The story of rest

We struggle to understand the concept of rest. You might think it’s pretty obvious, but we live in cultures that are so formed away from the ideal for human life that we often get rest backwards.

I’ve argued here at nuakh that rest is about the enjoyment of order, about stopping to be with the people of God, and about experiencing a foretaste of the resurrected life on the renewed earth. I won’t pick up on those ideas in this piece, but I would like to explore why we struggle to believe any of that.

Two examples

A couple of examples of what I mean:

Due to the pandemic, we haven’t been able to fly to most other countries in the world through the summer of 2021. There has been a lot of media coverage of the need to ‘save the summer’ and a loud portion of society acting like their rights have been infringed because they can’t have a foreign holiday. Putting aside that the UK is full of beautiful places to visit, and putting aside that most people probably can’t afford a holiday, there’s a narrative that this is a right.

Usually people seem to say that in order to rest—though this language isn’t always used—they need the sort of holiday that is only available to a portion of middle-classed people. A trip away from the normal rhythms of life to relax and engage in different activities. We often spin rest at the weekend in the same way.

Look, holidays can be great, but it cannot be that you can only rest if you have a certain level of wealth. God is for the poor. The rest that the Bible speaks of, that I named this site after, that we’re to enjoy one day in seven must be something else.

I described a week of annual leave where I’d done some hard labour on our house to someone the other week and they said, “hardly restful!” in response. Well, no. That’s for one day in seven. But we have to work hard in order to make something worth enjoying on our rest day, so I’d think it was to be commended.

Another example: some churches have a couple of Sundays in a year when they don’t run meetings. It tends to be smaller churches that are more likely to be using rented space, but I suppose there could be a whole host of reasons why you might that are perfectly legitimate. It’s reasonable, even if not entirely desirable. Sometimes—not all the time at all, but sometimes—this is pitched to the congregation as a week to “have a rest.”

That’s a category mistake. You can’t rest from church anymore than you can rest from sleep. To gather with the covenant people of God and worship in wine and song, the preached word and the company of the saints, that’s the closest we come to resting this side of our death.

I entirely understand the impulse, especially if one of the factors in the church not having a typical meeting that Sunday (and perhaps meeting in homes to eat together or whatever they might be doing) is that it’s a time of year a lot of people are away and it’s just difficult to make the teams of volunteers needed work. It can feel like you need a break, but to suggest that we can rest from church doesn’t make any sense.

Why do we struggle to understand rest?

There are plenty more examples in our cultures of this inability to get our heads around the concept of rest, but why do we struggle? Long term readers won’t be surprised to hear that I think it’s because we live the wrong story. We do this because of three forces in our society.

Force One: The calendar

We live a secularised calendar that divorces us from the rhythms of the seasons or the church year. We lack any feast days (holy days, or holidays). We think we’re the masters of time. We’re essentially disenchanted, in that it seems odd to suggest that time is something that should be infused with the glory of God rather than a resource we spend. We think rest must be a thing we impose on time.

Force Two: Individualism

We are expressive individuals that think we’re the centre of our own worlds. Rest is to us ‘me time’ where I recharge. We have more alone time than any people who have lived before us at any point in history and oddly, we want more alone time than we have or than they wanted. We think rest must be a thing where we leave the world.

Force Three: Industrialisation

We live in an industrialised world that carves the day into precise segments, and that because of technological advancement we can work when we like rather than when the weather and the seasons require it. In a digital world many industries can now work where and when we like to previously unheard of degrees. Of course we think we’re in control. We have begun to use industrial metaphors for ourselves: we think we’re machines that need to be recharged, and so we think rest must be about recharging ourselves.

We live a story

These three forces combine to tell a story that we live: our batteries run down and need recharging, and we do that by wresting days or weeks into shape to be time we spend on ourselves.

We believe that church is something we do like any other activity in our lives that could be rested from, rather than something we are. We believe the world revolves around us and can be reshaped in our image. We believe that time is a resource, that life is clay to be moulded. Frankly, we believe we are gods. So, we think rest must be a thing we find and define for ourselves.

As ever, the solution is to live a better story. The story we need to live when resting is concerned is that rest is a taste of creation’s coming sabbath rest. That to rest is to taste the age to come and to live in accordance with its principles.

How can we do that? Live the year as it comes to us, season after season. Be mastered by time rather than try to master it. Rest one day in seven on the first day of the week with the people of God. See those gathered people of God as your best route to tasting the resurrection. See them gathered in a place to sing and pray and hear and eat the word of God as not a difficult thing to arrange that’s good for us but as our weekly amuse bouche of the age to come, the closest we come to the resurrection this side of death’s door. See them gathered around your table not as a lot of work in hosting, but as a chance to enter into rest. Because that’s what it is.

And we desperately need to rest.

Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

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