Sweaty, matted hair sprouted like twigs from the head of my 13-year-old son as he stumbled into the room. “What happened to you?” I asked, noting from the lingering scent of soccer practice that the shower I’d ordered for him had not happened.
“I fell asleep on the bathroom floor,” he mumbled, edging past me to the comfort of his bed. “Not so fast,” I caught him. “Shower first.”
My son’s bent toward exhaustion is a classic case of the apple not falling far from the tree. He’s a lot like his mom. It’s a busy stage of life, I think when I’ve pushed myself too far.
But if I’m honest, I’ve lived on the edge of exhaustion for a long time — and sometimes I’ve even worn busyness like a badge of honor.
Just as my son is not alone in his need for rest, I believe much of our world runs on coffee and otherwise empty tanks. Why do we do this to ourselves?
One fundamental answer to this question is that things are not as they should be. Ever since Adam and Eve departed from God’s design of living at rest under God’s care and rule in the Garden of Eden, the effects of sin have permeated our human experience. We approach the world looking for purpose and value outside of our Creator.
External influence, internal pressure
This search for meaning apart from God pushes and prods from outside of ourselves and from within. Externally, our society is unwilling to slow down for rest. If you live in a fast-paced environment or work in a high-performance industry, it may feel like needing a break is a sign of weakness.
We celebrate achievement and applaud productivity, perhaps without acknowledging that people are finite. Humans cannot function like the “open” signs that blink 24 hours a day in retail stores. We are not machines built to produce. We are humans designed to work, rest, play and have relationships.
Internally, too, we can get caught in the trap of measuring ourselves not only by how much we can accomplish, but also by the pace we strive to keep. I can’t count the number of times I’ve answered the greeting, “How are you?” with, “Busy … but good.” I often feel that if I’m not stretched, I must be wasting time or doing something wrong.
On a more personal level, I sometimes fear what will happen if I stop. What will I find lurking in the quiet? Or if I stop, how will I start again? If I give myself the luxury of slowing down, how will I hop back on the treadmill?
Jesus never used the word “treadmill,” but he seemed to know something about the juggling act that ensnares us outside of Eden.
Who knows what we really need?
As I’ve wrestled to locate rest in the weary landscape of my own life, I’ve often gone to Jesus’ words recorded by his disciple Matthew:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).
If Jesus is offering, he must know something about what we need. Those who heard these words firsthand experienced pressure to keep Sabbath rules set up by the religious elite of their day. Jesus’ words might resonate today with an Orthodox Jew who places their refrigerator in “Sabbath mode” to avoid encountering the appliance’s lights and sounds.
For Christians today, too, Jesus offers another way. A walk, not a run. A watching, not a grabbing hold. Company-keeping, not jockeying for attention. A lightness along the way.
Jesus doesn’t offer a formulaic way around human limitations but a relational way through.
A gentle reminder
When the pace of life slowed to a crawl during the COVID-19 lockdown, I was surprised that my internal life remained harried, even after my calendar was cleared. The pandemic eliminated early morning lunch-making and shuffling out the door, soccer practices, church duties, medical appointments and hours of sitting in traffic, but my heart still ran at a breakneck speed.
One early Sunday morning during lockdown, my daughter found me furiously pounding the keyboard of my computer. “No work for you today, Mama,” she said. “I just have to get these bills paid,” I responded as I crunched a few more numbers.
The words of my child, gentle and inviting, began to work in me, reminding me of Jesus’ words to Martha in Luke 10:41-42: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary [who had chosen to sit and talk with Jesus, not serve frantically] has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (English Standard Version).
A relentless culture may push and prod me to keep moving or fall behind. And a strong internal drive may keep me dodging the state of my soul and mislead me into “doing” more for God, like Martha. In and around these moments, I especially need Jesus’ free offer of rest, his “good portion,” and what he has to teach me.
Jesus’ rhythmic rest
Embedded in the record of Jesus’ life in the New Testament we find rhythms that shaped his life here on earth. Luke 2:41 records that every year, Jesus’ family traveled to Jerusalem for Passover. They took time away from the daily demands of their life to remember and commemorate God’s release of his people from slavery in Egypt.
Jesus also observed the weekly Sabbath. Luke 4:16 records Jesus’ Sabbath day custom, in which he set one day apart from the others for worship and rest. God built this one-in-seven day rhythm into creation “in the beginning” (Genesis 2:2-3). Scripture tells us that when he finished forming and giving purpose to each piece of the universe, God rested.
When I think about Sabbath, my mind races to the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8, ESV), and to my childhood, in which Sundays were solemn days for church, family dinner, a nap for my parents and more church.
Jesus didn’t prescribe exactly how to “do” Sabbath. In fact, he broke down a rigid set of rules imposed by the religious elite of the day about it. But he respected his Father’s guideline on Sabbath rest and demonstrated that God sets boundaries for our benefit.
Another clue in our quest for rest is hidden in Jesus’ pattern of leaving the crowds behind for periods of solitude, including focused times of prayer (Luke 4:42, 5:16, 9:10, 21:37). He slipped away to quiet places, sometimes alone. At other times, he retreated with his disciples. The Gospels don’t provide many details about exactly how Jesus spent these unscheduled times away. What is clear, though, is that he intentionally and regularly stepped away from the demands of his work.
The cadence of work and rest, infused into the created order and modeled by Jesus, gives me hope that God’s way isn’t the way of the treadmill. And while rhythms provide a framework for real rest to occur, what Jesus offers isn’t just a set of habits or another to-do list. His words in Matthew 11 draw us close and remind us that life with him is like a dance. We move together, but as anyone who has whirled the waltz or rock-stepped the cha-cha knows, the dance is only as beautiful as the cooperation between the leader and the follower. When Jesus leads and I follow, the dance is just right.
Finding your own rhythm: Where to begin
For me and my family, life has returned to a different version of what it was before the pandemic. During quarantine, my heart eventually caught up with the space on my emptied calendar. As I slowed down, I began to do things I’d almost forgotten about — like petting my cat, tending my garden or watching the sun rise over my neighbor’s house. I realized that I cannot expect to experience rest if my lifestyle allows no space for activities that encourage God’s design for rest.
From one hopeful rest-seeker to another, I’d like to share with you what I am learning from Jesus’ rhythms:
1. Daily time spent connecting with God frames the day with his love and the reality of his presence.
For those of us who struggle to maintain regular habits, every day may look a little different. Pausing to talk with God through the day or while walking, reading Scripture or a devotional book and journaling prayers are a few practices that can cultivate a daily rhythm of connecting with God.
Andrea Black, an artist, wife and mother of three young children from Kenmore, Washington, finds praying through scripted words from a prayer book in the morning and evening refreshing.
“There has been something nice about offering up prayers that aren’t even words I have come up with but that I want my heart to align with and rest in … his promise to take that offering and put it to work in me and in his kingdom,” she wrote in a text message.
2. God invites us to press the pause button regularly and trust that he holds things together.
Like me, you may need to say “no” to something in order to say “yes” to rest. As Tim Foley wrote in his book “Rest — For the Rest of Us,” “When we pause, we can find delight in doing the things that make us happy. That is how God first intended it to be.”
3. Sabbath is a gift that God gives us, not a list of rules to follow.
Jesus set the record straight when he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28, ESV). Why wouldn’t we want a big slice of something that God made for our benefit and joy?
Because of the ongoing realities of living in a world that’s broken down by sin, we often can’t discern what’s good for us. So actually opening this gift requires that we trust God to take care of us — and that we obey him.
Pastor Timothy Keller points out that Christian Sabbath is ultimately a declaration of freedom. “[Sabbath] means you are not a slave — not to your culture’s expectations, your family’s hopes, your medical school’s demands, not even to your own insecurities” (“The Power of Deep Rest”).
We stop because God told us we can and should.
Jesus invites us to embrace a different way. He doesn’t promise that we’ll never again feel the need to catch a snooze on the bathroom floor. But he invites us to retire busyness as a badge of honor, come close to him, and accept the rest that’s found in living close to him and embracing his “unforced rhythms of grace.”
Check out our “Rest” playlist on Spotify, curated to help you on your journey toward rest.
An Invitation to Reflection
As we approach the season of Lent where we pause and reflect on the ministry of Jesus, this is the perfect time to pause and rest in him.
Melissa Long serves as a writer for Cru®. As a native of Lookout Mountain, Georgia, Melissa appreciates the deep quiet of forested mountains. She currently resides on the edge of a wooded swamp in Florida with her husband, two kids and a devoted but somewhat deranged cat named Maple.
Mick Haupt is a photographer and writer who loves to tell a good story. Originally from California, Mick has served as a photojournalist for The Jesus Film Project and creative director in Cru Global Communications. He lives in Orlando with his wife and raises two boys and a cat.