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Letting the World Pass Us By

Resting is no small matter. It is not simply collapsing when everything else is done. In fact, it is at the heart of our relationship with God, and is a fundamental reflection of our faith. Rest is close to the heart of faith. Under God, we find our ultimate fullfilment not in what we achieve but in freely receiving what God has given.

The Bible certainly teaches the goodness and importance of work. This teaching stands out like a beacon against the ancient degradation of work as a less-than-human activity. Christians need to overcome any slighting of work. But we are strange creatures. Most of us manage to have problems with work and, at the same time, to have problems with rest - usually both at the same time. We not only downplay the place of work in God's kingdom; we downplay rest as well.

We sometimes forget that though work is a good thing, it is not the only thing, nor even the greatest thing. We are not saved by work any more than we are saved by works. At the heart of the Gospel lies the teaching that we are not saved by our work. Work is not the mediator between God and humankind. It cannot eradicate sin. Of itself, it cannot produce a new creation.

Grace Is God's Gift, Not Work's Product

Since our relationship with God is what ultimately shapes our lives and the world itself, we cannot achieve genuine wealth or happiness or security or peace simply through our work. Jesus lavishly praised work, but he also sharply limited it. The parable of the two sons (often called the parable of the “prodigal son”) teaches how we are accepted by God's love, not by our own diligence or lack thereof (Luke 15:11­32). The parable is about, but not only about, the younger son, the prodigal, who grasped at his inheritance, then wasted it on parties and hookers, and yet was received back with joy by his father. It is also about the older brother. This other son never demanded his inheritance. He had stayed home and faithfully worked, obeyed, and been a dutiful son.

All the thanks he seemed to get for these years of service was to be ignored while everyone else had a big feast for his wastrel brother. Nobody even told him about the party: He was simply left out in the field and learned about the celebration only when he came back to the house after a long, laborious day. He was then so angry that he would not even go into the house. His father had to come out and plead with him to join them.

The elder son complained (with real justification, as far as I can see), “Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf” (Luke 15:29­30).

The elder brother is a favorite whipping boy in sermons and commentaries. He is treated as selfish and conceited. But did he not have a valid complaint? What would we have done in the same circumstance? We have worked faithfully while our brother has wasted everything, yet he gets a party, and we get nothing. I would complain, and you would, too. The elder son represents all of us, and all too well.

What do we think of people who slack off while we slave away? “He's on welfare. We are decent hard-working people who never asked for a dime.” “He hangs around with prostitutes. We are faithful.” “He blew his money. We saved carefully.” Of course we say in our theology that works do not bring God's grace. We say with our mouths that we are all equally sinners and all equally undeserving in the eyes of God. But in our hearts we often believe that work is really what it is all about.

Jesus demolishes this view in his parable of the vineyard laborers (Matt. 20:1­16). In this vineyard, some started working “early in the morning” (probably at about six o'clock in the morning). Others were hired at the third hour, then the sixth hour, and then the ninth hour. Some were even hired at the eleventh hour (about five o'clock in the afternoon). All of them stopped work at exactly the same time, but they all were paid exactly the same. The people who had worked in the heat all day understandably complained that the others had only worked for an hour - and in the cool of the evening, no less. We would complain, too, if this happened to us.

These parables do not tell us how we should treat our relatives or how we should pay people. Nor are they meant to denigrate work. Instead, Jesus' words are focused on pounding home to us the fact that God's grace is given freely, which means it is not earned. This is the point. It is not work that brings grace, nor even the fruits of grace: They are God's gifts. We need to know this deeply in our hearts before we can ever begin to rest.

Work, Pride, and Idolatry

The Scriptures not only reject salvation by works; they also condemn excessive pride in work. The sin of Adam and Eve - that they wished to be gods - was replayed in the construction of the tower of Babel “with its top in the heavens.” Babel expresses a lust for achievement and greatness that rejects God's limits and so only ends up driving people apart from each other (Gen. 11:1­9). Isaiah repeats this theme. “For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high against every high tower, and against every fortified wall. And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the pride of men shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Isa. 2:12­17).

Excessive pride in our own achievements becomes idolatry, which is placing final trust in anything within the creation itself and, especially, final trust in the work of our own hands. “The workman trusts in his own creation when he makes dumb idols” (Hab. 2:18­19). As Paul warns the people of Athens, God is not like the idols, which are only “like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29; see also Rom. 1:24). As the psalmist says, “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men's hands” (Ps. 135:15­18).

As with many idols, our responsibilities may involve good and honest causes, and even “Christian” or “ministry” jobs. Priests and pastors are often the worst workaholics. Whatever our work, good or bad, the key is that workaholics are addicted to their work. And addiction is a form of idolatry. It can keep us at a remote distance from a genuine relationship with God.

As Paul Stevens says in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, “Workaholics do not work because they have a desire to be gainfully employed; they work to prove something to themselves. Though they keep trying by working harder, working better, or trying to find the perfect job, they can never do enough to give full meaning to their lives.”

Because we must worship God rather than idols, we must find our true end in what God has given, not in what we can achieve - not in work but in grace. Our eyes are always meant to be on him, the one who provides all things for us.

Of course, many women and men struggle to survive financially and are burdened with heavy fiscal responsibilities. They are forced to work long and hard. But it does not add to our financial burdens to remember that Jesus has called us to absolute dependence upon him. This does not mean that we stop working, stop trying, stop caring. But it does mean that we must entrust our financial concerns to him and not immerse ourselves in work simply because we are obsessively afraid of humiliation or financial disaster.

The Prayerful Path of Obedience

Rather than being guided by goals to be achieved, we should be guided by ways to be followed. No matter what our circumstances, we should pay heed to Jesus' admonitions in the Sermon on the Mount: “So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt. 6:31­34).

The things that Jesus tells us not to be anxious about are not bad things. They are good things. They are things we need and ought to have. But he says that being anxious for them, or striving for them, will not help. Instead, we are told to seek first the kingdom of God, and these other things will follow.

Jesus' words are a direct rebuke to every kind of idolatry. He does not set forth new goals but describes a way to be followed - a way that daily seeks his well - and he promises that God's blessing will ow from our diligence. Blessing is not the result of work. It is the fruit of obedience. Our lives are not guaranteed of success. They are not even to be oriented to success. Instead, they are taking up a prayerful path of obedience to God in the problems that confront us hour by hour, and decade by decade.

As creatures made in the image of God, we are called to do many things other than our jobs. We are called to be responsible in all our relationships - to be good husbands, wives, parents, children, neighbors, friends, and citizens. Our calling is to image God in every dimension of our existence, including worship, intimacy, play, and rest. While rest, meditation, and contemplation do not constitute a higher kind of life, they are an essential part of our lives. Our work has, per se, no prior claim to our time. As Thomas Aquinas says, “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult” (Summa Theologica, ii.2.9,7).

One part of our calling is the calling to rest. Even God rested after creating the world. The commandment not to labor on the Sabbath carries as much weight as the commandments not to kill or steal. During the time in the wilderness and the exile, Israel was promised rest in the land (Deut. 3:20; Jer. 46:27). Israel's life was ordained as a rhythm of work and rest. Each seventh day, each seventh year, and each seven of seven years was to be a Sabbath for people, for animals, and for the land itself.

To Rest Is, Fundamentally, to Trust

This ordained cycle of work and rest was intimately tied to Israel's trust in God. If Israel rested in the seventh year, they would not plant, and they would have no crops. Hence they needed to trust God's promise that the land would produce a surplus to see them through (Lev. 25:18­24). In the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee, Israel's faith was tested even more. As they celebrated the Day of Atonement, they needed to put aside planting, the work of their hands, for two whole years: They would have to live off the gifts of God (Lev. 25:8­12). If God was not faithful, they might starve or have to sell themselves back into Egypt. Rest was always an act of trust, of faith. In the same vein, the New Testament often pictures salvation as entering into rest, as trusting and receiving God's gifts (Heb. 3­4). And Jesus himself promises the freedom of rest to those who come to him.

This biblical picture of rest can be contrasted with the industrialized world's drive to forget and escape from work. We manufacture distractions and entertainment. We live for Friday and Saturday nights. We count days to vacations. These activities simply try to ignore and negate work and, hence, are actually controlled by it. Our most characteristic “leisure activity” is consumption - buying things - an activity that, through the manufacture of “life styles,” has become ever more hectic and more akin to work.

And our society finds itself ever more distant from real rest. Its manufactured “holidays” (including “Labor Day”) are becoming mere excuses for novel forms of consumption. It is the malls that tell us when the holidays are. The notion of a Sabbath rest, or even of Sunday, is shouldered aside not only as an affront to the secular belief that God is irrelevant to social life but also- in what amounts to perhaps the same things - as an obstruction to the drive to consume more.

Biblically, rest is far more than recuperation from and preparation for work, though certainly we do need to recuperate. It is a God-given human response in its own right. As Josef Pieper says in his classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture, “It is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a week-end or a vacation. It is a condition of the soul.”

Indeed, rest and work may involve similar activities done in a different spirit. For me, reading is a part of work and a part of rest. The question is not about the activity itself but about the orientation of our hearts. Resting is tied intimately to faith. This is why medieval Christendom so often pictured it as a higher way. The Scriptures also frequently relate lack of rest to unbelief (Ps. 95:8­11; Heb. 3:7­4:10).

When we rest, we acknowledge that all our striving, of itself, will do nothing. Rest means letting the world pass us by for a time. Genuine rest requires acknowledgment that God, and our brothers and sisters, can survive without us. It requires recognition of our own insufficiency and a handing over of responsibility. It is a real surrender to the ways of God. It is a moment of celebration when we acknowledge that blessing comes only from the hand of God. This is why rest requires faith. It is also why salvation can be pictured as rest. When we rest, we accept God's grace. We do not seek to earn; we receive. We do not justify; we are justified.