‘It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.’ (Psalm 127:2)
The challenge for any Pastor is to make sure he preaches to himself as much as to those in the congregation. In recent months I have sensed the Lord repeatedly speaking to me about rest. First I was called to preach on what the Bible says about stress. Then YAF asked me to speak about work life balance. A couple of weeks later I had to cover the same topic for Dig Deeper. Each time the importance of rest came up.
In a hurried society and a culture that celebrates busyness I was struck by God’s command for us to rest. Genesis 2 tells us that God made us in his image. As He is creative so we are made creative. As He works so He makes us workers. But as God rested on the seventh day of creation so he calls us to rest – to stop working. This rationale for rest follows the giving of the 4th Commandment. In Exodus 20:11 we are told: ‘for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.’
However God gives another purpose for our rest when the Commandment is repeated to a later generation in Deuteronomy 5:15: ‘you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.’ Regardless of your view about the specific application of the Sabbath for Christians today the principle remains – we have been made for regular rest. Some people need encouragement to work. Perhaps many in our workaholic culture need encouragement to rest.
Why does God call us to stop? He could have made us differently. Just consider how much more we could get done if we didn’t need to sleep or refrain from work. Or so we think. God has given us freedom to stop working. For what purpose? Not simply because we physically tire. We also need to be renewed in mind – to remember who God is and what he has done for us. The Israelites were to stop to remember how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. We stop to reflect on our deliverance from slavery to sin by Christ giving his life on the cross.
We are not only told to stop every 7 days. The Bible also speaks about the importance of sleep. Psalm 127:2 tells us sleep is a gift of God. We are told that even Jesus stopped, rested and slept even at the height of his popularity. Why would God have us spend almost a third of our lives doing nothing? Sleep is a parable that God is God and we are mere men. It is a daily opportunity to relinquish control and entrust ourselves to a loving and sovereign God. The Bible tells us we can sleep because God does not – ‘Behold he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep’ (Psalm 121:4).
Sleeplessness has many causes but in my own experience it can be driven by anxiety and doubt. On occasions I choose to burn the midnight oil because I don’t believe God will enable me to prepare my sermon in the time he has given me. John Piper says that God ‘is not nearly so impressed with our late nights and early mornings as he is with the peaceful trust that casts all anxieties on him and sleeps.’1 A lack of sleep may in fact fuel our anxieties and doubts. Don Carson reminds us that ‘we are whole, complicated beings; our physical existence is tied to our spiritual well-being, to our mental outlook, to our relationships with others, including our relationship with God. Sometimes the godliest thing you can do in the universe is get a good night’s sleep – not pray all night, but sleep.’2 A lack of sleep is not a badge of honour. Is our restlessness caused by doubt in the provision of God?
We are commanded to work but we are also commanded to rest – to stop and to sleep. Putting these commands into practice is not always easy, especially if your work pattern involves shifts or you have young children. But the principles remain. How can you ensure that you take the rest you were made for?
2 Don Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, p.147