When I was growing up, I hated going to sleep. To me, there was just too much fun to be had and too many books to read. Why would I want to go to sleep and miss out on all of it? But, like most kids, I would eventually tire out, and when I did, I would be very clear with my mother. “I’m not sleeping,” I would insist. “I just need to rest my eyes for a minute.” The “minute” would, of course, generally turn into an afternoon or, I’m sure my parents hoped, an entire night. I wouldn’t mind it much, though, because I was resting, not sleeping. Resting came as a result of a full day, and it required surrender on my part. I had to admit that, loath as I was to go to sleep, I genuinely needed to rest if I wanted to have the energy to continue doing whatever I was doing.
There was, and still is, something about sleep that seems so permanent to me. Even now, I don’t like going to sleep, because I worry about whatever opportunities I’ll miss while sleeping. Rest, however, seems totally different. To me, rest implies, “I’ve been working hard. There’s still work to do. I’m gonna shut my eyes for about twenty minutes (or seven hours!), then I’m going to jump up and get back in the game.”
So when I read Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30, I feel like He’s speaking my language. Or, hopefully, I’m speaking His. He says,
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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. (NRSV, emphasis mine.)
In this context, “rest” isn’t just physical, and it isn’t just spiritual. There are several different levels to the meaning. Pastor Elisabeth Johnson writes,
To all those laboring under harsh religious and political systems, Jesus says, “Come to me…and I will give you rest.” Rest (anapausis) in the Septuagint can refer to Sabbath rest, the rest of death, or rest from war when Israel’s enemies have been subdued. Rest also functions as an image of salvation, of what will be when the world is finally ordered according to God’s purposes and enjoys its full and complete Sabbath. In promising “rest,” Jesus promises life under God’s reign in the new world that he is bringing into being. (Elisabeth Johnson, http://www.workingpreacher.org.)
Jesus understands what we often miss–that we need rest. And not just any rest; His rest. As “good Christians,” we often find ourselves whizzing about from volunteering to teaching Sunday School to baking cookies for the coffee hour to picking up the kids from school to making spaghetti for the youth group on Wednesday to barely remembering to read the text for Saturday’s Bible study and so on and so on and so on. We precariously balance church, work, family, and friendships, giving and giving until we feel there’s nothing left to give. We silently carry feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and the need to control every aspect of our lives so that there will be no surprises. We are “Marthas,” knowing all the while that we would probably be happier if we were “Marys.” We behave as I did when I was a child, unable to sit, unable to be at peace, unable to truly be at rest.
In the 1996 movie One Fine Day, Michelle Pfeiffer exemplifies this behavior as she portrays a single mom who is beyond stressed as she attempts to balance her commitments to her job and to her son. When asked why she won’t accept help from anyone, she replies,
“I’ve got all of these little balls up in the air. And if someone else caught one for me, I’d drop them all.”
We all have tons of “little balls” up in the air–obligations with which we’ve filled our lives, often in an attempt to do good. The beautiful news is this: not only is Jesus willing to catch the balls we’ve been juggling; He’s also willing to catch us. To take from us the heavy, overwhelming yoke of the world (and sometimes even of the church), and to give us His yoke–one of joy, laughter, hope, peace…and rest. Much like physical rest, spiritual rest requires our surrender. It requires an understanding that, “I’ve been working hard. There’s still work to do. But I know that, when I need to, I can retreat and take a break for a minute–without shame, guilt, or reservations–because Jesus said that He will give me rest.”
My hope is that we will come to trust that our Savior, who loves us all so completely and profoundly, is big enough to care for us at every point in our lives–whether at work or at rest.
What are some other ways of interpreting Jesus’ meaning of “rest”?
Do you feel that you have a tendency to overcommit yourself, or do you strike a pretty good balance?
What are some ways that we could all practice “resting” in Jesus?
Are a restful spirit and a hectic schedule mutually exclusive?