ast week, Carrie got a cold. It was the kind of cold where medicine doesn’t really do much; until it gets better, you just have to wait, take some time off, and rest. The problem is that Carrie prefers to be active, so she’s not used to having nothing to do but lie back and take it easy. “You know,” she complained to me, “it’s hard to rest!”
True. Sometimes it is. We like to keep ourselves busy. When we’re faced with the prospect of having nothing to do—or worse, having to do nothing—we tend to say, “But who’s going to take care of this and that and the other? Shouldn’t I be doing something? I don’t want to feel useless!”
Rest is hard when we want to work.
The kicker is that Jesus had said immediately before this that salvation is something you only have to “receive… like a child” (Luke 18:17). The ruler’s reply was, “So, what do I have to do?” Yeah. It’s hard to rest.
Rest isn’t laziness. Laziness is neglecting to do what you need to do. Rest is admitting there are things you don’t need to do, or can’t do at all, or just need to take a break from doing so you can recover.
The message of grace is that God has done these things, so we don’t have to worry about them anymore. God has saved us, so we don’t have to work to save ourselves. God is causing us to grow, so we don’t have to strive to sanctify ourselves. What’s left for us to do? Well… rest.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NASB)
“Cease striving and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10, NASB)
“The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:14, NIV).
It ought to be a glorious, liberating, peace-infusing message that we get to rest. We should feel like our boss just told us we can take three weeks paid vacation. Like our teacher just told us we won’t have to do that twenty-page assignment after all; we’ll just get full credit. Like we found out we just came into enough money to make us independently wealthy and we’ll never have to work again.
No doubt it is like that for some people. If you’re one of them, you know it, and you love it. But others seem to have a hard time grasping the concept. The problems come when we start thinking that the idea that we can rest is too good to be true. Or when we start thinking, “What do I have to do in order to rest?” Or when we say, “Yes, God wants us to rest, but…”
Philip Yancey writes about “Grace Avoidance” as the root of many people’s devotion to rules-based religion. I think we get the same kind of issue with “Rest Avoidance.”
For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said,
“In repentance and rest you will be saved,
In quietness and trust is your strength.”
But you were not willing.
(Isaiah 30:15, NASB)
“Why aren’t you willing to rest?” the Lord seems to ask. “All you have to do is repent and rest in me to be saved. All you have to do is be still and trust in me to be strong.” Yet some people insist on being spiritual workaholics.
As Paul wrote, if your idea of grace is based on work, then it isn’t grace at all (Romans 11:6). To avoid the idea of rest, we have to avoid the idea of grace. To avoid the idea of grace, we have to avoid the message of the Gospel. To avoid the message of the Gospel, we have to avoid the heart of God the Father. You can see this isn’t going to end well.
Indeed, He will speak to this people
Through stammering lips and a foreign tongue,
He who said to them, “Here is rest, give rest to the weary,”
And, “Here is repose,” but they would not listen.
So the word of the LORD to them will be,
“Order on order, order on order,
Line on line, line on line,
A little here, a little there,”
That they may go and stumble backward,
be broken, snared and taken captive.
(Isaiah 28:11-13, NASB)
Isaiah describes the consequences of rest avoidance. The original Hebrew language of his poem features a dazzling bit of wordplay: the prophet writes that, to rest avoiders, the word of the Lord will sound like “sav lasav, sav lasav, kav lakav, kav lakav.” These are seeming nonsense syllables that (scholars say) are meant to suggest the babbling of baby talk. But they’re also plays on the Hebrew words for “command, standard, rule, measuring line.” An equivalent in English might be “law-dee law-dee law-dee law, do-dee do-dee do-dee do,” though I can’t find any translators goofy enough to use that.
Isaiah’s point seems to be this. The Lord tells us so clearly that He wants us to rest that to ignore the message of rest is to make His word seem like meaningless gibberish—or like a nitpicking list of rules and laws, which is much the same thing.
The result is that these people will “go and stumble backward”—the image again is of a baby, trying clumsily to walk but falling down on his bottom. That’s endearing in a one-year-old but disastrous when you’re older. You’re likely to break a bone, fall into a trap, or even get captured by an enemy. If you don’t get enough rest, you won’t be able to walk.
So, what do we do when the wrong question is “So, what do we do?” The answer in the Bible gets its most detailed treatment in the epistle to the Hebrews. The author dwells at great length on the fulfillment of Old Covenant images and ideas in the person of Christ. Pretty soon he comes to the idea of rest. God promised the Israelites rest and peace in the Promised Land, but because of their persistent lack of faith, their unwillingness to rest in God’s promises, they missed out. That’s the lead-in; then comes a whole chapter just about rest. Here’s part of it.
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,
“So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’” (Hebrews 4:1-3)
“Falling short” of the promise of rest means refusing to have faith in it, for instance, by believing that resting is based on works. If the verse the author quotes seems to be an odd choice of proof text for that, notice that God does not say “I won’t let them into my rest” but “They shall never enter.” It wasn’t that the Lord wanted to keep them out; it’s that their unwillingness to believe that God wanted them to rest kept them from being able to rest.
And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”
It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
(Hebrews 4:3–11, NIV)
The allusions are to all of Scripture, from the seventh day of Creation (God rested) to the Ten Commandments (Sabbath rest). God rested from His works to show us that we should rest from our works. It’s not just about keeping the Sabbath; it’s about recognizing and living out what the Sabbath means—honoring God by giving up our work and resting in Him.
The closing irony is clearly intentional: “Make every effort to enter that rest.” Entering God’s rest, of course, is about giving up your effort. But rest can be hard. Sometimes we need to make an effort to stop working. Sometimes we have to make ourselves take a break.
Legalism is the lazy man’s faith. It takes the beauty and serenity of God’s rest and reduces it to something we’re more comfortable with—an easy list of rules to keep. Any lazy fool can keep rules. Laziness means neglecting the things we need to do, and we need to rest. We need to rest even if it’s hard, even if we’d rather trust ourselves, even if we’d rather work.
When rest is hard, do what Jesus said: Come to Him. Trade your heavy burdens for His light and easy yoke. Learn—and unlearn—from Him. Then “you shall find rest for your souls.” How can He be sure? Because He made a promise: “I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28–30). You get it by faith, just by coming to Jesus.
Rest can be hard, but rest is grace. Rest can be hard, but rest is peace. God wants you to trust Him and believe in His goodness. God wants you to rest. Jesus gives you rest.
Be at rest once more, O my soul,
for the LORD has been good to you.
(Psalm 116:7, NIV)