commanded his people to party just as hard as they worked at seven feasts and festivals throughout the year.6
Now, I’m not personally a Sabbatarian; I do not believe that Sunday has become the New Testament Sabbath on which no work should be done.7 I believe our one-in-seven day of rest has been spiritually elevated to 24/7 rest from our works by Jesus’ sacrifice. We may continue to physically work and rest, because these things good and necessary. But the specific command for Israel to exercise their rest on a special day each week pointed to something greater (Heb 4:1-11). The rest that remained for God’s people to enter was accomplished in Jesus’ work, as he fulfilled the law on our behalf and paid for our sins in his death. Whereas Israel looked back to God’s rest on the seventh day after creation (Gen 2:1-3), we now look back to Jesus’ declaration, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Our ultimate rest is in Christ—all day, every day.
Whether you share this view or not, I hope we can all agree: physical, mental and spiritual rest is a valuable gift from God that even the most productive among us can’t afford to ignore. The great English preacher Charles Spurgeon put it simply: “Rest time is not waste time. It is economy to gather fresh strength”.8 So clearly, if our rest is leaving us in desperate need of a break, it’s time to reassess it.
The spiritual art of rest
At this point, you might be waiting for the inevitable “Christian” solution to every problem: read your Bible and pray more. Is this advice that you need to hear? Maybe. But from personal experience, getting better rest has been less about adding more things—even good things—to your routine and more about remembering who the God we serve really is. Since Jesus died to give us permanent rest through a living faith in him, perhaps it’s this truth that needs to be brought to bear on our leisure time and allowed to reshape our thinking. Start with these diagnostic questions and see if God has accounted for your situation.
Are you feeling worn out? Remember that the Lord knows about it and will refresh you:
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Do you long for the motivation to open God’s word or the passion to respond to it? He has given us prayers for that:
Deal bountifully with your servant,
that I may live and keep your word.
Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law.
Do anxious thoughts and fear for the future wear you down? Hear from the God who cares deeply for his creation:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt 6:25-27)
Getting back on track
So how do we respond to these wonderful truths? If rest is a gift from God, one practical step we can take is to remember the gift-giver. It’s amazing how taking a moment to recognise and thank God for his provision can guard our souls against feelings of entitlement towards free time. In the same vein, looking ahead to our day off and asking how we can make the most of it transforms our rest by aiming towards positive refreshment, rather than escaping from the negative effects of work. A couple of hours of thankful, intentional enjoyment of our hobbies will often do more for our recovery than whole days of mindless indulgence.
As I’ve spent a year working hard on rest, I’ve been regularly reminded that the same God we serve is the one from whom we receive our strength. Learning to commit my rest to him in prayer as I would any other part of life has helped me benefit much more, even when I get less time to do it. Opening his word with the conviction that it is perfect and refreshes the souls of those who trust in his ways helped shift my view of Bible reading from a noble discipline to a lifeline I rely on for daily strength. While valuable relaxation can certainly involve more than traditionally “spiritual” disciplines, if we feel like we need to depart from Jesus to find refreshment in the world’s entertainment, we’ve missed the purpose of God’s design for rest. We’ve forgotten that he is the gift-giver and source of rest, and have mistaken him for a harsh taskmaster from whom we need to run to find peace.
So as we prepare to enjoy our regular periods of respite, perhaps we might begin by remembering the God of Psalm 23, the Shepherd who leads his people by still waters and green pastures—the one who restores their souls and makes their cup overflow—the one whose goodness and love follows them all the days of their lives, when they seek their rest in him. And as we do, we might find that though we first come weary and heavy laden, the easy yolk and light burden of remembering our freedom as Christ’s redeemed people can give us the rest we truly desire.
Jordan Cunningham has just completed his second year at Moore College.
Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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2 Wouldn’t that have made a great clickbait title?
3 “The Facebook Effect: How Is Social Media Impacting Your Stress Levels?”, Chester County Hospital Healthy e-Living Blog, 12 March 2020.
4 Michael Hurd, “Escapism vs. Refueling: Good? Bad? Or Indifferent?”, 18 March 2015.
5 Classically named “the Protestant Work Ethic”.
6 Week of festive camping, anyone (Lev 23:33-43)?
7 The Jewish Sabbath of the Old Testament lasted from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.
8 Charles H Spurgeon, “Lecture XI: The minister’s fainting fits”, Lectures to My Students: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1875), 260.