I have struggled to prioritise rest, often seeing it as an absence of work rather than a blessing from God. In the early years of my ministry I developed a habit of working late into the evenings (or early mornings) to achieve a high volume of work. When I had space, my tendency was to add more work rather than see it as an opportunity for margin. My proclivity to overwork, and working with insufficient rest, has continued through the years. Sadly, I’ve often taken my wife and family for granted in my busyness. Let me reflect on a few lessons that I am still learning about God-given rest:
1. The Scriptures encourage us to value the gift of rest. They move through the picture of God working and resting, establishing a pattern of daily and yearly sabbath rhythms, to the final eschatological fulfilment of rest in Christ. God made us to work and to rest, but we are not defined by the six days or the one. God calls us to keep our focus on the rest Jesus offers—a rest for our souls. Understanding this has rescued me from my early foundations of legalistically doing no work on Sundays, but I am yet to fully treasure God’s sabbath rest.
2. Rest is not optional. Recent health issues and the creeping of the years have led me to be more realistic about the importance of rest. Sleep is essential to nurturing our physical, mental, social and spiritual health. God could have created us without a need for sleep, but he did not. Even his Son required sleep while on earth, so why would I push on as though I had more capacity than Jesus?
3. Rest is vital to effective work. Rest is not merely the absence of work, but a variety of restorative processes that enable creativity, productivity, satisfaction, fulfilment and more. God has created us to function well and live productively through good rest. Such rest can take many forms. It can be active, challenging, playful, sleep, naps, exercise, sabbaticals and much more.
4. Rest creates margin. Margin enables us to cope with the extra demands that come our way. Given the complexity and uncontrolled nature of much ministry life, margin is critical to self-care and resilience. If we operate with full diaries and calendars, then any change or interruption will create a jam. This will lead to living in the ‘red zone’ of stress and burnout. Margin in emotional energy is an over-looked category for many Christian leaders. When we become emotionally overloaded, our resolve to serve God and love others gets eroded. Everything becomes more difficult. When we’re emotionally resilient, we can deal with much that happens.
5. Rest is loving to others. Overwork is unloving to others. Long hours, missed days off, for weeks on end, year after year. This isn’t a badge of honour. It’s a walk of shame. I’ve often failed to see or acknowledge that I’ve been taking others for granted. God’s call to take a day off has an impact for all around you. Others can rest because you are resting. Family can do things together, you can get time with your wife, go on holidays, contribute around the house, take an interest in what others are doing. Workaholism may not be as catastrophic as alcoholism, but it too can leave many people damaged.
6. Rest gives glory to God. As we embrace true rest in Christ, we are liberated from being pre-occupied with ourselves and our performance. I’ve recognised that some of my overwork has been driven by a desire to be seen as a high achiever. My unwillingness to value rest has been caused by a failure to see rest as a generous and vital gift from God. The Sabbath has always been about trusting God to be at work when we are not. True rest is about giving God the glory that only he deserves.
Alex Pang, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. Great Britain: Penguin Life, 2018
Matt Perman, What’s Best Next. How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014 (Chapter 16)
Geoff Robson, Thank God for Bedtime. Sydney: Matthias Media: 2019
Peter Scazzero. The Emotionally Healthy Leader. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015
Richard Swenson, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Resources to our Overloaded Lives. (Revised Ed.) Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2004