Our culture basks in busyness, wearing stress and lack of sleep like a badge of honor. As the news regularly reports, more than half of Americans don’t use their allotted vacation days and are likely to bring work with them when they do take a vacation. Work provides our identity with busyness assuring our status. Stimulants like caffeine and sugar provide the means to get moving in the morning while sleeping pills, alcohol, and herbal remedies enable us to forcibly shut down our bodies and minds to get fitful sleep before starting it all over again because, as the motto says, “You can sleep when you are dead.” But is this what God intended when He created man in His image in the Garden? What does it mean that God worked for six days and then rested on the seventh? In the Bible, rest is more than the absence of work. Rest demonstrates where we place our trust for provision, identity, purpose, and importance. Rest is both a regular rhythm to our day and our week as well as a promise with fuller future fulfillment, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:9-10).
What Does it Mean to Rest in the Lord?
The word that is used of God resting on the seventh day in Genesis 2:2 is Sabbath, the same word that will be used later calling Israel to cease from their normal activities. In the creation account, God established a rhythm for us to follow, both in our work and in our rest, to maintain our effectiveness and purpose as created in His image. God established a rhythm to the days of creation that the Jewish people continue to follow which demonstrates a contrast to an American perspective on work. As God’s creative work is described in the Genesis account, the pattern to end each day states “And there was evening and there was morning.” This rhythm is reversed from how we perceive our day.
From our agricultural roots to the industrial area and now to modern technology, the day begins at sunrise. We start our days in the morning and end our days at night, expending energy throughout the day to collapse when the work is done. What is the implication, then, of practicing your day in reverse? In an agrarian society, as was the case in Genesis and through much of human history, evening meant to rest and sleep because it was dark, and you couldn’t work at night. God’s creation order suggests that we start our day in rest, filling our buckets in preparation to pour them out in work the following day. By putting evening first, God established the importance of prioritizing physical rest as a prerequisite for effective work. With the inclusion of the Sabbath, though, God also established a priority in our identity and value. Work is not a result of the Fall and sin but is instead a blessing in that we find purpose and productivity in joining God in His creative work by subduing the earth and exercising dominion over it (Genesis 1:28).
Ordering, organizing, naming, and subduing God’s good creation establish man’s role as God’s representative within His creation, ruling the earth. Work, though good, must be kept in balance with rest so that our pursuit of productivity doesn’t come to represent the entirety of our purpose and identity. God did not rest on the seventh day because the six days of creation wore Him out. God rested to establish a pattern for us to follow in enjoying the goodness of our created being without the need for being productive. One day in seven set apart for rest and reflection on the work we have completed requires us to acknowledge our dependence on God for His provision and freedom from finding our identity in our work. In establishing the Sabbath as the fourth commandment in Exodus 20, God is also demonstrating a contrast for the Israelites from their role as slaves in Egypt in which work was mandated hardship to demonstrate His love and provision as His people.
We can’t do it all. We can’t get it all done, even with 24 hours a day and seven days a week. We must relinquish our attempts at earning an identity through our work and rest in the identity God provides as loved by Him and free to rest in His provision and care. This desire for autonomy through self-definition forms the basis for the Fall and continues to plague our functioning in relationship to God and others today. The serpent’s temptation to Eve exposed the challenge of dependence with the consideration of whether we rest in God’s wisdom or whether we want to be like God and make the choice of good and evil for ourselves (Genesis 3:5). In choosing to take the fruit, Adam and Eve chose independence over dependence on God and we continue to struggle with this choice every day. God’s call to rest, both in the order of our day and in the rhythm of our week, hangs on whether we can rely on God to take care of us while we cease from work. This theme of the pull between dependence on God and independence from God and the rest He provides is a critical thread of the Gospel throughout Scripture. Sabbath rest requires our acknowledgment that God is in control and we are not and our observance of Sabbath rest than becomes a reflection and celebration of this provision and not just a cessation of work.
This shift in the understanding of rest as dependence on God and consideration of His provision, love, and care in contrast to our pursuit of independence, identity, and purpose through work has important physical implications, as we have noted, but has ultimate critical spiritual implications as well. The fallacy of the Law is the idea that through hard work and personal effort I can keep the Law and earn my salvation, but as Paul explains in Romans 3:19-20, it is not possible to keep the Law. The purpose of the Law was not to provide a means of salvation, but so that “the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Heb 3:19-20). Our works cannot save us (Ephesians 2:8-9). While we think we can be free and independent from God, we are dependent and slaves to sin (Romans 6:16). Independence is an illusion, but dependence on God results in life and freedom through righteousness (Romans 6:18-19). Resting in the Lord means placing your faith and identity in His provision, physically and eternally (Ephesians 2:8).
How to Rest in the Lord When Your World Is Upside Down
Resting in the Lord means depending fully on His provision and plan even while the world swirls around us in constant chaos. In Mark 4, the disciples have been following Jesus and listening while He taught large crowds about faith and dependence on God using parables. Jesus used the parable of the sower to explain how distraction, fear, persecution, worry, or even Satan can disrupt the process of belief and acceptance of the gospel in our lives. From this time of instruction, Jesus moves with the disciples to application by falling asleep on their boat during a terrifying storm. The disciples, many of whom were seasoned fishermen, were terrified and woke Jesus, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Jesus responds by rebuking the wind and the waves so that the sea becomes calm, asking the disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). It is easy to feel like the disciples on the Sea of Galilee in the chaos and storm of the world around us. We may know the right answers and recognize that Jesus is present with us in the storm, but we fear that He doesn’t care. We assume that if God truly cared about us, He would prevent the storms we experience and keep the world calm and still. The call to rest is not just a call to trust in God when it is convenient, but to recognize our complete dependence on Him at all times and that He is always in control. It is in the storms that we are reminded of our weakness and dependence and through His provision that God demonstrates His love. Resting in the Lord means stopping our attempts at independence, which are futile anyway, and trusting that God does love us and knows what is best for us.
Why Is Rest Important for Christians?
God established the pattern of night and day and the rhythm of work and rest before the Fall, creating a structure of life and order in which work provides purpose in practice but meaning through relationship. After the Fall, our need for this structure is even greater as we seek to find our purpose through our work and in our independence from a relationship with God. But beyond this functional recognition lies the eternal design in which we yearn for the restoration and redemption of our bodies “to be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). These small patterns of rest (Sabbath) provide the space in which we are free to reflect on the gift of God’s provision of life, purpose, and salvation. Our attempt at identity through work is but a snapshot of our attempt at identity and salvation as independent from God. We cannot earn our salvation, but it is through grace that we have been saved, not of ourselves, but as a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). We rest in God’s grace because the work of our salvation has been accomplished at the cross (Ephesians 2:13-16). When Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), He provided the final word on the work for redemption. The seventh day of creation provides a reminder of a perfect relationship with God, resting in a reflection of His work for us. Christ’s resurrection established a new creation order, shifting the focus from ending creation with rest on the Sabbath to resurrection and new birth on the first day of the week. From this new creation we wait for the next Sabbath, the final rest in which our representation as God’s image-bearers on earth is restored with a new heaven and new earth (Hebrews 4:9-11; Revelation 21:1-3).
Our temptation today is the same temptation offered to Adam and Eve in the Garden, will we trust in God’s provision and care for us, resting in dependence on Him, or will we attempt to control our lives in futile independence, grasping for meaning through our busyness and effort? The practice of rest can seem like an intangible luxury in our chaotic world, but our willingness to relinquish control in the structure of the day and rhythm of the week to a loving Creator demonstrates our dependence on God for all things, temporal and eternal. We may acknowledge our need for Jesus for eternal salvation, but until we also relinquish control of our identity and practice in our temporal practice, then we don’t truly rest and put our trust in Him. We can rest in the Lord when the world is upside down because He loves us and because we can depend on Him. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength” (Isaiah 40:28-29).
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Seth L. Scott, PhD, NCC, LPC-S is an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina and provides clinical counseling and supervision in the community through his counseling practice, Sunrise Counseling. Seth, his wife, Jen, and their two middle school children enjoy outdoor activities, reading together as a family, board games, and meeting people through Jen’s pottery business at galleries and festivals.