[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 9 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Dispelling Work Haze and Vacation Daze.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
What if we came to believe that “vacation” was intended to be a part of a healthy pattern of life?
As I think about my childhood vacations, I am most often transported to the beaches of North Carolina. Most summers, my family (various grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins included, seemingly never the exact same group) would spend a week together somewhere along North Carolina’s shores. I don’t remember much about the houses we would inhabit for the week (though the place with the deck on the roof, which drove my Nana insane with worry, stands out), though no doubt they were always carefully selected by the grownups. I also only vaguely remember what or where we ate, or any outings we may have gone on while there. What stands out most distinctly is the feeling of togetherness that we enjoyed in those times. There were few distractions, everyone (mostly) got along well, and we all seemed to genuinely enjoy the time we spent together. We would spend hours enjoying the beach, play card games (Uno was always a big hit), go on meandering strolls, and learn as much about each other during those single weeks together as compared to the whole year.
The pattern my family followed during those years, however, is not something easily maintained or replicated. I think that’s in part because few of us realize that God actually intended vacation, or rest, to be a part of our pattern of life. Or, if we do realize it, we generally fail to integrate it with much regularity into our life rhythms. As we look at the beginning of the created order described in the opening chapters of Genesis, we find that God Himself, after completing His creative work, rested from His labor. Theologians (myself among them) sometimes puzzle at what it could mean for an eternal, all-powerful being to rest. It seems unlikely that God could get tired, so what would be His need for respite? … More on that to come.
Few of us realize that God actually intended vacation, or rest, to be a part of our pattern of life.If that verse in Genesis was all we had to construct a theology of rest, it would probably carry enough freight to create a fairly robust vision. But of course, there is more to the story. This pattern of rest which God initiates is built into the life of His people, Israel. We know this now as the Sabbath day, a day in which the entire nation was to rest (Exod. 20). The Sabbath had several purposes, but the chief purpose was for the people to take a breather from their labor. This was to be observed even during the planting and harvest seasons, when the workload of the average Israelite would be at its heaviest (Exod. 34:21). Even beyond cessation of labor, conducting of commerce was prohibited, as was preparing food. The meals for the Sabbath day were to be prepared the day before to ensure the people were actually resting on that consecrated day (Exod. 16:23–30). The punishment for violating this commandment was the harshest possible: death (Exod. 31:14–15).
One of the other purposes of the Sabbath was for Israel to remember God rescuing them from Egypt (Deut. 5:15). This reflective purpose would ensure their thankfulness for God’s deliverance and remind them of their dependence on Him (Isa. 58:13; 66:23). The prophets woefully declare that this ordinance was neglected by the Israelites and, at least in part, led to their being punished with exile from the land (Jer. 17:21; Amos 8:5). What God had intended as a means of blessing for His people (Isa. 56:1–4), when neglected, became the source of a curse.
The book of Leviticus also details a year of Sabbath in which the land was to be left unworked every seventh year. Beyond this, every seventh-seventh year (49th year), debts were to be forgiven, land which had been sold was to be restored to the original owners, and slaves were to be set free. This pattern of rest was intended to be deeply engrained within Israelite culture. It is unclear how often the Israelites actually followed this prescribed practice.
During what is known as the Second Temple period (which begins around the events of Ezra/Nehemiah and ends around the destruction of the temple in 70 AD), the observance of the Sabbath became one of the chief markers of the Jews. In his Histories, Tacitus, for instance, scoffed at the laziness of the Jews because of their insistence on not working on the seventh day. Many Jewish communities (such as those who authored Jubilees and the Dead Sea Scrolls) were so intent upon keeping the Sabbath that they created extra regulations to ensure it would not be violated. According to Jubilees, the Jews should not be permitted to ride in a boat, start a fire, or even take up arms to defend themselves (something which became a bit of a controversy in the Maccabean revolt). The many conflicts of Jesus with the Pharisees also illustrate the issue of proper Sabbath observance was at the forefront of the mind of many Jews in the first century. Jesus, like the prophets before Him, emphasized that the purpose of the Sabbath was to provide restful service to God’s people. The point of the Sabbath was intended to give a blessing to the people, not become a burden or a ritualistic observance (Mark 2:27).
To return to the question of why God rested after creation, it seems to me that the purpose was to demonstrate the necessity of a pattern of rest for humans to truly live the “good life.” If God rested after His labors, how much more must we! It is not, of course, that God needed to, but rather that He was showing His people a healthy pattern to follow. Contrary to many of our Protestant perceptions, the purpose of the Torah was to lead God’s people into the good life. It provided the proper parameters to allow for human flourishing. And central to that Law was the requirement to rest from labor.
So… about all of this “rest as God’s pattern in creation to lead to the good life” stuff… I have a confession. But first, an excuse. Getting a PhD can really mess with your head. And not in the “stretch your thinking” kind of way (though it does that too). More in the “rewire your brain to feel like you have to be constantly active” kind of way. At least that was the case for me. I vividly recall waking up often in the middle of the night as I was nearing the completion of my dissertation. I would frequently have some bizarre dream or series of thoughts, which were mostly incoherent, but somehow related to my topic. Upon awakening, I would feel the need to go work on these thoughts, as if they somehow actually contributed to my project. This would usually result in me being up for several unproductive, sleepless hours. My sleeplessness was brought on by a neurotic and compulsive need to work toward the completion of my project.
Soon after I defended and put the PhD behind me, I realized the compulsion had not gone away. As we have learned from the notion of neuroplasticity, our thoughts and behaviors create neural pathways in our brain which enable us to repeat activities and processes more easily. But they can also be harmful in that negative activities, what we might call habits, are also formed and become hard to break since it requires consciously rewiring our brains. So, my confession is like many in our culture who find it difficult to turn off their brains and relax: I find myself a slowly recovering busyness addict. The lack of a regular rhythm of rest in my life prevents me from experiencing the God-intended flourishing which that rhythm creates. Integrating such a pattern, far more frequently than once a year, into my life allows me mental space to reflect, learn, and recharge. It provides the proper parameters for healthy human life.
The biblical pattern of “rest as God’s design in creation to lead to the good life” does not just extend through the Old Testament in the Torah and into Jesus’ controversies with the Pharisees. In the fourth chapter of the book of Hebrews, the author speaks of a “Sabbath rest” which is available to the people of God. There is a sense in which the author, like many others whose texts are included in the New Testament, views this as a now/not yet reality (what theologians sometimes refer to as inaugurated eschatology). Thus, this Sabbath rest is available to believers today, but is something they should anticipate as coming in a fuller, more complete sense in the future.
But beyond the fact that rest was intended as a pattern for God’s people to embrace within His creation, there is another eschatological connection with the theme beyond what is seen in the book of Hebrews. Scholars frequently speak of the idea of a renewed creation as present in the writings of the New Testament. It is seen in particular in Romans, Colossians, and Revelation. There is a sense, again, in which this renewal has already taken place because of Jesus’ resurrection, since believers are referred to as “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17). But, as we mentioned before, the now/not yet tension is also evident in that a final, fuller consummation awaits (as seen, for example, in Romans 8 and Revelation 21–22). We must dispel the vision of the afterlife which has dominated much of North American Christianity for a moment, since the New Testament does not depict believers living in heaven as some sort of ethereal or disembodied place in the sky. Rather, the new heavens are accompanied by a new earth and believers are raised in glorified bodies to live and, most likely, to cultivate that new earth as God always intended it. In some sense then, the renewed creation is a return to the pre-Fall world, though a far greater version of it.
You may wonder what this diversion has to do with our topic. To put it simply, we will most likely be doing and busy in the new creation in order to cultivate what God has restored. But whereas the ground was cursed as a result of human sin and thus human labor became difficult, we might envision the new creation as a more enjoyable labor, a working without pain and difficulty. In it, the fullness of the presence of God will dwell among His people in His world and, as N. T. Wright has put it, He will unite the things in heaven and the things on earth. This image of a restored creation inhabited by God’s people and flowing with indescribable blessings reverberates throughout the Psalms and Prophets and is picked up frequently in the New Testament. Whether the actual Sabbath cycle will continue, or our work will not “feel like work,” it seems apparent, especially with Isaiah 65 read as the backdrop of the New Testament picture, that some combination of doing and resting will be present in eternity.
I fully believe that Christians should find their work fulfilling in the here and now as a part of the new order which has been initiated in Christ. I also fully believe that rest is an important part of the “good life,” both in the now and in the not yet. As a parent of two toddlers (and a third on the way), vacations can be at times far from the ideal in terms of the quantity of relaxation time. I hope that the togetherness I felt as a child with my family will be something that they remember as well. But I also know that, in spite of the busyness with which I find myself almost constantly preoccupied, often of my own doing, I need to develop a healthier and more consistent pattern of rest in my life. It will not suffice to have a once a year break from frenetic activity. Nor will it suffice to think of a pattern of Sabbath-rest as simply a religious activity of worshipping on Sunday. To respect the biblical witness of the importance of a rhythm of rest, I need to create the time and opportunity to be free from busyness that I too might reflect upon the deliverance and transformation afforded to me in Christ. And in doing so, I will not only be imitating the pattern set out by the Creator Himself, but I will also be anticipating that hopeful future promised to God’s people wherein His presence will be among us, our work will be unencumbered, and our rest will be splendid, knowing that true peace and joy will ever be before us in the presence of the Father, Son, and Spirit.