A Theology of Vacations
School will be out soon, and family vacation season is about to begin. A listener named Ryan writes in to ask, “Pastor John, I am wondering if you could discuss a theology of vacations? You often talk about not wasting your life, or any moment or season in it. Intellectually, I agree, but at times it just seems like I need to rest. Where do vacations fit?”
Four Foundations for Rest
Well, you do need a rest. And the Bible provides some pretty significant foundations for rest and, I think, indirectly for vacations. Let me just mention a few of those foundations that I think give us some guidance.
1. We are made for rest in God.
First, God created us in need of daily sleep. I have always found that quite frustrating. I hate sleep. I find sleep boring. So why did he make me like a helpless baby that must be unconscious one third of my life? I mean, just think about it. What is the message in that? There has to be a message in that. And Psalm 127:2 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved — some translations say, in his sleep, and some say, sleep. I think the gist in the context is pretty much the same. According to this text, sleep is a gift from God and the gift is often spurned by anxious toil. Peaceful sleep is the opposite of anxiety. God does not want his children to be anxious, but to trust him. So, I conclude that God made sleep as a continual reminder that we should not be anxious but should rest in him like a little baby.
“God made sleep as a continual reminder that we should not be anxious, but should rest in him like a little baby.”
Unless you turn to become like a child, you can’t even enter the kingdom. He created sleep to make sure we would have a daily reminder that we are not God. Our work is not decisive in running the world — God’s work is decisive. “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). So we sleep. God never sleeps. So, sleep is foundational. It is a pointer. And I think the big picture that we take away is, don’t get a big head about your work so that you think you can run the world or make everything happen. You are like a little baby a third of your life and God meant to tell you something by creating you that way.
2. God gave us the Sabbath.
Second, God established a sabbath principle. However you relate the Old Testament law to the present, the Sabbath remains a gift with wisdom in it. I remember reading C.S. Lewis’s wife’s book on the ten commandments and seeing her point out the wonder and the glory and the incredible gift of telling an ancient, agricultural people whose lives depended on working the land, “Not only don’t you have to go to work today, you may not go to work today” — mandatory weekly vacation. And it was stunning. I mean, I just had never seen it in that light. And that is exactly the way it would have landed on people at least at the beginning. “You may not work seven days a week. I won’t let you. You must rest.” And then he consecrated the Sabbath to himself as a sign of his own creative power and holiness. But the underlying issue of its gift nature to us — a worn out, finite, tired, and agricultural people — remains.
And so I say, the rhythm of work six, rest one, work six, rest one, work six, rest one would probably spare a lot of heart attacks and give longevity to many lives prematurely taken because they never unwind the spring. They’re always working. They are working at home and they are working at work and they are working in their play and they can’t stop working. And I don’t think that is what one in seven means. This spring that we live by, especially for some of us, needs to be unwound not just two weeks a year, but one day a week.
3. Rest strengthens us for good works.
Here is the third foundational idea to point towards rest and vacation. Work is good and it is not a curse. But it is redeemed. So we must work the works of him while it is day (see John 9:4). Jesus called for work and we ought to work. And Paul said, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). And I love 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” That means be doing a lot of work abounding in the work of the Lord.
“We work to advance God’s saving kingdom in a fallen world.”
And Paul said, “Do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13). So here is the rub. How do you not grow weary? He says, “Don’t grow weary in doing good.” But we get physically depleted, we get mentally depleted, which raises the question of vacations. This is the last thing I would say.
4. Jesus rested.
Here is the fourth foundational thing. God’s son took special times to rest from labor: “He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while’” (Mark 6:31). It is interesting that he said that right after these brothers buried the chopped-off head of John the Baptist. They risked their lives to go get that head, or the body at least. And Jesus says, “You risked your lives. This has been a high-stress time for you. So come away and rest a while.”
Rest Refreshes for God’s Kingdom
My summary would be that it seems like the issue of vacations becomes a matter of wisdom. We should try to know ourselves and know our families. It seems to me that in this fallen age, where the focus is on redemption, the final rest that we are promised is only tasted incrementally and as a means of more productive labor.
Play and recreation in this age are not the main way we glorify God. It is secondary, I think, and it is a means of refreshing us and inspiring us for productive labor. We work to advance God’s saving kingdom in a fallen world, and that is true whether we are in secular work or so-called Christian work.
“The spring that we live by needs to be unwound not just two weeks a year, but one day a week.”
Vacations and sabbaths and days off and nights of sleep are re-creations of creative, happy, fruitful labor for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world, whether you are in secular work or not. And, of course, there is no clear line — I feel this especially — for many of us between vocation and recreation. Many of us so love what we do and find so much pleasure in it and are so energized by it that the concept of taking time for recreation for the sake of creation is not so clear.
For those folks (us), we need to make sure that we know not only ourselves, but we need to know those around us. Our wives may not feel the same way we feel, and our kids may need us when we are just super energized by our reading or our study. And that is not what they need at this time. Vacation can count for that as well as for us.