We came to the end of our weekly meeting, and I could tell that Jason had something uncomfortable to say. Jason is a good friend of mine and, along with Ben, he’s one of the two best associate pastors a senior pastor could ever work with. We had gone through the agenda for over an hour when Jason told me he had one other thing he wanted to talk about.
“Kevin, are you taking your day off?”
I told him what my plan was and how the last couple of weeks were exceptionally hectic and full of surprises. Jason was sympathetic and the farthest thing from legalistic, but he pressed in a little further.
“You need to take a day off.”
“I often do.”
“Well, I was taking Mondays off, but now that my kids are in school I switched to Saturdays so I can spend the day with them. But sermon prep always spills over to Saturday. I’ve been trying to spend extra time at home a couple of mornings a week. And my schedule can be flexible to come home during lunch if I need to.”
“You need a day off,” my friend said to me one more time. “Whatever your theology of the Sabbath, you’re not being smart. You can’t keep this up.”
“I know. I know. You’re right. Something has to change.”
The Sabbath Was Made for Man
Knowing what to believe about the Sabbath is harder than it looks. Some Christians believe little has changed relative to the fourth commandment, and Sunday is now a Christian Sabbath. Others argue that the Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ and now there is almost complete freedom in our weekly routines. A small minority of Christians believe Saturday is still the proper day for Sabbath rest and worship. Plenty has been written about these important differences.1 Personally, I resonate with Greg Beale’s three conclusions:
First, the seventh-day commemoration in Gen. 2:3 and Israel’s Sabbath ordinance is transferred to the first day of the week because of Christ’s resurrection.
Second, Israel’s way of observing the Sabbath, with all its detailed requirements, falls away, and there is a return to the creational mandate. The observance of this mandate is a day of commemoration of God’s creative rest, a celebration that Christ has entered that rest, that believers have begun to enter such rest, and a pointing forward to believers completely entering that rest.
In addition, Christ’s coming fulfills Israel’s unique Sabbath commandment, since he is Israel’s Messiah, accomplishing Israel’s end-time exodus and representing true Israel and the end-time temple.2
Or to put it more simply, we should rest in Christ alone for our salvation. But along with that there is still an abiding principle that we ought to worship on the Lord’s Day and trust God enough to have a weekly routine where we cease from our normal labors.3 We need God’s ordinary means on Sunday for our extraordinarily busy lives the rest of the week.
Whatever your take on the specific dos and don’ts of Sunday, I hope every Christian can agree that God has made us from the dust to need regular times of rest. He built it into the creation order and commanded it of his people. God’s design was not to punish little kids with naps on Sundays or to drive us to boredom and inactivity once every seven days. He made the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). God gives us Sabbath as a gift; it’s an island of get-to in a sea of have-to. He also offers us Sabbath as a test; it’s an opportunity to trust God’s work more than our own. When I go weeks without taking adequate time off, I may or may not be disobeying the fourth commandment, but I’m certainly too convinced of my own importance and more than a little foolish. If my goal is God-glorifying productivity over a lifetime of hard work, there are few things I need more than a regular rhythm of rest.
Ain’t Got No Rhythm
It’s easy to find people who think work is good and leisure is bad (i.e., you rest to work). You can also find people who think leisure is good and work is bad (i.e., you work to rest). But according to the Bible, both work and rest can be good if they are done to the glory of God.4 The Bible commends hard work (Prov. 6:6–11; Matt. 25:14–30; 1 Thess. 2:9; 4:11–12; 2 Thess. 3:10) and it also extols the virtue of rest (Ex. 20:8–11; Deut. 5:12–15; Ps. 127:2). Both have their place. The hard part is putting them in the right places.
Many of us are less busy than we think, but life feels constantly overwhelming because our days and weeks and years have no rhythm. As we saw in the previous chapter, one of the dangers of technology is that work and rest blend together in a confusing mush. We never quite leave work when we’re at home, so the next day we have a hard time getting back to work when we’re at work. We have no routine, no order to our days. We are never completely “on” and never totally “off.” So we dawdle on YouTube for twenty minutes at the office and then catch up on e-mails for forty minutes in front of the TV at home. Perhaps this arrangement works for some employers and may feel freeing for many employees. But over time most of us work less effectively, whether it’s in the home or out of the home, and find our work less enjoyable when there is no regular, concentrated, deliberate break.
Not long ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating article about four-time Olympian Bernard Lagat.5 A native of Kenya but now a US citizen, Lagat holds seven American track and field records, ranging from the 1,500 meters to the 5,000. According to the article, one of the secrets to his running is, actually, not running. After eleven months of intense training and competition, Lagat “puts his sneakers in the closet and pigs out for five weeks. No running. No sit-ups. He coaches his son’s soccer team and gains 8 pounds.” He’s taken this long break every fall since 1999. Lagat says “rest is a good thing” and calls the month of inactivity “pure bliss.” Even the best in the world need a break. In fact, they wouldn’t be the best without one. Idleness is not a mere indulgence or vice. It is necessary to getting anything done.
People like to say life is a marathon, not a sprint, but it’s actually more like a track workout. We run hard and then rest hard. We charge a hill and then chug some Gatorade. We do some stairs, then some 200s, and then a few 400s. In between, we rest. Without it, we’d never finish the workout. If we want to keep going, we have to learn how to stop. Just like the Israelites had in their calendar, we need downtime each day, and a respite each week, and seasons of refreshment throughout the year. We can’t run incessantly and expect to run very well.
We may think that more work is the answer to our decreasing drive and goldfish-like attention span, but rest is often the antidote we really need. Sometimes the best preparation is a wandering, soul-enriching procrastination. Take a nap, throw the Frisbee, sing a song, and then write the paper. The land won’t produce a harvest if it never lies fallow. We can’t be “all in” all the time. Just think of the Israelite calendar. It had times for feasting and times for fasting. It was for their piety and their productivity that God put them on a predictable pattern filled with daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, annual, and multiyear rhythms.
Which is why it’s so concerning that our lives are getting more and more rhythm-less. We don’t have healthy routines. We can’t keep our feasting and fasting apart. Evening and morning have lost their feel. Sunday has lost its significance. Everything is blurred together. The faucet is a constant drip. Life becomes a malaise, until we can’t take any more and spiral into illness, burnout, or depression. Jason confronted me the way he did because he didn’t want me to go down that drain.
He Gives to His Beloved Sleep
Pursuing a pattern of work and rest means more than an annual retreat or a weekly Sabbath. It means quite practically a daily fight to get more sleep. When Proverbs talks about the sluggard lying on his bed, it has in mind the kind of person who would rather starve than strive, the person who would rather receive a handout than put his hands to work. The chastisement is not a warning to spend as little time as possible in bed. God made us to need sleep, and when we think we can survive without it, we not only spurn his gift (Ps. 127:2); we show our mistaken self-reliance.
We tend to assume it’s always godlier to forgo sleep for more important activity, but God made us physical beings. We can’t go without sleep very long without doing our bodies and souls great damage. That’s the way God made us—finite and fragile. He made us to spend almost a third of our lives not doing anything except depending on him. Going to sleep is our way of saying, “I trust you, God. You’ll be okay without me.” We regale each other with stories of great saints who got up at four or five o’clock in the morning to pray, forgetting that in the days before electricity most people went to bed soon after dark and woke up earlier in the morning. Most of our heroes from bygone ages probably slept much more than we do. Very few of us can survive, let alone thrive, on four or five hours a night.
By all accounts, we are sleeping less than ever before. The average American gets two and a half fewer hours of sleep per night than a century ago.6 According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40 million Americans get fewer than six hours of sleep per night.7 Though we often brag about how little sleep we get, studies show sleep deprivation is a trigger for problems like diabetes and obesity.8 In today’s world, with no environmental cues to force us to bed, and plenty of gadgets to keep us awake, we simply aren’t getting the sleep we need.
And yet, natural limitations cannot be transgressed without consequence. You can borrow time, but you can’t steal it. If you have to finish a paper by eight o’clock in the morning you can wait till the last minute and stay up all night to finish it, and it may seem like a brilliant move. After all, what were you going to do with the hours between midnight and morning anyway? You were just going to waste it in bed. So now your paper is done and all you missed was one night’s sleep. Good move, you!
But all you’ve really done is borrow time. You haven’t gained any. Because you stayed up all night on Thursday, you’ll invariably crash on Friday. If not on Friday, you’ll sleep an extra five hours on Saturday. If you don’t catch up on sleep over the weekend, you’ll likely get sick the next week. And if you don’t get sick and you keep pushing yourself on empty, your productivity will slide. Or you’ll get into a car accident when you are beyond exhaustion. Or you’ll snap at your friend and cause a relational meltdown that takes weeks to mend. The time you thought you stole cannot be so easily filched. You cannot cheat sleep indefinitely. And the longer you try to borrow against sleep, the more your body (or God) will force you to pay for those hours—plus interest.
When I read D. A. Carson’s sermon on religious doubt a few years ago, I was struck that one of his six possible causes for doubt was “sleep deprivation.” Here’s one of the best scholars in the world telling us that we may be spiritually obligated to take a nap! Don’t ignore his counsel:
If you keep burning the candle at both ends, sooner or later you will indulge in more and more mean cynicism—and the line between cynicism and doubt is a very thin one. Of course, different individuals require different numbers of hours of sleep; moreover, some cope with a bit of tiredness better than others. Nevertheless, if you are among those who become nasty, cynical, or even full of doubt when you are missing your sleep, you are morally obligated to try to get the sleep you need. We are whole, complicated beings: our physical existence is tied up to our spiritual well-being, to our mental outlook, to our relationships with others, including our relationship with God. Sometimes the godliest thing you can do in the universe is get a good night’s sleep—not pray all night, but sleep. I’m certainly not denying that there may be a place for praying all night; I’m merely insisting that in the normal course of things, spiritual discipline obligates you to get the sleep your body needs.9
I know sleep is easier said than done, especially for parents with young children and those with insomnia, but most of us could improve our lives significantly by simply getting to bed a little earlier. Some nights I can’t help it; there’s no way to be in bed before midnight. But on other nights I get started on a project I didn’t need to begin, or fritter away thirty minutes on my phone, or waste an extra forty-five minutes watching a meaningless sporting event, or spend an hour reading late at night instead of guarding that time so that I can get up to read my Bible the next morning. If we really paid attention, we’d be surprised to see what we do and don’t do from eight to twelve o’clock every night. Maybe the culprit is dessert or caffeine or Facebook. Maybe we need to cut back on an evening commitment. I can’t make the hard decisions for you. But I know I need to make changes in my life, too. I can’t make sleep deprivation a way of life. I can’t make midnight the new eleven if I still want to get up at six thirty. Most of us have a tremendous sleep debt to pay, and the sooner we start banking those regular deposits the better—better for your work, better for your soul, and better for the ones you love.
The Hard Work of Rest
If this chapter on rest seems like hard work, that’s because it is. It’s hard to trust God, hard to let go, and hard to stop. When thinking about busyness, people talk as if hard work is the problem. But we’re not actually in danger of working too hard. We simply work hard at things in the wrong proportions. If you work eighty hours a week and never see your kids and never talk to your wife, people may call you a workaholic. And no doubt you’re putting a lot of effort into your career. But you may not be working very hard at being a dad or being a husband or being a man after God’s own heart.
We all know we need rest from work, but we don’t realize we have to work hard just to rest. We have to plan for breaks. We have to schedule time to be unscheduled. That’s the way life is for most of us. Scattered, frantic, boundary-less busyness comes naturally. The rhythms of work and rest require planning.
More than that, they require godly habits. I have never had trouble finding time for our Sunday worship services. Not once. I’m never double-booked during those times. I never feel pressure to say yes to another request or squeeze in another appointment at eleven o’clock Sunday morning. Why? Because it’s a habit, has been my whole life. I go to church on Sunday. It’s there. It’s fixed. I’ve planned for it. The day may be full, but there is a comfortable routine. I get up, read my Bible, pray, look at my sermon, eat breakfast, go to church, pray, preach, preach again, talk to people, go home, eat lunch, take a nap, look at my sermon, go back to church. The rhythm gives me purpose and order. It gives me life.
I can’t make it through Sunday without a rhythm. I won’t make it far in life without one, either. There must be times when I won’t work; otherwise I won’t rest. And there must be times I have to sleep, or I will keep borrowing what I can’t repay. I’m not so important in God’s universe that I can’t afford to rest. But my God-given limitations are so real that I can’t afford not to.
Chapter 8 of Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung, posted with permission
1 See, for example: Christopher John Donato, ed., Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011); Iain D. Campbell, On the First Day of the Week: God, the Christian, and the Sabbath (Leominster, UK: DayOne, 2005); D. A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1982).
2 G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 800–801. Paragraph breaks are mine.
3 For a further development of my theology of the fourth commandment, see Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism (Chicago: Moody, 2010), 178–182.
4 See Tim Chester, The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006), 25–34.
5 Scott Cacciola, “The Secret to Running: Not Running,” Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2012.
6 Richard A. Swenson, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004), 96.
7 David. K. Randall, “Rethinking Sleep,” New York Times, September 22, 2012.
8 Mitch Leslie, “Sleep Study Suggests Triggers for Diabetes and Obesity,” Science 335 (April 13, 2012): 143.
9 D. A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 147.