Our resident systematic theologian Lucy Peppiatt unpacks the New Testament’s teaching on rest
Summer’s here. And summer often means some kind of rest: a holiday, picnics, days out by the sea, sitting in the garden or the park just enjoying some sun (here’s hoping!)
Even if we don’t live and work around school or university terms, the end of July and August feel different from the rest of the year. Cities are emptier, people email less, church rotas are pared back. It feels like a relief in lots of ways just to work to a different rhythm. But whatever the summer holds for us, it may be that we don’t get the rest we feel we need. Rest isn’t something that comes naturally to many of us and, strangely, it often needs to be re-learnt as we get older. And if you’re a busy person with a strong sense of responsibility and no off-switch, it needs to be intentionally practised!
Rest is something God wants us to learn, and, specifically, learn from him. What Jesus taught about rest is so famous you might even know it by heart: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Many people especially love The Message paraphrase of these verses: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
What is Jesus saying to his disciples here? I don’t think he’s talking about ‘having a rest’ when we’ve been over-busy and frenetic (as much as that’s also important). Instead, he is talking about living a lifestyle that is restful, a way of living, being and working that is easy, light and free; a life that is restful to live with and restful to be around. That is much more challenging! But what might this look like?
If you look back at what Jesus teaches just before this, you’ll see he tells his disciples that coming to him means coming to God himself. This is important. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (11:27).
God invented rest when he made the Sabbath and so it is his to give. A restful life is rooted in knowing and loving God and is, at its heart, about trust. The more we know of God and comprehend his ways, the greater our sense of trust in him grows. Countless Christians have testified through the ages that the deeper we enter into relationship with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, the more we’ll understand that we can trust him with every aspect of our lives, even when things might be falling apart around us. Regardless of whether we’re busy or not busy, if we’re anxious, worried or fretful, thinking we have to do everything, solve everything and plug every gap ourselves, even time off will not be restful!
Secondly, Jesus says: “Come!” We might feel like this is an invitation but it’s really an imperative, a bit more like a command. In Psalm 23, the psalmist writes: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Sometimes we need to understand that rest is more like an order than an option! If you’re one of those people who needs permission from someone to rest, God himself is not only giving you permission, he’s telling you that you must.
Rest is more like an order than an option
Jesus speaks to those who have been working hard, but specifically toiling with effort which takes its toll on the body and the mind; those who are burdened physically, emotionally and mentally. I imagine we all know what that bone-weariness is like, when we feel we have no reserves. The idea of burdensome work reminds us of Genesis 3 where Adam bears the curse of “painful toil” by the “sweat of [his] brow,” just to eat from the land (vv17-19). So when we read Jesus’ words in Matthew, we see that his promise of rest reverses the effects of the Fall. It’s part of the new kingdom.
Give him your burdens
Finally, Jesus offers his disciples an exchange: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” then you “will find rest for your souls”. The secret of a restful life lies in learning from the one who knows how to live it. Lay down your burdens and take his up. It will be much freer and lighter.
Recently, I’ve been struck by how many of us are still living with the after-effects of the pandemic. Many of us had a lot of time at home that turned out not to be restful at all. Maybe you need to learn how to rest all over again, or even for the first time?
Whatever rest and restfulness look like for you, I’d encourage you to make space and time for it this summer. It will look different for all of us, but whatever you do, build in time to learn from Jesus.
For me, this will mean making time to do ‘nothing’ with God other than simply be in his presence.