If you’re like me, when you think of rest, you think of this:
Perhaps you don’t have a cat or pug lingering nearby, and I’m really sorry about that. They make excellent sleeping companions! (Although the cat isn’t there because of me; he’s just obsessed with my heating pad.)
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30, emphasis mine)
Chances are that these verses are not unfamiliar to you. The Lord has been teaching me that sleep is not the same as rest. Sleep is necessary to keep our bodies and brains functioning well, but sleep in and of itself is not restful for the soul. My life is a perfect testimony to this; until recently, I was sleeping too much and not resting at all. I began every week just as exhausted as when the last one ended. Do you know how that feels, like you’re running on empty, constantly spinning your wheels and never gaining an inch?
Do you know the cause of that feeling?
What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23)
When one works extra hours at the office to gain a foothold on the coming day, or to secure the next promotion, for what is his heart toiling? If the promotion never comes, will his heart be able to rest?
When one works into the wee morning hours to create the most beautiful Pinterest-inspired party, for what is her heart toiling? If the compliments don’t pour in as she hoped, will her heart be able to rest?
When one’s expectations for family life are not met, will his or her heart be able to handle the burden?
While these three examples illustrate striving for satisfaction through work or other people, I believe a more subtle form of this is seeking the satisfaction of earning my right place before God. In either case, the effort will lead to exhaustion! The Lord is teaching me that the beginning of resting in Him is trusting in His sovereign plan for my life. I am not generally an anxious person, and I am relieved that the Lord is in control of the details. Our move to Kentucky grew me a lot in this area. Do I ever feel that panicky stomach clench that comes with trying to gain (what I perceive as) control over a situation? Of course. But the Lord has acted in so many amazing ways that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I can trust Him, and when I am tempted to become anxious, He provides a way of escape from the temptation by bringing to mind His past work in my life (1 Cor 10:13). He is working for my good, even if it hurts (Rom 8:28). Anything I insert will likely hinder His plan!
While trusting in the sovereignty of the Lord is a good basis, a stepping stone of sorts, I have found that I must go even further with my extension of trust in order to achieve soul-rest. The toiling, the striving, the working my fingers to the bone, this is all garden-variety self-sufficiency. All of my striving is an effort at earning something, notably God’s approval. Desiring to please God is a good thing, right? It is, indeed. But I have found it to be a quick, almost unnoticeable transition from that to attempting to earn my salvation. It is such a subtle, insidious little lie that I begin to believe: I am good enough and strong enough to make myself right before God.
And there it is, the reason I feel empty and exhausted.
The moment I begin to believe that I can earn my salvation is the moment I have mentally obliterated the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. So I begin turning to other things to ‘save’ me: other people, my job, my husband, my family, myself — anything that makes me feel good enough. The irony? These things will always fall short of being my salvation because they are marred by sin. Salvation is only found in Christ. Period. So I can stop striving to impress God with my talents and works, because He already knows exactly how black my heart is and He chose to extend His mercy and grace to me, bringing me into His family through Jesus Christ. This place, this spot of mind-blowing freedom, is where we learn how to truly rest. It is here that we may:
Stop striving. This really entails looking at the fist I have clenched around the day’s tasks, a relationship with a family member, what I forgot at the grocery store, what I’ll make for dinner, why the meeting didn’t go the way I’d hoped — all of what this world throws at me — and opening that fist. With His help, I must uncurl my fingers and release those stresses to the Lord. He is in control of them, thank goodness, and being in angst over them isn’t going to change anything. None of these things is able to save me — and I certainly can’t save myself — so why in the world would I focus on them when I could focus on the One who does save? Isn’t this what Jesus meant when He said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42)?
How might one rest in the Lord, then?
Sit down and pray. Is it your experience that unconfessed sin becomes a heavier burden with each passing day? King David sure found this to be the case.
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
Therefore let everyone who is godly
offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found . . .
(Psalm 32:1-6, emphasis mine)
Beginning with confession restores our relationship with the Lord. May we go boldly before the throne of grace with our confessions and petitions (Heb. 4:16)! I must ask Him again to strip the burdens from my heart. If there are idols simmering beneath the surface — and there are, always — I must pray that He would deal with those in short order such that I can better glorify Him. Finally, I must ask the Spirit to focus my mind and illuminate the Word for my feeble human mind.
Read the Bible (and pray even more). The ‘one thing’ Jesus mentioned to Martha is sitting at His feet and being washed with His refreshing, life-giving Word. Merriam-Webster defines to read as “to learn from what one has seen or found in writing or printing”. This means I must slow down and read carefully enough to glean the wisdom pouring forth from the Word. If my heart was adequately stilled while praying, the natural progression will be to meditate on what I’m reading. And in that meditation, I will desire to praise the Lord for His perfect character, confess further based on conviction, use His Word to guide my prayers, or pray back His perfect Word verbatim.
I find this to be the sweet spot of soul-rest.
Lest you think my quiet times are daily perfect and abundantly productive, I must confess that I have only hit this sweet spot a handful of times. I think the key is in realizing that HE IS MY REST. Not the sitting still, not the act of reading, not the act of praying. It is the connection to the God of the universe through the Words He breathed for our profit. It is the restorative relationship with Him, the realization that my soul is able to stop striving and simply rest in the promises of God in Christ Jesus. Jesus says that his food is “to do the will of him who sent me [the Father] and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). In doing the work prepared for us, we are abiding in the Lord. Jesus commands us to abide in Him in John 15, so that his joy may be in us, and that our joy may be full. The yoke that He places upon us brings joy!
In this I know that, despite my earthly circumstances, I may find heavenly rest.
Soli Deo gloria!