December 17, 2015

Hope for the Restless

Main image for Hope for the Restless

[intro]“My soul is impatient with itself, as with a bothersome child; its restlessness keeps growing and is forever the same. Everything interests me, but nothing holds me. I attend to everything, dreaming all the while … I’m two, and both keep their distance — Siamese twins that aren’t attached.”

Fernando Pessoa[/intro]

Hopelessly Restless?

Are you feeling tired, run-down, hurried, or chronically anxious, like there isn’t enough of you to go around? How can you quit spinning your tires and actually enjoy a life free from the burden of restlessness?

Rather than simply increasing productivity or checking off more boxes on a to-do list, perhaps hope for restlessness begins with sound theology. Grasping the liberating power of the Gospel helps us understand our enduring problem of restlessness and gives us reliable principles to overcome it.

As we scramble to make appointments, hurry to meet deadlines, and struggle to maintain relationships, many of us live in a chronic and crushing state of restlessness. In fact, each year we Americans leave unused vacation time on the table and are stricken with all sorts of stress-related ailments because we don’t know how to balance work, play, and rest. After we get overextended, we get impatient and irritable, take loved ones for granted, and fail to pursue God. Restlessness is therefore actually a spiritual problem, and a serious one that has always plagued humanity.

Even though the ancients didn’t face the complexities of our digital age, they still had plenty to be anxious about; if they couldn’t successfully hunt, harvest crops, and defend their families from marauders, they would literally die. In this sort of desperate backdrop, God gave His law to the Israelites. These weary and recently freed slaves had little property and no permanent homes as they fought for survival in the wilderness. Interestingly, in this chaotic setting, God’s fourth commandment was to rest every seventh (“Sabbath”) day to follow His own pattern from when He made the earth (Exodus 20:8-11). Just a few books later, in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, we read that since God situated the Sabbath in His redemption, Israel was called to celebrate how God powerfully worked on their behalf to deliver them.


In Hebrew, Sabbath (shabbat) essentially means to “cease or rest,” to stop and take a break. This means God commanded His nomadic, stressed out, and survivalist people to take a day off. Not to do more, but to chill out; to step back and savor what He had done for them. About 1,500 years after the Exodus, on a Sabbath day, Jesus and His disciples walked through grain fields picking and eating grain. Some legalistic Pharisees observed and tried to give Jesus a hard time, suggesting they were unlawfully doing work. Jesus pushed back, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). Jesus not only asserted His authority on all things Sabbath, but also explained the Sabbath wasn’t supposed to be a burden, but rather a blessing.

Freedom and a Good Principle

Since we now live in the reality of the new covenant, the Gospel has liberated Christians from the demands of the law because it was entirely fulfilled by Jesus (Romans 10:4). Therefore, Christians don’t have to observe the Sabbath as the Jews did, and we are actually free to consider one day sacred or to consider all days to be alike (Romans 14:5). And though the Sabbath command is not reissued in the New Testament, there is undoubtedly wisdom and refuge to be found in regularly resting in Christ’s finished work (Hebrews 3:7-4:11). Theology Professor Micheal Wittmer suggests that the principle of Sabbath calls for us to cease from any work that has economic or pragmatic value, in order to purposely enjoy God’s blessings with something rejuvenating.

As created beings, we have God-given limits, and if we expect to live flourishing lives, we need to be able to trust God enough to regularly pump the brakes. But too often we feel we can’t rest because we are desperately striving—hankering to make money, a name for ourselves, or to fill some deep existential void. We are broken and weary because sin has run amok in how we think about work, relationships, and our self worth. We don’t trust God has provided enough of what we’re ultimately looking for, so we scramble to from one thing to the next to achieve just a little more, supposing our efforts will somehow suffice. Sadly, we will never be able to supply enough social, economic, or even spiritual work to save ourselves.

Here are five prescriptions to give hope to the restless:

1. Live By Priorities

When we’re fuzzy about what matters most, we’ll wind up distracted, running in a million directions and bogged by things that can be delayed, delegated, or even avoided altogether. There will always be a few more non-essential items to do, but the things of first importance should always come first, or else they might not come at all.

The top priority of loving God and those closest to us not only jives with the most important command (Matthew 22:38), but also helps us resist the temptation to constantly go after the urgent at the expense of what and who is most essential. Consider ranking what is most important, keeping mind that many good and acceptable things often get in the way of what is most indispensable. Then say “no” to whatever gets in the way.

2. Just Say No

Since we should be saying “yes” to time with God, our families, our health, and to our job descriptions, we necessarily must say “no” to things that compete for that time and energy. The Gospel helps us understand that we already matter to God and this reality liberates us from the fear that we have to be everything to everyone. His assurance helps us be strong enough to make room in our lives for rest and what matters most. As a consequence, we’ll become aware of and secure with our limitations and empowered to say “no” to extra obligations that arise because we need to be well thought of.

What inhibits your highest priorities? Put these things on the chopping block.

3. Go To The Source

Jesus said, “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” (Mattthew 11:28-30). When we truly come to God, we remember that He is the One who keeps the world spinning and that it is ultimately His grace that not only saves and keeps us, but also maintains all our relationships and responsibilities as well. You’ll be reminded that the world won’t fall apart if you don’t send that email, run that load of laundry, or attend that obligatory social event.

At day’s end, God has the strong back that does the heavy lifting, so go to Him regularly via His word and prayerfully reflect on how the Good News intersects with the worries and obligations that you can’t seem to shake on your own.

4. Pause, Unplug, and Be Still

However refreshing the truth and love of God may be, it remains functionally useless if we’re too busy and distracted to tap into it. Personally, I’ve found it impossible to “go to Jesus” while simultaneously watching TV and checking Instagram. There are certainly times to unwind and be entertained, but we also need to learn to detox from digital overload and get our souls still. On this note, Jesus left us a profound example. Jesus often deliberately paused His very busy and important life to find quiet and stillness (e.g. Matthew 14:23, Luke 5:16). If God in the flesh had rhythms of hard work and deliberate rest, shouldn’t we consider doing the same?

Just like we don’t casually get our teeth cleaned or file our taxes, if we don’t have time for rest slotted on the calendar, it simply won’t happen. Intentional and protected time creates space, accountability, and planning to ensure we aren’t running ourselves into the ground. If we structure and protect time to just breathe and gather ourselves, we’ll have a shot at being still enough to know God in meaningful ways (Psalm 46:10). Rest empowers us to be fully present. It lengthens and purifies our attention spans enough to dial in and pray, read scripture, and engage people. Get assertive with your calendar, be honest about your bandwidth, and provide a little extra margin so that you’re able to be flexible.

5. Go To Sleep

When we cease to trust God’s work and provision and ignore our own limits, our self-reliance causes us to rev the engine all the time. When we never shut it off, we end up crashing physically, relationally, and spiritually. In fact, we sleep 2.5 hours less each night than 100 years ago, meaning that sleep debt is normal to how we (dis)function. Theologian D.A. Carson asserts, “We are whole, complicated beings: our physical existence is tied up to our spiritual well-being… Sometimes the godliest thing you can do in the universe is to get a good night’s sleep—not pray all night, but sleep.” Amen.

In “Crazy Busy” (which I highly recommend), Kevin DeYoung says, “Going to sleep is our way of saying, ‘God I trust you, you’ll be okay without me’.” After all, sleep is a gift God gives to His beloved (Psalm 127:2). So establishing and fighting to defend an earlier bedtime, or taking regular naps, might not just be physically called for, but also an act of faith.

Hope is found in understanding that restlessness is ultimately rooted in the spiritual problem of sin that separates us from knowing the God who gives rest. Secondly, knowing Jesus and receiving His gospel helps rewire our messy priorities and empowers us to live an ordered life that is truly restful. Perhaps Augustine said it best:

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.


Image Credit: Toms Baugis

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