We live in a culture that has lost the ability to rest. At best, we are oblivious to our need for it, and at worst, we are downright resistant to it. In fact, in our culture there even seems to be a significant amount of shame attached to the concept of rest, which has huge implications for the quality and fruitfulness of our lives, as well as our work. We are made in the image of the One who rested and calls us to do the same. Thus, when we fail—or downright refuse—to rest, we tear away at the very image of God planted deeply within us. We become far less than people he created us to be.
Part of the problem, it seems, comes from the fact that we have a flawed definition of rest in the first place. How we define rest greatly affects how we practice rest. Far too often the things we do in the name of rest are not really restful at all. This is most likely the result of us defining rest as anything that is not defined as work. Thus, travel and hobbies and recreational activity (and even yard work) are often defined as rest, when they are really nothing more than distraction or escape. The things we do in the name of rest are as comical as they are tragic. They are merely our own misguided attempts to do whatever we want to do, all in the name of getting some rest. Sadly, this will never give our souls what they most desperately need.
Luckily, God comes to the rescue. He gives us some great hints of what rest is, and what practicing rest looks like. He uses two words to do that: šāḇaṯ (stop) and nûaḥ (settle in). Thus, in order to rest the way God intended, we must learn how to stop and we must learn how to settle in.
First of all, in order to really rest, we must stop. Which is a huge problem because we don’t really know how to do that. We are great at “go,” but we are terrible at “stop.” Thus, any attempt to rest, while continuing to go, is doomed to failure. And yet we do it all the time. We have to learn how to stop. In fact, we must start by stopping. And this stopping doesn’t just involve our legs, but also our hearts and minds and souls. Physical silence and stillness is the first step, because once we still our bodies, our hearts and minds and souls will eventually follow, but it takes some time and space.
That’s where the second word comes in. We don’t just have learn how to stop, but we also have to learn how to settle in to that stopping. We have to learn how to remain stopped. True rest takes a while, it cannot be done in a hurry. There is no express lane or drive thru. The only way for the soul to find rest is to learn how to remain stopped for a significant period of time. It is in this settling in that we learn how to engage God and allow him to engage us. It is the space where we learn how to turn our souls toward him, listen to him, and allow him to breathe the life-giving breath of his Spirit into us.
Once we are able to do those two things, God tends to do the rest: he moves, he speaks, he acts, he draws, he breaths, he renews, and he restores. He is wonderfully faithful to do all of those things if we will just give him the room. As Annie Dillard once said: “You don’t have to sit outside in the dark. If however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.” Likewise, you don’t have to stop and settle into silence. If however, you want to find rest for your soul, you will find that stopping and settling in are necessary. But God neither requires nor demands it. Or, as King David once said (sort of), “You don’t have to lie down in green pastures and sit beside still waters. If however, you want to have your soul restored, you will find that they are necessary.” It’s really up to us.