May Exercises: Learning to Rest

It might seem like overkill to devote a whole month to the topic of Rest, but the truth is that most of us are simply hopeless at resting. We are experts at ‘Leisure’ but not at ‘Rest’. Our culture has shaped us to be frantic such that we have forgotten how to stop. Or if we are forced to stop (like in a pandemic lockdown!), then we go stir-crazy because we don’t know how to rest when we run out of leisure diversions. 

Rest is not leisure nor is it entertainment. Rest may include leisure and entertainment but they ought not be confused. 

Rest is a spiritual matter but, unfortunately, we have been conditioned to think that the most publicly active people are the most privately spiritual. Actually, it is a mistake to think that our spiritual life can be looked after while we put enormous  and long-term strain on our bodies and minds; to think that all is well as long as we squeeze in a quick fix ‘spiritual experience’— a Quiet Time, an uplifting podcast, or some Christian radio while we drive to our next meeting.

If you have made it this far into the year on this blog, you may well have realised that your spiritual life requires intentional effort and prioritised attention. The reader who joined this blog in January hoping that it would neatly fit into their busy schedule and give them a bit of a lift— well, they’re probably not reading this bit. Further, the person who does not give themselves to Rest will remain spiritually undernourished.

Much has been written about the physiology and psychology of rest. An excellent example of this work is,  “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Since human beings are ‘embodied souls’ and ‘ensouled bodies’, we embrace such wholistic approaches to the topic, but if, as we propose, rest is a fundamentally spiritual act then we do well to begin with God. We rest because God rests.

At the climax of the Genesis creation account, God rests and he calls humanity to enter into his Rest. The Garden of Eden account in Genesis, following on from the preface in Gen 2:1-2,  is logically a description of resting with God. In its poetic form, this chapter informs our understanding of human beings in healthy and right relationships with God, with one another and with their environment. Indeed, following the rebellion of Genesis 3, the remainder of the biblical narrative is the story of this ‘rest’ being regained. Choosing to rest along the way to this perfect restoration is a way of bringing the future into our present, enjoying that final situation in a proleptic sense right now.

Rest is therefore not a weakness. Instead, it is trusting God to fulfil his purposes for us and for his world without our help. As we embrace rest, we recognise our dependence on God for all things. Jesus shows us the way in his incarnation. As he lived among us, he got tired, hungry and needed sleep. It is commonplace in the gospels to find Jesus retreating to a quiet place to rest from his work and enjoy restorative time with his Father.