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Working At Rest


There is one thing for which I am regularly (and justly) scolded by my wife: I just don’t know how to rest. Far too often, we find ourselves talking about my inability to just sit on the couch–without a book, without the TV on, without a notepad in hand, without an agenda of some sort. Rest is something I do very poorly.

Of course, in our driven, accelerated culture of achievement and consumption, that might seem like a virtue. One might even be praised for having a “good work ethic”–maybe even a good “Protestant” work ethic. So the fact that I can’t seem to rest means that I do get a lot done. by Rein Vanderhill Even in the halls of Christian higher education, we place a lot of value on productivity, output, and energy. Admission to college places a value on a busy extra-curricular life; college life itself is a whir of activities; and faculty are driven to “produce” good scholarship. But there are some verses in Hebrews 4 that rather haunt me in this respect, forcing me to ask the question, What if we are created not for output, but for rest?

On the flipside, I find myself often scolding my oldest son, Grayson, who seems to be quite gifted in this respect! Grayson is very happy just to sit on the couch with his Mom, or just meander around the house, chit-chatting with whoever might be around. I often bark at him, “Don’t you have something to do!? Get a book and read! Do something!” Not only am I terrible at rest, I won’t let anyone else rest either!

Yet at the heart of Hebrews 4 is something that deeply challenges the frenzied busyness of our culture–even of our so-called “Christian” culture.


The writer to the Hebrews has just exhorted these persecuted Christians not to abandon their discipleship. Pointing them to Jesus who is both Apostle and Priest, he paints a picture of Jesus as a new Moses, a leader who will bring them to a land of promise–which will also be a region of rest. But there is an urgency here, even a “fear” (KJV) that some will not enter that rest.

The writer addresses this fear by situating it within a story: just as the Israelites were seeking rest in the Promised Land (and many were denied), so we as the people of God are looking forward to a rest. The chronology of the story here is important: the writer invokes the story of Israel, looking forward to rest from their wandering when they arrive in the Promised Land. But then the writer invokes Psalm 95, written long after this settlement in Canaan. Hence, arriving in the Promised Land was only a proleptic foretaste of the rest promised the people of God. Psalm 95, then, looks forward to still another “Sabbath.” And “today,” the author claims, is the day to enter that rest. But this is where the fear kicks in: like many of the ancient Hebrews, some of these Christians were in danger of not entering this rest. And the same danger exists for us.

So it seems to me that this passage poses a couple of questions: First, just how would we fail to enter that rest? Second, what would it mean for us to enter this rest? Just what does it mean for us to “enter God’s rest”?

First, what would it mean for us to fail to enter this rest? The answer is two-fold, or perhaps two sides of the same coin: on the one side, it is disbelief that would keep us from entering God’s rest ; on the reverse side, it is disobedience that would bar entrance to this rest. How can those two things go together? If it’s a matter of belief, we tend to think it is not a matter of obedience.   We see, then, that entering God s rest is a matter of how we order our lives: entering God’s rest, we might say, is a matter of how we order our desires.   We tend to oppose faith and works. But the New Testament does not see belief and obedience as opposed to one another. To be a disciple is to be a disciplined believer. Trust (faith) issues in willing subjection to the Lord. In this case, to obey is to learn to trust God, and more specifically to learn to receive the gift of God’s rest. Not to enter would be to refuse this gift of rest by retaining our own frenzied confidence in human effort–trusting in our own labors rather than God’s grace.

So, then, what would it mean for us to enter that rest? Is this a matter of getting some place? Finding the right location? Is it a matter of waiting for the arrival of the kingdom? While there is a sense in which this rest remains future, there is also an important sense in which it is something we can enter “today,” as the writer to the Hebrews reiterates. So while there is a chronological anticipation of a rest that is to come, there is also a kairological sense to this: we are invited into God’s rest “Today!”

Notice how the writer puts this: we have the opportunity to enter into God’s rest. This rest is not merely an abstention from our doing; it is also an entrance into God’s rest. This is nothing less than an invitation to participate in the life of God. In commenting on this, John Calvin notes that “the true rest of the faithful, which is to continue forever, will be when they shall rest as God did. And doubtless as the highest happiness of man is to be united to his God, so ought to be his ultimate end to which he ought to refer all his thoughts and actions.” We see, then, that entering God’s rest is a matter of how we order our lives: entering God’s rest, we might say, is a matter of how we order our desires. Thus Calvin continues by suggesting that to enter God’s rest is a matter of union with God, and that such union requires a “conformation” and self-denial:

For here we must always begin, when we speak of a godly and holy life, that man being in a manner dead to himself, should allow God to live in him, that he should abstain from his own works, so as to give place to God to work. We must indeed confess, that then only is our life rightly formed when it becomes subject to God. But through inbred corruption this is never the case, until we rest from our own works; nay, such is the opposition between God’s government and our corrupt affections, that he cannot work in us until we rest.

Rest, we might say, is a matter of allowing our “affections” or desires to be disciplined by God. But this is what helps us make sense of what seems to be an abrupt transition in verse 12. Although the writer has focused on “rest,” all of a sudden in verse 12 s/he shifts to a powerful metaphor of God’s word as a kind of sword that dissects us. How can we put these two themes together? The point, I think, is this: The exhortation to enter God’s rest is bookended by considerations of the Word of God.

The matter of rest is really a matter of desire, and the Word is that which both promises and disciplines our desires. Here the Word is pictured as a kind of scalpel that is able to penetrate into our very desires–the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The living power of the Word is able to transform our desires by reshaping our imagination to be directed toward the Triune God. To so desire is to find rest. So entering God’s rest is not a matter of doing nothing; it is a matter of desiring the right things, and then ordering our activities in light of that desire. When our desire is ordered to and by the love and the grace of God, our autonomous desires to make our mark by our own achievements begin to look empty, even silly.

It’s difficult to miss seeing a whole Augustinian drama played out in this passage. You will remember that for Augustine, “rest” was one of the most powerful pictures of our calling as human beings: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” he opens the Confessions (1.1.1). And he concludes the Confessions by inviting us to s
ee that to participate in the life of God is to find repose, exhorting us to find rest in the One who is our rest (13.38.53). Between the opening and closing of the Confessions, Augustine gives us a glimpse of the exhaustion and restlessness of a life that looks for its final end in anything but the Creator. Augustine documents the almost frenzied pace of his frustrated attempts to find this elusive rest outside of the Triune God.

But I am grateful that in Book X of the Confessions, after his conversion, Augustine provides a reminder of how even the life of the Christian can remain captive to the exhausting labor of achievement and self-sufficiency. Brothers and sisters, we spurn the gift of God’s rest in all kinds of “holy” ways. Indeed, often in the very name of Christ we baptize behaviors that are relentless, exhausting, and ultimately self-asserting, being consumed with “the Lord’s work” in a way that rejects his rest. We unwittingly fall back into the anxious frenzy of self-sufficiency, seeking to somehow earn our sanctification. We become exhausted by working so hard at being a Worship Apprentice or a Resident Assistant in a dorm; we become consumed with making our mark as a Christian scholar, and thus drain our energies in a flurry of projects. In my darker, more Pascalian moments, I wonder if I immerse myself in 101 “Christian” projects precisely in order to forget that I don’t desire God all that much. Sometimes all of our work and busy-ness undertaken with the passion of a “vocation,” is just a cover for the fact that we prefer the comfort of ministry pursuits instead of the disruptive encounter with the Triune God. Our mundane busy-ness can be a symptom of a spiritual restlessness– a symptom of our own disbelief and disobedience which would prevent us from entering God’s rest. When we become consumed with “our work”–whatever that might be, and even if it is noble, holy, and just–we unwittingly fall back into the autonomous dreams of our own making. When we spurn rest, we spurn grace, and reject God’s gift.

When I used to work in construction, one of the bricklayers gave me a bit of advice: “Work smart, not hard.” To enter God’s rest does not mean that we’ll stop doing things, or that we’ll stop working. But I think it does mean that we’ll work differently; we’ll work smarter. And we’ll also learn to rest, because we will have learned authentic joy is not the product of our autonomous efforts; it is the gift of a gracious God who is our rest. This is why I think the ultimate rest–finding our desire in union with God– translates into all kinds of little practices of Sabbath–ways that we extract ourselves from the world’s Herculean attempts at selffulfillment. That rest which is union with God finds little analogues in my ability to sit quietly in a garden.


Many of us need to work at rest. Of course, that sounds kind of ridiculous, doesn’t it? Working at rest? But isn’t it interesting that it is just this paradox that the writer to the Hebrews recognizes. King James’ translation team didn’t shrink from the paradox, translating the verse “Let us labour therefore to enter that rest” [KJV]. Entering God’s rest takes work! It is something we have to learn, and it takes discipline. And I know that I fail regularly: I fail to properly order my desires, and so I fail to let go of my own labors as a supposed source of joy.

The irony of my failure is that this year, I am on sabbatical–a time of Sabbath rest. Judging from my inbox, my Palm Pilot, or my desk, you wouldn’t know that. But this past fall our family spent the semester in Cambridge, England. And I must confess that I have begun to acquire a taste for rest– and I love it! We carved out a way of life that rested from our labors in many ways: we rested from an automobile culture, which meant that we rested both from an oildriven economics and a frenzied, freewaypace. We enjoyed the rest and leisure of a pedestrian culture, walking and biking everywhere: which takes a little more time, to be sure, but also forces one to inhabit creation in a different way. We rested from the pressures of the PTO and church administration, the labors of American busy-ness and doing all the “right” things for the kids, and rested in everyday habits and spaces. I came home for lunch everyday, and Deanna and I enjoyed prawns and a baguette, strolled down to the market, or went to the pub. I took tea breaks every morning and afternoon, and sometimes Dee and I would sip our tea in the garden of Selwyn College, and just enjoy the view. I know that rest is something I have to work at. I’m sure that is true for many of you as well. Be encouraged by the epistle to the Hebrews, which recognizes the paradoxical difficulty of entering God’s rest: we often need to work at it. Or better, our penchant for self-sufficiency and autonomy means that we will find it hard to receive the gift of God’s rest. We need to work at learning how to receive this gift. I want to encourage you to find a foretaste of that kingdom rest in mundane ways. Open yourself to the transformative power of the Word; let it transform your desire and imagination; and then enjoy the little daily practices of Sabbath that can be sources of such unspeakable joy.

If we, as the people of God, are called to be a peculiar people, learning to rest will be an important way of distinguishing ourselves from the culture of incessant labor that surrounds us. We will then point our neighbors to the God who is our rest.

James K. A. Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This essay was originally a chapel talk delivered at Calvin College earlier this year.