Work, Rest, And Our Soul

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If I had to pick the phrase I hear the most in my work with graduate students it would probably be "I'm so busy right now!" At a top university, there's so much pressure to be busy all the time. I regularly have to counsel students who are overwhelmingly stressed with the piles of work before them.

This constant stress is toxic to the soul. Rest doesn't seem restful - it feels like procrastination - and work doesn't bring fulfillment. I don't think that this is unique to grad students! A lot of us are unhealthily busy all the time, and it doesn't seem to be purely a result of how much actual work is in front of us. The problem seems deeper in our being. Working more doesn't seem to get rid of the busyness, and resting doesn't seem to be replenishing.

It seems quite rare to find the mysterious occasional person who says "I'm perfectly happy with the balance of work and rest I have in my life." If you meet this person, then ask them how they do it and start taking notes!

Why is it so difficult to have peace with our work and with our rest? I believe it's at least partially because we're confused about the relationship between work and rest.

I started reflecting on this when I was doing a Bible study with some students on the story of creation. In the creation story, God works for six days creating the world, and then on the seventh day he rests and declares this to be part of the rhythm of reality. Six days you shall work, and on the seventh you shall rest. Reflecting on this, one student asked "Why did God need to rest? I can see why rest is helpful for a human, but God doesn't get tired, right?" This question led me to realize a huge misunderstanding many people have about work and rest. The question assumes that the purpose of rest is to help us work better. Rest is something we do to combat exhaustion so that we can be more productive in work. Rest serves work. If we never got exhausted, we'd never need to rest, right? It's almost like rest is a necessary evil to help us work better. We live to work, and rest to work. So why the heck would God rest?

On the flip side, for other people, there is a competing misconception. Work only exists to serve rest. Work is a necessary evil in order to have as much rest and leisure as possible. People who live in this misconception might work hard during the week, but live it up large in the weekend. Or they try to make as much money as they can as quickly as they can so they can retire early and rest for the remainder of their lives. In this case, the question becomes "Why did people have to work before the Fall?". The Fall is the moment in the creation story when brokenness enters the world. So work - as a necessary evil - should not exist before the Fall.

Perhaps you identify with one of these more than the other, but they are both dangerous misunderstandings that affect the health of our soul. If rest is only used to serve work, then you can never truly have the redemptive peace of rest. If work is only used to serve rest, then you can never truly find the redemptive satisfaction of work.

A better answer comes when we really ask ourselves, "What is life for?". When we look at the Bible we see a better understanding of our purpose as people. When we see that God rested when he wasn't tired, we realize that rest does not serve work. When we see that work is part of the good, original purpose of humanity, we realize that work does not serve rest.

Life isn't ultimately for work, and life isn't ultimately for rest. Life is for both work and rest, alongside many other things.

We rest because rest is good and redemptive in its own right. We work because work is good and redemptive in its own right. When we think rightly about work and rest, and value both on their own terms, we can truly rest when we rest, and we can truly work when we work; find more peace for our soul.

What do you think? Do you see rest as something that just helps you work better? Do you see work as a necessary evil so you can spend as much time in rest and leisure? Leave your comments below.