Lay Aside the Weight of Restless Work

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

July marks my 20th year working with John Piper and many precious colleagues in this mission of Desiring God. It is a privilege so great that it surpasses my power to comprehend it.

Twenty years. That’s a generation. When I began, I hadn’t been alive much more than twenty years. Now I’m in my forties and fifty is on the horizon.

During this generational span I’ve gotten to be a part of Desiring God’s birth and growth, a church’s re-birth and growth,[1] and the birth and growth of five children. These have all been graces, overwhelmingly more than I deserve.

But they each have also required a lot of work, and more so as each has grown in size and complexity.

Work Is Good and So Is Rest

Now work is a good thing. God designed us to work with him (Genesis 2:15) and to work with all our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Yes, the futility to which we are all subjected (Romans 8:20) increases the difficulty and grief that infect our work this age (Genesis 3:17–19). But work is not evil (unless for evil ends); it’s just accompanied by evil.

The great news is that despite dogged futility, God promises to supply the strength we need for all the work of service he calls us to (1 Peter 4:11), even if it’s extraordinarily hard (1 Corinthians 15:10). So it is very good to present our bodies as living sacrifices in the holy labor of the kingdom (Romans 12:1), which encompasses everything God entrusts to us.

But God also designed and instructed us to rest. In fact, God considered it so important that his people rest that he built a rhythm of Sabbaths into the individual and corporate lives of Old Covenant Israel every seventh day (Leviticus 23:3), every seventh year (Leviticus 25:3–4), and every fiftieth year — the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8–17).

“God promises to supply the strength we need for all the work of service he calls us to, even if it’s extraordinarily hard.”

This rhythm was intended by God to give his people regular and repeated experiences of receiving from him refreshment and provision so that they would not trust wholly in their own labors either for tomorrow’s survival or the next generation’s material security. It was a built-in spiritual discipline of laying aside works and laying hold of faith. If they observed his Sabbaths he promised them blessing (Deuteronomy 15:4–6), if they ignored them he promised them curses (Deuteronomy 28:15–68).

As New Covenant Israel, we now know that the fulfillment of the Sabbath is Jesus, who is both Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:5) and himself our Sabbath rest (Matthew 11:28). We are no longer required to keep the Old Testament Sabbath laws (Acts 15:28–29).

But this does not mean that we are not to rest. It means that our rest is even more profound. We rest from trying to attain holiness and God’s acceptance through keeping the requirements of the law by trusting that Jesus kept all the requirements of the law for us (Romans 8:3–5). In fact, Jesus stressed that our most important work is to believe him — a form of resting in his promises — not producing a lot of stuff for him (John 6:29). All our productivity is to flow from the rest of faith, otherwise it’s just sin (Romans 14:23).

But this more profound rest still must include rhythms of ceasing from work activities for the purpose of refreshment, reflection, renewal, and recalibration.

A Failure to Rest

Now for a confession: I have not done this consistently or faithfully enough over the last 20 years. As I look back, I have had too much (misplaced) faith in busy-ness (self-sufficiency) and insufficient faith that prayerful, reflective rest would result in greater blessing and more effective work. As a result, I think I’m seeing areas of my life — family, Desiring God, church — where, though there are no crises, changes need to be made.

“All our productivity is to flow from the rest of faith, otherwise it’s just sin.”

Laying Aside Restless Work

So what am I going to do about this? I’m going to seek to lay aside the sin of restless work by:

  1. Resting. I’m laying aside vocational work for a season. The DG board of directors has very graciously granted me a three-month sabbatical from July through most of September as a 20th anniversary gift. During these months I plan to pursue…
  2. Reflection. It’s necessary to occasionally step out of the harried blur of laborious activity, maybe for an extended season, to pray and think carefully about what we’re doing with these vapor-lives we’ve been given (James 4:14). They’re passing quickly. We dare not waste them. One thing I plan to continue during my sabbatical is writing these Friday morning blog posts (at least most weeks) because they are very helpful reflection moments for me. So you’ll still hear from me! I’m also pursuing spiritual…
  3. Renewal. That’s a significant reason for the biblical Sabbath. Rest and reflection serve the soul’s renewal and encouragement in the faith. And out of this I will be pursuing…
  4. Recalibration. Insufficient rest and worshipful reflection lead to things getting out-of-whack. My wife, Pam, and I are looking forward to praying, discussing, and implementing ways our family can more effectively live for God’s glory in rhythms of both work and rest.

I wonder if you’re like me and need to lay aside the weight of restless work? Persistent weariness, faith-wrestlings, confusion, and/or discouragement are signs to pay attention to. If so, it doesn’t require a sabbatical (although you might pray about it). Take a look at your rest and reflection habits and ask a few trusted counselors for feedback. It may be that a recalibration is in order for the purpose of spiritual renewal.

Something John Piper said to me sticks in my mind: “work hard and rest well.” I am finding that the latter is very important for the former.

Note: In 2000, Bethlehem Baptist Church sent a group of us to help re-plant a sister church that is now called Sovereign Grace Church where I have had the joy of leading the worship team ministry for the past thirteen years.