Come to Me All Who Are Weary and Burdened, and I Will Give You Rest
If the word ‘rest’ were a food, I wonder how it would taste to you? To some, it would taste very sour. To the five-year-old who is running at full speed from the moment he gets up at 6am to the moment his battery finally gives way, rest is oppressive. To the businessman who has a career to pursue and who doesn’t know what to do on a family holiday, rest is an unwanted intruder. Yet to others, rest is a sweet word. To the teenager who has discovered that university life gives unlimited freedoms to sleep in, rest becomes his closest companion. To the busy mother who is on the job 24/7, rest is as important as oxygen. What is your view of rest? Sweet, or sour? Or perhaps you have another sense of taste you would use to describe your view of rest. Whatever your taste of rest may be, I have no doubt that your palate could do with some education on the biblical view of rest.
Rest is not a dirty word
Rest is woven into the fabric of life by the Lord himself. At times, we simply must cease from our normal daily activities to rest: that is how we have been created. Ask any new parents who are chronically sleep deprived, and they will tell you through blood-shot eyes how they long for a full night’s sleep. However, it is not just our experience of life that tells us that rest is necessary. The Lord himself weaves into the rhythm of our 7 day week one day on which we are commanded to rest (Exodus 20:8-11). Some people feel oppressed by this command to cease from their labours. They long for liberation from what they perceive as a restrictive command. But put yourself in the sandals of an Israelite who’s just received this command. You have come out of slavery in Egypt where you are treated as if you are a working machine. If you asked one of these Israelites what their weekend was like, they would have looked at you with astonishment and said ‘what’s a weekend’? They didn’t have a chance to enjoy rest when they were slaves in Egypt. So the fourth commandment was not a slap in the face to them, but a refreshing stream of life-giving water. Rest is not a dirty word for the Christian. It is the Christian’s delight!
However, this day of rest is not just satisfying the physical need we have to down tools. It is also a day for spiritual rest. When we rest, we follow the pattern of God himself when he rested after the six days of creation (Gen 2:2, 3). The Lord certainly did not need a break from his work because he was tired. His rest was a delightful contemplation of all the works his hands had made. So on our day of rest, we are freed from the ordinary demands of daily life so that we can have the same delightful contemplation of all the Lord’s works, especially his great work of redemption (Deut 5:15 makes this connection explicit for the Israelites). Most of us don’t have much of a problem with ceasing from work on the Lord’s Day. But we struggle with the other side of the coin, contemplation and communion with the Lord on this day of rest. The Lord’s Day is quickly filled up with having family lunches, or perfecting that golf swing, or catching up on the latest movies, or preparing the job list for the week ahead, or making sure we are prepared for the next exam. When we do this we miss out on the spiritual feast our Lord intends for us on the day of rest. We think we are finding rest from the burdens of our daily lives, but instead we are rejecting the Lord’s gracious invitation:
Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.Matt 11:28
Everybody’s working for the weekend
Perhaps you have a spiritual taste for the rest and recreation of the Lord’s Day, but you are worried about indulging those tastes on other days? Is it permissible to seek refreshment on a day other than Sunday? Well, if you sleep during the week, you are already engaging in rest and recreation on a day other than the Lord’s Day. We should take note of the example of Jesus. Jesus himself took time for a retreat from his active life, presumably on days other than the Sabbath (Mark 6:45-47, Luke 6:12, 9:28). He also told his disciples to do the same thing (Mark 6:31). Although one could argue that Jesus was at the wedding at Cana in Galilee to work (John 2), at least one of the implications of his presence there was that he also engaged in the rest and recreation offered at a wedding. Jesus actually went to enough parties to be accused of being a glutton and drunkard (Matt 11:19, Luke 7:34). And if anyone knew how to enjoy refreshment and recreation during the week, wasn’t it the Israelites? God gave them a whole system of festivals and feasts in which they could rest from their work, socialise, eat, and enjoy worship. Can you imagine how many public holidays they had? In addition to the Lord’s Day, we are given the liberty to decide how we rest and recreate during the week.
Perhaps a better question than when, is what do you think about rest and recreation? Some people think it is the ultimate thing in life. You ask them on Monday how they are going, and they grumble about being back to the grindstone. On Wednesday they pick up a bit and talk about being over the hump. And on Friday they start to resemble a human being and they can’t stop talking about what they will do on the weekend. They live for rest and recreation. We see the same thought pattern emerge in modern views of retirement. The ultimate aim today for the working man or woman is to retire as early as possible so that they can enjoy as much rest and recreation as possible. These are hardly biblical ideals. Rest and recreation are to be received and enjoyed as gifts from God’s hand (Eccl 5:18). However, they are not the ultimate goal and aim of our existence. Our ultimate goal is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We are to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. It is through our rest and recreation that we are better equipped to do just that. Are you living for the weekend? Or is your rest and recreation the means by which you are recalibrated by the will of God and reinvigorated to serve the Lord?
Baking cookies to the glory of God
The final question to consider is ‘what constitutes Christian rest and recreation?’ Some might say that Christian rest and recreation are limited to such activities as hymn singing, playing ‘sacred music’, reading Berkhof’s systematic theology, and listening to sermons on monergism.com. The problem with this view is that it draws a sharp dividing line between activities that are considered spiritual, and those activities which are non-spiritual, or secular. We often do this when we talk about a person’s job. We think the missionary is doing a very spiritual job, but the car salesman or the carpenter is doing something sub-spiritual. They are just not on the same level. But the Bible doesn’t draw a sharp dividing line between different areas of life. The Bible teaches that all of life is spiritual. Paul reminds us that whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, we are to do it all for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). That includes any recreational activity, whether it be ‘spiritual activities’ such as singing psalms or reading, or whether it is the so called ‘ordinary activities’ like tramping the Abel Tasman, planting out a new garden, or baking cookies.
So a good test of whether your recreation is godly or not is to ask ‘does it glorify God?’ Does it glorify God to watch the R-rated movie that contains all kinds of immorality? Does it glorify God to curse the screen as you try and master your latest computer game? Does it glorify God that you are out on the tramping track rather than with his people on the Lord’s Day? Does it glorify God to still be in bed at 10am as you sleep off another late night? Does it glorify God to sing along with the latest pop sensation whose lyrics would make your grandmother blush? Does it glorify God to be overly competitive in soccer or volleyball competitions? You might find these activities very restful, they might be pleasurable for you, but if they don’t glorify God then they are not valid forms of Christian recreation.
Although there is no split between sacred and secular recreational activities, there is a difference in the quality of recreational activities we might engage in. There is recreational junk food on the one hand, and there is a recreational fine dining on the other. For example, many of us read books as a form of recreation. We find it refreshing and invigorating. However, what kind of books do you read? Some books have a way of extending the mind, elevating the soul, shaping the will, sharpening the conscience, and nourishing the believing heart. And other books do nothing of the sort. There is a difference in quality between a daily devotional and the works of Calvin or Edwards. There is a quality difference between Better Homes and Gardens and Tabletalk magazine. There is a quality difference between a fictional romance novel and a world-class biography. I will let the reader discern which is recreational junk food and which is fine dining. My point is this: we need to be wise in the choices we make in our recreation. Perhaps the prayer of Paul needs to be on our lips more often ‘...that we may be able to discern what is best...’ (Philippians 1:10).